Pipe Dreams

Temples dot the countryside like sprinkles on a doughnut topping. They number in the thousands, but in fact only a fraction remains of the total from an earlier time. Buddhist in their orientation, they represent the efforts of generations of families to demonstrate thanksgiving and acknowledge blessings received in their lives. That is a worthy effort whatever one’s faith orientation. Their devotion was on full display as we sailed down the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. Daily stops along its banks presented opportunities to explore these and other interesting structures, each with its own story representing some facet of history. Much of this area is rural and extremely rustic. At least once, our vessel docked by tying a rope around a small, partially uprooted tree that frankly, I wouldn’t have trusted to support my own weight.

At one such stop we walked a dusty path up from the river to a small clearing where, of course, we were greeted by an entrepreneurial pack of locals who were delighted by dreams of sales opportunities thanks to our arrival. One young girl among the vendors, whose name I never understood, fell in step with me and began her pitch. “Where was I from?” she asked. “What was my name? Would I like to see her wares? No? Okay maybe later.” That last statement wasn’t a question. I knew our encounter had not concluded. I remained polite but insistent. I was not interested in purchasing any of her items.

Horse drawn carts awaited us a bit further up the path. That, I thought, would rescue me from this prolonged sales pitch. I was wrong. It is not as though I could tell our driver to “step on it” and speed away.  For one thing, we were traveling as a group. Plus, a horse drawn cart on a bumpy road is not fast transportation and isn’t well-known for its shock absorbers!  A faster pace would have likely pounded me to death unless I traveled with a personal chiropractor!  As we started down the road, my new best friend pulled a bicycle from the weeds and proceeded to follow along behind us. No, as it turned out the cart would not deliver me but rather hold me out like a carrot on a stick. Unless she had to be home for lunch or lacked the endurance to go the distance, our encounter was far from over.

To her credit, she maintained the conversation as we bounced down the road, always returning to the subject of her wares. Truth be told there was a particular old, unique looking pipe in her collection that had caught my eye, but I don’t smoke or collect pipes so probably didn’t need to find a place for that in my luggage. I tried to change the subject. “Is your village nearby? What countries visit this area? Are some nationalities better customers than others? How many languages did she speak?” To the last question she answered “About a dozen.” She wasn’t certain. Now slightly jealous, I asked her to name them. Spanish made her list, so I changed languages figuring if I was stuck in this conversation I may as well take advantage of the opportunity to practice. To my surprise and delight she had a wide ranging vocabulary, used correct verb tenses, and spoke quite fluently. I was beginning to enjoy this encounter, though I still wasn’t interested in purchasing a souvenir.

Our cart arrived at our destination where we were scheduled to explore an old, historic temple site. I said good bye to my new Spanish partner. She smiled and said, “Maybe later,” as my wife and I disappeared inside the compound. I was a little relieved to be rid of the situation. She was one very persistent salesperson and a little annoying, sort of like a fly that insists on buzzing a picnic. You understand that a fly is just being a fly. That is what flies do. Still, you’d like to enjoy your sandwich without interruption; but the fly would like to nibble on your lunch as well.

When we stepped inside to visit the site I thought, “Finally. She won’t be there when we return.” After milling around for an hour or so, our group returned to the shady grove where our horses and drivers waited patiently. Apparently my little entrepreneur had nowhere else to be either, for there she stood among the trees, eyes fixed on the exit gate, waiting for her prey like a spider in a web. Her face lit up when she spotted me; mine probably did not reciprocate!

She was perceptive as well as persistent, for she had noticed my interest in the pipe. “You like this pipe.” she stated. “I can let you have it for $40.” That was not going to happen and I politely told her so. The most I’d give her if I were interested, which I wasn’t, was $20. I wasn’t trying to stiff her and I don’t negotiate just to see how low I can drive a price. I figure in most cases those few dollars mean more to their budget than they do to mine. But still, I try not to waste money or be taken advantage of by inflated prices. Twenty dollars felt like a right price.

