10 top tips for souk bartering in North Africa

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So many people get exasperated by a day in the souks, haggling in a different culture, and trying to negotiate a shame/honour culture, whilst having no experience in it.  Here’s a few top tips I’ve gleaned from locals over the years:

  1. Relax.  You’re there for the cultural experience and the fun of a holiday in another culture.  Only take what money with you that you’d be happy spending, and then you’ll not be too disappointed at over-spending!
  2. It’s not a competition (well, for most of us).  I’m super-competitive about everything in life.  I like to think I never settle for second-best.  But if you do that here, you’ll always live in the past with regrets and mentally will never be free to enjoy the day.  Let go of the thought of trying to get the world’s best ever deal.  If you’ve got a price that you think is worth it, accept it and enjoy it.
  3. The more you look like a tourist, the more you’ll be charged tourist prices.  The more you sound like a tourist, the same.
  4. Try to avoid the main branches of the souk off the main square/walkway.  They see hundreds of tourists a day, know every trick in the book and often charge more than those who see fewer tourists on the back streets and winding alleyways.
  5. If you see something you like, try bartering for it at a few stalls (not within eyesight of each other) to see what the best price is you can get, and then start with that price to drive a hard bargain at a final stall.IMG_0171
  6. A shame/honour culture dictates how things play out in the souks.  If the seller can tell you a long sob story and persuade you of its reality, he maintains honour and gets a good price (even if the story is not true).  If he tells you that you can look and not buy, he will maintain his honour but of course will draw you in for the sale with treating you admirably while you are in the stall (honouring you).
  7. You most likely are from a guilt culture and are thinking whether the things the seller says are true or not.   His sob stories convict you of guilt (it would be cruel not to buy).  His chat, winsomeness and maybe even offer of mint tea mean that your heart is feeling guilty by walking out on him without a purchase.  You take every word at face value.
  8. Depending on how much you believe you can or should play along with the shame honour culture, have some of your own stories up your sleeve for why you aren’t able to pay such high prices!  If you want to stick to a stricter guilt model of ethics, think of ones that are entirely truthful and feel guilt-free!  (see example below)  If you haven’t got a good price to start with, you’re unlikely to be able to wrestle it back mid-interchange, but it can be fun to try!
  9. If you’re outside of a tourist area, you’re more likely to be offered very reasonable prices, and driving them as low as you can may even not be the most friendly thing to do – remember you’re the rich western person (probably in the world’s top 1% richest) on holiday in a place where many aren’t so fortunate.
  10. If you really get infuriated by not knowing prices, most tourist markets have many stalls with fixed prices – just look out for things with price labels…you normally can’t barter in these.

And here’s one example for you!

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Seller (S): “Hello my friend!”

(I ignore English in the souks to get better prices and more real exchanges)

(S) “Bonjour Monsieur!”

(I respond by looking uninterested but willing to browse.  All interactions are then in French or Arabic, but here written in English)

(S):  “Look, no buy for you today.  Just come here”

Me: “Oh but your things are so beautiful.  I must of course look.”

“Yes, they are very authentic products made here in [insert place] by my family for decades.  If you tell me what you want, I will get one’s which are better than the tourist ones I have for sale here”

“Ah wow, your family must feel honoured that you continue to sell these things.  They are beautiful.”

(I browse for a few minutes, finally spotting what I fancy)

“I love the pattern of this.  So intricate and it blends so well!”

“Yes, that is one of our best things.  If you would like it, I can offer you a special Ramadan price”

“You are very kind.  The last time I bought one of these I got it for a very good price too, so that would be wonderful.” (getting the upperhand by making him nervous I know the pricing structure, which, so often is true, because I’ve been round all the stalls)

“Well for a great American friend like you, I will only charge 300 Dirhams”

“Oh, I’m not a rich American.  In my country, we do not have as much money and it is not as important to us.”

“Ah, so you must be English.  I will do a better price for you English because I like that.  People first, money after.  Perhaps 200 Dirhams for you then?”

