I HAVE LONG been captivated by stories of the exotic markets - of Timbuktu, were sheiks were serenaded by camel bells in the dusk outside their tents as they traded salt for gold, pound for pound; of 18th-century Shanghai, where silk-costumed merchants luxuriated over tea, exchanging ounce for ounce.
While these stories fed my imagination and led me to wander wide-eyed through the bazaars of Marrakech, Istanbul and Cuzco, they offered me no help on how to barter. Ancient traders exchanged their goods measure for measure. In today's marketplace, the shopkeeper and I have to determine our own rates of exchange.
I quickly discovered that I was at a distinct disadvantage. Intricately beaded dresses, hand-carved masks, amber vases - I had no idea what these items should cost, and yet the seller knew their worth within the centavo. It is true that the adventure and novelty of haggling is part of the foreign experience and may, indeed, be its own reward. It is far more fun, however, ehen you don't think you've just "been had."
Nothing is more humiliating than showing off a blanket bought for $20 to a fellow traveler who smugly replies that he bought a similar one that morning for $10. The blanket no longer represents native craft and a successful exchange. It becomes a souvenir of your guillibility, and you'd almost rather leave it behind and forget the whole experience.
We American travelers, for some reason, believe ourselves possessed of a natural expertise in everything from pouring concrete to abstract impressionism. Bartering is no exception. Despite this conceit, we often find ourselves ingenuous and ill-equipped when dealing with the crafts of foreign vendors. Ten cents each or three for a quarter just doesn't reflect the complexity and ingenuity of the foreign markets.
Guidebooks offer little help on the subject. In the 1977 edition of "Europe on $10 a Day," Frommer pointed out that the starting price of Moroccan merchants was roughly four times what one should end up paying. What happened was predictable. Two weeks after the book was published, every vendor worth his cous-cous was quoting prices with more imaginative multiples, from which he would make a theatrical retreat to 75 percent off. So much for rules of thumb.
Until there opens a Berlitz School for Bartering, it remains an art learned through hard knocks and apprenticeship. In my travels I have collected both bruises and insights, along with souvenir crafts and stories of my grandchildren. The tales and techniques may help the novice barterer.
There is a difference between bartering and shopping. Bartering is a social exchange between buyer and seller. In the native culture it is not a bother or a waste of time, but is like Americans meeting for a cup of coffee and a chat. In shopping, the point is to buy the most or best for the least amount of money. If self-service makes it cheaper, then all the better. In bartering, the ritual of bargaining is as important as what is bought. Style, pride, appreciation of quality - all play as important a part as price.
Many travelers have spent afternoons stumbling down cobblestone side streets and up jungle paths in search of good, native-priced merchandise, only to discover that it was not available. The reason you may not find a first-quality Berber blanket in Morocco is the same reason that you cannot get choice artichokes in Castroville, Calif. - by contract, the best are all exported. For an authentic Berber blanket, you may do better in a Frankfurt department store.
More often than not, however, local crafts and products are available in the marketplace. Once you know what you are in the market for, you may do well to remember these tips:
Ask other travelers. If you see a gringo with a native craft that you want, ask where he bought it and how much he paid. Invariably, you are inviting a story that wants to be told. Although he may deflate the price somewhat, you should regard the figure as a ceiling.
Pick the inside markets. Stalls on the outer fringes of the bazaar are naturally more "touristy" and higher priced. Numb your civil upbringing and treat yourself to the delights of the inner labryinths. You will be greeted along the way with "guten tag," "bon jour," "hello," "buenos dias" as vendors try to figure out your nationality.
Do as the natives do. Shop where they shop. Notice what they pay. You may notice that in Arab marketplaces money is rarely passed hand to hand. Traditionally, selling is prohibited by the Islam faith. A gift of money is exchanged for a gift of a scarf or a pair of scandals. The money is set down to the side and is picked up only after the customer leaves.But unless you are Moslem, expect to barter; the modern Arab is among the most aggressive barterers in the world.
Prices of staples such as food are rarely negotiable. If a vendor selling bananas chooses to quote a higher price to you than he just did to a native, you have the choice of buying or moving on.
In shops where prices of goods are marked on tags, it is widely assumed that they are fixed. It is worth risking the insult to the shopkeeper by asking "how firm" the prices are. The length of the shopkeeper's hesitation is a good measure of your relative bargaining power. If he hesitates, barter.
Shop late in the day. Hope makes for a fine breakfast but a poor dinner. When the busloads of tourists follow their group leaders back to the hotel, prices follow the sun in their decline. When I visited a small island off Colombia, the bottom fell out of prices just before the boat disembarked. The price of my ceramic pot dropped from 45 to 20 pesos.
Codes. Sometimes you want to confer with a friend on the quality and worth of a garment, but trying to converse to gain this counsel can pose problems. So some people talk in codes. "I think I can get it for eight squared less four times five." Personally, I hold these conferences in Pig Latin. "Ichwhay isay ouryay avoritefay?" has puzzled many a native. Shopkeepers are shrewd and have earned my suspicion of their language comprehension. As far as numbers and haggling go, I'm sure they're polyglot.
