Seasoned travelers are too often insufferable cynics.
On a blue morning Seljuk, Turkey my wife and shared the patio of a nine dollar pension with a pair of self-proclaimed seasoned travelers. Our new acquaintances passed the time denouncing Turkish carpet hawkers and berating the foreign suckers who buy them. Melony and I listened to their pontifications, silently drank our muddy Turk cafť and then politely rid ourselves of their burdensome company. Mel and I travel whenever time and money align, and occasionally when it doesnít; over the past decade weíve had a lot of memorable experiences, but few surpass the night we bought a carpet in Istanbul.
After thirty six hours in airplanes and airports, we took a much deserved stroll through the Byzantine streets of Old Istanbul. As we neared the faded splendor of the Haya Sofa a bristle-faced Turk oozed alongside me and smiled. Though spotless, his blue suit was frayed at the cuffs, and though newly shined, his brown shoes were curled at the toes and crushed at the heels.
"Are you visiting?" he asked. His voice wrapped around me like a soft pillow.
"Yes," I replied "this is a beautiful city."
"Oh, you are Australian."
"Belgian, German, Swedish, Austrian?"
"No, no, no, no."
He paused to take a head-to-toe sweep of his quarry. "May I ask your country?"
"Weíre American." I confessed. I should note here that my wife and I were visiting Turkey in spite of a State Department warning inspired by several recent attacks on tourist areas by the Kurdish separatist movement the PKK. Melony is blond and fair-skinned, and in the wake of the Gulf War an elephant would have caused less stir on the streets of Istanbul than a yellow-haired American of the feminine persuasion.
"American." he echoed, "What city?"
Our new friend exposed a toothy grin as he covertly turned up his lapel to reveal an umbrella-shaped pin embossed with one gold-lettered word: Seattle. "I love Seattle," he said smiling "I have many friends there. Would you care for some tea?"
"Have you been there?" Mel asked.
"No, no, but I know many pilots from Seattle. Come have some tea." We later found out that our friend had worked at the Air Base in Alanya, Turkey Ė home of many of the U.S. aircraft deployed during the Gulf War.
I had read much of Turkish hospitality, and thinking that we were getting our first taste accepted the invitation. Melony squeezed my bicep disapprovingly.
Our friend motioned us down a black narrow lane where we embarked on a circuitous trip through slick alleys and steamy back streets. The crumbling Ottoman buildings Ė designed to bend, but not collapse during an earthquake Ė appeared to defy gravity when viewed from the rear. We stopped at an unmarked warehouse where our friend slid open a delivery door and, with one heavy click, lit half a dozen bare bulbs. The surprisingly small room, maybe fifteen by fifteen, easily contained two hundred double-knotted Turkish carpets.
Our friend gestured for us to sit on a pair of thick wool cushions before disappearing behind a curtain. Mel gave me a sideways glance, to which I responded by shrugging my shoulders. Melony and I make a good pair: Iím gullible, sheís incredulous and together we usually keep a balanced scale. Tonight was no exception. Despite the stacked, rolled and hanging carpets I wished to believe that we were on a social call. Mel, however knew otherwise. In less than a minute our friend returned with a tottering tin tray containing three fluted cups moderately filled with apple tea. These tulip-shaped glasses are a common sight in Turkey, and one regularly sees young boys hustling trays of tea to and from some clandestine central kitchen. Our friend pulled his pillow near mine and said, "I am Kurdish."
Holy shit I thought as a taste of metal filings erupted from my throat and washed over my tongue. I donít believe in telepathy, but I sent Mel a mental note anyway; donít drink the tea, donít drink the tea. She didnít.
"Like any man" he continued "I have complaints, but I donít want revolution."
A ball of sweat roller coastered down my vertebrae.
"I am a businessman, the PKK - you have heard of the PKK?" Mel and I nodded. "The PKK is bad for business. You are welcome in my country. Have you thought to buy a Turkish carpet?"
My heart rate slowed and I sipped my tea; it tasted like diluted apple cider. "I think they are very beautiful," I said, "but I also think that they are too expensive.
Our host curled his lower lip in a feigned gesture of skepticism and replied, "how long will you be in our country?" And so it went for the next thirty minutes: our friend would ask a question about carpets, we would give an illusive answer, he would give some thoughts on the weather, we would nod, he would direct our attention back to the carpets. When we finished our third cup of tea our friend got up saying, "I would like you to meet my sisterís husband, this is his business."
The instant we were alone Mel turned to me, "All of our guidebooks say not to buy a carpet in Istanbul."
"What? You think heís trying to sell us a carpet," I said incredulously
"Duh. Shush someoneís coming."
The owner stepped in wearing baggy trousers and a red satin shirt that appeared to be concealing a basketball. "Good night" he said nearly accent-free English "my brother-in-law tells me that you are interested in one of my carpets."
Mel began, "I donít think we can affordÖ"
"Letís not talk money," the owner said cutting in, "say your husband could afford anything here. Tell me three carpets that you like best." Mel hesitated. "Go ahead. Choose three, I am only curious." Before Mel had a chance to respond a third man, who we later termed the carpet flipper, entered the room. At a nod by the owner the carpet flipper began tossing carpets about the room. He whirled each carpet like a matador showing how the colors change hue when viewed from different angles. The owner sipped his tea saying, "tell me when you see something you like." To my surprise, Mel picked three.
