Sri Lanka: Negotiating a mainstay

By Alex Robertson

The chit-chat of street vendors makes for interesting tales around the dinner table, discovers Alex Roberston

Chandrare sells sarongs at the beach at Negumbo, Sri Lanka. Photo / Alex Robertson
Chandrare sells sarongs at the beach at Negumbo, Sri Lanka. Photo / Alex Robertson

"Where you from?" The monotone delivery came more as a statement than a question. "Hey New Zealand. You good man."

He grabbed my hand, firing out words while I watched elephants bathing.

"You have wife. She stay with you til you die. You very honest man. You live to 96 or 94 years.

"You have good education. You lucky to work in public service ..."

Touts, hawkers, street vendors - whatever you choose to call them - are common in Sri Lanka, mostly selling jewellery, clothing or carvings. Some will help you up steps or offer to guide you, in this case, through your future: for a price, naturally. Prices vary and are nearly always negotiable.

An illustrated tourist map cost me the morning price (no discount) of 500 rupees; a companion was asked for 800 for the exact same thing. He paid what I paid, but we both felt cheated later when offered it for 200.

With an exchange rate of 100 rupees to NZ$1, we're not talking big bucks here and the two or three dollars' difference is not going to blow my budget, but would be a real bonus to a local. And the small extra can be worth the price for a brief, often entertaining encounter that will give you plenty of material for dinner party stories.

Colourful stories like the guy who offered me "chocolate price" (not tourist rates) and then tried to sell me wooden bangles for more than I can buy them at Trade Aid, or the four or five catamaran owners on Negombo beach, who all offered the best deal - "but don't tell anyone".

Then there was a man trying to sell me wooden elephants at the historic Sigiriya Rock Fort. I told him a dozen times that I loved them, but couldn't bring them back and then realised I had become separated from the group. I started running to catch up, relieved to leave him behind. I saw Caroline through a rock-arch at the bottom of some stone steps and she called out and waved to me. As I got closer I saw she was laughing hysterically, and the man with the elephants was next to her.

It's pretty hard work starting at sun-up and chasing tourists all day long, sometimes for no reward. Chandrare, selling sarongs on the beach, told me, "Tourists not come this month. Maybe December they come." She left me with a smile, in search of more willing customers.

My palm reader carried on: "Your lucky number is seven, lucky colour blue. You good with music and you will have two children. You will pay a minimum of 1000 rupees." He was not that good at fortune-telling. I paid him 500 rupees.

Alex Robertson travelled to Sri Lanka with World Expeditions and flew Singapore Airlines.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines connects Auckland to Colombo daily.
Further info: worldexpeditions.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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