“Oh 200 Dirhams is a lot for me, because I am not English.  I am a poor Irishman.  The English have oppressed us for 700 years and colonised us.  You must know what that feels like, no?”

(He smiles) “Ah, I see.  Good Irish price then.  What would it be for you?”

“Oh probably 60 Dirhams”

“60 Dirhams?!  I could not even do that for an Irishman, or else my family would not live”

“Well, how about 80 Dirhams then?”

“90 Dirhams and you will have had the best deal in all of [insert place name]”

“Well, I’ll tell you what, if I buy two of these, I’ll pay you 160 Dirhams and we’ll both have a great deal!”

“You barter like a Berber, my friend!  But I cannot take lower than 90 each”

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Such bartering style even must be deployed in the simplest of exchanges on the beach or anywhere!

(I look sad and start to go towards the door and signal my apology)

“Then I must thank you but leave, because I only have 150 Dirhams left to buy anything today, apart from some bread for lunch.  Look, that is all I have”

“My friend, do not tell anyone, but I will take it.”

“Thank you.  You are a generous man, and you should be proud of your family heritage.  These are the best in [insert place name].

*buys product*

A pursuing gunman and wild donkeys: a tabletop experience

It’s a tabletop experience.  Quite literally.  And until a few moments later, a highlight of our Tunisian travels.  We’d arrived at the car hire place in Tunis to the amazement of the hirers.

“Where is your tour group from your hotel?”

“Um, we don’t have a tour group.  We’re alone.”

“But where are you staying?”

“Wherever we find a place to put up our tent?  We have some money for hotels too, just in case”

“Oh.  You are crazy.  No-one does this.  Why do you want to travel like this?”

“Well, because we think your country is beautiful and worth exploring”

And so our journey round Tunisia had begun after a short but pleasant stay in the capital.  Little did we know that a few days later we’d be up a plateau with a gunman standing behind us, blocking our exit to the only way down the mountain.  Welcome to Tunisia!

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Jugurtha’s Table, on the Tunisian border with Algeria

I mean, we had been warned that the Algerian border territory was rebel territory where anything goes.  But driving through it on a nice summer day seemed so normal.  The music beating, and the craic still flowing from when I’d tried to ask for directions in French out of the last town we were in, from women who clearly only spoke Arabic and thought we were the biggest amusements to walk into their shop in a long while.  Either I wasn’t on form understanding Arabic sign language, or they were enjoying clueless westerners, but we went round that town several more times before managing to find an exit on something that might have been considered a road in west Cork a few decades ago.

It was 6pm already when we managed to pull up to the Guard Station in the next village a few miles from Jugurtha’s table.  Officially we needed to register that we were going up this mountain, so they knew whether we were ok or not.  I did wonder what they would do if we got confronted by Algerian rebels up there.  I mean, we were miles from this small Guard outpost.  But that was assuming that we’d even get registered at this hour.  After wandering up and down the street a few times to find the Guard on duty, and searching for a passport in the boot of our car (we hadn’t been asked for that in a while!), we finally registered and set off….under armed escort!

A fairly hilarious scene.dsc_0699

A bright red Kia Picanto with two lads messing around, with a Guard truck in front and another armed car behind.

At the road towards the foot of the mountain, one of the cars pulled off and signalled we were to go on.  The other followed.  Reaching the closest thing that resembled a car park that we ever saw in Tunisia, we parked and got out.  The other car wished us well, and suggested we take their local guide to escort us up safely.  We looked at each other.  Neither of us particularly wanted our hike to be spoiled by a random old man who barely spoke any French and seemed incapable of helping us fight off any Algerian rebels who were rumoured to be around.  We shrugged – what harm could it be?  Easier keeping him than trying to explain that we didn’t want him.  After all, what could he do to us when we went to sleep if we didn’t let him escort us?  Tell the rebels where we were?

And so we headed up.  Reaching the top a while later, we explored the kilometre of plateau, put up our tent, raked around with a ball (and with Dan jumping insane gaps over cliff edges, that I had far too many fears to navigate!) and then sat down to dinner and sunset.