Now the conversation strayed from carpets. We discussed what to see in the Topkapi Palace, what bus to take to Cappadocia, what towns to visit along the Aegean coast. But as quickly as the conversation diverged it was pulled back. "So my friend," the owner was now talking to me, "what do you think these carpets are worth? We can talk in dollars."
"I dunno. Weíve just arrived. I really donít think thatÖ"
"No, no, no." the owner said shaking his head. "I am only curious."
I relented. "Well Iíd say that that red one is worth about eight hundred dollars."
He laughed like a pirate. "I can see that you truly are an American. A fair man. The French come in here and say fifty dollars." The owner blew a raspberry. "Actually that carpet is twelve hundred." He turned to Mel "you have good taste. Do you plan to visit Ephesus? You should it is splendid." Out came our fourth cup of tea and I was beginning to think that this guy only wanted to sell us a carpet.
The owner finished his tea, pensively touched his nose with his upper lip and said, "Okay, I will sell you the red carpet for eight hundred."
Mel nearly spit out her tea. "We donít have eight hundred dollars," she gasped.
"Well maybe you would be interested in a smaller carpet, maybe a prayer rug." The carpet flipper now began twirling bath towel-sized rugs. "We call these starter carpets." The owner said smiling.
Mel shook her head.
"Okay, you know what you want." The owner said before adding a rhetorical "What can we do?" While he pondered the carpet flipper removed two of the three carpets Mel had originally chosen. "This one I can sell for five hundred."
"I like that one, but not as much as the red one." Mel answered.
The owner paused. "Have you heard of the town of Kas? It is very beautiful, you should visit there." A fifth tray of tea arrived, and after five minutes of polite conversation the owner motioned to the carpet flipper who retrieved the red carpet. The owner got up and walked around the carpet, "I want you to have this, so okay five hundred."
"I really donít think that we should buy a carpet tonight," I said. "Weíve just arrived andÖ"
"Okay four fifty."
Mel turned my wrist to see my watch. It was nearly ten thirty. "Maybe we ought to go. Perhaps we can come back tomorrow." She said getting up.
"No wait." The owner said calmly. He now turned to me. "I asked what you thought this carpet was worth and you gave me a fair price. Now" he added severely, "let me ask you what are you willing to pay."
"I really canít say. I mean we have very little money and we will be in Turkey for a long time."
"We are only talking. What would you pay?"
I should state here that I hate confrontations and instinctually do almost anything to avoid tense situations, but the fact is I had two hundred dollars in travelers checks and five Andrew Jacksons in my pocket, and no way was I going to blow it all on our fist night, so I tried another evasion. "I really donít have much money and I donít want to insult you with a low price, maybe we can talk more tomorrow." If only we could get out that door.
"Wait wait wait. You Americans are too kind. Tell me something, when were you married." Mel and I looked at each other with titled heads before she told him our anniversary. He looked to the ceiling and apparently did some mental arithmetic before saying "These carpets are a symbol of my culture and I want you to have what you have chosen. This is the carpet your heart wants." He paused dramatically. "Money means nothing to me, I have more than I need. I can give you this carpet tonight and recover my money tomorrow." He looked at us seriously "Do you understand what I am saying?" Mel and I nodded.
"Because you are a guest in my country and a guest in my home I will give you this carpet for two hundred and twenty two dollars."
I reached for my wallet when Mel said, "Thatís a wonderful price, and I think we can afford it. We will go and think about it and then come back tomorrow."
"Iím afraid that you donít understand," the owner appeared genuinely hurt, "this is a gift." He now turned to me. "Tell me, what if you gave a woman a flower and she said Ďlet me think about taking this gift,í would you feel happy if she accepted it the next day?" On this queue the curtain parted and two small children, each carrying a single lily, marched in and circled the room before climbing into their fatherís lap. He continued. "This is a gift, a gift as delicate as a flower."
"Okay, two twenty two." I said reaching into my pocket and exposing everything that I had.
The owner spring to his feet sending his son and daughter tumbling. "Let me see" he said reaching for the five twenties. I hesitated. He said "trust me" so I did.
He laid the cash alongside the travelers checks on a low table, he then switched the dollars with five travelers checks. The owner had let his guard down, he didnít care about the travelers checks, he wanted the cash. Suddenly I didnít want to part with the cash either, so I slid four twenties back to my side of the table. The owner placed the money in the center of the table Ėa kind of no-mans land - and snapped his fingers. The carpet flipper jumped off of a stack of carpets and tossed out a small prayer rug. "This," the owner said pointing to the three hundred dollars, "for both."
I passed up what today I think was a good deal and paid for the first carpet using one hundred and eighty dollars in travelers checks and forty two dollars in cash. Despite visible disappointment the owner smiled as he introduced his wife and two children while the carpet flipper rolled and wrapped the carpet that is under the chair in which I sit to write this. Melony followed me in shaking the ownerís hand, but he recoiled at the sight of her extended palm. "Youíll excuse me," he said "but I am a married man and cannot touch another woman." Mel nodded gracefully and followed me out the door.
Back at our hotel I placed the tightly wrapped carpet in the bottom of my pack and climbed, still wide-eyed, into bed. We laid in silence for several minutes before Mel said "Even if we got ripped off, I donít care. That experience was worth two hundred and twenty two dollars."