Monday, March 27, 2006

Adventures in shopping

I need a new purse. For some reason, when I was packing to come here, I convinced myself not to bring any of the purses that I used on a daily basis at home. I had a least two that I loved, and several more that I kind of liked.

But somehow, I was under the impression that I wouldn’t be carrying things like a wallet, keys, or a cell phone here. That’s the only explanation I can think of, because when I packed, I brought a messenger bag, a giant backpack, a tote bag, and a supremely ugly purse that my aunt got for free for renewing her subscription to Self magazine, and foisted on me, one night when my defenses were down. Somehow, none of the purses I liked made the cut.

It turns out that, in fact, sometimes I want to carry a purse. So today, since I had to go downtown anyway, I decided to try to buy one. Which, in Dakar, means braving Sandaga Market. Which, until very recently, was a place I found entirely terrifying.

There’s actually a building called “Sandaga Market,” in which you can buy many things, mostly food-related, I think. But the market has spread into the streets and allies all around the building, and now the whole neighborhood is called “Sandaga”. There are stands and shops and tables and people spread out on blankets across the sidewalk—and, in case that wasn’t enough, there are people carrying their wares around on their arms, heads, and backs.

Walking through the market is… a mite intimidating.

Every step of the way, there are people accosting you from all angles. “Loo begg” What do you want? Someone else: “Tu es belle. Tu es francaise?” You’re beautiful. Are you French? A third, fourth and fifth: “C’est pas cher.” It’s not expensive, as they thrust beaded necklaces, horrid souvenir t-shirts, cheap knickknacks into your line of sight. The people with the least appealing stuff tend to be the most insistent. Last time I went to the market, a man followed me for more than 10 minutes, begging me to buy a cheap souvenir kora (traditional instrument). It was the Friday before a huge holiday, and most people had already left the city to head to the celebrations, so the market was half-empty. His trinkets were atrocious, but I felt utterly heartless as I refused to buy them in the face of his desperation.

If you stand still for a moment, the crowd swarms. A man selling jeans pulls out a pair and holds them up to you, tries to get you to take them in your hand. “C’est tres jolie. Ca te va tres bien. Je sais que c’est ta taille. Attend, je vais chercher un autre.” It’s very pretty. It looks good on you. I know it’s your size. Hold on, I’m going to find another.

It’s psychological warfare. You hold all the cards—nobody can make you buy anything. They can’t even make you listen to their sales pitch. But they keep talking, showing you different items, hoping you’ll forget that you can just walk away.

And then there are the people who just want to help. Follow me. You’re looking for a purse? There are tons more over here. Hang on, I’ll give you my business card. Just come over here to my store, and the next time you’re looking for something, you can give me a call.

In the past, I’d venture into the fringes of the market, and within five minutes, I’d beat a rapid retreat.

The last time I went to the market, however, I went with Bamba. He’s one of my closest friends here, and when I told him how much I hate Sandaga, he just laughed. He designs and sews clothing, which he sells at Sandaga, and the market is his home away from home. He knows everybody, can find his way to any corner backwards and blindfolded, and can’t imagine a better way to sell his clothing.

For me, the market always felt so antagonistic, a full-bore attack from all sides. Walking through, I put up all my defenses---clutch bag tightly, avoid all eye contact, walk fast, stop for no one. But soft-spoken, mellow Bamba is one of those guys in the enemy’s front line. It was perhaps time to re-evaluate. Maybe if I let my guard down a teensy bit, I’d be able to see past the machine gun sales pitch, to see the salesmen instead.

Of course, walking through the market with Bamba is completely different, by virtue of the fact that he is there. Even aside from the fact that we run into his friends every two feet, his presence wards off some of the more aggressive salesmen (and if not, he can easily send them away with a few words in Wolof). But after an hour or two hanging out there with his friends—who all chatted with me, offered up their seats, and were perfectly content not to sell me anything I didn’t want—my hatred had greatly dissipated.

Thus it was that a week or so later, I felt brave enough to endeavor actually to buy something. Namely, a purse. I intended to go alone, but I ended up heading downtown with Awa’s cousin (who I’d just met) and when I confessed my intention, she easily offered to come with me when we'd finished our other errands.

And thus began the world's most epic shopping trip. We walked through the entire market at least three times, looking at all the bags, with all the different vendors chasing after us, showing us bags, promising that there was MORE! BETTER! just up ahead.

In the middle of the first loop, we ran into Bamba, who decided to join the expedition. With him along, there were even more people stopping, chatting, trying to help, and sell, etc.

I was feeling incredibly picky—I think partially as a response to how overwhelming the experience was. As if, without a very specific idea of what I wanted, I’d get strong-armed into something I didn’t want. So with armies of people trying to please me, all I kept saying was, “no, that strap is too long.” “No, that one’s too big.” “No, I don’t want a black one.” “No, I REALLY don’t want a white one.” Until I was afraid everyone would just walk away in exasperation.

