Negotiating With A Child In Poverty

Many travellers revel in the back and forth of bartering, they love the feeling of getting the upper hand, or at least getting a great deal. I’m not a fan of haggling, it’s my least favourite part of Asia.

I either want something or I don’t, price is not the key factor for me, even back home, so when prices fall to Asian standards it means even less. “Mister. Mister. You want? One dollar. One dollar for you. Good Price. Mister. Hey. Hello. Mister. One dollar.” Lady, I don’t want a dried lizard on a stick. I’m sure that’s a great deal, but that’s not the issue.

The kids are the worst. The psychology of sales are not complex, and children are smart, plus they have the very real incentive of living in poverty and working in the hot sun for a few bucks a day. Kids get very good at bartering and manipulating, much better than the average tourist, certainly better than me. Or perhaps I can’t find the motivation to grind down a poor street urchin.

I went to the famous ancient temples at Angor Wat. About half way into the first day I decide I should have bought a book about the temples from one of the kids at the gate. The next time I saw a kid with one, I walked up to him, so he had me from the start, and I ended up paying $12 for a book another kid offered me for $1 at the end of the day.

A couple days later we’re wasting away our last evening in town at a street side patio. The guy running the bar is an amusing smart ass. He’s chatty and hanging out on the patio talking with us and flirting with the girls at the next table. He’s also giving a good natured hard time to the child standing on the sidewalk selling books. She’s about 15, pile of books under her arm, and she’s giving it right back to him. She lands a couple witty jabs at the guy that get us and the girls laughing. It’s an impressive display from someone doing battle in a foreign tongue with someone twice her age.

When they’re done I call her over and we chat for awhile. She asks me, “Where you from?” I tell her Canada, and she rattles off the capital, the population, and the last five Prime Ministers. She stumbles on the last one, and looks a bit sheepish about it, which makes me laugh. “You went one better than I could kid, I wouldn’t worry about it.” She goes to school during the day, teaches English a couple evenings a week, and sells books the rest of the time. She reads all the books she has, she tells me, “I can tell a little story about all the books, that’s how I sell them.”

In keeping with my shrewd negotiation style I lay it all out for her, “Okay, look. I want to buy a book from you, but I got worked over a couple days ago, and that still stings a bit, so help me out. Let me be happy about this one.” I pick out a collection of stories written by children of the Cambodian Genocide, a little light reading for the train, and we get to a price of five dollars. She starts to tell me how little she makes on the books, and I stop her, “That’s fine, we can do $5. Thanks for the book. It was nice to meet you.”

My wife has been teasing me about the twelve dollar book for a couple days. She says, “I think you got worked again.”

“No, not that time.” I would have given that kid five bucks just for being cool, and I got a book out of it. Negotiating with a child in poverty isn’t always about the price.

Originally published at on July 3, 2015.

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