Reader questions: fair trading

When we were in Jayapura this past week, we were able to get online in a meaningful way for the first time in months. It was fun going through blog comments- some great questions that come through the here and on our Facebook page. Here’s an excerpt from one:

“Being both a person who’d “give the shirt off his back”…and extremely frugal (my wife might agree with the word “cheap”)…I’ve often struggled with the concept of trading when there is no set ‘price’ – or haggling for that matter. How do you come to a “price” that is “fair” so that by the time you are sailing away you haven’t traded $100 worth of batteries/shirts for a bunch of bananas and coconuts? A few islands of that and our cruising kitty would quickly run dry.”

How to handle trading was probably one of the top ten questions I had before we went cruising. Even having the experience of living overseas in places where prices are always negotiable, haggling isn’t something that comes naturally to me- as I suspect it doesn’t for a lot of Americans; it’s not part of our culture. Trading as a cruiser was a mystery.

It turned out that trading was not necessary or routine in most of the places we visited on the path to Mexico and then the coconut milk run to Australia: the countries we went through had cash economies, and provide even remote islands with access to goods. The notable exception where trading opened doors was in the Tuamotues for pearls… stash some rum for that!

As soon as we started down the less traveled path through Papua New Guinea, everything changed. But the trading we did in PNG’s islands was not about hard bargaining. We had things people wanted, they had things we wanted, and it was a matter of putting those things forward until an agreement is reached. There is no haggling, really: this is very low stress compared to, say, a handicraft market in South Africa.

In a typical scenario, someone would arrive at Totem with fresh fruit or vegetables, or maybe eggs, or the offer to catch lobster. I’d find out what they want- food? clothing? fishing hooks? Then, offer what feels right from our stores based on their interests. For a basket gorgeous papayas, a kilo bag of sugar? For a half dozen carefully peeled drinking coconuts, a handful of small hooks? OK. Or, not OK. If the person you’re trading with wants something different, or wants more, they’ll tell you. Maybe they need a new band for a spear gun, maybe they need nails. For the most part, people were very reasonable- not trying to work us over for the best possible deal, just trying to work something out.

Where trading was sometimes less enjoyable was with people who would come asking for things, over and over, and have little to offer. Well, there’s no obligation to trade at all- so just say no thanks, and be done. There were a few anchorages where we were bothered by people who seemed to think that if they just kept asking, eventually we’d be worn down and submit. I’m sure that’s worked before, but we try to avoid setting or reinforcing that kind of precedent.

Trading for the beautiful model of the outrigger sailing canoe was more involved than the usual boatside veggie exchange. The artist wanted kina, PNG’s currency, but we didn’t have any (this was weeks before we cleared into the country, and hadn’t seen a paved road or stores yet…but that’s another story!). So Jamie spent about two hours sitting in the cockpit one morning, offering things to the Rubin, until he’d reached a level of goods that represented an acceptable trade. Jamie would keep going through things we had available to trade, or Rubin would ask for something he wanted, and eventually a deal was struck. It was a pile of stuff, from a snorkeling mask to line and tools and more, but we didn’t exceed what felt like a fair threshold for the time and effort that went into creating this beautiful model. Everybody was happy.

If benchmarks help, think about what you’d pay to buy something if you could- and what it cost you to get what you’re offering. Is that pineapple, which might be $5, a fair trade for the 1 kg bag of sugar that might have cost you $1.50? Yet while you can think about it in terms of the value of the items being exchanged, but think of it this way, too: when the ONLY way for you to get a fresh pineapple, and the ONLY way for them to get a bag of sugar, is to trade- so that isn’t necessarily a great benchmark, but maybe a way of estimating how close or far you are from what’s reasonable. We really found people to be very fair. I remember giving a guy in Kavieng a two kg bag of rice for a couple of lobsters one day. He was thrilled and insisted it was too much, then showed up the next day to give us three huge, beautiful papayas from his garden. Wow!

Oh, there were times when we made deliberately unbalanced trades. When a child has paddled miles with a handful of tiny tomatoes, or a pretty shell, and asked for things that represent basic needs for food and clothing- I’m happy to give. We didn’t need another pretty shell, and those tiny green tomatoes weren’t going to be any good, but we kept a stash of baggies that could be quickly filled with a small amount of rice or sugar or whatever was requested. How can you turn down a kid in rags who wants a t-shirt, and has paddled from a neighboring island with something they hoped you would want, when they saw your boat from afar?

Ultimately, if you’re going to an area where you anticipate trading, research a little to find out what people will want. We raised the waterline with the volume of stuff brought on board in anticipation of trading. Most of it wasn’t costly: staple foods, boxes of fishhooks. Clothes which we mostly expected to give away, and got both by purchasing from thrift stores, taking donations at the kids’ schools, and paring down our own wardrobe. These things are then sunk costs to you, and you’re not going to run down your kitty trading them…or worry to much about whether the bargain your striking is a fair one. It’s going to work, or it’s not!

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3 Responses to Reader questions: fair trading

  1. Skipperette December 22, 2012 at 12:40 am #

    Thanks, Behan. This was good information for planning our “trading stores” when we wander about the area on our own.

  2. Del Viento December 22, 2012 at 2:27 am #

    Yes, thank you Behan, excellent info. Michael

  3. boatbaby January 6, 2013 at 3:42 am #

    Such helpful information as always Behan. Thank you!

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