Ubud, Bali. A Little Bargain... February 6thAn old man visited the homestay I was staying in and offered to show me the crafts of his village. This happens fairly frequently. Politely, I declined, explaining that I was travelling by bicycle and really couldn't carry anything more than I already had.
Unperturbed, he carefully unwrapped a collection of carvings, including wooden chopsticks and pendants made from cow bone. He had my interest, as I'd just that morning bought a set of chopsticks from the market for my daily snack; a take-away bag of spicy rice with vegetables and jackfruit.
His name was Ketut. He was fine featured, his skin was dark and cracked and he looked dignified. He spoke surprisingly fluid English, explaining the crafts of his village. Fully aware of the thriving export market, they were commissioned to do various carvings for some Europeans who came out to Bali regularly with their own designs.
The chopsticks were made from ebony and featured different images carved into the top: a dolphin, a water god, a monkey. I liked the way he looked at them as he passed them over; they meant something to him. There are a multitude of carvings and paintings in Ubud, sold mainly through shops and the personnal touch is lost.
The herons and turtles caught my eye. The wood was ebony, and some were a deep brown in colour, others lighter, depending on where it was taken from the wood. They were simple yet there was something about them which I really liked.
We began the bargaining process. Bargaining can be lighthearted. In his words, 'I start at 7,000 rupiahs, 2,000 less than morning price.' What is known as the 'morning price' is generally low as it is believed that a good sale early in the day bodes well for the afternoon. We threw around some figures, and he laughed amiably when I underpriced him. Finally we settled on just under 12,000 rupiahs for a set of herons and turtles, a little over a dollar. He wouldn't move below that, which I admired. Some people I've watched have ruthlessly driven down the price to its very limit, as if to know they've beaten a local at his own game.
Bargaining is also about face. It wasn't my intention to drive him down as much possible at all costs, the difference to me being a matter of pence. We both felt we'd done well at the price we'd reached. He carefully wrapped the chopsticks in newspaper and I was pleased with the unusual gift I had for my parents.
I think there is a balance between throwing around dollars and being taken advantage of, and battling a price down to the last rupiah. Everything has a value. And no one likes to be ripped off. But the vast polarities between the value of the dollar and rupiah can make things hard, when a typical Balinese daily wage may just be one and a half dollars. Ketut explained that he'd often bargain for clothes or other items, and proudly showed off a well worn but classic Seiko he'd accepted as part exchange for Ivory, before it was banned. His bag was Swedish and his sandals were from a German lady.
I noticed how he deftly tucked his lit cigarette under the curl of his toes as he unwrapped the carvings, a well honed movement. We chatted a little and I showed him some photos I'd taken, cycling around Bali. Then he was off again, this strangely dressed man wandering around with his little shoulder bag.
In Kuta the whole bargaining process can be very overwhelming, surrounded by people each selling the same thing, clambering to get to you. But with this old man, it felt like the right way. It wasn't just about money, it was almost a ceremony that we went through. I enjoyed it, and the carvings will mean much more to me because of this.