Phrases. Learning to say, "Just looking" in the language should be a priority second only to asking for the bathroom. In addition, it helps to be armed with indigenous phrases for "How much?", "Too much!" and 'That's very expensive!" When delivered with the wave of a hand, "muy caro" can add to the impression that your plane didn't just set down that morning.
Numbers. A knowledge of numbers can be useful. For the less-than-fluent traveler, however, the time spent trying to figure out translations and conversions might be dangerously misunderstood by the vendor as the serious consideration of his last offer. A quick "sacre mackerel" might be a better preface to your silent calculation.
The tactic is guaranteed to get the best price is genuinely not to want the item in question. It's amazing the deals you can get on big brass trays and amber elephants that you couldn't possibly lug around for the rest of your journey.
If, however, you truly want an item, then the next best tactic is to feign disinterest. "It's too heavy," or "Not quite right. I'll come back." Once a shopkeeper sees your hesitation, the bartering will begin and you might keep the following negotiating tactics in mind:
Never start out with the item you like best. Almost always, the second bag you point to will be less expensive; the third, probably lower still.
Make the first offer. This principle holds true in GM labor negotiations or the purchase of a ribbon in the Peruvian highlands. By initiating the bargaining you display a knowledge of the local market and in the end force the vendor to make one additional concession. For example, if you know that a given basket should cost around 20 lira, a first offer of 14 is much more likely to result in that price than if the seller initially asks 35.
You can never reduce your offer. An unwritten rule in bartering is that once you have offered 40 lira for an item - even if it's an obvious mistake - you will never get it for less. Although you have no obligation to buy it at that price, you'd best move on to your next shop.
"It's all that I have!" I have a friend who puts different sums of money in three pockets. Then, he can pull out the appropriate sum and make his plea. After a cross-examination about Americans money and traveler's checks, many such deals are closed.
Don't stress imperfections. It is far better to run a finger over a flaw or silently muse a frayed edge. Paradoxically, it is often effective to praise the goods: "In the two hours I've been in the marketplace, this is the most beautiful huipile I've seen." Shopkeepers take pride in the workmanship displayed in their goods. A sincere compliment will often create a friendly atmosphere and enhance the bartering experience.
The impatient companion. I know a couple who trade off playing the role of the tired, fractious spouse who wants to go back to the hotel and who doesn't like the blanket anyway. This tactic may backfire, as the seller is apt to think the pressure will force you to capitulate sooner.
Anticipate their tactics. Although bartering may be a vendor's livelihood, it is still very much a game to him. They have a trunkload of tricks that you should be ready for. For example, they are masters at mock indignation. They will pull out a piece of fabric that looks to be the wash cloth for their donkey and begin, "You say 100 soles - this you can have for 100 soles . . ." Offer him 110 soles - this you can havmile. Good natured humor is never wasted on a shopkeeper.
"I'll try to come back." If the marketplace is large enough, the polite promise to return can be effective. The vendor, knowing the chances of you returning are slim, must give you his best offer. Often a shopkeeper who, the moment before, displayed great indignation at your final offer, will sent runners to fetch you back.
A stalemate always occurs in good bargaining. You have found the inner shop, the best bag, and have made your final offer. You know that you are going to buy it. He knows that he is going to sell it. Only a small amount separates your offer and his ask, but ther is the matter of pride. There are a few tricks to break this impasse, short of capitulating.
Patience. Usually a virtue in the marketplace, it is one that Americans usually are short on. Once, in a week-long barter in Morocco, my sensibility was my downfall. I had found an old woolen blanket in a far corner of the medina at Fez. The old vendor and his son told me it was an "antique rug" - far superior to the new, brightly colored ones. To demonstrate the difference, the old man lit a match under tassles of "my" rug and a new one. The cotton one ignited, and was put out by his son. The old wool, still rich with lanolin, smoldered. They offered me sweet mint tea as I looked at other items and thought aloud that a rug would never fit in may backpack. I left and returned several times. Each afternoon that I reappeared, the old vendor rekindled the rug. Finally, I couldn't stand him burning my rug anymore and I bought it.
Cash on the barrel head. Putting the money of your offer on the table - or better yet, in his hand - often swings the deal.
A token addition.You make the final concession. It is a matter of principle or honor. Unable to strike a deal, a small gift - a cheap pen or a cigarette - allows the shopkeeper to save face (and you to own the necklace).
Use foreign currency. Say 5 scudos equal 1 dollar. If your "final offer" was 48 scudos and he wants 55, offer him a $10 bill.
There is an exception to every rule. One of the most memorable experiences occurred when I was meandering through the witch's market in the Half Moon District of La Paz, where women were selling their dreams. I gazed at the exotic concoctions spread before them - winapura essence, rodent skulls, parrot wings - and asked one gentle-looking "witch" what some of these were used for. I was told of one special potpourri of bark, clover, bonedust and herbs that was reputed to cure everything from loss of memory to impotence to indigestion. I asked the price, "80 soles for a packet" Without saying another word, I put down the money, picked up my package and walked happily away.