Market Rules

Thailand, Cambodia, India & Morocco

Our first day in Old Town Marrakech found me leading Boy through a plaza of snake charmers, men with pet monkeys, women selling henna designs, fortune tellers, and booths full of oranges and limes fresh-squeezed into tart juice. We entered the covered market in search of adventure and a tiny elephant (a tradition when I travel now).

“Si vous plait, je cherche á un petit éléphant.”

Our first stall I picked based on the seller’s manners. I have some unwritten rules for deciding these things in my head.

1. Specific Shopping

2. Gift Buying

3. Browsing

4. Making Plans

5. Fundamental Rules (Pricing/Bartering)

6. Fixed Prices

First are rules for specific shopping.

1a. If they are too eager for your business then they won’t really care what you want or even if they have it. They will try really hard to sell you anything, insist too intensely that you want something you don’t and refuse to let you leave without forcing you to become rude. I don’t like being rude so I avoid these sellers.

1b. If they pay no attention to you at all then they don’t really need or want your business. Don’t do all the work. It is exhausting.

1c. I choose the sellers that great me, ask me to come in and look, but acknowledge that I have something specific in mind. Then they try and help me.

The first seller I chose did not have my little elephant but had other animals. He was very polite when I said that I’m sorry, but it HAS to be an elephant. He directed me to the next stall and bid me good luck.

The second stall had elephants, but they were either too big or too small to fit with the other three elephants I have (one each from Thailand, Cambodia, and India). Instead of getting discouraged or trying to sell me a different animal or trinket, he led us through that section of the market to his friend who he thought might have one.

Success! I found the perfect little elephant. Boy took the matching one to start his own collection.

This brings me into the rules for the second part of the interaction: gift buying.

Cobalt from the Atlas Mountains

2a. If the seller has what you want and has graciously helped you and given you a good price, look around! He may have other things you want even if they weren’t your first priority. In a situation such as this, it is a good time to look for gifts. These two men listened to us describe those we were looking to purchase gifts for and presented us with appropriate items. Amazing cobalt crystals for Boy’s father who is a geologist.

NOTE: Tip the first seller. He didn’t have what you wanted and doesn’t make commission in this situation. He helped you as if you were his costumer even though you end up buying from his friend. You took up his time and used his knowledge. He’ll appreciate it. Sometimes he’ll even ask for it. That’s okay. Tip him generously. He did you a huge favor!

2b. If you aren’t already in a situation like the previous one and haven’t set up a rapport with the seller, there are some things to avoid. Just like in rule 1a, they may be too eager to sell you anything. You mention your best friend and some things she might like and all they hear is that it is a young woman. Then they show you everything ANY young woman might like, and not this particular young woman. I say she works in a museum and studies native cultures and they show me a purse. They aren’t really listening or being helpful. Excuse yourself and say that you would like to keep browsing.

Shop Goods

Sometimes it is nice to just browse. But browsing in African (or SE Asian, or Indian) markets isn’t as chill as wandering the shops of Washington Square Mall. Browsing is the most stressful form of marketing. It gets you into trouble and gives you a headache. There is a whole different set of rules when you are just browsing:

3a. Don’t stop moving unless you are VERY interested in something. Walk slowly and let your eyes wander. Nod or greet sellers as you pass. Maybe exchange a few words. Some “Bonjours” or “Non, merci” type expressions. If you stop, keep a distance between you and the item you are looking at. Don’t appear to be hovering, just appear to be giving it a slightly longer look. This is difficult. Then, if you are really interested step forward, greet the seller, say it is pretty. Decided if you want a closer look or not. If you don’t need them to pull it out of the case just say “Merci, bonjour” and move on with an air of being aloof. Don’t look back or respond again. (obviously there are variations depending on personality, skill, and the seller themselves)

Shop Goods

3b. If you want to try something on or hold it and are actually considering a purchase but still need convincing or you could be convinced, but you don’t need it and can live without it, you may get into a headache of a situation. By all means, try things on! It is fun. But be prepared for a lengthy exit strategy that will result in a required mental break.

