Ever since I was little I can remember trading or selling something. Not sure how it all started or why, but selling, trading and dealing has always been a part of my life. This probably comes from being the child of parent’s that, in different industries, always did exactly that. I have sold bracelets and necklaces, webkinz, bathing suits, jewelry, stationary and who knows what else. In retrospective It should have come to no surprise that later in life I ended up with my most ambitious task which combined this activity and my passion for the wilderness: selling safaris.
From watching my parents, and by being threatened in all manners if I dared to misbehave in front of clients, I started noticing subtle behaviors that are part of the great game of trading. From the ethics, to communications, to the “special something”, it always fascinated me the level of unspoken attitudes that surround any face-to-face trade.
On a recent trip, before heading into the very unique and chaotic wilderness of India in search of tigers, we decided to make a stop in Delhi and get to know the capital of this vastly colorful country. Skip to the end of our day tour, our very clever tour guide asked (but really just informed us) if we wanted to make a final stop at his “friend’s” store. It seems in India everyone has a friend who owns a store. Because this could have been our only chance to buy souvenirs (and I am girl with shopping needs) we agreed to be led to the shop.
Indian tourist shops are quite unique (if you can, never miss a chance to go to an informal street market; it’s where the magic really happens). They are normally 2 or 3 story buildings and a specific order needs to be followed when visiting them. You start at the top and work your way down. You so much point at an item, you will be showed 15 more in 30 different colors. You buy 2 things and special offers will start coming out your way for more purchases.
You start at the top of the store because this is where the real prize is for the shop owners (and the commissioned tour guide that took you there). The top of the shop is where the carpets live. If you have ever come across an Indian store owner you will find they are ferociously apt and incredible well-versed dealers. They will charm you, offer you tea, take apart their entire store to make sure you buy even just one item. You will not walk out empty handed. If you have managed to do so, please feel free to leave a suggestion on the comments as to how you managed (avoiding entering the shop is never an option).
Upon my mom’s travels through Asia when we were younger, I remember her equally ferocious ability to barter with store owners for carpets. It wasn’t ever a rushed affair. She sipped the tea and perhaps even asked for more. She feigned disinterest until prices came down by at least half. She spoke in a foreign language to be on equal grounds… This was all a well-practiced dance that went back and forth until she either bought the carpet or decided the asking price wasn’t worth it. Until the very end, we couldn’t predict the outcome.
At 11 years of age, I wasn’t fascinated by her skills, I was bored out of my mind at having to look at carpet after carpet for what seemed like hours on end. I could never understand why she wanted to buy carpets. We had enough at home and they would take up space in our bags. I never truly understood the point of owning a carpet until living in a concrete-floor room and having to wake up at 430am in the wintertime. As soon as my feet touched the ground, I could feel my body absorbing all the coldness and my knees paralyzing.
Fifteen years after our first carpet experience, two Venezuelans and one South African found themselves (again and for the first time) at the top of a tourist shop in Delhi. And so, at the top of the shop where the carpets live, we started. First warning sign should have been the fact that Tristan (my partner) shares too this fascination for carpets. Of all the rangers I have ever known, he was the only one to have ever had a Persian rug in his ranger room.
“We don’t have space in our luggage”.
“That’s fine, we can ship to your home.”
“We don’t have enough cash”.
“That’s fine you can pay by credit card”.
(Man they don’t make it easy).
“Thank you but I don’t think a carpet is for us”.
“My friend, take a sit. We just show you”.
And carpet after carpet they unraveled. They shared silk thread numbers, stories about the origin of the carpets, prices and special offers.
“I am NOT buying a carpet.
I don’t even understand why people buy them.
I don’t like the smell of silk.
Hand-woven. I wonder if they really help rural communities or if I will be participating in enabling slavery.
Why am I all of a sudden the head of this group?!”.
“Thank you, I think we are good though” – I just wanted to buy a handbag and I felt guilty for all their efforts in unpacking all these heavy items.
I was getting ready to go when all of a sudden, from the corner of the room a blue carpet came forth. Blue, like Aladdin’s magic one.
“Uh-oh, that one’s pretty”.
“Mom, help me get out of it” I said in Spanish.
“Oh no, this is your deal now” – she laughed in reply and sat there in silence. Talk about needing help from a supportive parent.
“Think about it, will you ever use it? You will have a house eventually” – she added. Never have I hated her double-standard logic more.
“Who even “uses” a carpet?!” I thought to myself. As I turned around for real moral support, the South African next to me had fallen in love.
“Do you want it?” I asked.
“Well it’s pretty but up to you. Don’t know what we’re going to do with it” – he said.
What I understood was “It’s pretty, I want it, please get it” . For the non-believers, let’s be honest here. A man won’t say something is pretty and give you free range on their money unless they really want it. It came as much of a shock to me as it did to you.
All of a sudden, without really knowing why, I found myself in the barter-dance for a blue carpet from Kashmir for a man who had come to India to look for tigers. Bravely I decided to make an effort for someone that only on occasion shows preference towards a material thing (this is really a story of my selflessness). There was something about this blue carpet that had caught our eye. Years of seeing my mom barter for such items came into mind and the time to think fast was now.
It was too late to pretend we weren’t interested in the blue carpet. Just to even our odds we threw into the mix a “liking” for other carpets too. “If you can’t, confuse them” (universal Venezuelan motto). When it came to discussing the price, we knew our efforts were getting somewhere when after stating our final proposed price the store owner glanced towards the tour guide. In this dance we would all have to come to the party.
And so, after what felt like battle of wills, we ended up with a blue carpet, all packed up into a small square to fit in our luggage for the rest our journey through India. You would think this is where it all ended. But remember, we were only at the top floor of the store, there was another floor to get through. There was no getting out of seeing all the items on the bottom level; all the items that I already knew I wanted to buy (unlike the carpet) when we walked in. The shock of reality and the knowledge that I would have to backpack through India with a blue carpet was the best restraint possible and not much was purchased afterwards.
Thankfully we dodged the next big bullet after the carpet: the saree (women’s traditional clothing)… only because I already owned one, my mom’s outcome of visiting such a shop in previous trips. I would like to say I was strong and walked out empty handed and avoided all other items thrown our way. But then.. they showed us scarfs, soft, pretty scarfs with ALL the colors.
“We can buy these ones for gifts” the South African said again (this story is really just his fault) … and I ended up with 2 for me, for all my efforts.
“You know Tristan, in Spanish we call this type of store the “House of deceit” because it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you will never come empty handed out of it”.
We still don’t know if we paid too much for the blue carpet. What we do know is that we were lucky enough to afford it and every time we see it, we still giggle at how got charmed into buying Aladdin’s carpet in New Delhi.