“Mad Dog Writer” seeks that one special person. Is it you?

Sorry girls, but this is not a thousand-word personal ad dressed up as a column. That is bad news for all you babes who cannot resist hairless middle-aged nerds with mismatched socks and a history of unmedicated bipolarity. Instead, I am seeking one special person, not for romantic companionship but to satisfy my curiosity. This individual is not marked by taste in the opposite sex that is bad, but rather by luck in the marketplace that is even worse.

That would be the one person in Guatemala who is never offered discounts (rebajas) when he (or she, but let us assume it is a guy) shops.

By consensus among everyone in Central America with something to sell, this person’s identity is secret. But it ain’t me or anyone who I have been with during my 22 years down here. Reader, if this person is you, please write me and tell me how you acquired this markedness. Your secret will be safe with me, and you will save me some lost sleep.

Probably, though, it is not you. But you still know what I am talking about. Let us say you are in Panajachel (my hometown), although you could as easily be in La Antigua, Ilobasco, or even the row of car-rental agencies near the airport that has its own parking lot.

Now Pana’s Calle Santander is clogged with more típico sellers than you can shake a medium pizza at. So you go there, spot a faja or some other cool item, and ask the price. They tell you, “50 quetzales – 45 con rebaja.”

OK, the good news is that you do not belong to that minority of one who must pay Q50 instead of Q45. Of course, the theory has been advanced that this minority does not really exist, and that such a response to faja-browsing is really a way of saying that prices are negotiable. But I do not believe it for a moment.

I have long hoped to locate the individual who is subjected to this discrimination, because doing so would be a journalistic scoop (or possibly the theme for another lame column). So years ago I queried a British expert on Guatemala, Michael Henshaw.

“Just who,” I asked him, “is the bloke who never gets rebajas?”
Henshaw usually has a quick answer, but this question gave him some pause.
“Anyone with a badge, I suppose,” he speculated.

Well, I will not explore here the significance of the badge. But for some time I have been tempted to test it. Toy badges abound. You can buy Chinese cheapo “Super-Police-Agent-Special” kits with fake pistol, fake handcuffs, and fake badge for Q9.99. See what I mean? There is a built-in discount here, too. That way, when you open the package, and the gun, cuffs and badge begin to disintegrate from exposure to the air, you can say, “whew—I could have spent Q10 for this!”

But, again, I am seeking the guy who, when he brings “Super-Police-Agent-Special” to the cashier, really does have to pay Q10. And, again, that is never me, so I guess that even if I were a little short this month, I could do the experiment thus:

I would visit every place on Santander selling Q50 fajas, and show interest. When they say to me, “Q45 con rebaja” or “berry especial price jass por joo,” I would smile and point to my Chinese-made badge. Then the seller might look at me and say, “pues, Q50!” Then I would know that Henshaw was on to something.

You will be disappointed, reader, to know that I have not carried out this experiment. It smacks too closely of the scene in Take the Money and Run where Woody Allen “threatens” a bank teller by dangling a pistol by the butt (like some new father changing a diaper for the first time) and saying meekly, “uh, I have a gun.” Gringos in Panajachel spend, on average, 59 years in a state of probation to demonstrate our sanity to our Guatemalan neighbors. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, “Better not to don a fake badge and be thought an idiot, than to don one and remove all doubt.”

Admittedly, prices are more negotiable in some places than others. And that opening rebaja certainly flags those places where prices are fluid. Indeed, some visitors to Central America arrive with an appetite to do something that even has its own name in the language: regatear. Among the approximations for this in English are to bargain, to dicker over, whatever. As the son of a car dealer, I learned early in life about the verb, to grind. Literally translated into Spanish, this is molinar. Yet for car salesmen, this had nothing to do with what Sampson did with a millstone after Gazans blinded him.

Grinding was the term applied to the most persistent and intractable of bargainers. After three days in a row of wearing down the salesmen and their managers, exhausting everyone’s patience, the “grinder” was finally (or so it was hoped) ready to sign. But with the pen hovering over the contract, he withdrew and said, “I still think my Pinto with only 79,000 miles is worth another grand in trade.” That, reader, was grinding. Perhaps one of these grinders is the one person destined never to get rebajas. Poetic justice, and all that.

Personally, I do not enjoy regateando. I could wish that everything just had a good price to begin with. But if you enjoy it, more power to you. Your trip may not be complete without it. But never grind. Never forget that the faja was hand-embroidered, and it took a long time to make. The seller may be sufficiently worn down by day’s end just to give it to you—and I do mean give—for the price of a ride home on the chicken bus. But do not go that far.

And if you really are that bloke who never gets rebajas, step forward. Get it off your chest.

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