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It was then we noticed we weren’t alone.  And it wasn’t our guide, who was now nowhere to be seen.  “I’ll see you in the morning” being his last words about 40 minutes ago.  The one way up the plateau was steep and out of sight, and no approach could have been seen by us.  Maybe we’d been too cocky after all.

Particularly when we saw the athletic build of a man who was walking over the rocks to us holding a gun.  He was in plain clothes.  There was nowhere to hide.  Thoughts rushed through my head: we were nobodies….who would ever want anything to do with us?  Just simply two lads having fun travelling.  Though we did rather hope that he (or should I say “they”) hadn’t already “looked after” our car, sitting as the only brightly coloured object for miles in a barren landscape.

“‘Salaam!” came the voice, towering over us.  We scrambled to our feet to at least meet this man on a similar level.  His calm Arabic words that followed were not ones that I chose to remember in my state of panic, from my few Arabic classes I’d had one summer a while ago.  Obviously my face showed that.  Phew.  French now.

“What are you lads doing up here?”

“We are camping.  We’re travelling round Tunisia”

“Is that your car below?  I’ll take your passports”

I mean, I don’t know who he thought the car might belong to.  “No, I think bright red Kia Picantos must be how the Algerian rebels get around these days”.  Or at least that’s what I might have said if I hadn’t been panicking and actually sure that he wasn’t himself an Algerian rebel.  The hire company had obviously thought that giving us the only bright red car in the whole of the country was a fun joke to play, as we hadn’t seen one for most of our trip.  Supposedly black was the only colour for fast cars to be that year in Tunisia.

Similarly, there didn’t seem much choice as to whether to give him our Irish passports.  It was in these moments that I was grateful that I’d two passports, at least leaving me with an escape option, should the worst come to the worst.  And with British records of colonialism and war, there was no doubt that it was my Irish one that would be shown.

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Our hearts were drums amidst an otherwise silent dusk.  Did he understand the English on the passports?

We didn’t care to ask.  And the next few words (still in French) were not said with a smile from his lips.

“Very dangerous.  Very, very dangerous up here”

“Um…sorry Sir, but why is it dangerous?” we hesitated to ask, unsure of whether the gun butt would move closer to our questioning lips as a reward for our answering back.

“Very Dangerous.  You have two choices.  You can escape the danger and I will take you down the mountain.  Or you can stay up here and risk everything.”  Or at least that’s what I got of his thick Tunisian French.

Dan and I glanced at each other.  If we were to leave, we at least wanted to know what we were leaving because of.  So we nervously tried again: “what is the risk?”

“There are many wild animals here.  Wild goats.  Wild birds.  Wild creatures.  And “des anes sauvages”.”

Well I didn’t know what “des anes” were, but I tried hard not to splutter into laughter at the animal list that we were supposedly to be scared of!  Wild goats and birds?  There wasn’t a moving thing in sight!  And even so, I doubted any would merit the “very dangerous” telling off that we were about to receive.  Was my French really correct?  Dan clearly hadn’t followed.  It was my basic French that would be the deciding factor to whether we stayed or went.

We stood at a standoff.  He still had our passports and clearly wasn’t impressed that we didn’t respond more to his stern words.  He asked again, hoping to add weight to his confrontation.

But we continued to stand.  Slowly giving us our passports back whilst not taking his eyes off our eyes, he gave us the kind of look that I’d get from my parents when they clearly disapproved of everything I’d done, but wanted me to learn the hard way.

And as quickly as he’d been there, he walked away to leave us alone again with a stunning sunset, miles of North African landscape, and fears that I should have paid more attention in French class.  After watching him leave in silence, we whispered: did he really just warn us about wild animals?  The doubts were nagging.  But we hadn’t travelled all this way for nothing.  This was stunning.  And not to be missed.  And besides, the Plateau even had a mention in the Lonely Planet Guide (albeit with a caution), so it couldn’t be that dangerous!

