The wife and I went to Morocco during our honeymoon. I was struck by the kindness of people. More than once in Rabat, people gave generously of their time and aid. At the Place du 16 Novembre Station, one woman criss-crossed the tracks trying to help us break a bill so that we could get tickets from the automatic kiosk. Finally, two young girls came to the rescue, and we all broke out into smiles of relief.
Rabat was also where I got my first taste of celebrity, as a young woman asked to have her picture taken with me. While I was quite flattered, my wife looked less amused.
All in all, in the non-tourist places, I felt quite warmed by peoples’ hospitality. The riad and hotel owners were gracious and accommodating, and just – happy.
But walking through the tourist areas left me with a feeling like I’d been invaded or had a bite taken out of my wallet. The tourist areas, especially in Marrakesh and Fes, are a feeding ground for scam artists, fake guides, merchants, and hawkers of all kinds. I find it hard to imagine what the true size of Fes and Marrakesh’s respective old medinas would look like if the tourists weren’t there. Just how many leather goods shops, all essentially selling the exact same goods, would there be? One? Instead of hundreds?
I always considered myself as having a good eye for scams and salesmen, but with millions of tourists (i.e., target practice) passing through these medinas every year, the salesmen of the medinas have taken it to a level beyond any I’ve ever imagined. To salvage the bottom falling out of my wallet during this trip, however, I’ve at least tried to come up with a few observations and lessons learned.
- In a land of almost undifferentiated competition, where every stall sells the same arrangement of leather bags, slippers, and tin teapots, the loudest and most officious salesman will attract the most lookers. And then:
- There is a dollar or euro or dirham amount you can put on a sense of guilt or obligation. When you’ve been talking to someone for a while, and someone has been talking to you for a while, you feel a sense of obligation. Which they convert into something.
- Contrary to the perception that we are rude, (young) Americans of a certain age, more than those of almost any other culture, are very polite and apologetic and carry a lot of guilt about things. When I’m accidentally bumped into by a young person, almost anywhere in the world, I know the American will say ‘sorry!’ Other people get by with an ‘excuse me’, or nothing at all, as such an event is normal. At dinner one night, a few students eating next to us felt it necessary to ask about the size of the tip necessary to leave behind.
- The souks (market places) in Morocco are sellers’ markets. They alone know their cost basis, and they’ve done thousands of transactions before you and probably have a better sense of the demand curve than you know of their supply curve, and so the only two ways to combat that are by a) ruthless shopping around and b) keeping your mouth shut when they ask you questions about where you’re from (i.e. wealth of your nation) and how long you’re staying (i.e. ability to pay).
- Beware any shop where a guide takes you. These shops are usually located so deep in the medinas that getting out of them, let alone finding them, requires you to have a level of neural-spatial programming that you as a tourist will not have. Anything quoted in a store like this is marked up by quadruple-digit percentages. Don’t feel bad. Divide the quoted price by about 10 as your opening bid.
- In Fes, LOOK and get quotes for things in the souks, but buy them on the Rue Sellaline, where the same goods are usually clearly labeled with prices and even if they aren’t, start at prices that are about 20% of the opening bids at the souks. Exhibit A: leather ottomans, starting at 900 dirhams in the souks, starting at 200 here. Exhibit B: tin teapots, starting 400 in the souks, 100 here.
- To get out of Fes, just look up and follow the signs for the Bab Bajloud all the way out. If in doubt, just keep walking uphill.
- A tip of 1 dirham is enough for the toilet attendants. This was inside knowledge given by a guide.
- Always ask the price before sitting down. In Marrakesh’s Djemma el Fna, don’t eat/touch the bread/sauce they put down in front of you unless you want to pay for it. It is not complimentary. Unless you speak Arabic/Berber, 70 dirhams seems to be the standard meal price for a foreigner, everywhere in the tourist areas.
- Get the mint tea, anywhere. You can get it without sugar, although it’s not as good.
- Don’t judge any of the buildings in the old medina areas from the outside. The entire ethos of the architecture is walled exterior/beautiful interiors.
- In Rabat – the tramway will take you between Rabat and Sale. The petit taxis cannot run between them. We didn’t know this and had to compensate one of our drivers for the risk of a turf war breaking out. We paid up, he acquiesced, but not before stepping outside and taking off his sign.
- North of the Kasbah Ouddayah in Rabat is an area with blue homes; as in, all the exteriors have been painted blue. If you don’t have time to go to Chefchaouen (the blue city), spending some quiet hours here is a decent substitute.