It's grand and bazaar
Being told before you enter that you will invariably become lost and disoriented inside a giant labyrinth of a structure, teeming with tourists and merchants selling their wares, is a daunting introduction for many. Not to mention that one should not expect to exit through the entrance one came in.
However, what followed was one of the most satisfying and remarkable experiences in all of my five months away from New Zealand, spent travelling across the USA and Europe.
This Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. With 61 covered streets and over 3000 shops and stalls, you would need several weeks to experience such a place in its entirety. I, however, had two days. As soon as I entered I realised that was unprepared and did not bring enough money. Not due to the expense, but for the sudden urge to buy everything that caught my eye. The sheer quantity and variation of items to purchase is staggering.
The first day I used mainly for becoming accustomed to my surroundings and testing the waters. Walking slowly, with neutral expression, past stalls and shops without entering or looking to long at one item, so as to efficiently communicate an aura of "Just Browsing" in an attempt to brush off the eager merchant call. Yet by the second day, I felt like a pro, confident in still strange surroundings. I was comfortably leading my friends back to shops they had seen the day before and wanted to return to. I had never been happier to boast a good sense of direction and orientation, nor had having one ever been so helpful to me before. Suddenly, being able to enter and exit through the same gate was grounds for travel bragging rights.
Even I, admittedly one of the most uncomfortable and perpetually embarrassed shoppers, managed to become somewhat artful at bartering. It is a completely different and new experience in comparison to previous attempts many travellers will have had, bartering with local merchants in places such as Thailand and Bali. My earlier clumsy transactions could not be taken seriously. I could not trust myself to get the best deal on even the most generic of trinkets, out of constant paralytic fear of seeming impolite or unappreciative. I simply did not speak the language of business. Yet, stepping inside the Grand Bazaar has a somewhat transformative effect. I felt close to fluent, only occasionally slipping up if I became a little too excitable at the prospect of a purchase. A steely poker face is your best weapon in the bartering business, or those Turks will see right through you.
One key factor that improves bartering confidence is that there is a good chance that the Turks will speak your language; in fact many of them spoke several languages. Your exchanges with these sly merchants are not so lost in translation that you feel completely out of your depth. It was only on very few occasions did I feel like I was potentially being swindled. It was very clear though that these Turks knew how to do business, language barrier be damned. A conversation with one pillow merchant lead to him divulging some of their tactics, explaining that his proficiency in German allowed him to listen in on some customers exchanging thoughts on potential purchases, meaning that he had the upper hand in gauging their level of interest in his product - the German tourists thus none the wiser.
The key idea with bartering anywhere seems to lie in perfecting an air of aloofness and nonchalance. Pretending that you already own one of those tea sets and buying another is not a high priority but merely a passing fancy. A task that is more easily said than done what with suddenly feeling as if you're the most popular person in school. In every single shop threshold there is a boy or man calling you over. Each one is trying to woo you into buying a T-shirt, spices or handbag - maybe even a Yataghan because I always wanted a sabre. Suddenly I was Angelina Jolie, and in the next moment a Spice Girl.
Unfortunately, while there I saw some very vocal expressions of concern at being approached and addressed by the Turkish merchants. It became apparent that many Westerners seem to mistake that these Turkish men are mere creeps and scoundrels who might use any opportunity to take advantage of them. Of course when travelling in a foreign country it is essential to keep your wits about you and stay cautious, but these men were for the majority of the time poking fun, for they knew exactly what sort of reaction they could provoke from visibly unsure tourists. It became clear that a quick return of the banter (for that is what it was), and a smile as large as theirs, was the best way to brush off unwanted attention from a seller; or to just get over the overwhelming of all your senses in such an environment. The alternative was to block out everything peripheral and power walk through the winding streets. Sadly though, this method steals away the full experience of embracing all the smells, sights and sounds, and is really only useful when you have one thing in mind to buy.
Such a close-minded approach is ultimately an impossible task in the Grand Bazaar, for after five minutes of walking with open eyes and ears will reduce anyone to the most addicted shopaholic, at least for awhile. Once I tried my hand at bartering, buying just one thing I needed was not an option. It was a rush. I was suddenly buying things I had no intention or interest in purchasing before. A hand woven pillowcase? Yes I absolutely want and need one. A lamp? Two please. And how about this tea set for half price with that shisha pipe?
Besides, out of Istanbul experiences, the Grand Bazaar is altogether a far more pleasurable experience when compared to being naked in a tiled room full of other women, whilst being forcefully scrubbed down by a large Turkish woman who is also rather more naked than not. Other travelers may find it cleansing and relaxing, but for me it only served as a good way to lose a lovely Greek island tan while feeling very uncomfortable in my own skin. Not to mention the most painful body waxing experience of my life. German many might have been familiar with, but they didn't quite know much of Brazil.