My enterprising friend countered with lower prices but I refused to budge. My first price was my best offer, I insisted, though I could sense that with each price reduction I wanted the pipe a little more. A few more counteroffers from her brought the cost down to $25, at which point she became insistent that this was as low as she would go. To sweeten the pot she offered to add a bracelet from her collection.  I had no need for that, and my wife doesn’t wear bracelets.

“Both for $25,” she offered.

“No, really,” I said. “Thank you, but keep the bracelet and take $20 for the pipe.” Her resistance to that idea was almost palpable. This had become a negotiation and it was moving more slowly than the horse carts. Finally, I said, “So help me understand why you’d add a second item for the same price as the one item, but would rather risk losing the sale than sell the single item for the lower price I am offering.”

Her reply? “I can’t give it to you for $20. The person who supplies me requires $20 for the pipe. If I sell it at that price I earn nothing.”

That was new and perhaps privileged information. Sometimes just a dribble of additional details is all that is needed to lubricate a stalemate. This was one of those times. The last thing I wanted was to deprive her of her livelihood. That she should invest a couple hours and bike all that distance for nothing was her decision and I would have been content to buy nothing, but if I were going to buy something I would not want to deprive her of a profit. I thanked her for honesty. I still didn’t want to give more than $20 for the pipe because it is important that we all learn to trust our inner guide on these matters, but the conversation had been rich, enjoyable, and educational in a variety of ways. Now feeling some connection with this person whom I would never see again I said to her, “Here is what I’m willing to do. I’ll give you $25. $20 is for the pipe. $5 is for the Spanish conversation. And I’ll accept your bracelet as a gift.” She was quite agreeable to that proposal. Few things are as satisfying as when a third way opens in the midst of a stalemate and both parties are eager to say yes!

I think about that experience from time to time. First and foremost, though her face is etched into my memory and confirmed by my photograph, I wish I had understood and remembered her name. Beyond that, the memory illustrates how just a little time and conversation builds connection and empathy. What began as a raw economic transaction developed into something more. At the end of the day it was probably all dollars and cents to her, but for me it helped make clear a few of my personal ground rules when dealing with others. At the very minimum is the reminder that my goals and needs don’t stand alone in a transaction. The other party has their goals and needs as well.

Who among us, if we have any hope of being decent human beings, would take advantage of another person merely because we wanted a little more for ourselves? Well, honestly, that is one of the larger challenges of our day! It causes aggression between nations, feuds among friends, and schisms within families. If we are all created in the image of God or even if we only all occupy the same air space, there are good reasons for being cognizant of and even respectful of those various points of view. Failure to do so leads to all manner of exploitation and oppression, which in turn contributes to pain and suffering, which understandably produces anger which, when pent up will eventually finds ways to relieve itself. Is it any wonder there is so much conflict in the world?

Whenever I recall this exchange, it reminds me that sometimes details we might normally categorize as no one else’s business help others see things in a new light. Haggling over a few dollars is one thing; reducing to a level so low the other is deprived of the essentials they need is a bit like cutting a fingernail to the quick. It makes me wonder how much better would our world be if we were able to be open and frank about what was at stake for us in various conversations where we find ourselves alone, representing our best interests. It reminds me of an occasion when we had a friend over for dinner for a second time. When we asked if he wanted a second serving of anything, he immediately answered yes, and followed that by saying the first time he came to dinner he made the mistake of saying “no” when we asked that question and we immediately cleared the table. He had wanted more on that occasion as well, but in his culture a guest always refuses multiple times before finally giving in to the host’s insistence. At our house, we’re more of “let your yea be yea and your nay be nay” kind of place. We’ll ask you once and accept your word as truth. Somehow we have to learn to break through the cultural crust that misdirects well-intended conversations.

Isn’t it funny the things that make lasting impressions? I remember much more about the conversation that led to the purchase of a pipe than I do the temple we traveled to see that day. It just goes to show that a little time, conversation, and effort are the foundation of lasting memories. As they used to say back home when making a point they thought was worth pondering: “So put that in your pipe and smoke it!”

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