The marketplace is the heart of any city. Here all types of sights, smells and sounds converge into a bustling energy that’s contagious to whomever passes. It’s hard to not become overwhelmed by the variety of handiworks that pack the stalls, especially when the flow of the crowd urges you through the corridors like a salmon upstream. From the quiet of dawn, the souks transform into a humming epicenter where goods exchange hands and find their way to all corners of the globe. This is the place to be to feel like you’ve transported to a different time, where bartering is the language of choice and tuning into its different dialects is what gets you the best deal.
My first experience diving into a marketplace was in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I remember feeling a mix of emotions. I wanted to see everything—buy everything, but at the same time I felt timid to the idea of bargaining, afraid that I couldn’t be aggressive enough to avoid being ripped off. Walking through the stalls with my friend, each vendor tried their hand at getting our attention. Left and right we heard shouts of “Spice girls! Spice girls!” or the occasional “You dropped something…” only to turn around to them smiling and saying “my heart.” I had to give them points for humor.
Then came the offers of free tea and Turkish delight. My only exposure to Turkish delight had been from a scene in The Chronicles of Narnia where one of the characters, Edmund, gorges out on pounds of the delicacy, always wanting more. But unlike Edmund, after passing the 50th stall urging me to take a taste, I felt like I might explode powdered sugar. Stuffed to the brim, my friend and I felt on the verge of tears as we realized a polite "no" is not part of the vocabulary among vendors, especially when it comes to free samples.
When shops were successful at getting us inside, our eyes glazed over in awe at the sheer assortment of things. Glittering light shops stood like art installations and walls were lined with a wallpaper of tapestries. Bags of spices invaded your senses, inspiring a new palette of cuisine. The tea shops were especially impressive having everything ranging from rose bud, sage, linden flower and my favorite—apple. Those along with medicinal teas that helped with fertility and treated ailments, proved that there was a tea for everyone.
Leaving the Grand Bazaar that day I treasured my newfound souvenirs: an assortment of teas, “harem” pants and a small colorful rug.
After my time in Istanbul I was excited to see the difference in the marketplaces in Morocco, so I headed to Fes and Rabat, two towns with a much more tranquil atmosphere compared to that of Marrakech. Here the stalls were bursting with leather goods, ceramics, bronze mirrors and dried fruits. Coming with some knowledge from my Moroccan friends, I put my bargaining hat on and was ready to score big. This is where I truly learned the art of bargaining. After perusing some leather good stalls, I came across a backpack that called my name.
“Shahal taman?” (how much in Moroccan Arabic) I asked to the vendor.
“Fifty dollars,” he replied.
“Rally bizef!” (too much) I said, shaking my head vigorously.
To which he laughed and said something along the lines of “oh this isn’t your first rodeo.” We both nodded and let the games begin. Using some phrases I had learned, a sense of confidence and a smile I was able to get him to come down halfway from his original price. The best part was the smile and handshake at the end, both of us happy that we had “scored” a good bargain. That was the magic of Morocco—it didn't matter if you got the best price or not—as long as you were happy with it and the vendor was happy with it, you both won.
I wish I could have taken home so many things from Morocco, but I was satisfied with my new treasures: a backpack, leather wallet, mint tea, teapot and a stash of postcards.
The bazaars in Morocco and Turkey are among the most famous in the world, and although they have become a center for tourists, it doesn’t mean there aren’t deals to be had. By going through enough stalls you quickly learn that bargaining is a delicate dance between you and the seller. It’s a mix of: psychology—learning how to read people; cultural knowledge—understanding the customs and expected process; and a good attitude—in the end think of it as a game.
Photos by Alessandra Roqueta
Here are some general tips on how to get into the rhythm of bargaining: