Bali’s Bargaining Ballet

Travel Stories: On a trip to the Indonesian island, Jerry V. Haines bought a batik shirt, a painting and a flying pig. Along the way, he discovered that haggling is like a dance, and you can't stop dancing until the music is done.

07.17.06 | 11:44 AM ET

bali statueMy wife and I are on Monkey Forest Road in Ubud, the cultural center of Bali, in one of the town’s hundreds of craft shops, where she has selected two bolts of the distinctive local Ikat cloth. Now comes the fun: How far down will the shop keeper come from the stated price? In Bali, haggling is the art of the dance. Start the music.

This particular merchant does not feel sufficiently comfortable in his knowledge of English numbers or American dollars to haggle in the usual way. And who could blame him? The prevailing exchange rate today is 8,750 Indonesian rupiahs to the dollar. A bad choice of words or a misplaced decimal could make a big difference. (Indeed, the exchange rate has since widened even further. As of July 2006, the rate is 9,175 rupiahs to the dollar.) So he takes his pocket calculator, enters the Indonesian price, then divides it by the exchange rate to show us the result in dollars. He then hands me the calculator, clearing it and inviting me to punch in my counter offer. I enter something ridiculously low; he does an exaggerated wince, then comes back with a figure about 20 percent lower than his original. I scoff and respond with a number slightly higher than my first. And so it goes—as it probably has (albeit without a calculator) for centuries.

Finally, after the calculator has passed back and forth a few times, we meet in the middle and he accepts my counter-counter-counter-offer, gesturing that it causes him pain. But he’s also smiling. He loves this dance.

In the States, the only things we haggle about are houses and automobiles—our biggest ticket items—with matters of family and financial security often weighing traumatically in the balance. And we don’t like it. We prefer the comfort of a certain amount, even if it is an excessive amount. We cringe at the greeting, “What do I have to do to put you in this car today?”

But in Bali the haggling is done in such a good natured way. The posturing and posing are like bowing and curtseying. Although it sounded like a cliche when I read it in my guidebook, Balinese merchants really do seem disappointed if you accept the opening price.

Indeed, one salesman could not seem to stop himself. I was attracted by some batik shirts; I haggled with the clerk a bit, then, proud of my bargaining, hastily agreed to take the lowered price before he could change his mind. But he apparently was caught in the rhythm of the negotiations that I had prematurely interrupted, and continued to lower it, discounting it an additional 10 percent. I had stopped dancing before the music was done.

But what if you don’t speak Balinese? English—at least enough English to conduct bargaining—is widely spoken in Bali. The most commonly heard English word is “hello,” which comes in two forms: a “Hal-oh” that has a nice colonial European ring to it, and the three-syllable TV-sitcom version that in the States means, “You are so clueless.” But in Bali both forms mean, “I have great bargain for you today, mister,” and that you are done for. You can hold up your hand in protest, say that you are not interested and keep walking. It won’t work. They will follow you until you do the math in your head (“Hmmm… divided by 9,175, that would be…”) and you conclude, “Gosh, it really is a great bargain.” So, you dance.

Taking much of the pressure off us was the fact that we were negotiating for things we didn’t really need—wicker place mats, carved wooden monkeys, silver bracelets, a flying pig. Also, truth be told, even the asking prices represented tremendous bargains. Because of the weakness of the rupiah against the dollar, negotiating in Bali is really just a matter of how much sweeter you can make an already sweet deal. 

bali flying pigBut that leads to guilt, an instrument that the professional Balinese haggler can play like Paganini. On our last day on the island a local painter snagged us on the main street. We weren’t really looking for paintings, and we didn’t have much time before our flight home. But he pleasantly insisted, and back in his sparely furnished courtyard home at the end of a series of alleys, he squatted on the floor and began dealing out dozens of his works. They were beautiful, but the simple fact was that we didn’t need any paintings. He slapped still more of them out on the floor, and I started thinking, “Jeez, he’s going to have to gather all of those up again….”

He kept lowering the prices; we kept insisting that, nice as they were, we couldn’t use them. But then he got me to declare which painting I liked most. He thus sounded some childhood chord in my memory, perhaps one involving a puppy that would go to the pound if it didn’t find a good home. After some indecision about whether it would fit in our carryon luggage (which he read as a cue to lower the price even further), we agreed to take it. I just couldn’t let that painting go to the pound.

He was not a rich man and our purchase wouldn’t do much to change that. When he tried to put our painting into its frame, he couldn’t fasten it on all four sides. He put down his hammer, gave us a toothless grin and apologized, saying “I’m sorry, I only have three nails.” He wrapped our purchase in the remains of an old shopping bag, painstakingly sealed it with electrical tape, and then, since he had heard us mention our flight, carefully fashioned a handle of strong twine. Total price: 125,000 rupiahs—about 14 bucks. I have never felt so bad about a good deal.

Not that bargaining is the only reason to go to Bali. To fill your view finder there are Hindu temples everywhere you look, lush green gorges, terraces of rice fields (sometimes being cultivated with buffalo-drawn plows), and surfer-magnet beach resorts. And, of course, the real Balinese dance, so fluidly graceful. But now that I look at my photo album, I think also of all the people whom I cropped out of the shot, entreating us to buy something. “Oh, I remember that mountain. The old lady there tried to sell us bananas.” Or, “I remember that rice terrace. That’s where we bought the wooden cats.”

Then there are the “transport” guys, Bali’s unofficial taxi corps. They hang out on the main street, making little steering wheel motions when they see a tourist.

“Transport?” they inquire.

“Just walking, thanks,” we respond.

“You need transport tomorrow?” 


“You sure? How about airport?”

But it is all done with a smile—how can you get angry?

But does it get wearisome? Yes. Do you sometimes feel like you have dialed the Home Shopping Network and have lost the remote control? Definitely, yes. Do you wish that just once you could emerge from your hotel without someone calling, “Transport”? (Sound of teeth grinding.)

In such cases we just let the omnipresent gamelan music cleanse our spirits of all such dissonant thought. Soon we were merrily haggling for something else.

The difficult part is shutting down the bargaining program in your own brain when it’s time to leave. Once you learn the dance it’s hard to stop. 

I wonder how many people show up at the ticket counter at the Denpasar airport after a week on Bali and ask the agent, “Is this your best price on a return ticket?”

Jerry V. Haines is an attorney in Washington, DC who also writes about travel and dining for a variety of media and teaches writing in the Arlington, Virginia public schools.

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