Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Flavors of Haggling

If there is one thing I learned from all my travels, it's haggling. Like cuisines and smells, every country has its unique style. Some challenge you; some overwhelm you; some are downright scary. But you can always count on one thing: the victory of getting a bargain, whether it is real or illusory. How often do we strut through a charming marketplace with a swelled head, thinking we've made a fantastic deal and meanwhile doing noticeable damage to our wallets?

Truth is, we get ripped off. We always do. My grandfather used to say, "The seller never loses out. It is only a matter of how much profit he makes." Wise man. Yet it is a ritual, an enticing dance between tourist and native, a contest of wills to see who emerges on top. A game, a negotiation, and the prize is that sparkling, idiosyncratic trinket that seems ever so inviting with no practical use in everyday life.

You can taste culture through the way the indigenous parade their wares. The Thai are sweet-talkers. They smile coaxingly, cajole with finesse, and welcome you into their well-worn taxi-cabs with no meters. Next thing you know, you are drinking Coke or champagne in the lobby of an overpriced jewelry factory or a well-established brothel.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are exceedingly verbal, whether you understand them or not. "How much? I give you good price." They follow you around, flaunt their merchandise, and curse at you in Mandarin if you look and don't buy. Resourceful folks: they've got everything, including open boxes of Viagra pills that you grab by the fistful for twenty yuan.

Egyptians are touchy-feely. For some reason, only swarthy bearded men are vendors in marketplaces; women are non-existent in the working-class strata of the tourism industry. If you window-shop and leave, they grab you, entwining their arms around your waist and pull you into some sinister corner where they stock "the best stuff." Apparently, it doesn't hurt that I'm a Western woman and they are not allowed to see bare skin on their own Muslim women. Between the American concept of personal space, male/female dynamic in a sexist society, and knowing I was not protected under Islamic law, I felt genuinely threatened.

Indians are fighters. Very aggressive. They battle swarming crowds and flies to get to you, they bicker with you over price, and they beat the crap out of any potential competitor. Case in point: Coming back from the Taj Mahal, we were offered plastic souvenirs by an eight-year old boy asking for a dollar a piece. An Indian-American walked by, informing us it's only worth a quarter. In the blink of an eye, the boy rallied his cronies of four and they charged like bulls at the Indian-American. He even forgot his sale. Let me not recount the endless vendor brawls that occurred on the stairs of our tour bus.

Koreans? I don't remember haggling there. I didn't have a desire to take home any isolated memento to remind me of the country. Seoul is not a city of things. Seoul is an experiential city. It inspires us to experience the things that are evanescent. Carpe Diem. To seize the day. To live in the moment: to savor good food, companionship, and the energy of life buzzing around us.

1 comment:

  1. It's tough to walk away from a negotiation without feeling like I'd been "raped" or at least "violated" in some way. This post is funny and true!