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Sunday, March 14, 2010

How to Navigate a Turkish Bazaar As a Woman Traveler





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By Inka Piegsa-Quischotte

My "travel sister in crime" Jane and I are your proverbial older adventuresses. In our early sixties, we are ready to grab our bags and go at a moment's notice, roaming the world in search of new experiences, views and adventures. Jane is a retired accountant and I am an attorney turned travel writer.

She negotiates a Turkish Bazaar

Jane and I had arrived in Istanbul, a city which with its flair of history and oriental mystery, memories of the legendary Orient Express and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent held a special appeal. So did the Grand Bazaar, our first port of call after we had comfortably settled in our small hotel in the Sultanahmed district. Jane - duly consulting our travel guide - said: "Do you know that the Grand Bazaar has more than 58 covered streets, over 1200 shops and 4 main gates." "Wow," I exclaimed, "if that's not a shopper's paradise, I don't know what is. I think we better plan for a full day there." This turned out to be a wise decision.

She dresses for a bazaar visit

Two things are an absolute no-no for a woman visiting a bazaar in Turkey or anywhere else in the Arabic world: heels and purses. What the guide book called "streets" are in reality cobbled, very uneven and often slippery alleys or just small aisles. Heels are a sure fire way to a twisted ankle or worse. Flats or comfortable trainers are best. According to the guide book, up to 400.000 people visit the bazaar daily. Like everywhere in the world, crowds attract pick pockets and the Grand Bazaar is no exception. Therefore purses or handbags are not a good idea. Both Jane and I donned cargo pants with many separate pockets which close with buttons or zippers. That's the ideal outfit for a visit to the bazaar.

She gets to the bazaar

From Divanyolu Street where our hotel was located in Sultanahmed, we could have taken the #7 streetcar to the bazaar but we opted for a stroll because it's a chance to see other interesting sights, such as Istanbul's oldest hamam and two marvelous mosques along the way. "Look, there's the clock," Jane pointed out. The clock is atop entrance number 1, one of the four main entrances to the bazaar and a good point of orientation. That entrance takes you right into the 'gold district'. I was already in heaven. My weakness is gold and jewelry and Jane's is handbags. Both of us had ample opportunity to indulge.

She deals with Turkish merchants

"Hey, ladies, where are you from? What's your name? Come in, I have best prices!" I had hardly stopped at the first shop to admire a particularly beautiful gold necklace, when the first Turkish jeweler interrupted my reverie. I shrugged my shoulders, plastered a smile on my face and said: "bllawee, ykekeii ekkiika." Jane looked at me as if I had lost my mind. "What did you just say? That wasn't Turkish was it?" "Of course not," I grinned. "That was just gibberish. Don't forget praising their wares runs in the Turkish blood since times unknown. If you want any peace to look at things your way, you have to fend them off without offending, so speaking in alien tongues is the best way."

Jane just giggled and successfully tried the 'ekkika' bit on the next eager vendor who assailed us. Answering in any known language is no way out as particularly in Istanbul, merchants are multilingual, if even for a few words. I heard them utter Japanese! Judging by the face of the customer in question, they even got it right. Do not shake your head either. In Turkish body langue, this gesture translates to: I don't understand, please say again. Exactly what you don't want. Turks indicate "no" by briefly jerking their head upwards. If you do that, you not only deny correctly, but also show that you are familiar with Turkish habits and customs, are more respected and less hassled.

She makes a purchase

"Oh,look at that." I pointed to a small 22 carat gold bracelet displayed in the next shop. "I'd really like to see that." "Hey ladies, where are you from? What's your name? Please come in my shop, I have best price," the vendor was immediately upon us. This time all of a sudden, I spoke English and Jane and I entered. "You like a drink, tea, coffee?" No negotiations are ever conducted in Turkey without tea or coffee. We both accepted tea. "My name Ahmed," the smiling jeweler said, shaking us by the hand. It took a while to convince him, that I was only interested in that particular bracelet and nothing else and another while until finally, he came up with an asking price after a lot of tapping on his calculator. I made a counteroffer of 2/3 less.

Jane paled and looked as if she was going to faint. "He's going to throw us out," she muttered under her breath. Our new friend Ahmed threw up his hands, shook his head but started to tap on his calculator again. Still too high. "No," I said, getting up, "that's still too much. Never mind, I'll look around and come back later." I was half way out of the shop, a slightly confused and embarrassed Jane trailing behind, when Ahmed came running. "Lady," he said, "my final offer." What he showed me now, was indeed acceptable and the deal was closed, the bracelet wrapped and paid for in cash, with the negotiation of another percent off the price for cash. "You've got a nerve," Jane breathed. "But I like that. I"ll try myself." Now it was her turn as she had set her eyes on a lovely handbag. Jane was indeed a quick study and managed to get a lot knocked off the asking price for her bag. Happily touting our purchases, we relaxed in one of the many small cafes in the Grand Bazaar with a Turkish coffee and a truly sinful piece of baklava.

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