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Friday, November 8, 2013

The Pink Hippo and the Malakani Nut

As an experienced traveler, I pride myself on avoiding scams. Furthermore, I drive a draconian bargain and, being a Jewish girl, am enamored of a distinguished deal. Thus, in those rare instances when I am ripped off,  the experience just sticks in my craw. In order to protect you, oh unwary consumer, from the scams of Namibia, I present the tale of the pink hippo and the Malakani nut.

After alighting from a tour bus on the outskirts of downtown Swakopmund, I was approached by a friendly local ready to engage in conversation. Not wanting to be a nasty American, I engaged him. He asked my name...very civilized, I thought. But then, he asked how my name was spelled. This should have set off the skepticism trigger. It did not. Before I knew it, the guy was carving my name on a nut. Now, the nut was just not only old nut. It was a Malakani nut, already bearing carvings of local wildlife. I knew that as soon as the Malakani nut was emblazoned with my name, it would be rendered worthless to anyone not named "Laura" (and worthless to anyone whose name is," for that matter). I tried to stop him after the letter "L", but the fix was in. The nut was mine. He asked for 150 Namibian dollars ($15US); I told him, truthfully, that all I had was 50 N$.  Thus, I became the reluctant recipient of a custom-carved Malakani nut, which, unfornutly (sic) I cannot re-gift, as I do not know anyone else named Laura. 

The Malakani nut was bad enough, but the worse was yet to come. Our guide had told us the woeful tale of the poor craft vendors who had been ejected from a prime market spot and were now relegated to an out-of-the-way area. Consider my heartstrings fiddled with. So, over to the market I went, my sympathy evoked and my knowledge of local pricing deficient.

Here's a tip: Before shopping in a street market or a souk, visit local stores to get a sense of what things cost. 

The vendors were very aggressive...annoyingly so. Usually, I try to avoid such sales tactics, but the fact is, the moment I left one vendor, the next would accost me. So, I let them run on with their spiels, without making a purchase. But finally, a guy named Victor showed me his "hand-made" figures and i espied an adorable pink hippo. Victor picked the hippo up, showing me an underbelly carved with the name "Victor" (perhaps the Malakani nut carver had attacked his bloat of hippos).  At any rate, Victor, seeing my interest, starting the bargaining at 950 N$ ($95) for the palm-sized piece. You gotta hand it to these crafty Namibians; when they go for the rip-off, they go big. 

Fortunately, even with my dearth of knowledge, I knew this seemed excessive. It was also fortunate that I had very little money with me, and what I did have was in small bills. This is another fine tip--when going to a market to bargain, bring small bills and do not carry them on one clump.  When I first bargained down, I told him I would have to go to the ATM if he wanted, say 250 N$. Not wanting to let a sale slip away,  he asked me what I had. I pulled out a 100 N$ and a 50 N$. That was all I had, sans change. He did manage to wangle a little more change out of me, and the pink hippo was mine for $17 US. 

Next, I ventured into town, where I discovered two things. One, these happy hippos were everywhere. This meant that unless Victor was one busy artist, he had not, in fact, done anything to the hippo except impale it with his Malakani carving utensil. But, I noted, hippos of a similar size cost $15-$18 in stores, so I was happy as a hippo...until  I heard from a fellow traveler that she had bought a hippo in the same market for $7. Later, I noticed hippos in stores around the country costing between $8-$10. Even though my hippo was a female, and thus a cow, I had no doubt my deal was bull. 

I grant you, on the scale of international rip-offs, this ranks pretty low on the list. Plus, one cannot feel too bad about overpaying in such cases, as the vendors are most certainly poor and appreciative of every dollar (and every sucker). But still, one hates encouraging sales tactics that rip off the unwary --and wary--tourist alike. But at least no one was hurt in the transaction and I am now the not-so-proud owner of a pink hippo and a Malakani nut.

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