Panajachel – to buy, or not to buy (or just go birding)

Back to Guatemala :) I arrived in Panajachel, which is the largest town on Lake Atitlan, and also the most touristy. Which explains why I had a timeshare out of town, near a nature reserve – a funky place that looked like it had been a 4-star destination in the 90s and was now a bit down at the heels. The rooms were in brick buildings with rounded tops, and large glass windows, surrounded by tall trees filled with birds. My room was neat because I could practically bird from the room, which I did many mornings while getting ready to go out. I also had a nice view of a volcano over the top of the restaurant that I woke up to each morning.

It was a couple days before I actually went into Pana. I was content watching hummingbirds and warblers zip around the grounds, and visiting the botanical gardens at the truly 5-star hotel next door. I had a “date” on Tuesday to visit with a fellow traveler I met sitting around the Houston airport in the wee hours of the morning, waiting to change planes. His daughter ran a jewelry store in Pana and his son ran a hostel in San Pedro, across the lake. He and his daughter owned a house in Pana, so I was curious to find out what it was like to live there.

We spent the day walking up and down the streets of Pana, while I got a crash course in which restaurants were clean and safe and had good food, where to get the best coffee or pastries, and how to bargain – something I’m really bad at and truly hate doing. I guess this is how you get the lay of the land when you move to another country. According to him, the expats all know each other and are very helpful to newcomers. There are also a lot of local events where you get to know people, both foreign and otherwise.

About that bargaining – Guatemala probably has the best markets I’ve seen for buying gifts, and I had a lot of people I wanted to buy gifts for. I’m a thoughtless traveller, I usually don’t buy gifts or take pictures, too busy being in the moment. This time I was determined to do right by my friends and family. I’ve never seen so many textile and jewelry stalls of every description packed into so small a space – and everything in Guatemala is so colorful – it was just a visual riot of color.

I was becoming frustrated at the constant singsongy sales pitches. Everywhere I would turn, it was “Special price for you, lady. Mas colores. Just looking, no problem.” The exact same phrases in every single stall. Apparently these were the few words they had learned and thought they were supposed to say. Of course the “special price” was especially high for us gringos, which just made it more annoying. I would have given anything to shop peacefully in someone’s stall, without them dragging out more and more examples of things with every second I was there.

I guess what bothers me about this is that you can’t make eye contact, you can’t acknowledge their presence, you can’t compliment them on their beautiful goods – or you’ve lost all possible advantage in negotiating a price and you will be followed down the street. Vendors will try to actually put things in your hands, or over your shoulder, and then expect you to pay rather than walk off. Give the slightest acknowledgment and you are lost. Which sucks, because it means you can’t interact with them as a person. I found myself only buying from the places that gave me a little space and responded with some pride, rather than running over with the special prices the second I approached. This is utterly unfair, I know, because the others are probably the ones that really need the business and are just doing what they see as trying hard.

Then there’s the bargaining. I think what I find stressful about this is that I have absolutely no points of reference. I have no idea what these goods are worth, what they make in a day or an hour, how much I’m being charged relative to the locals (or even the ex-pats who live here). One alternates between feeling cheated and feeling like a jerk for trying to negotiate a lower price from someone who makes less than a hundredth of what I do. On the other hand we are constantly told not to pay too much, or all the prices will go up. Which seems like odd reasoning to me; if the people are dirt poor, what harm could it possibly do to pay them more consistently?

Not to mention that these things I’m buying are made by hand. I can’t even imagine the time that it takes to sew some of these things by hand, not to mention making the raw materials. They are the artisans, and these things cost almost nothing in terms of dollars. I’m ashamed to even bargain in the face of that, yet I know that they have deliberately set the price at 2-10 times what a local would pay. I’m expected to bargain, so I do, reluctantly. Eventually I figure out that the right place to end up at is about 2/3 of their original price, and I get a little more comfortable.

Later, a woman in the airport who volunteers frequently down here tells me that sometimes she just walks into a stall and says (in Spanish) “I have so much money for this item right here, which I will pay right now.” And is prepared to leave if turned down – she says that often works, as they know she means it and the price is more or less where they would have gotten to eventually. And she told me that most of the vendors actually know very little Spanish or English; they are Mayan and have their own languages. After hearing the stories of how they are treated by the Spanish in Guatemala, I forgave them their singsongy bargaining phrases.

The vendors are organized in a hierarchy – first those who actually have a store. These are few, and often expats and Spanish. Then, those who have a fixed market stall. Some of these are quite large and opulent, filled with an amazing quantity of goods. Then, those with temporary stalls or tables on the street. After these, the old women and children who walk up and down the street. Lastly, the little boys who ply the waterfront with frozen chocolate-covered bananas or nuts. And we’re talking little boys – 3 or 4 years old in some cases.

The women and kids pester you constantly as you’re walking the street, and if you’re just trying to get somewhere, you get into a necessary habit of “no, gracias”. You’re really not paying much attention, because you know you don’t want to buy anything. But one night, on my way to a restaurant, I suddenly realized what the old woman had offered me – a beautiful piece of handmade cloth for 5 quetzales – about 80 cents. It just made me shake my head. I still didn’t need the cloth, but how dismissive we are of someone’s effort.

After that I started talking to women who would come up to us in restaurants, rather than just ignoring or brushing them off. By this point, my Spanish was getting better. One night a woman was telling me about her seven children (each one usually has a baby slung in a cloth on her back). She asked if I had any children, and I said no, I was single. She said “It’s better that way.” Seeing that I didn’t need to buy anything, she asked for some of the food I didn’t need, and of course I was glad to be able to give her something.

This same woman I spoke to in the airport said that many of these women will go all day without anything to eat. After that I was glad I had started giving them food, for which they seemed at least as happy as money. She told me that many men will have several children with a woman, then when it gets to be too much, they’ll just go onto another one, leaving a trail of women raising all their kids by themselves. Any annoyance I had at the street vendors had long since evaporated as I started to really see these women and the lives they lead. One really feels sorry for the children, if they are starting as vendors at preschool age you know they will never have a chance at anything but that. Or maybe aspire to be a tuk-tuk driver – a kind of mini-taxi with three wheels that everyone took around town. Getting the families enough support to get their kids into school was a primary goal of the volunteers in town.

Well, that’s enough about stuff!! I came here to get away from that. It is nice to buy things without packaging though, and without bags. We found a brand new open-air food market in town and it was clean enough to buy things from safely, and make a stir-fry lunch. Even the seafood and meat looked clean (though we stuck to the veggies and fruits). More later!


3 thoughts on “Panajachel – to buy, or not to buy (or just go birding)

  1. coppermoon says:

    Very interesting – it seems we Americans might all benefit from a trip here so we could see what life is like for most of these people. I would share both your frustration at being harassed and your difficulty in bargaining – I doubt I would have much will power, tho.
    Your posts about the trip have been very enjoyable – many thanks for sharing!

  2. judithornot says:

    What you wrote about is exactly the sort of thing I like to learn about places I’m visiting. Am so glad you met people to talk with, Teresa. And thank you for this entry.

  3. Freesparrow says:

    Yes, the stories about the women are poignant. I wonder what it would be like to live in such poverty (compared with our own situation).

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