I’ve never been good with anything related to money. Figures, taxes, dividends and stock derivatives all make my head whirl. Prices were no exception. Used to malls and supermarkets with fixed prices, I was about as lost as a babe in the woods when it came to the fine art of bargaining.
Was. All that changed after a trip to Morocco recently. This North African country had long been on my list of must-visit places because of its glorious mix of European, African and Middle Eastern cultures. It didn’t disappoint.
What did surprise me was how fantastic the shopping was, with souks you could get lost in for many enchanted hours. Everywhere I looked were intricately woven carpets spilling out of doorways; vividly-coloured pottery; butter-soft leather (from their famous tanneries) fashioned into slippers and purses; gleaming brass trays, candlesticks and Moroccan lamps; and tiny jewellery shops like treasure troves stuff ed with bracelets, earrings and necklaces, tumbling about in cascades of beautifully worked silver, topaz, garnet, coral, turquoise and amethyst.
I fingered fine cotton tunics, tried on embellished sandals and admired hammered brass tables. I wanted to buy everything.
THE TURNING POINT
But nothing was cheap since the market was geared towards Europeans and all prices in the local currency of Moroccan dirham were tagged to the euro. Worse still, everyone thought I was Japanese (and hence willing to pay any price).
My frustrations peaked on the day my husband fell ill with a fever in Fez and I was left alone with my guide. He brought me to a brassware shop – with hindsight – like a lamb to the slaughter.
I fell helplessly for their aggressive tactics, eventually emerging with brass candlesticks, rosewater sprinklers, vases and ornamental pots – as well as a hardening certainty that I had been well and truly ripped off.
Back at our riad (a boutique hotel styled like a traditional Moroccan home), I showed my husband what I had bought and told him how much I had paid. “They must have thought me a fool,” I raged, pacing up and down our suite.
He opened one eye from under his cold compress and surveyed my buys from the bed. “You’ll have to see this as a mistake you’ll learn from,” he said finally. “Was what you bought worth what you paid? Unlikely. But it’ll have to be worth what you learnt from it.”
“But how will I ever know what the right price is?” I asked in frustration.
“You probably won’t ever know,” he said. “You will only know what the thing is worth to you. But if you set that value and stick to it, you’ll never feel ripped off again.”
EXACTING MY REVENGE
I pondered his words as we travelled to Marrakech and Essaouira – and put them into practice with a vengeance as we descended upon the souks and shops. I learned to rapidly formulate a value for everything I saw, ruthlessly slashing prices in my head by as much as four-fifths of the original quoted price if that was what I thought it was worth. I put aside sheepishness, learnt how to disguise eagerness with a blase facade, and developed the confidence to say exactly what I thought to shopkeepers.
“250 dirhams?” I said disbelievingly to one shopkeeper, my hands on my hips as we haggled over the price of a clutch of bangles I had hauled out of a dusty basket under a bench. “Do I look like a stupid tourist to you?” (Duh, of course I did.)
He eventually gave it to me for a fraction of his original price, exclaiming in disgust: “Bah! You bargain like a Berber woman.” Their ethnic tribeswomen are known to be extremely shrewd and tough, so I was extremely pleased with the comparison.
Most useful of all, I cultivated the ability to just walk away if I didn’t get the price I wanted – not difficult when so many shops sold exactly the same thing. It was extremely gratifying to have shopkeepers running after me down the street, saying breathlessly: “Yes, yes, I’ll give it to you…”
AN UNEXPECTED ENDING
By our last evening in Morocco, I felt like a pro. I wanted to buy one last thing before I left – the perfect brass tray for serving mint tea. My husband and I chanced upon a promising little shop along the main road of Casablanca and headed in with studiedly casual looks on our faces. “No more than a third of what’s on the price tag,” we had agreed before entering the store.
I found the tray I had been looking for and turned to ask the price from the shopkeeper – a bespectacled young man who looked more like a university student than a merchant. He glanced up from the book he was reading, read the price tag and easily gave me half off what was printed. I stood with my mouth agape, thinking I had misheard him.
But as I continued to enquire about his other wares, I realised that he was routinely deducting half to three quarters off what was on the tags. He seemed more interested in getting us out of the shop so he could get back to his book. But of course, that meant we stayed longer and bought more stuff.
So there you have the perfectly ironic finish to my trip – my finely honed bargaining skills rendered completely unnecessary by a young man seemingly intent on giving away the contents of his shop. Actually, it’s funny when I think about how very rarely I use these skills in Singapore.
But plonk me down in a foreign country and surround me with money-grubbing merchants out to make a quick buck from hapless tourists – and watch as my inner “bargaining Berber” emerges.
Works like a charm every time.
This story was originally published in the November 2010 issue of Her World.