By Captain Oddworm, SV Mariposa
I am an inexperienced trader and so have
a difficult time distinguishing the difference between cost and
value. Thus, I was feeling a bit anxious as I motored toward
shore. Sandra sat serenely holding our bag of tradable treasures
while I worried. How much was any of this stuff worth? What if
no one wanted anything we had? How are we going to cut a deal
in a language we don't speak?
As the dinghy grounded on the black volcanic
sand my mind took a tack. What do these guys have but a bunch
of fruit hanging off trees that they probably didn't even plant?
It's not like anybody is really bustin' ass planting and harvesting
and doing all that farming stuff. They can trade or watch it
all rot on the ground the day after the next big wind! Yeah,
that's right. Before I can kill the outboard the boom in my brain
swings to another tack.
Why am I thinking tough? Why be presumptuous?
These are probably nice, friendly, and maybe even generous people.
They have too much fruit and we have a collection of odds and
ends for which we no longer have any use. Yeah, that's right!
All I really need to do is keep a sense of proportion and shoot
for a win-win out come. Am I crazy? What am I fussing about anyways?
Of course, I know the answer to my own questions. It's basically
the language thing.
After two years of working on a re-fit, spending thousands of
dollars on gear and charts and guides, I find myself sorrowfully
unprepared. The fact that I never studied French doesn't bother
me because, after all, no one can learn every language needed
to sail around the world. But the fact that I overlooked buying
a French dictionary now seemed a bit lame. But then again, who
can read a French dictionary anyways. Silent letters are bad
enough, but silent syllables? And then there are all those stuffy
noises in the nose and those gargling Rs in the throat.
,but! Rationalizing is Bull! We are in French
Polynesia now and I am determined to communicate.
As I swing up the motor, Sandra is already
wading in the warm knee-deep water, and up near the palms I spot
the stocky little man who lives here. He bird-walks down the
beach with the stiff legged gate of age to greet us with a broad
Bo jue, masure. Vou exchangux?, I venture.
Sure, you want fruit? O.K.? Come, come, he grins.
Wow! The old guy speaks my language.
This simplifies everything
or so I thought.
As it turns out, this opening line was nearly all the English
he did speak but it was the critical ice breaker. With this instant
thaw came a feeling of warmth and I relaxed. Without further
delay the old guy starts picking his trees and filling our bags.
We never discuss price or any sort of exchange value, which again
set me off balance. I absolutely hate feeling obliged and now,
with his fruit in my bag, the feeling is strong. Well, I figure,
I'm in for it now.
We sit in the shade of a broad leaved almond tree, gaze about
at the scenery, and say nothing. Our almond grove is situated
in a wooded ravine, squeezed between tremendous black cliffs
which reach up and cut the sky into a pie-wedge of washed out
blue. I can make out tiny specks of birds swirling about the
cliff face and realize that they must be quite large to be seen
from this distance. The day is hot and clear but the sea breeze
and shade are pleasant so we just sit. All is as it should be
and there is no hurry. Then a tiny brown woman emerges from her
thatched hut and sits beside me. She offers everyone a big toothless
smile and I sense that it is time to begin. I nod to Sandra who
opens our treasure sack.
First she pulls out an old bread knife
and lays it on the clean white sand before the woman. To my surprise,
the old gal seems totally uninterested. Then Sandra pulls out
a frying pan but again, no response. Next come two sure winners;
a T shirt and a base ball cap. And still we get no
I am starting to watch the woman very closely now. She looks
so happy and content, and so completely uninterested that I begin
to wonder just what, exactly, is going on.
Sandra presents a few more items to no
avail and then pulls a small tray of silver rings from her bag.
For a fleeting second I again see those happy gums and I detect
a faint sparkle in her dull wrinkled eyes. Yes! The rings score.
At last, our new friend is unable to contain her pleasure and
she paws over the treasure. Every ring is tried on every finger
as she hums a quiet little tune. I
am feeling good. We are relaxing beneath a cloudless sky. Closing
my eyes on the soaring cliffs which surround us I listen to rustling
of palms, sounding like distant rain, and bask in the warm serenity
of the afternoon. Our host is enjoying his wife's playfulness
and the old woman is taking her sweet time; and the time is ever
I open my eyes upon a happy brown face. The woman is holding
two small bands of silver. I smile and nod my approval and in
an instant she pockets the rings and sweeps up all the other
trade items lying in the sand.
Wait a minute!
Before I grasp what's happened, the old
guy is gleefully pumping my hand and his wife is waddling off
to her hut. Unsure of myself, I glance at Sandra who only shrugs.
Then the old fellow heads down the trail toward the beach so
I figure the deal is done. We fall in behind like puppies and
Sandra breaks out laughing. I, on the other hand, am beginning
to feel hood winked. But I'm still unsure. Was the old girl being
clever or did we suffer some sort of communication breakdown?
Were we now getting the bum's rush or was this island etiquette?
My mind reeled through unknowable possibilities and scenarios.
Well, I guess the bottom line
here is; I got what I wanted. And yet I still felt like a confused
kid, which isn't good at fifty.
Several months later and many islands away,
I told my fruit trading story to an old time cruiser who got
a real kick out of it. Her name was Pam. She had years of experience
trading all over Asia and Africa and found my neophyte blunder
You idiot!, she laughed, She played you.
Come on Pam, I defended, How can you know that.
You weren't even there!
So what! You were a babe in her hands
and she knew it.
Damn! I knew she was right; I felt it at
the time but didn't have a clue as to what to do about it. So,
I figured it was again time for this Old Dog to learn another
So enlighten me Oh Master. How shall I play this game in
She then gave me my first lesson in island trading, and that
my friends, is really the point of this story. This lesson was
only a beginning but, so far, it is working well for me. It goes
Pick up the things you want, look them over, and place them down
without too much excitement. Then produce the item(s) that you
are willing to offer in exchange. Then, and here is the hardest
part for me, wait. Just relax a while and see what happens. If,
after a while you feel dead locked, put your stuff away and make
a different offer. And again, wait.
By nature, I am an impatient man but even I am getting the hang
of it. It works! And now, since I have your attention, I'll clue
you in on something I have learned first hand.
When trying to make a trade, I found myself trying to find items
that I felt would be of interest to the person I was trading
with- boys things for boys, not showing women's stuff to men,
holding back inappropriate items, and so on.
Sandra always seems to master the obvious stuff that flies right
past me and so, after one particular trading session, she asked,
Why didn't you show him the shoes?
Feeling the sting of criticism I bristled, Why would I
show a pair of number nine shoes to a Guy who has spent his entire
life running barefoot through the jungle on gun-boat sized hooves?
How 'bout, he has a son who needs them? Or a brother, cousin,
friend? Or try this: He'll trade them to a neighbor for his extra
water jug. Or to the Run Boat captain in exchange for carrying
his bananas. Or, lets see now
shall I go on?
I think not, thank you.
I realize now how presumptuous I was being.
To effectively trade in this manner requires a high degree of
skill in mind reading. Upon reflection I have come to understand
that I can never really know the people I meet. They have wants
and needs, desires and schemes and involvements at which I can
only guess. In other words, they have Lives. The best I can do
is to simply show the items I have, relax, and wait.