And so the craic soon flowed again.  The sunset one of my most memorable.  And our sleep much needed, even if nervous.  And waking to this over Algeria made it all worth it:

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Our guide appeared out of nowhere, as if by magic, just as we were thinking of leaving in the morning.  He laughed when we told him about the armed man and our conversation the night before.  We laughed with him.  Until he declared:

“I laugh because you do not need to worry when I am here.  I protected you all night”

Ah yes…of course.  An old villager who could barely fight off wild goats was secretly watching over us all night.  How very noble.

And so we gave him a suitable generous donation for his “work” and protection services and made our way back to our bright red rebel vehicle.  Happily sitting in the sun, our adventure continued….for now.

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Festival season: a song for the road

We all have them.  The “together” moments.  The ecstasy of experiencing something in a large number.  Whether you’re a music festival junkie, or whatever makes you want to travel to be with others, there’s no doubt something special occurs when we’re in big crowds.

It’s why many people plan their travel to coincide with the big festivals.  Whether catching New Year in Edinburgh, the beach parties of the Festival de San Juan in Spain or the raves all night long on Thai beaches with the sun setting.  Ireland has learnt fast that festivals mean money, whether tourist money or local money.  There’s barely a single weekend of the calendar that Cork doesn’t have a festival (the Irish Times does a breakdown of the bigger ones here) of some sort.

And it’s not just those liberal twenty-something-year-olds who do festival and “group experiences”.  No, head up in the tranquility of the Western Isles of Scotland and you’ll find a completely different, yet still spine-tingling experience in the religious community.

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The Isle of Lewis

The Free Church of Scotland hold their eucharist/communion/celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection in particular a couple of times a year.  And to prepare themselves and to remember the importance of this event, they meet for one week, every night of the week to still their hearts and confess their shamefulness before the God they serve, both as individuals and as a community.  In seeing more of their shame and imperfection, they rejoice more in the perfect solution at the end of the week that removes this shame forever.

On a cold winter evening you’ll find them packing into rooms of local believers, that weren’t meant to host that number.  And you won’t be there long before haunting a-capella melodies will start of some of the Bible’s songbook (The Psalms) that point them to humanity’s persistent shame, and to the solution.  Three part harmonies, or four will not be out of place, and all are welcomed singing, regardless of ability.  It’s beautiful!  The tears welled in my eyes.  The memories will last a long time.

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More of Harris and Lewis

But what are these songs they’re singing?  Ancient songs from many thousand years ago, preserved (but re-arranged close to the time) in historical records to give us a glimpse of the festival tunes that would have been known by everyone – the hits that lasted down the years.

And some of them I’ve been studying recently are songs that would have been put together for the road.  Songs for travel.  For when Jewish people were setting out to the big religious festivals in Jerusalem where their temple was.  They felt the buzz of the festival coming and being with likeminded people for a change (Ps. 120).  Everyone was on the road, but the roads weren’t just as easy as ours.  I could imagine they’d have been something like this at points:

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A Tunisian dry riverbed in an ancient gorge, that many walk for miles along

The hills were something to be afraid of, when the songwriter turns his eyes to them (Ps. 121).  They were like the Jericho road that the good Samaritan walked – are therdsc_0859e gangs lurking behind the next rock?

What will walking in the heat of the sun do to us?

Or what about when the sun sets and leaves chilling shadows over the hills? (Ps 121.)

Together when they get to the festival they will glimpse what they long for – true peace between people that they are united to!  (Ps 122)  That’ll be fully known in a future, in a “Jerusalem” that won’t be an Israeli capital city.  In a “Zion” that will be as if God is the towering mountains of safety (not of fear) around them (Ps 125) who’ll protect them from evil people (Ps. 124).dsc_0852

This festival will help us send postcards to home, reminding everyone across the world what God has done, even when it’s hard to see that (Ps 126).  These festivals will remind us there’s something bigger than ourselves!  Something that we should give even our very offspring to honour (Ps 127).

And I could go on.  Psalm 133 and 134 nearly seem to speak into an arrival into the ecstasy of the festival – no longer being on the road.

They’re marked in the ancient manuscripts as the “Songs of Ascent” (121-134) and they come to life when you remember their context of the traveller on the hard road up to the festival!  Enjoy!