On the second loop, I finally saw one bag I liked, but the guy wanted more than $50 for it. Right. I've never spent more than $30 on a purse in my life, and I wasn't going to start today. Anyway, I only had $20 on me. And for the record, my friend's purse cost her $6. So we walked on. And the next bag I saw that I liked? The guy asked for $70. That, of course, is what happens when they see white. Not that he expected to get that much—you’re meant to bargain. But when the starting price is that far from the neighborhood of reason, it’s fairly unlikely you’re going to find a mutually acceptable price.

So after almost two hours, I walked away empty-handed. And my poor friends, one of whom I'd only met about five hours previously, had stuck through it all with me.

The thing was, though… It was kinda fun. I mean, I really didn't intend to spend that much time looking, and I still wish I’d been able to get that first purse down to $20, but…

Okay, it’s not the mall. But I definitely didn’t hate it. Which is good. Because I still need a purse.


Blogger 21st Century Mom said...

Somehow my local shopping mall seems more mundane and more comfortable all at once.

I love your stories. Keep 'em coming! And may you find a fabulous $6 purse some time soon.

9:15 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hey Lady. I have $5.95 purse for you right over here. Yes. Very nice. Just you color. It will complement your eyes. Let me show you. Yes. Just a little further on here. Okay. How much do you want to spend? Okay. I give it to you for $5. No questions asked. Thank you. Come again. I always help you. You pretty lady. Would you like to go out on my catamaran next weekend?

9:24 PM  
Blogger a.maria said...

aw man, sounds like the markets in mexico... they're impossible.

now then.. how 'bout some photos?!?!?!!!

10:00 AM  
Blogger jeanne said...

Love the map! and if you are really desperate for a purse, there's this thing called the internet...i'm just sayin'! cuz that sounds like psychological warfare to me. but then, most of shopping sounds like psychological warfare to me!

yes, it's high time for some pix! (we are demanding and relentless...kind of like the market...)

1:03 PM  
Blogger Denise said...

I can run down to Target for you and find something lovely for under $10, I'll bet. Don't know how much shipping would be, though.

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Kate said...

Hey, bargaining can be fun! Especially if you see it as a game.

If I wanted a purse, and the going rate was $6, but the person was asking over $50, I'd smile and laugh. "You're joking, right?" Something like that usually starts the bargaining game without you having to put a price on it.

Soon after, it usually helps to point out similar items you or a friend has bought or seen for much cheaper. "No, $30 is still way too much for me - this purse was only $6!"

And if that doesn't bring the seller into the realm of reasonable prices: "I really can't. Thanks though." And walk away. Slowly. Chances are, the seller will offer you a better price.

And if not? You're bound to find another pretty purse somewhere else.

But if the seller does start offering more reasonable prices, don't give in right away. That's when you start making counter-offers - it never hurts to try, anyway.

Of course, it's highly unlikely you'll ever get to pay the same price as locals. But you don't want to pay the fool's price, either.

Three other rules I bargain by:
1) Avoid bluffing. Don't walk away if you're really not willing to let the item pass. Some items are truly unique and worth overpaying for - and you don't want to walk away only to return later.
2) Cut unpleasant exchanges short. If you're not enjoying the bargaining, and you feel like the person is trying to take advantage of you (and not being particularly nice about it), just walk away. In bargaining situations, you want to feel like you got a deal AND you want the seller to be happy.
3) Be a repeat or bulk buyer. If you're looking for multiple items, try to buy as many as possible from the same vendor. It's a good way to establish friendly rapport with the seller (which can make the shopping experience more enjoyable in the future), and you can often get a multi-item discount.

8:18 PM  
Blogger jeanne said...

(Wow, Kate, that is impressive!! You should write a book on how to bargain!!) N., I forgot to add that I was THRILLED to see that I could still read--AND comprehend--french!! and now I know Wolof, too!! this is very exciting.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Noames said...

Wow. Kate, not that I wouldn't love to hit the market with you, because you KNOW I would, (and when exactly are you coming to visit?) but I feel the need to defend my maligned bargaining skillz here. For the record, for the first purse, that's exactly what I did. I laughed and said I've never paid a price like that in my life. I pointed to my friend's purse, and said she paid $6. After a fairly protracted discussion (mostly in Wolof, mostly conducted by my Senegalese friends), he would only go as low as $30, which was more than I was willing to pay, so I walked away.

The second purse was much the same. He said $70, I laughed and started to walk away, and he said, wait, that's not the last price, what do you want to pay. I told him $10, and he countered with $20. I could have probably got him lower, but I realized that I didn't really like the bag that much, and so I walked away.

And you should see me with the cab drivers. :)

3:41 AM  
Anonymous Kate said...

Very important details that you left out! I have to admit that I was surprised by your descriptions (I thought, I know Naomi knows how to shop!), but with what you wrote it sounded like you were very lost. Ah, I suppose this is what blogs are all about...

But anyway, I *love* to bargain, and often wish there were markets like that in America. It really is a game. I had a fabulous time bargaining in Ecuador!

10:05 AM  
Blogger Rae said...

That sounds very frustrating! I felt the same way in NYC when I was buying stuff off street vendors and they swarmed, and the same in Mexico when we shopped some markets. It's too much pressure!

10:22 PM  

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