I suspect many long-term travellers will cringe at this tale, perhaps thinking they would never be seen dead in a tourist market or bartering with Antigua market vendors is a big no-no. But this is the story of a plucky Aussie, a Guatemalan trader and a simple granite Mayan chess set.
Antigua is firmly on the Gringo Trail, surrounded by three volcanoes, Agua (3766m), Fuego (3763m) and Acatenango (3976m), it is a cauldron of volcanic and seismic activity. In fact, the abundance of earthquakes in the area is the reason the city was finally abandoned as a capital in 1776 on orders from the Spanish Crown. The local Antigua Language School scene is thriving, while photographers will find the intriguing mix of crumbling colonial ruins, pastel façades and squares, simply irresistible.
Antigua market, next to the bus station, north of the colonial capital’s main square, is busy. Every day we visited to buy fresh fruit, it was busy, loud, dusty and brilliantly chaotic to our Western eyes.
Villagers pour in from the surrounding areas to buy and sell their wares, adding to the colour and vibrancy of Antigua’s market.
I and the young lanky Aussie (the would-be hero in this piece) arrive at Antigua market early. The traders are wearily opening their stalls, laying out their trinkets, jewellery and knick-knacks hoping to snare a deep-pocketed tourist.
What follows is a blow-by-blow account of what happens when a cheapskate Aussie meets a hard-headed Antigua market trader; the prize? A Mayan chess set.
Antigua Market – the battle begins…
“Cuánto?” Ryan asks tentatively, gesturing to the chess set.
“400 quetzals,” replies the stout market trader.
“400 quetzals?” Ryan asks, puffing out his chest in an exaggerated fashion.
It’s all part of the game, the opening jabs in what would turn out to be a bruising encounter.
“No, no, demasiado, demasiado. 140 queztal,” Ryan eventually counters.
Now it’s the market trader’s turn to ham it up and act exasperated.
“140 quetzals? Muy poco, muy poco, tal un gran juego de ajedrez,” he says as he gestures with his hands to stress the importance of such a chess set.
“350 quetzals,” the market trader says.
All the while this is going on, I am a passive bystander in the play. Yet it’s time for me to get involved.
“Ryan, I saw the same set around the corner for 200 quetzals,” pointing round the corner. I, of course, have no idea if another trader has this set. It’s all part of the game we’re playing.
Shooting me a look, no doubt wondering who this clown is, the market trader comes back with another offer.
“Okay, okay, 250 quetzals,” he pleads.
“Nah mate,” I say, playing up my thick English accent. “We can go cheaper than that.”
The routine is working, Ryan has a wry smile on his face.
“140 quetzal,” Ryan offers.
“250 quetzal,” the market trader hits back.
“140 quetzals,” repeats Ryan, shaking his head.
“240 quetzal,” says the market trader, slightly dropping the price.
As this exchange continues for a few more minutes, a crowd started to gather, other traders congregate whispering and giggling amongst themselves. They were no doubt enjoying watching one of their own in a battle of nerves against a gringo.
“180 quetzals,” Ryan says. The trader smiles. “But throw in one of those flutes.”
“No, no, demasiado bajo, 200 quetzal,” the trader pleads.
I step in once more. Suggesting we flip for it. Heads we pay 180 quetzals, tails 200 quetzals. The trader agrees. I flip the coin, we watch it rotate in the air and fall to the ground. The crowd of onlookers hold their collective breath, I lean over to see the outcome. Will it be heads, or will it be tails?
“Heads,” I shout. The crowd roar with laughter. I and Ryan shake the market traders hand and smile. As we are walking away, another gringo approaches the trader, the Guatemalan smiles and prepares to go through the whole thing once more. After all, it’s just another day at work for him.
Who won from our little encounter? It’s hard to say, we walked away with a damn fine chess set and a flute for roughly $25. But it begs the question, do we really feel pleasure about haggling over $10?
I know many travellers are uneasy with this sort of thing, yet others love the idea they are getting a bargain. My take on the issue of bartering in poor countries is this; if both parties (buyer and seller) are happy with the way the transaction goes, then great. However I will find it hard to haggle over such small amounts, it seems demeaning in a way.