Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Travel Notes: Marrakech Day 2 AKA Day of the Scams AKA We got Cayenned

Our first full day in Morocco was a big learning experience. When you're a tourist, especially who can't speak either of the main languages of your current destination (Arabic and French in this case), being scammed is just a way of everyday life you come to accept.

However, I wasn't fully prepared for just how clever the salesmen are here! Even when you don't realize what they're selling, you've probably already been sold.

I feel extremely safe though. There's little chance that anyone will be stealing from you while you're not looking because they're too busy stealing from you right in front of your face...and with a smile.

1. Stop in a souq selling spices. The shopkeeper is insistent that we sit down while he shows us everything he has to offer. He's very friendly and charming, cracking jokes about Michael Jackson changing colors as he demonstrates a brown colored natural pigment that turns blue in water.

We learn lots about the different teas and supposed medicinal qualities and cosmetic purposes of certain herbs and spice blends. There's a male and female version of viagra tea. Cumin cures gas. Kohl for the eyes.

I'm out of soap, so I purchase a nice smelling bar of amber.

We buy way more "ras al hanout" than intended, which is a blend of 35 spices and literally translates to "top of the shop." I used to buy it at a spice shop (Christina's) in Cambridge, Mass., and am a big fan of the stuff for tagines or as a marinade.

The shopkeeper lets us sample a whiff of his blend, which is supposed to represent a mix of the best spices in his shop, and then he spoons some into a bag for us from a separate bigger barrel.

We negotiate a price, which we later realize is still a bit high, but oh well.

The soap: After one shower, I certainly don't feel any cleaner. It just rubs off this grimy yellow substance instead of a nice, frothy lather. At least it smells pretty still.

When we try our baggy of bright orangey-red, overpriced spices with bread, I quickly realize it's not the same as what we'd smelled before, but instead it's basically just...cayenne pepper, which has become our new catch phrase for being scammed.

2. Visit the Bahia Palace for 10 dirham. Lots of beautiful tile work, light fixtures and carved walls with ornate stone designs. Actually looks a lot like our hostel though. Think we may have gotten cayenned on this one.

However, the former resident slave-turned-vizier Abu Bou Ahmed had a harem there that housed four wives and 24 concubines. Also the site of P. Diddy's 30the birthday extravaganza.

3. Dar si Said. 10 dirham again. Museum with local crafts, such as rugs, jewelry, clothing and tea pots from the 1900s on display. Actually looks a lot like the items on sale all around us in the souqs. Cayenned again.

4. Meet a new "friend" Khalid who invites us for tea in the shop where he works. Insists he just wants to practice his English as he's going to university in Toronto next year. He doesn't want any money from us.

We have a lovely conversation seated in a circle on a rug of the shop, sipping super sweetened Moroccan mint tea (I was nervous about drinking the water, but I seem to be fine so far...we had about four free cups). In addition to standard small talk, we discuss themes of politics, cultural identities, future life goals and aspirations, traditional and modern gender roles, and human rights.

He seems very intelligent and offers some good advice on how to approach Marrakech as a tourist.

Khalid even takes us to dinner because we needed assistance finding traditional Moroccan fare, not the tourist stuff. He says he'll help us save money as students.

However, when he brings us to a fancy restaurant steps from the main square, which is filled with white people and has a 180 dirham fixed price menu (that's$23.50 USD and more than nine times what we paid for dinner the night before), we knew something was wrong. We were about to get cayenned.

Dan and I give each other a panicked tourist look and simultaneously begin explaining that we can't afford this meal. Then we bolt for the door as Khalid keeps explaining that he can still meet up with us the next morning to show us his favorite hammam (public baths that are popular here) or introduce us to some of the cheaper travel agencies.

All of a sudden our whole three-hour friendship with Khalid is based on lies. We replay everything we've said to each other. Was any of it true?

Does his friend really go to Harvard?

Is his father really a philosophy professor?

Did P. Diddy really have his birthday party at the Bahia Palace?

Does he really have two dogs?

Ugh. Suddenly everything in this town tastes of cayenne!
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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