Friday, September 5, 2014

Paradise or Pirate Port?

It's so hard to know if you're getting taken advantage of when in a foreign land. The usual clues, like misinformation or a weird smile, can often be chalked up to language and cultural barriers. When I find myself in situations like these, I prefer to give the locals the benefit of the doubt, especially when it the result doesn't present a financial or physical hardship.


Other people, though, I have noticed sometimes react with anger, sadness or indignation holding firm to the belief that locals should feel privileged to be visited by westerners and should therefore treat us as they would treat an honored guest. I do not share this belief. Instead, I often feel proud of locals who maximize their own fortune when besotted with tourists like myself. In a world with disparities in wealth and power such that I can travel nearly anywhere I wish while inhabitants of the places I visit can rarely afford to leave their hometowns much less gain permission travel to the USA, I feel it is their due to make the most of their situation.

You might be wondering what spurred this rant, given all my previous posts about the beauty and peacefulness of Tonga... Well, travel isn't without its difficult moments and awkwardness and despite being paradise Tonga isn't sheltered from these realities.

It all started when I was admiring the handicrafts at the market in Neiafu. The intricately woven baskets caught my eye (surprise) and as I picked up one to inspect the workmanship, the lady manning the shop informed me that she had made the lovely basket in my hands. I turned the basket over, looking for a price, finding none. "Free!" I jokingly thought to myself.

Instead of asking for the price, I voiced my desire to learn how to make such beautiful weavings. The woman smiled and shared that she had been teaching an American woman all week to make this type of basket and that she could teach me too. I was delighted and asked after the cost of the lessons and when she would be available to teach me. By this point, I'd been joined by Cheri whose sailboat I was staying on. We agreed to meet on Friday at 10am at her stall, pay $20 Pangan ($12) per person and bring all the friends we wanted.

When Friday came, Cheri and I were joined by two other western women and one of their 9 year old daughters. The local weaver, Bianeta, laid out a cloth on the concrete floor of the market between the tables where her baskets and those of a friend where on display. We lowered ourselves to the hard ground, took off our shoes and sat cross-legged, waiting for the instruction to begin. Bianeta handed out pre-started basket centers and showed us how to weave in the pandanus leaves to continue the basic weaving pattern. In a few minutes we were weaving away, slowly but surely picking up the simple stitch and then learning how to add in extra reeds to maintain the stiffness of the work as it wound round and round, enlarging the piece as we persisted.

My pre-started weaving, reeds coming out towards the left and pandanus leaf making the next stitch.

Occasionally when one of us would spot an error in our work, Bianeta or one of her friends would fix our weaving and return it to us. But for the most part, we were just enjoying the quiet company of each other and the local weavers as we worked along. After about an hour, the young girl decided she was done and her mother paid Bianeta $20 Pangan, packed up the 3" unfinished coaster-like weaving and left. Cheri, our friend Caroline and I continued for another hour after which we planned to get lunch.

A glimpse of our group, weaving away with the help of kind local women.

As we wrapped up our second hour, I asked Bianeta if I could get supplies to finish my project and she happily said yes. Then it was time to pay. I asked how much I owed, assuming the supplies cost extra. I was surprised to hear that the price was $20 Pangan per hour plus another $20 for the supplies, so $60 Pangan ($36 US) in total. It was double what I was expecting but I paid anyway without argument as it wasn't going to put much of a dent in our savings and I had enjoyed myself. But Cheri and Caroline were a little less comfortable with the new price. Cheri felt bad that she'd told her friend it was a flat rate of $20 Pangan for the lesson and Caroline felt the price was too high for what we'd gotten. That's when the awkwardness ensued. Bianeta held firm to her price, and eventually Cheri paid and we left Caroline to settle up her account while we went off to lunch.

A sampling of the supplies I took home. Top to bottom: pandanus leaves cut thin for weaving, uncut pandanus leaves curled up, and reeds made from coconut fronds.

Later we learned that Caroline had voiced her discomfort with the price and had negotiated a price of $50 for a handcrafted basket made by Bianeta with the lessons thrown into the deal and no supplies to go. She left upset by the interaction and feeling like Bianeta had tried to treat her unfairly. I felt bad for Caroline and didn't want to her be unhappy, yet I still felt positive about our weaving adventure.

Sometimes when I travel with other people, I find myself wondering why I experience things so differently than them. Introspection is helpful in these situations and I eventually settled on the following as the explanation for why I was content with how things had gone:

  1. The basketweaving lesson was my idea, not that of a pushy salesman
  2. I had learned a new skill taught to me by a friendly local
  3. I only spent $36, including supplies to continue crafting for hours back on the boat
  4. A two-hour basket weaving class costs at least $100 in the United States, supplies not included

I believe paradise is in the eye of beholder. And I choose to believe that Tonga is paradise, basketweaving lessons included.


1 comment:

  1. I love Tongan baskets. Austin and I have one that is 25 years old (in very ratty shape) holding the prayer books - did you notice it while you were here?