Thursday, October 20, 2011

The real market in action -- buying and selling betel nut in Kavieng

by Geoffrey Heard
The main Kavieng bus stop, a scene of somnolence at eight o’clock on the inevitable hot, sunny morning, with a couple of dozen passengers scattered around, a mini-bus pulling in and out now and again, and a notable event being the arrival of a 25 seater school bus, is hardly the place you expect to see naked libertarian capitalism in action, the market red in tooth and claw.
But that is exactly what I did see while waiting for the Medina bus with my grand-daughter, Shirin.
We were idly chatting with a street betel nut vendor (Shirin was buying and chewing a bit too), a substantial woman named Beryl with a relaxed sense of humor sitting cross legged on an empty rice bag with her “maket”, her stall, in front of her. Her little stall was nothing grander than another empty rice bag spread out on the ground and on it, the buai (boo-eye) makings -- a couple of dozen betel nuts, some daka (pepper), and containers of kambang (lime). For the uninitiated, you chew all three together which turns red in your mouth and provides anything from mild stimulation if you spit out he juice to significant intoxication if you swallow.
In addition, she was selling cigarettes individually from a packet.
Suddenly, in the midst of a remark, this mild mannered woman uttered a sharp exclamation, seemingly levitated to her feet, and in a single step was sprinting hard past us abandoning customers and market! When we recovered from our startle, we looked for the whatever had stimulated this mad action. It turned out to be a mini-bus that was pulling into the back of the bus stop.
Our vendor was not alone in targeting the bus. It was a clearly a race with a dozen others competing, some of whom had already reached the bus and were clammering at the “botskru” (boat’s crew, the driver’s assistant) who was scrambling out of the passenger door and up on to the roof rack even before the bus completely halted.
Supplies of fresh betel nut had arrived from villages down the road and every street vendor within reach of the bus stop was hot footing in to grab a share.
Failure meant no stock to sell and no income. Nothing. Nada.
There was perhaps five minutes of frantic bidding before handfuls of money changed hands, the winners took possession of their purchases, and the losers returned disconsolately to their stalls or just a seat in the shade while they waited for the next arrival of stock.
Beryl was triumphant. I’m not sure how much she spent, but it clearly was a very significant amount compared with the few kina worth of offerings she had on her mean stall, and she had secured a lot more than her fair share -- two and a half bags plus a big bunch of nuts. Since betel nut is in short supply in Kavieng at the moment (three for a Kina, and not particularly big nuts at that) and there is unrelenting demand, she was assured of a profitable day.
But what of the losers? More supplies will arrive from time to time during the day, so there will be other opportunities. Their chances of winning are better too; the first winners like Beryl are out of the race for the rest of the day -- the stock they have on hand is too valuable to leave unattended and in any case, they have to walk home in the afternoon and take their stock with them. They don't want to have more than they can carry.

And in any case, this is paradise. Betel nut might be selling at K1 for three, but for the same money, you can buy enough bananas to feed a substantial family. Market libertarianism might rule the buai market, but the good earth ensures nobody starves.

Which is why this little bit of market libertarianism can work but not be destructive.  ###
This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2011.
The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

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