I’ve been musing a lot about my experience traveling in India at the end of 2013, and yeah, I guess I learned about some history and culture and shit, but really, the main thing I learned was how to get a good price on a hemp t-shirt. Before we landed in Delhi I was pretty helpless when it came to negotiation. Here are the things I’ve learned:
1. Remember that nothing is unique. Every tourist town has about a dozen different versions of the same shop with all the same goods, so pop in to one and do a little research. Ask for a price and act uninterested, then leave. You’ll probably get the shop owner chasing after you shouting lower and lower numbers. Keep walking.
2. Decide what you think the item is worth before you even ask for a price. After you’ve expressed firm interest through an offer you’re in a weaker position, so figure out what you’re wiling to pay as soon as you can. How do you know what an item is worth in this strange currency where prices seem arbitrary? I’m glad you asked.
3. A tactic Christina used with great success was actually shopping without any money on her. She’d leave her purse at home and pop into shops just to see what they had. Even if you can’t find that exact item in another store, you can always come back later.
4. When its time to make an offer, ask for a price. If you think its extortionate, smile and ask for a better price. Then maybe smile again and ask for the best price without even making an offer. Hopefully that will get you to a more reasonable starting point. From there you can go back and forth a few times (always with a smile) and settle on a mutually agreeable price. If the shop owner won’t budge, remember your trump card is to walk away. If he STILL doesn’t budge, maybe your price is too low and you should consider not being such a cheap ass.
5. Don’t fall for the “What’s 50 rupees to you, a dollar? It makes no difference to you but to me it’s a meal for my family!” Ok, maybe that’s true, but if everyone paid Rs 50 more for everything soon the prices would be higher than the west. Price is not only determined by what the vendor bought the product for, but what he thinks he can get for it. This is especially true for rickshaw rides, which cost drivers very little. Rest assured, vendors are making money on the transaction regardless of how good you are at negotiation. You’re always paying the tourist tax.
6. A line my friend Stephen likes to use to cut through the bullshit was something to the effect of “I just want a good price, add a little to what it cost you and I’ll be happy with that.” It helps to know a bit about what it cost but it also appeals to the vendor’s softer side, something they aren’t used to getting from tourists. You may disarm them (with a smile).
7. Don’t get hung up on it. You can drive yourself crazy with the constant negotiating. Sometimes its worth it for your sanity to just take the first offer (if you think it’s fair enough), or even MAKE the first offer if you have an idea of what the item is worth from the start. Remember that stress and time are worth something to you as well.
That’s it. Some of it seems obvious but to someone like me that avoids confrontation, it helps to have a plan. I’ll leave you the story with one of my more successful negotiations, which happened almost entirely by accident:
We were in Jaipur and I’d broken another pair of cheap plastic sandals. I wanted something that would last a little longer. We stopped into an upmarket shoe store with window displays and well-dressed employees. I asked about a price of sandals.
“700 rupees,” the manager said. This was a little more than $10. Not expensive but more than I wanted to pay. I thought it was fair for good quality but I had no idea how long they’d hold up. I decided to look around a bit. He didn’t make another offer as I left, so I figured that price was pretty firm.
Later that day I saw a very similar pair of sandals at another store, this one a bit dustier and with harsh fluorescent lights. Instead of neat boxes there were piles of different sizes strewn around.
“How much?” I held up my chosen camel-leather sandals.
“600 rupees, very good quality.” The salesmen demonstrated the flexibility of the soles. I still thought the first pair were better quality, and that I could negotiate them down a bit.
“No thanks,” I said, and started to walk out. I genuinely didn’t want the sandals.
“Ok, 500, my friend.”
I continued out the door.
“300!” Now we’re talkin’. I was willing to take the risk that these weren’t the same shoes for less than half the price of the first store, which I wasn’t sure would budge from 700. And if they stayed firm I’d have to trudge all the way back here, tail between my legs. I could have been ruthless and offered 200, then maybe settled on 250, but I’ve got a heart. In this case the 50 rupees didn’t matter; I’d already won.
Well, this was a few months ago, and I still have the sandals. They survived daily wear for our stay in India and broke in with a beautiful patina. I considered filling my suitcase with dozens of pairs for resale back home, then thought better of venturing into an India-based import business and decided to be satisfied with my accidentally successful negotiation.
May you all have the same good fortune. Go forth, and bargain! Ok, maybe not at the dentist’s office.
2013 has been a year of spectrums, from long work hours to not working at all, from living where folks are comfortable to traveling extreme poverty, and from diving to the bottom of the ocean to trekking at the top of the world. We’ve had some of the most serene as well as the most trying situations that we’ve ever experienced together. It feels as though we ought to reflect on our travels and pull some sort of deep insight from our experiences. But instead, we’re going for superlatives. This is our year, in a bit more than bullet points.
Favorite City Moment
Zach: Arriving in Kathmandu, seeing nothing but Nepali signage and dust and realizing I’d entered another world.
Christina: I got my tattoo on our first day in Melbourne. That afternoon, we went to the Central Business District to explore the town, but got caught in a late afternoon downpour and ran from bar to bar on a map that our friends from New Zealand had made for us. The kind folks at Penny Blue beer bar let us in before they were actually open, where we dried off, enjoyed Aussie IPAs and started working on the guest list for our wedding.
Favorite Nature Moment
Both: Sitting on a rock at Annapurna Base Camp watching the goats that the shepherd in the Free Tibet t-shirt brought down from the mountain, listening to the glaciers crack in the background, and sitting in an amphitheater of 8,000 meter peaks.
