The old man waved beaded bracelets and necklaces as us. We were having lunch at la Palapa and a tasty red snapper was demanding my attention. I couldn’t have cared less about the beads. In fact, I was irritated by the interruption— by the constant interruptions as one after another street/beach vendor rudely shook his or her wares at us, demanding our attention and dollars.
But the face of the old man— the deep wrinkles and lines, the scraggly whiskers, the cloudy eyes: the character— it caught me. I broke out my camera and ten pesos. I wasn’t going to buy trinkets; I was paying for a likeness, a reflection of life and how hard it can be, but also capturing a certain beauty, won by years of struggle.
Puerto Vallarta is a tourist town. Its primary source of income is the thousands of people who are disgorged weekly from airplanes and giant cruise ships. The challenge, from a purely economic perspective, is how to sort the visitors from their cash before they leave, to get a piece of the action. Hustle is the name of the game, from the small girl selling Chiclets for pennies to the timeshare salesperson selling future vacations for 25 thousand dollars. The small girl has only her haunted eyes to push her product; the timeshare salesman has a whole arsenal of half-truths and a tenacity that would put a tick to shame.
(While I write this post, I realize that it will be published on Black Friday, the day that America’s merchants are desperately hoping to sort Americans from their cash. When I turn the TV on, it is one continuous ad— marketers rudely shaking their products in our faces with half-truths that would put a timeshare salesman to shame.)
An hour of relaxing on the beautiful Banderas Bay beach in front of the Krystal Hotel is like an hour lesson in basic capitalism. Beach vendors are specialists. Whether you need a shirt, a dress, a hat, a ring, a necklace, a tattoo, a trip, a cigar, a massage, a woodcarving, a drink, dark glasses, a blanket, or food (or not), someone will be there to sell it to you. The hat man has hats perched on top of his head as high as they will go. The blanket sales vendor a stack of blankets a yard thick. The henna tattoo guy comes at you with a book of tattoos to pick from. Will it be a Harley or a harlot? A polite, no gratias, usually sends them all on their way, at least for the moment. But show a bit of interest and they descend like buzzards, ready to pick your wallet, if not your bones, clean.
Peggy is the shopper in our family. She bought a small turtle, iguana, and beaded eggs from a Huichol artist, two gorgeous tablecloths at the Municipal Market, and a silver necklace from a beach vendor. Peggy had recognized the beach vendor from years past.
“Do you remember my name?” he asked. “It’s Felix, like in Felix the Cat. Meow.” I particularly liked the meow and meowed back. While Felix was entertaining us with his patter, he had opened his box of silver jewelry. Peggy showed a spark of interest in two necklaces. “Which do you like?” Peggy asked, turning to me. Felix knew he had her. “I’ll sell you both for 1400 pesos,” he offered. “Too much,” Peggy responded. “How much will you pay?” he asked. We had entered the negotiation stage. The general rule of thumb is about 50% of the asking price. Vendors double the price, and add a bit for profit. We ended up only buying one and paying too much. Felix left with a large smile.
Large public markets are a step up from the beach in terms of sheer quantity. A walk through the Municipal Market (Mercado Municipal) will introduce you to dozens of vendors, each with his or her own space packed to the ceiling. All are trying to entice you in. “I make you good deal.” “Half price.” “Almost free.” “Look will cost you nothing.” “Two for one happy hour cost.” And on and on, over and over. One vendor on the Rio Cuale asked, “Want to buy some junk?” It was a welcome and humorous change.
My friend Ken Lake and I were wandering through the market at the seaport while Peggy and Leslie were having massages when we received a different offer. Ken was using the line, “We have to wait for our wives,” to put off vendors.
A rather short and squat, older woman responded, “Who needs wives? I have a sister. Only $50. I have two sisters, one for each of you.”
“For $50,” I asked as Ken made a hasty retreat. “No, no. $50 each,” she insisted as the eyed the rapidly disappearing Lake. “You could have two at once. Much fun.” She said laughing. “Mañana,” I responded as I hurried to catch my friend before he disappeared.
The most intriguing market, it turns out, was right across from our hotel. We had visited years earlier and I hadn’t been impressed. This time was different. Peggy, Ken and Leslie had gone across the road for a visit while I was working on a blog. She came back saying I had to go. Turns out, the place is a huge furniture market, with the furniture being made on site. But that’s only the beginning. It’s an interior decorators dream, packed with thousands of items. I walked around in awe for two hours, going from room to room. And there was no pressure to buy. Not one salesperson approached us unless we had a question. I was so appreciative I was tempted to buy a 20 foot table as a thank you.
NEXT BLOG: The fine art of shape shifting in Mexico. Jaguars are really popular when it comes to turning yourself into an animal. What would you become?