Monday, August 14, 2006

Today I bougt a pot

It isn’t a special pot – it wasn’t even anything I planned on buying. It was sort of an impulse purchase. I wasn’t even supposed to be in the market today, but there was a message that had to be delivered in person to a training that was taking place near there, and our project car is in for repairs so I went by foot. That meant I had to pass through the heart of the market day throngs, including the pots.

There really wasn’t even a special reason to buy the pot other than it’s been cold here and my current biggest pot just isn’t cutting it for soup making. I keep trying to throw in too much stuff.

So I bought a pot. It wasn’t even a particularly memorable bargaining or general purchasing experience. I probably won’t even remember the faces of the guys who sold the pot to me if I go back there to buy another one (although I’m sure they’ll remember me). But that’s exactly what induced me to comment on the experience today.

I think I’ve been here long enough and I speak Malagasy well enough that I generally have a very genuine purchasing experience. There is definitely an art to buying things in an open market. It’s not all about the purchase, the sale, the final price or the person selling it to you. But it is. Yes, in general there is bargaining involved here, but it’s more of a way to prolong the encounter than it is a barrier to be overcome. The purchaser/seller relationship is generally necessarily brief, but if done right, profound. As I move through a purchase, discussion about whether the item is the right choice, of good (or at least decent) quality, whether there are better options of both product and seller, a discussion ensues. Of course for them the initial excitement is a white foreigner discussing very colloquial things in their own language, but as the conversation continues that becomes secondary as they work to convince me that their product is the best and the price is unbeatable.

I can make them laugh – and they make me laugh. I ask them what the base price for the item is, and what their profit is. I scold them if I think their profit margin is too high. They ask me why I don’t buy two. I tell them what I want it for – they try offering alternatives that they know won’t work. Or, if they truly thing something would be better, suddenly somebody will disappear and suddenly pop up again holding an item in a different size/color/shape. All the time we’re arguing over how much it will cost in the end. Then I demand that they throw in another small item (like today it was a low-quality spoon) for free.

Meanwhile we’ve usually attracted a crowd. Now this I have to admit is main due to my physical appearance, but I have seen a Malagasy bartering battle attract attention too. You have to get over the self-consciousness of using language and the vulnerability of being surrounded by onlookers and appearing to have money before this can be an enjoyable experience. It’s also best either not to be in a hurry so you’re not afraid to walk away from what you find if it’s not right or, be desperate enough that you’ll buy whatever will work and you just walk out of there. A lot of times it’s something you need to be in the mood for – or you hate every second of it.

But today I bought a pot, and the experience was normal. I’m not kidding myself into thinking that I got the best quality item or the best price, but hey, we laughed, we teased, we cajoled, and I got a “cadeau” of a spoon to take with me. They got my money and asked when I would be back. I got a pot (and spoon) and told them when I needed something else.

We parted on good terms.

And now I’m going to make some soup.

1 comment:

dowobeha said...


So glad to see you back and updating! Sorry it didn't work out to see you while you were in the States this summer.

I love this post. :)

So often it's the small, everyday things in a foreign place that we never write about. We take pictures of the big trips, the special days, but the normal events get lost, and years later we wish they weren't.