I love when the simple touch of an object can transport you to a different time and place. This morning my cheap black plastic earphones – the kind that always pop out of your ear – provide a portal to the streets of Arusha in Tanzania.
I had been traveling in East Africa for two months at this point and like most of the people here I was about to drop my savings on a safari in the Serengeti. Despite, or because of, the high cost of seeing lions and zebras, I was on a serious budget – the backpacker’s budget.
The travelers I met were also tight with their purse strings, vowing to journey across the continent (for a full year) on a budget of USD $100. With this impossible feat as the goal – every penny counted and negotiations a must.
The tall and lanky German checks into a hostel, but not before he verifies, “Does that come with breakfast?”
The petite American with the squeaky voice and a charming smile will ask her waiter, “Can you throw in a coffee for FREE?”
The seasoned, grubby yet sexy, Australian gets riled up when trying to buy that trinket for Mum, “That’s too much. I’m not paying that! Outrageous!”
Finally, the worldly, intelligent British couple whisper to each other before buying a replacement handset, “I would NEVER pay that much for something made in China. It’s just going to break”.
If you have the time to sit and stare, which one does on holiday, the most entertaining part of the negotiation process is when the customer throws their hands up in the air with disgust over a stated price. ”Forget that, I’m leaving!!” Minutes later the once confident bargain-hunter slinks back in realizing they gave up the best deal they would find.
It’s all quite embarrassing when you are the outside observer. Thankfully, I’m rarely on the outside. You see, when I say they, I mean me. And when I say embarrassing, I mean horrifying.
And so this brings us back to the earphones. My previous earphones were on their last leg. Music only traveled through the wires if I held the end just so. It was time for a replacement. I went into half a dozen stores along the small bustling tourist strip. I would pay $600 for my upcoming trip into the Serengeti, but I refused to pay an extortionist TNZ 8000 shillings (USD $5.00) for a pair of earphones. I could buy snacks for two days at that cost! This was simply not in my budget. In addition – and this was a salient point – these were not some Apple branded earphones. These were shitty knockoffs and they would surely break and then (gasp!) I would have wasted five dollars.
So instead I spent a perfectly lovely afternoon marching up and down the street in a huff flailing my arms and rejecting one perfectly fine pair of earphones after another. By the third store, I realized deep down that I was now being a stubborn child, but I could not stop. My day, my life, became these valuable wires. It did not matter that I could have been relaxing on the rooftop of my hostel staring at the gorgeous snow capped peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro that conveniently filled the frame.
After the sixth or seventh store (I lost track) quoted the same exact price, I think I finally realized that perhaps it was possible that earphones actually did cost TNZ 8,000 shillings. Tired and humiliated from previous tirades, I walked up to a store that sold everything from laundry detergent to telephones. The owner was a sweet and quiet Tanzanian man who wore a warm and welcoming smile. I asked for earphones and mimed the action of putting something in my ear. His English broken, my Swahili non-existent: we were at a loss. Behind him hanging on the wall I saw precisely the same earphones I rejected in every other store that afternoon. I squeezed behind the counter, reached for the object of my desire and placed 8,000 shillings on the counter. No bargaining. No shouting. I was subdued, perhaps even pleasant.
I exited the store and performed the walk of shame back to my hostel. In the corner of the rooftop bar it was finally time to relax with a beer and my book and those pesky made in China earphones.
Today, in a café ten long months later, I recoil at the memory of the Negotiator. My earphones have indeed outlasted all expectations.