During a cruise of the Mediterranean on the Pacific Princess, I had the quintessential tourist-shopping experience. Walking from the ship to a tour bus that would take our group to Turkey's famous ancient ruins of Ephesus, I was approached by a man selling books about the site.
"Nine dollars," he said, handing one to me. "Great book for great place. Only nine U.S. dollars."The book looked good. I wanted it. I would have paid $6 to $7 at home. "Five dollars," I said with more confidence than I felt.
The man wailed but kept pace with me. "I must feed my children, sir. I must make something from sale." The bus was getting closer. "Seven dollars, Only seven, sir."
I wanted the book as much as he wanted to sell it. "Six dollars. It's my last offer."
"Sold!" my new-found friend said with a toothy smile. Dollars changed hands as I boarded the bus. When I turned to wave goodbye, the man was already approaching someone else. No matter. I sat down next to my wife feeling excited and confident about my first competitive shopping experience.
My euphoria didn't last long. At the entrance to Ephesus the same book was going for $2 to $3. To add insult to injury, two hours later at the exit I heard someone hawking one for $1.
That's when I knew I was way over my head. It was time to talk to some experts.
"Two principles should be remembered when shopping in my country," said Abdula, a Turkish tour guide in the summer and a university professor the rest of the year. "First, you can go in and out of any shop without buying something, it's OK. It's not required to buy something.
"And, second, we bargain in shopping in this country. It's a way of life to bargain. This is a regular thing, not something done especially for tourists. It can save you a few dollars . . . and give you great experience for buying a used car in your country."
But how much can bargaining really save you?
Tourists who negotiate can usually get 15 percent to 20 percent off the starting price. Much more than that is unusual but still can happen. Start low to give yourself - and the merchant - room to negotiate. Open at 35 percent to 50 percent off the initial price. And remember, it's a game, not a war - enjoy the experience and try being creative to persuade the merchant to sell at your price.
Before bargaining begins, however, you must first face the crowds of other shoppers and the aggressive nature of Turkish merchants. To many foreigners, the country's markets and bazaars are free-for-alls, where only the strongest shoppers survive unscathed. And the merchants usually invade the tourists' personal space to cajole and harangue them to come in. Many times they'll actually touch you.
"I was so looking forward to shopping in Turkey," said Sandra, a 30-something newlywed from England. "But the shopkeepers were so pushy about getting you into their shops I just couldn't handle it."
Once you are inside a shop, though, many merchants will offer you a small cup of hot green-apple tea. It is not some tourist ploy but rather a part of the ritual and tradition. Accepting a cup does not obligate you to buy something.
But what to buy?
The most obvious item is a Turkish rug. As Abdula said, "A rug is one of the few 100 percent Turkish items a tourist will find during his limited time in my country."
The choices, however, can seem overwhelming. One rug dealer provided a philosophical answer: "The best rug," he said, "is one that you like."
Here's a primer for those who need more information before purchasing:
Turkish rugs come in three basic kinds: all wool, wool-on-cotton and all silk. All-wool rugs look and feel like bath towels. Handmade ones crumple softly to the floor when dropped. Machine-made ones stay stiff. Wool-on-cotton has about 250 knots per square inch, while a silk rug has a minimum of 450 per square inch and can go up to an incredible 650 knots per square inch.
A silk carpet, because of the material and number of knots, almost looks like a painting. Additionally, when you walk around a silk rug, the image changes color and shimmers. "A silk rug," one merchant said, "is a piece of art that should be hung up, not walked on."
Quality varies, even within each of the three kinds of rugs. "They all look alike from 3 feet away," Abdula warned. With any rug, check for imperfections by looking on the back. Overall quality is determined by factors such as dye, number of knots and material used. Because of these variables, it's usually best to buy from a shop. "Bigger shops are probably better quality," Abdula suggested, "just because they've been there longer."
If you want less expensive items that are still locally made, try jewelry. The Turks are known for their fine quality and craftsmanship when working silver and gold. Additionally, anything in cotton is usually Turkish because the country is a large cotton producer.
If that's not enough, there's always the "evil eye." A pretty porcelain or glass blue and white eye, it comes in various sizes and shapes, and is placed on numerous items. A traditional talisman to ward off evil spirits, its origin is Medusa, the mythical woman with a head full of snakes who was thought to protect people. Because the Muslim religion does not allow the reproduction of a person's face or likeness, just her blue eye has become known as a shield against evil people and thoughts.
After buying an evil eye in Kursadasi, my wife and I decided to put some of what we had learned to the test. We sat in on a fun and informative presentation for a group of tourists at one rug dealer's shop. Sipping some hot green-apple tea, we enjoyed the dramatic unfurling of numerous and varied rugs, and especially the non-aggressive sales approach. When the well-spoken dealer was through, many of the group left without purchasing anything and without being hassled.
We stayed. Because of the huge selection and the dealer's non-aggressive selling, we decided this was the place. Now it was time to test our bargaining skills.
Finding what we both considered to be a wonderful rug about 4 by 6 feet, we asked what the price was. The dealer and two of his assistants huddled together for a moment before saying, "750 U.S. dollars."
It wasn't hard to act. We balked and wouldn't even bargain. "Thanks a lot," we said, and began to leave. They were shocked we weren't even playing the bargaining game. "What is it you don't like? What's the problem?" They, of course, wanted us to bring up price. When we did, they said, "Ahhhhhh . . . what could you afford?" and suddenly we were off and running in the game.
We said $500. They balked; they looked shocked; they took a few steps back and raised their eyebrows in delightful pantomime. Then they squabbled among themselves like good cop/bad cop. One of them came back and said, "We could do $600."
We looked shocked. We started to leave again. Just before we reached the door, one of them said, "Give me at least a little profit margin, make it $550."
We turned and smiled. "Sold," we said in unison.
After the sale, we realized how much we had enjoyed the whole adventure. While it was somewhat frightening because it was the highest ticket item we have ever bought on a trip, it also fit the ultimate criteria: The best rug is one you like. And we got it for a price we believed was fair.
While others might not think so, we don't care. We love the carpet, and we will always have it, a reminder of a wonderful trip to Turkey.
If you go:
Getting there: Turkish cities such as Istanbul and Kursadasi are on many Mediterranean cruise ship itineraries. Other major Turkish cities include Ankara, the capital; Izmir, the major port of Asia Minor; and Adana, on the Cilician plain. Istanbul and Ankara have international airports. Kursadasi is the gateway to Turkey's famous ancient ruins at Ephesus.
Climate: Much of the country sits on a high plateau, making for cold, dry winters and hot, dry summers. In summertime, the average temperature in Ankara is 73 degrees. In Istanbul, it's 75. The coastal regions have a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters. Kursadasi can have temperatures well over 100 in the summer.
Shopping: Turkey is one of the few Mediterranean countries where U.S. currency can be used directly with merchants. As Abdula explained, Turkey's high inflation means "there are now too many zeros in our country to fit into calculators." Lastly, remember to confirm all prices before turning over your credit card.
For information: Contact the Turkish Government Tourist Office in New York City at 212-687-2194, or consult the Web at (http: //www.turkey.org/turkey).