Sigiriya: More ancient ruins. This time, a castle high on rock, built by a paranoid king who had killed his father and lived in fear of his exiled brother.
Down at the foot of the mountain, an old man approaches. He carries a single item for sale, what appears to be a wooden book. The other pedlars have not shown me anything like it, so I am a willing audience when the man offers a demonstration. It turns out to be a box with secret compartments, and one must pull back secret panels to open them.
It is clearly hand-made, from solid wood, and I recognise the guard-stone patterns carved into the sides. It is a quirky item that I may not find again, so I make up my mind to have it, there and then. But at what price?
Now don’t worry, I have done plenty of bargaining in my time. I once spent a full forty minutes arguing over a stone rhinoceros with a woman by the roadside outside another UNESCO site, the Great Zimbabwe monument. I eventually bought it for eighty Zimbabwe dollars, and broke the horn a day after purchase when I threw my bag into the back of a truck. In recent years however, the idea of haggling fills me with a certain unease. To make a fuss over what amounts to only a few pounds is surely petty. It is, after all, the kind of money that, in the average British pub, I can send through both my digestive and renal system and piss away in under thirty minutes. It is, after all, above the average daily wage for many of the people I encounter. Surely the benefit of the bargain must fall on their side, and not mine?
And so, as we begin to discuss the price, my heart is not in the game. He suggests over four thousand rupees, cheap if I had found the same item in a shop in the UK. All I have to do is hesitate for a short while, and this drops to three thousand. Passive, rather than pro-active bartering has won me a discount.
I consider that I can afford this amount, and that my group have already begun to climb the steps to the ruined castle, so I hand over a few of the many green notes in my wallet and make off with the book. The wood is thick and varnished. The carving has a tactile quality. It will look good on my shelf, and I begin to imagine the times I shall point it out to friends who visit, and tell anecdotes about Sri Lanka. It is a worthy artefact, and I shall treasure it forever…
Around the next boulder, I am accosted by another vendor, holding another secret book. It is exactly the same as the one I have just slipped into my satchel.
“Sir! Sir! Look, a seecrit book! Come see, only two thousand rupees!”
My heart sinks. My own purchase, once destined to take prime position as a genuine piece of take-home Sri Lankan culture, is devalued in an instant. I have paid over the odds. By the time I have descended the mountain, I have been offered other examples for for fifteen hundred. My scowling and reluctance to purchase is once again taken for passive bartering, and the price has dropped to a thousand. By the end of the day, I will have overheard an offer to one of my friends for five hundred.
The fact that some other pale tourist has bought the same thing for a cheaper price bothers me, haunts me into the evening. We haggle because of this pride. Never mind the money in our wallet. Never mind paying over the odds to a ragged old peddlar. Even if he is laughing at my naivety (and surely, by the Lord Buddha, he is laughing), I can write off the difference as a charity. The real dent to my ego is that I have lost out relative to the other tourists. And – make no mistake about this – they will remind me about this for the rest of the day, and probably tomorrow too.
I guess the crippling need for value for money, down to the last rupee, is a universal trait. Too many holiday conversations revolve around how much he paid for this, or how much she paid for that. Are we getting a good deal at our hotel? How much did the flights cost? Hearing that we are paying less for our hotel room fills us with secret glee. The news that someone managed to get a flight for fifty pounds less will threaten the entire trip. We need to confirm that we are having as good a time as everyone else. We search for a constant endorsement of our every action. Instead of enjoying the holiday – souvenirs, hotel rooms, flights – on their own merit, we judge them relative to what other people have done.
“These shoes were on discount … How much did you pay for your house? … We haggled down the price of our taxi … We found a delightful guest house that no-one else has been to … Our seats were upgrade … pray do tell me, how was your steak? It looks rather over done from this side of the table … “
Every day in Sri Lanka (as in Edinburgh), tourists take photographs of land-marks, duplicating a million photographs of the same scene, carbon-copies of which exist within a hundred thousand photo albums world wide. Of course, we want to remember the scene, its history and its beauty… but we could do that by purchasing a post-card or a professional print. But the problem with paid-for pictures is that they do not endorse the holiday in a way that personal, amateur snaps do. Our own pictures (with our gormless, pasty mugs in the foreground) are proof that we went there, and thus proof that we had a great time, had our value for money.
As, indeed, are wooden souvenir boxes with exotic carvings. Just don’t tell anyone how much you paid for them.