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The Bargain Tree Hunter

If you plan on walking into a department store this week and dropping Rp 3.2 million on a six-foot tall fake Christmas tree, don’t read this story.

But if Christmas tree haggling is something you pride yourself on, if you look at the whole thing more like Christmas tree hunting than shopping, by all means read on.

The Christmas tree hunt in Indonesia is an adventure in and of itself. You trek back and forth across the city following dead leads from strangers on Twitter and stringing together half-baked phone conversations with guys like Yosep, who happens to have a dozen overpriced Christmas trees and an army of ducks behind his house in Kembangan in East Jakarta. Think of it like trying to find a pack of Super Mie in Iowa. It’s the thrill of the hunt.

You might start off on the fourth floor of a department store scoffing at the price tags of the fake trees before convincing yourself to check out the selection of real trees along Dharmawangsa Raya, Jalan Arteri in Kebon Jeruk or Jalan Gerbang Pemuda, behind Gelora Bung Karno, before decided you want to “Go Green” and buy a plastic tree only to end up somewhere in the heart of Glodok, in a shop that looks like it doubles as an opium den, buttering up an ancient saleswoman who swears up and down that fake trees are supposed to look like they’re made of green pipe cleaners.

It’s about the thrill of the hunt. It’s about the back-and-forth. Crossing and re-crossing your arms. Scratching your head. The narrowing of the gaze. Pacing back and forth. It’s a lot like poker, it involves patience and you have to do your research. You can’t just rock up to the first Christmas toko you see and expect to grab a good deal. You have to coax. You have to compliment. You have to have patience.

Any chump can walk into a department store and drop $300 on a plastic tree. The kind of guy who does that is the same guy who tells the Blue Bird Driver to “just keep it,” when the cabby turns his head and tells him he doesn’t have change for a Rp. 100,000.

But it takes more than moxie to head down to Mangga Dua and stand toe-to-toe with some of the best businesswomen or men in the city.

It’s a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon. To see if you still got it. You may continually brag to your wife about your business acumen after getting the kids to bed last night without a fight, but if you can walk away with a 7-foot tree that doesn’t look like it survived AIDS or a tornado for Rp. 700,000. You deserve that tie your kids are going to buy you again this year.

So, it’s good to say very little when you enter the Christmas tree Thunderdome. You just might learn something. It’s all sales. And this is not their first rodeo.

This is a list of the things I heard at the shops I visited:

“Why do you even want to buy a tree? There are a bunch of big trees over by the river. We could just go chop off one of the branches and you could wrap lights around that.”

“Look, I get paid Rp. 350,000 a month, if I give you anything more than 45 percent off [a tree that retailed for Rp. 3.5 million] they’ll take it out of my salary.”

“I know it doesn’t look like it’s 7-feet tall, but it is. I promise.”

“This tree is from Taiwan, that’s why it’s expensive. If it was from China I could give you a better deal.”

“Come here and smell this.”

“I’ve been working here for a month and I’ve already sold 727 trees. I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“I don’t know if there are other shops that sell Christmas trees. I just come here every morning and do whatever that guy over there tells me to do.”

“Look, either buy the tree or don’t. I could care less.”

How much can you know about yourself if you avert your gaze every time it comes to bargaining? But it’s more important than not being the sucker. It’s about knowing the city you live in. Knowing where to go when you need something. If you haven’t braved the basement of Mangga Dua on a Saturday afternoon you haven’t lived. Same goes for Glodok. I didn’t walk away with a tree the day I was down there, but I did find plenty of stocking stuffers: fireworks, a guy selling a tarsir, a cage full of cobras and an alarmingly high array of methamphetamine pipes.

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