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Bargain hunting in Tunisia, it pays to be persistent

Updated on August 11, 2011


As our scooter tour weaved its way into the centre of a large marketplace, the alleyways narrowed and became cluttered with merchandise. A flurry of activity enveloped the main market of Houmt Souk, the largest city on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The place is a gold mine for exotic bargained priced North African souvenirs. Impressive hand-woven camel hair carpets, luxurious leather sandals, colourful camel skin lanterns, local pottery, spices and olive oil are all very popular items.

With so much variety available in the numerous shops I had a hard time deciding what to buy. However, deciding what to buy wasn't as challenging as getting it for the price I wanted. I discovered that shopping in Tunisia is an exercise in patience and persistence. I had to be patient with our guide who took our group to stores offering low-grade merchandise, less than spectacular selection and terrible prices. Our guide had taken us to his friend's store where he hoped to get a cut on the sales.

We had just arrived in a huge marketplace; and I knew I would find greater variety elsewhere in stores where I could bargain on my own terms. All I really wanted was to get out and explore the market, take in the sights and sounds and admire the vibrant colors.

Finally our guides gave us time to explore the market on our own.

The sun was warm and the market was buzzing with activity. My nose led me to a cafe where chefs were using spices to prepare a tajine while local men lounged outside smoking from a shisha pipe and drinking mint tea.

The clicking noise of scissors led me to a carpet factory where I watched in awe as threads of colorful camel hair were woven together into perfect geometric shapes. The same colorful designs led me through a threshold of carpets and into a large store. Dozens of carpets of varying colors and sizes hung from the tall ceiling down to the floor.

Within moments of my walking in, the shopkeeper presented me with a huge camel hair carpet. Shades of blue formed an elaborate geometric design. Lifting a carpet that was large enough for a living room the man offered it to me for a price of 85 dinars, equal to about $85 US.

It seemed like a great bargain, considering a decent carpet that size at home would cost at least 10 times as much, but I wasn't interested. I would have been too difficult to take with me on my scooter back to the hotel, a two-hour ride away.

But this persistent shopkeeper didn't buy my reluctance. He continued to describe the carpet's attributes; and when I failed to budge he lowered the price down to 65 dinars. Before I could tell him I was more interested in buying camel leather sandals, he dragged me to the back of the store to show me the carpet maker working away on his next creation.

When I told him I was still not interested, his price dropped to 25 dinars. Remarkable. Could I get such a deal on what I really wanted? I asked myself. All I wanted was a pair of soft camel leather sandals, not a carpet that was awkward to carry and not particularly pretty. I hadn't seen these sandals in any other store, so I knew if I wanted to get my hands on them I would have to show an equal amount of patience, persistence and pretend I didn't really want them.

When the shopkeeper finally gave up on selling the carpet I casually inquired about my chosen sandals. With a glimmer of hope in his eye he said the price was 40 dinars. Now skilled at his game I replied I'll take them for 10 dinars.

He pretended to be shocked and offered to give them to me for 30 dinars. When I refused to budged from my 10-dinar price he quickly lowered his price down to 20 dinars and stayed there for a while.

I had to be prepared to walk away and pretend I didn't care, even though I really wanted them.

As I said goodbye, turned around and started to leave, he pleaded for me to return and started wrapping the sandals, compromising on 15 dinars. I placed 10 dinars on the counter and we made the exchange.


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