LOVED RUGS AND LOVE DRUGS – Istanbul

Unbeatable value!

Irrepressible value!



Turkish Viagra comes in a little jar. A silhouette on the lid depicts a toddler with an oversized member pointing skywards. ‘APRODISIAQUE,’ declares the label, ‘For Man and Women (sic)’. At 2 euros a jar you won’t find a better offer in your junk email and you won’t find a more interesting place to buy it than in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

My partner nudges me. I fix my gaze on a pile of carpets in the middle distance. I’m world class at avoiding any kind of medication and my consumer resistance is legendary. I can always sneak back, take a photo of the jars and maybe…nah.

Since Sultan Mehmet II founded this bazaar in 1461, Turkish salespersons under these beautiful domed ceilings have been talking up the unbeatable value and excellent quality of their spices, silks and carpets. Maybe ‘aprodisiaques’ too.

Istanbul lies at the European end of the Silk Road and the Grand Bazaar, ‘Kapali Carsi’ in Turkish, lies at the heart of Istanbul’s Old Town. Probably it’s not as exotic as it was before there were ATMs and labels in English, but the colours and smells here are enough to make the most jaded traveller feel like Marco Polo.

It’s one of the world’s largest buildings – 307,000 square metres in area, with nearly 4500 traders selling gold, hookah pipes, rose tea, dates, almonds, hanging lanterns, saffron, plastic dolls, pistachios, pashmina scarves, ceramics, football shirts, coffee, earrings, cushion covers, Turkish delight, prayer rugs, jeans, slippers, quilts and baklava.

While we tourists browse, photograph and haggle awkwardly, in quiet corners groups of Turkish men sip coffee, read newspapers and play backgammon.

Opening gambits are fired from all sides as we pass. ‘You from Australia?’ My Kathmandu backpack is a giveaway. ‘Holland?’ Is it my fellow browser’s blonde hair? They’re impressively accurate. ‘Come, look – something for you, special price.’ We keep our hands firmly in our pockets, clutching our valuables.

In other parts of the world there can be desperation, even aggression, in the hassling of market traders. Here a polite smile and a ‘No, thank you’ is cheerfully accepted.

At a shop selling gorgeous kilim rugs we soon find ourselves engaged in a discussion of the colours of modern Dutch painters. The salesman knows immediately that we have no intention of stuffing a large carpet into a small backpack and is happy to brighten his day with a chat about art.

In the narrow streets surrounding the bazaar swarthy gentlemen lounge outside shop windows filled with frilly lingerie, elaborate bed linen and wedding gowns.
We’re amused by the shabby mannequins in shop windows, with their blue hair, crudely painted beards and chipped noses.

More confronting are the young children selling tissues, bottled water and toys. Perhaps they’re helping Mum and Dad and earning a little pocket money during the holidays. Or maybe they skip school a lot. ‘Only twenty lire (about $13),’ says a boy, expertly balancing a spinning top on his head.

‘I’m too old to learn that,’ says my partner, applauding and edging past him.

He persists, ‘Ten lire, five lire…for you, three lire…’ This isn’t haggling, this is begging.

Would making a donation be encouraging child labour? We could give him the money we’ve saved by not buying that Turkish Viagra.

First published Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Saturday Age, 14/9/2013

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