Issue 33

How To Bargain In Ecuador

By Wendy DeChambeau

It is gorgeous and I want it. A hand-woven tapestry featuring two toucans perched in front of a blood-red backdrop has caught my attention and I’m smitten, but I know I’ll need to tread carefully while buying.

“You like? Is very beautiful!” the lady at the stall says in broken English while she thrusts it towards me in her gnarled brown hands.

I ask how much and am told $50. Too much. It’s a Saturday at South America’s largest indigenous craft market in Otavalo, Ecuador and I know that dozens of other vendors will have similar tapestries for sale. I can meander through the stalls and find the best price, but I also know that this is a one-of-a-kind piece and it won’t be found elsewhere.

“Twenty-five dollars,” I counter. I know I’m low, but this is how the bargaining dance works here. Start at half the price and go from there. The woman shakes her head, throws some harried whispers in Kichwa at her husband, and comes back with an offer of $45. As we toss numbers back and forth to each other I realize that I’m enjoying myself immensely.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when shopping in a street market like this would have had me in a high state of anxiety. My one visit to the Pike Street Market in Seattle many years past was an overwhelmingly awful experience. For an introvert like me the large crowds, noise, powerful smells, and the need to interact with person after person was something to dread, not savour.

In fact in my younger years I had a carefully crafted life of order. It was a life of comfortable surroundings, scheduled days, and nothing much out of the norm. If something went particularly awry I, like many of other women, found comfort in retail therapy. Even the sprawling shopping malls themselves were soothing to my psyche. I knew exactly which shop to enter if I needed bed linens, or a winter scarf, or a wine rack designed to look unique though in reality it was mass produced and residing in homes all over America. Sales people politely kept to themselves unless needed. And best of all, the price was clearly marked on each item.

But then one summer my little bubble of security was split open and all of its components came crashing down. A bit of independent thinking left me questioning the religion I was raised in. Friends and family abandoned me with dogmatic fervour and life as I knew it was over. Suddenly I was left without the soothing familiarity I once cherished.

Recovery was not quick, but it happened over time. In adjusting to my new normal I came to embrace the unknown, the ever-changing, and the different and as it turns out that was my saving grace. The key was to throw off that fear of the new and step outside of my comfort zone where I will always find a richer existence.

And so today, some fifteen years later, I find myself haggling with a tiny indigenous woman over the price of a wall hanging. It’s a messy disorderly process to be sure, but it’s one that is real and genuine. We eventually settle on a number we can both live with and she lovingly folds the tapestry into thirds, places it in a bag and flashes me a grin of gratitude.

I shoulder my way through the throngs of shoppers and slowly progress down the side streets packed with stalls. Men in navy blue ponchos and women with meticulously embroidered blouses call out to me as they hold up their goods. Perhaps I’ll pick up a cozy alpaca wool sweater, or a hand-carved chess set. The wooden pan flutes are appealing, but I know that my abilities will never do the instrument justice. Or maybe I’ll buy nothing more at all. After all, this market is not just a place to purchase goods, but it is a sensory event. Something meant to be watched, listened to, and felt above all else.

My fear of leaving my comfort zone has waned, but I still like to have a measure of things I can count on in life. I have a husband and two sons and they keep me grounded. I have a fairly steady income, though I am a freelancer which means my income can vary wildly from month to month. And I own a house, though it’s no longer filled with the standard trappings from Pier 1 or Bed Bath and Beyond.

No, these days my home is filled with the items I’ve picked up from shopping excursions at markets like the one in Otavalo. Things to remind me of my travels, things that remind me of those who laboured to create them, and things that remind that it’s okay to live a life of adventure and break free from those chains of security.


Wendy DeChambeau is a freelance writer currently living in Cotacachi, Ecuador with her husband and two sons. She travels whenever possible either by plane or through the words written in books.

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