A word of advice: be ready to end your market experience here, because afterwards all you will want is to find a café and sit for a while to regain control and energy.

Boy and I got into such a situation, despite my warnings. It wasn’t our fault. Boy is new to this sort-of market. There is no way to prepare somebody, they just have to learn as they go. Trust in each other also had to grow as I watched him maneuver the market and he realized that when I actually said “Let’s go” that it meant “I have a GOOD reason for going now. It isn’t just because I’m bored or selfish.”

I will relate this story here so that those new to the game of the marketplace may learn, if anything, that the game extends to your shopping partner’s carefully selected words, body language, and eye-contact. Learn to read each other! Learn to communicate.

Shop Goods

Boy was interested in acquiring some Moroccan clothing as was I. He was excited to try them on, but I was adamant that we just look and do some light inquiry until later in the trip, which I indicated by repeatedly saying, “We just got here. We have all week.” Right away we had miscommunication. This brings me to my first rule in my story about making plans and knowing prices.

4a. Make a plan BEFORE you wander the markets. It is harder to communicate when there is at least one other person standing there who is more than happy to refute your logic with the promise of a good price.

This miscommunication came because I had never explained the FUNDAMENTAL rules of purchasing at markets.

5a. Always know the local price.

5b. Always know how much you should spend versus how much you are willing to spend. Never indicate the latter, only the former until the end if you have no other choice or options.

5c. Respond to their initial price with a matching low price. If they’re high price is ridiculously above the local price, give an equally offensive low price. If it is only a little high (as is normal), give a price that is the same distance on the low side from the price you should pay for it. That way you both know about where this interaction will end up.

5d. Don’t expect to get the local price. But don’t pay what normal tourists would, either. They tend to overpay. Find something in-between. Don’t be rude unless they are rude. And then, only to show them that you won’t accept bull-shit. They will treat you more fair after that. If they don’t, the interaction is over. Say thank-you and walk away.

5e. If you are nowhere near the price you should pay and aren’t even near the price you are willing to pay, walk away. These two prices are already above the local price and the seller obviously isn’t willing to be reasonable. One of two things can happen: 1. they call you back and are willing to deal at a more appropriate level, or 2. they don’t or they aren’t.

At this point you have to make a choice. How hard will it be to find this item elsewhere? If it is easily available nearby, try a new seller. If not, you may need to just pay or live without. How much are you willing to pay to not have to go through this painful process again? If you don’t want the headache of a potential repeat, just pay. But never go back at a later date because they will screw you again in the future.

Motorway Seller in Atlas Mountains

5e (cont.). My trick for avoiding a repeat is to mention your first interaction right away at the new seller. “I desire this item and I want to pay this much (seriously, I put my should price down, no bartering), but the other seller wanted this much!” Sound like you are shocked. Create a rapport with the new seller as if you are bonding over the audacity of the whole thing whilst passively informing them that you know the local price. Then ask, “What is the best price you can give me?” Chances are you will automatically get the price you are willing to pay (slightly above the one you told them you wanted). Before you agree you should ask, “Is that the best you can do? I’ll pay this much.” And give them the price you should pay. 4/5 times they will accept it, because they know it is a good deal for both of you! If not, you still pay within your budget at your willing price. Or something in-between the two.

Boy’s and my miscommunication came because I had never explained my market rules to him. It was a simple as me saying, “We can’t deal because I don’t know the price in order to barter intelligently.”

So we found ourselves at a shop with two sellers forcing clothes over Boy’s head. He was really enjoying himself, which made me feel like a bitch. I encouraged and took photos and watched while secretly forming an exit strategy. I knew I would have to be a bitch to Boy. Not on purpose. But he wouldn’t know why I was dragging him away. It would come across like I just being controlling, or cranky, or bored, or selfish. Because he didn’t know my reasons, it wouldn’t look like I was being rational or reasonable.

