Stop Being So Cheap
When you wander the streets of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, you can’t help but get a sore neck from all the gawking. It’s an ancient city that was a key stop on the Silk Road from China to the Middle East, and it’s steeped in amazing architecture and history that shaped the future of Asia, Persia, and the Levant. No literally, I’m not exaggerating here… if you don’t know who Tamarlane was you should read up.
I had been traveling through Central Asia on a crazy trip that, in addition to Uzbekistan, included Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. It was vacation-stan, and yes, I visited Borat’s home before he was famous.
As we strolled through Samarkand, lost in the alien world, we stumbled into an open-air market. This was a market not much different than what you’d find in most third-world countries, wild and chaotic with exotic sights and scents. But because it was near the more tourist-friendly downtown with it’s architectural wonders, it probably had more souvenirs and art than the average market.
I love nothing more than browsing hand-made art, and this market didn’t disappoint. There was table after table of amazing handmade crafts, painstakingly made by artists who were usually sitting right behind the table selling them and making more. These were things of beauty, with their own special eccentricities.
It’s Already On Sale
Now if you’ve never tried to buy something in a third-world market, you’re missing out. Haggling is not only expected, it’s a full-on sport. They take it to new levels. Most merchants initially quote you a super-inflated price, because they expect you to play the game. Your job is to talk them down, make a deal.
My friend Dave immediately fell in love with this hand-painted urn thingy, and started the process. To make the dialog relatable, I’ll convert the monetary amounts from Uzbekistani Soms to the approximate US dollar equivalent. But in reality we were dealing in Soms.
Dave started the whole fiasco by looking too long at the urn, which is all it takes to get them to snap to ya…
Merchant: 5 dollars!
Dave: Naaa.. too much.. 2 dollars
Merchant: For you my friend, 4 dollars, good offer!!
Dave: (not flinching) I’ll give ya two….
Merchant: Shaking head, smiling… 3.50, good price, best price!
Dave: (money in hand) That’s high, I saw another one over there for way less…. 2.50 is the most I’ll pay
Merchant: (probably not understanding a single word except the monetary amount) 3.50, final price!!
And so Dave turns and starts walking away. I stood there for a second a bit stunned, and then the absurdity of what I was watching got to me and I followed after him.
“Dude, are you serious? It’s a buck! You’re arguing over a buck for the price of a beautiful handmade urn with the guy who made it. To him that buck is important. You make thousands of those bucks a month! The guy is poor!”
Now before you think my friend Dave is an ass, he’s not. He’s a good dude. He just got caught up in the game of haggling. The end state to him was winning the bidding war, regardless of the ridiculously small amounts being haggled over.
The Slippery Slope To Cheapskate-hood
There’s a difference between being frugal and being cheap. Many have written about it at length, but my overarching view is this: when your frugality starts to affect others in a negative way or in a way that’s oblivious or indignant to the situation of others, then you’re probably being cheap.
Dave was being cheap.
He didn’t have the perspective to step back and see that his enthusiasm for getting the best deal was, in context of what he was trying to buy, ridiculous. We were on the other side of the globe, experiencing adventure with all of the unknowns that come with it. You get caught up.
The artist no doubt spent at least the better part of a day making the urn, maybe longer. Uzbekistan may be a very depressed economy with absurdly low prices, but my friend Dave was inadvertently saying that this merchants time and skill wasn’t worth $3.50. I had to remind him to look down…. he doesn’t even have friggin’ shoes on dude….
The lesson I learned that day in Samarkand is to prevent your great frugal habits from turning you into a not-so-great unappreciative cheapskate.
For your financial well-being, save where you can, save where you must. Save ruthlessly. But when you’re traveling to countries with economies that aren’t even closely related to the first world, be realistic. There’s plenty of trade-space to get a good deal and still feel good about yourself.
Be kind, be generous. You’ll find that it comes back in spades.
Your turn to chime in readers – do you have any cool or interesting stories of buying stuff in other countries?