Once a week, the busy pace of military operations in Kandahar takes a break to enjoy a bit of shopping. Located just inside the front gate of the Airfield is the bazaar where, every Saturday, about 100 locals set up shop and sell some of their wares to military and civilian personnel who reside at Kandahar Airfield. Shopping at the bazaar is a crash course on Afghan culture, business and ethics. The locals provide a seemingly unlimited supply of local merchandise and not only is price negotiation considered acceptable - it is expected.
Unlike shopping excursions that we are used to in Canada, this one begins with a quick weapons check at the entrance. You must have a weapon but it cannot be loaded. As soon as you are inside the bazaar the first several booths appeal to the movie buff in all of us. Pirated DVDs line the shelves and there is a wide selection of films to satisfy any taste. Those of us who have missed the latest blockbuster release in Canada need not fear for there are DVDs of all the latest movies, regardless of whether they are still playing in theatres or not. At times the quality is poor and at other times it is downright amusing, but the price of $2.00 per DVD cannot be beat. And it even comes with a complete money back guarantee. It lifts my spirits to know that even the criminal element is capable of sound business practices.
Once you move past the DVD section you enter into what makes the bazaar a truly fascinating experience. There are numerous shops that supply anything from antique war relics, handmade carpets, marble stoneware, traditional Afghan clothing and an odd variety of eclectic souvenirs that are bound to capture your attention. And the locals are always keen to make the sale. In a manner that makes the stereotypical used car salesman look like an amateur, the Afghans excel at the practice of entrepreneurialism. An aggressive approach is the norm and a slight tug of the arm or push in the right direction is generally nothing more than good business.
The rule of thumb is that the asking price is usually double what is reasonable. But, even this is not a surefire method for obtaining the best value for your money. Often many of the shops will sell the exact same merchandise and on more than one occasion I have seen local merchants who ask for a price that is close to ten times what their competition is offering only two or three shops next door. Any attempts to reconcile the difference will not result in any reconsiderations. It seems that they would rather lose one sale then lower their price. I guess the thought is that there must be someone who will pay the asking price for clearly this is the epitome of a supply versus demand economy.
But a trip to the bazaar is more than purchasing a few souvenirs or looking at what the locals consider as marketable goods. It is a chance to mix with the locals, to experience a bit of Afghan culture and to take you away from the stresses of operations, even if only for a short while. And perhaps, most importantly, it is a chance to pay ten times the fair market value for any item and be convinced by a shrewd merchant that you are getting the deal of the century.