It's a bazaar world

Haggling in Moroccan markets taught us an important lesson: everything is negotiable.

My wife and I thought we drove hard bargains at home in Canada. But when we recently quit our jobs to spend a year traveling the world, we discovered that we’re actually wimps by global standards.

Our education began when Katherine and I lined up for a bus in Casablanca. “Sixty five dirham,” the man behind the ticket counter said. I fished out my wallet and paid him the equivalent of $10 for the three-hour ride to Marrakesh. We then walked outside, sweating in the Moroccan heat. A man there informed us that we would have to pay 20 dirhams more to put our backpacks in the luggage compartment. We handed over the cash without complaint.

Katherine jumped on the bus while I carried our backpacks round to the luggage area and got ready to load them. My pack went in without a hitch, but when I went to pick up Katherine’s, I found that a man with no apparent connection to the bus company was already holding it. I grabbed it from him and tossed it into the luggage compartment. But he wasn’t giving up. When I stepped onto the bus, he followed a step behind, demanding 20 dirhams for his entirely unnecessary help. “Sorry,” I said. I had already paid for our tickets, paid for the baggage, and now this joker wanted money for nothing. No way.

When I shook my head, he went into a rampage. Standing over me, he cursed and ranted. I feared for my life. Opening my wallet, I handed him five times what he probably would have accepted, then sat there shaking.

It was the classically Canadian response. According to the Lonely Planet Guide to Morocco, Moroccans rank Canadians third in the world gullibility rankings, behind only the Japanese and the Americans. In Marrakesh, hard-bartering merchants try to find out where people are from, then price their goods accordingly.

Over a cup of mint tea with an amicable merchant called Muhammad Ali, I learned first-hand what Moroccans think of Canadians. According to Ali, we’re financially naive, easily intimidated and lousy at bartering. We think we’re turning the screws when we bargain a merchant down 10%. Little do we know just how big the mark-ups are. “Go for an 80% reduction in the bazaars,” he told me.

So I did. Merchants yelled, called me crazy, told me I’d insulted them, and repeatedly demanded that I name a better price. But it worked! Time after time, when I started to walk away, the merchant would discover — much to his amazement — that he could meet my price. Soon Katherine and I started bartering for everything: orange juice, taxi fares, hotel prices and even car rental expenses. It worked beautifully.

When we left Morocco to tour Europe, we figured our haggling days might be at an end. But we soon discovered that our newfound willingness to dicker still paid off. Most of our best deals came from offering cash at small, privately owned establishments. We always decided what we wanted to pay before we started negotiating and we never deviated from our price. When the storekeeper or hotel clerk wasn’t amenable, we weren’t afraid to walk out.

Most of the time, though, we were surprised at how easy it was to find a deal. In Seville, Spain, we strolled into a nice hotel. “Beautiful place,” we told the man behind the desk, “but we were hoping to pay 30 Euros instead of 40.” Holding up the cash, we asked, “Would that be okay?” It was.

The same strategy worked in Albufeira, Portugal, where I bought a pair of Levi’s jeans at a substantial discount while stunning a pair of on-looking British expats. And our success continued in the New World. In San Francisco, Katherine eyed a marked-down cycling jersey at a sports boutique. “This is all I can spend,” she told the manager, passing over two $10 bills. He was happy to knock 20% off the sale price.

Right now, we’re in Baja, Mexico, where fellow travelers are marveling at our bargains. True to the form we learned in Morocco, we’re friendly, firm and — most important — unafraid of rejection. If we can keep this up, we figure we’ll save enough money for an annual trip to Marrakesh — for refresher lessons, of course.