Those readers of this blog that have helped fund our adventure will be glad to know that both Chris and I are careful with money. Which is the nice way to say it. Others might prefer the terms “scrooge” or “stingy.”
We have worked hard to earn our reputation. We never go to a breakfast buffet without also grabbing food for lunch, and we always bring our own peanuts to the bar. When a bus we took back from the Himalayas dropped us off on a New Delhi street corner at 3 AM a winter morning, we did not rent a hotel room. Instead, we went to an all-night outdoor café, where Chris and his girlfriend and I dogpiled against the freezing cold and slept on a ragged couch. In Uzbekistan, when we went to go to see the ancient fortress of Kiwa, we did not pay the 15 dollars to go see the monuments. We contented ourselves to blend into European tour groups, seeing those monuments we could sneak into and skipping those we could not. I tell these stories with pride.
The problem arises when we disagree on expenses. Chris and I share a bank account. Chris is stingier than I (as he admits). I have had to learn to absorb his venomous glances whenever I order something that isn’t the cheapest item on the menu. I sigh and go along when we pick a different restaurant over a one dollar difference in dish prices. But our spending ideologies really came to a head when we went shopping to get me a sweater.
The setting was Luqu, a truck stop outpost in the highlands of China’s Gansu province. In early October, with winter’s first cold front sweeping Central China, it was freezing. The 40 kilometers of downhill that had ended the ride that day took me to the edge of the hypothermia.
Buying a sweater was not a difficult mission in Luqu. There were many stores that sold clothing. Some were clothing stores, with goods presented on racks and tacky LED mood lighting in the ceiling. Others were village general stores, where one could buy a screwdriver or some sugar or, occasionally, a sweater.
The first store we passed was an outdoor clothing store, which sold Chinese knockoffs of the North Face and Jack Wolfskin. I started to cross the street towards it. Chris stopped me in my tracks.
“Naw, man. That’s going to be way too pricey.”
I relented. He was probably right. There was a budget, which we had never discussed but was understood, of 100 yuan (16 dollars) for this sweater. I viewed this as a guideline- that is to say, 100 yuan unless we discovered a garment that was not cheap Chinese crap and I might wear past the next few nights camping. Chris seemed to view this as an absolute.
Chris guides me into a general store, which had an eclectic variety of shirts and shawls hanging from the ceiling on wire coat hangers. Nothing there. I take us to a clothing store, which has something that kind of works but is double our budget. We continue like this down the road, visiting more of the general stores, digging through piles of clothing next to bins of flashlights and alarm clocks. No sweaters.
Then we came across the shopping plaza, the crux of the Chinese town. There were LED signs everywhere and gaudy street lamps that were rip offs of Europe, except with many more bulbs. There, we found what we were looking for—a line of clothing stores that each tried to fit as much cloth as possible into their tiny storefronts. They would surely have cheap sweaters.
It was in the second of these that I rediscovered a quality I have long known and admired in my travel buddy—Chris has very little vanity. At that moment, though, it made him an unwieldy shopping partner. He parted the sea of clothing and pulled out a purple cotton v-neck, with a faux suede lining and a graphic of a dead fish on the front.
“How about this one? It’s only 80 yuan.”
I swallowed my horror. I tried hard to think of a reason why this sweater wouldn’t work that Chris would accept. Couldn’t find one. As an instrument of warmth, the sweater was viable.
Chris sensed the engine of my reasoning.
“I don’t get why you’re so picky! It’s just an underlayer.”
I preferred not to venture into the logic of my vanity (it does not hold up well in debate), so I shrugged and suggested we try the next store. There I found what I was looking for. A collared black sweater, thick cotton, thin cut with a zipper that came down to the chest. Classic and versatile.
I asked how much it was. 150 yuan. This was undoubtedly the foreigner price, but seemed acceptable to me.
“I’m getting it,” I announced as I inspected myself in the mirror.
Chris bit his upper lip and looked at me with scorn. Finally he sighed and turned to the salesman.
“130 yuan.” The finality in his voice implied a ceiling, and the salesman simply nodded.
After we paid and left, warmer, I couldn’t help but thank that Chris was there. We tend to agree on almost all our expenses, but the pain point on money is higher for Chris than I. That has saved us a lot of money this trip. Chris always gets the better deal.