Boy trying on clothes

That was our first mistake. Our second mistake was also a miscommunication. I had explained that it might be better in certain circumstances to let people assume we are married. But I hadn’t explained that it wasn’t just because we were in an Islamic country (liberal, though it is). I had failed to communicate that it was better for any sort-of interaction that involved markets or taxis. And sometimes, when asked the direct question “Is this your wife.”, it is best to say “Yes” or “Someday”. Even if you are lying. Why?…

Boy said no. Then he proceeded, in his adorable ignorance to giddily try on clothes. What he didn’t realize was the fallout of that simple little mistake. While one guy was putting clothes on Boy, the other was trying to get me to put clothes on. It turned into a zoo. I kept saying no. He kept saying it’s okay try it on. I kept saying let’s go. Boy didn’t understand that I had reasons. Eventually it got to the point where the two sellers were pushing way to hard (like scenario 1a and 3b). I sounded like a spoiled bitch trying to get Boy out of there. Boy was just trying on clothes because he didn’t know there was a problem other than me being a spoiled bitch.

It was a mess.

And finally Boy, who has grace in everyday life and kindness, gave in to me and we left. Then, to make sure that he understood, I pulled him to an area in front of a closed stall where we might be left alone momentarily and I explained why I was not, in fact, being a spoiled bitch.

Before I explained to him all of my rules labeled under 5a-d, all of which are best avoided if you aren’t in the mood but are still okay to enter into, I explained to him the second mistake. Not saying yes to me being his (fake) wife.

While one had him occupied trying on clothes, the other, while trying to get me to try on clothes, was standing behind me holding up shirts for Boy’s approval. “Doesn’t this one look good on her?!” Boy would agree. What Boy didn’t know was that behind the me, the seller was pressing his crotch against my backside. When Boy wasn’t looking, the seller was pinching my ass. As Boy was trying on another outfit, the seller was leaning in to ask me what I was doing that night.

Boy felt horrible!

It wasn’t his fault. I wan’t upset because, quite frankly, I’m used to being sexually harassed. I travel alone often and have learned to deal. But I can usually get out of that situation with a curt “no thank-you” and a determined exit walk. Because Boy didn’t know and wanted to stay, I found myself stuck in a situation I did not like. I was upset because I was being silently harassed and unable to leave.

It was in front of this closed stall in the covered market that Boy and I learned our first travel lessons about each other. He can take care of himself. I already knew that, but I didn’t know to the extent. But he learned that I always have a reason. A good one. And he learned to listen to my verbal hints and distinct eye-contact.

If I had just been bored, or selfish, than I would have stood patiently while Boy did his shopping. After all, I know he would do the same for me. But I had requested leave because I was being groped. Pinched. Breathed on.

Fixed Price Souk in Agadir

Our lessons were learned. We found a café to regroup and re-energize. And we found, as the trip moved on, better prices and better sellers. Boy got his outfit. I got mine. And with no hassle at all at a Souk in Agadir. Boy even purchased a few more elephants for himself in the Atlas Mountains on our way to the Saharan dunes.

This brings me to my final word of advice for markets: fixed prices.

6a. Fixed price items rock. While they aren’t always available, and I believe everybody should learn the ways of the bartering market, they are ideal if you are prone to high stress and short-tempers. Locals buy things, too. So fixed prices may sometimes be a little higher depending on where you are, but they are still around the price you should pay. And often they are better quality. Over-all, a much better and headache free deal.

I, however, prefer the markets.

I never used to. It isn’t about ego. The Senegalese market in Thiés horrified me! I didn’t have anybody to teach me anything. I often wanted to cry. It was not until I lived in Cambodia and had my students teach me local prices that I got more comfortable. I eventually learned. By the time I toured India, I had my system down.

NOTE: my system might not work for everybody. My mother is a perfect example. She has a completely different way of achieving the same results. She also has a different demeanor, a different presence, and a different list of things that do and do not stress her out. I cannot make deals like she does. It doesn’t work for me at all.


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