November 25, 2005

Malawi Movie Stars

Bargaining for souvenirs in Malwai is often a friendly but slow process, made slower still by the relaxed pace of the locals and their tendency to name themselves after movie stars.

It's about 600 billion degrees outside. Our campsite is situated at the southern end of Lake Malawi and the afternoon cloud has failed to arrive. Instead of cooling off a little the mercury continues to rise and what little joy is brought from a swim in the lake is quickly erased once on dry land again. The sun just saps your energy away.

With nothing else to do we go shopping.

Just outside the campsite at Kande Beach a row of bamboo huts have sprung up to offer carvings to the tourists. They are differentiated by hand written notices dubbing the merchants with names like "Samuel L Jackson", "Mel Gibson" and "Shaggy". It takes some digging to find their real identities but that's half the point - spend a little time, no need to buy, just have a look. The shade is welcoming at the very least.

A few of the gals pick out some quality carvings and get down to bargaining. The average statue seems to sell between $US1 and $US5, depending on your ability to close a deal and your preparedness to walk-away if the price isnt right. But dont take too long. This age old interplay between buyer and seller can be derailed without warning, when shopping on a Malawi beach front, should the proprietor take off to smoke some weed!

One minute we're negotiating a price for a handful of carvings and the next minute Mr Gibson has disappeared to the back for a quick puff. "I'll just be a moment", he tells us and proceeds to inhale a reefer that releases more smoke than a bee-keeper collecting honey. We wait while the happy moment is shared with a few of his mates, and then he lights a second one. We're not sure if he'll be returning at all.

His friends take a seat at the back of the shop and stares blissfully across the street at nothing. They have stopped blinking. I try to get their attention but am too late, they wont be back for days. Our man returns to continue bargaining and we're pretty hopeful of getting to the real price soon. Surely we have the upper hand now?

He looks at all of us, smiles a few times, and asks us what we want to buy. We're back at square one.

Holding aloft the same collection of carved wood that had previously been debated to $10 he gives us a few more smiles each, smiles are free, and declares the carvings to be worth $19. It seems we are caught in his time warp, the negotiations have become bogged down. I wonder if this problem is what keeps peace elusively at bay in the Middle East? Mr Gibson is pretty convinced we are wealthy enough to meet his price, but we are pretty convinced the guy next door will sell for $7. We move on.

Mr Jackson looks like he's selling more weed than souvenirs so we pass. Next shop along and we catch Mr Shaggy before his next session with the jazz cigarettes so we get a good deal on some quality carvings. We didnt sit and chat this time, just exchanged basic greetings and told him what price we'll pay. In and out in 3 minutes.

On the way back I walked past Mr Gibson, still smiling and still convinced we will pay $19 for his carvings. Maybe he fogot to share his joint with us before entering the bargaining?

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