Best Non Alcoholic Beverage
Z: Banana lassi, India
C: Super sweet chai from street vendors in the tiny cups, India
Both: Alternating turns in the bathroom while we both had food poisoning on Gili Trawangen in Indonesia.
Biggest Adrenaline Rush
Z: Third pitch of Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out in Wanaka, NZ
C: 3am in Bali, I was laying in bed, not sleeping because my two friends from NYC were on their way to come see us. Finally hearing their voices then staying up eating cashews and chatting with them, in the flesh, into the wee hours of the night.
Z: Drinking fancy scotch at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai
C: Having a lazy morning reading Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook and drinking a latte in the library at the Pen y Bryn Lodge in Oamaru, New Zealand with Zach’s dad and Janet.
Z: Day three of hiking Gunung Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia; so much dust and human waste.
C: The three consecutive days we spent on overnight buses and in dusty bus stations from Pushkar to Hampi in India.
Worst Decision of the Year
Z: Telling the Bollywood casting tout to get lost. One of our friends accepted the offer and came back with amazing stories.
C: Diving into the shallow end of the pool in Bali.
Z: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
C: Michael Pollan’s Cooked or John Irving’s The Cider House Rules
Favorite Photo You’ve Taken
Z: Sliding down the icy Crown Range road between Queenstown and Wanaka, NZ in our 20 year old minivan with bald tires.
C: The public bus ride in Nepal. Specifically, when it tried to cross the landslide.
Z: Stumbling over a three meter python at 10:30pm on a dark trail in Hampi, India.
C: Cuddling the nice, chubby stray cats in Istanbul.
Z: The next one!
C: Tie. Either dinner at the Francesca’s Italian Kitchen Staff Party or breakfast at Privato Cafe in Istanbul. So different. Equally delicious.
Thing You’d Be Happy If You Never Did Again
Z: Take an overnight bus in India
C: Visit East Timor
Encounter With a Stranger That You’ll Remember Forever
Z: The guy on the street in Jaipur who asked us why westerners are so rude to Indians and then immediately tried to sell us something.
C: Sitting on a stoop in Kathmandu talking with a shop keeper for like an hour. He told me a story about his friends saving up for years to apply for a US visa, then the chances of actually receiving one being like winning the lottery.
Place to Which You Are Most Excited to Return
Both: Nepal Himalaya
The week before Christmas we traveled from India to Istanbul, the first stop on the European leg of our trip. But before we left Mumbai, there was some work to be done. We scrubbed off the scent of our last overnight bus, shoved our dingy, Indian traveler clothes in the trash can at the hostel, and went to the Levis store for some skinny jeans so that we didn’t feel like total urchins while dining at flashy restaurants in Istanbul and Spain. I forgot how good it feels to dress up and not be covered in a constant layer of dust!
When we landed in Istanbul, Zach’s cousin Joe welcomed us to his apartment in the center of town, where we indulged in a week of comforts: coffee, a warm bed with fluffy pillows, brunch, bars with atmosphere, street art, high speed wifi, and most of all, cheeseburgers. Visiting Istanbul was the most familiar experience we’ve had in the last 16 months. It was cold, people wore black, no one cared what we were doing, where we were going, and no one was trying to sell us anything. Folks just went about their business and we went about ours.
After so much sightseeing in India, we were a bit torn between Istanbul’s tempting sights or our own, more basic desires like wearing heels and drinking whiskey and going to a drawn out brunch that wastes half the day. The thing is though, you don’t have to choose. Istanbul is a young, modern city steeped in a history that is older than most and is predominantly Islamic, as opposed to most other historically Christian European cities.
In coming to a Muslim country, I was prepared to wear loose fitting, conservative clothes and to be thinking about not offending folks. That may be necessary in rural Turkey, but Istanbul was full of tight jeans and funky leggings. For some, that was jeans with a headscarf. For others, it was lots of layers of long clothing, but in any big city, you will find a variety of fashions influenced by everything from religion to pop culture. There were plenty of indicators, from style of dress to the call to prayer, that we were in a city where Islam is the dominant religion, but that was just one of the many characteristics of the largely secular city. In areas where conservative dress was important, like at a Mosque, there were signs written in English and assistants to help tourists feel comfortable and respect the customs.
We spent a Saturday morning at the organic farmer’s market in Sisli, took the metro home and after dropping our mandarins and olive oil (a half liter bottle for 7 bucks!) off at the apartment, went up the Galata Tower (built in 500 AD) and watched the sun set behind the dozens of minarets that pierce the city’s skyline. We spent a lazy morning Skyping friends, gorged ourselves on a traditional Turkish village breakfast, then had our minds blown by The Basilica Cistern from the 5th century and tasted Turkish wines at one of the city’s newly opened wine bars.
On Christmas Eve morning, I spent the morning at the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam, enjoying a traditional scrub in a gorgeous, renovated Hamam spa. After the exfoliating scrub, you lay in silence on a heated stone in the center of the room and gaze up at the light that comes streaming through the stars carved in the marble domed roof. Now this is the way to experience Islamic architecture. A trip to the Hamam was once a normal activity for Turks, but now is more of a touristy thing to do. A highly recommended touristy thing to do. At 130 Turkish Lira, or about $65, it is one of the more expensive activities in Istanbul, but it is worth every lira.
We lived like kings in Istanbul, a city that feels a bit like a young kid a with an old soul. There are endless historical sights to see, the nightlife is great, and their restaurant scene is well on it’s way. Even though most folks don’t speak English, the city was easy to navigate and people tried to help when we asked them (or had that lost look on our faces). I can’t recommend a trip to Istanbul highly enough.