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More Than I Bargained For
(morocco)
More Than I Bargained For

One of Marrakech’s most exhilarating features is that the moment you step outside, you’re fully immersed in the chaos. Upon exiting, you're met with the challenge of dodging “once-in-a-lifetime” offers, denying you've met total strangers before, and tetrising through narrow streets containing a continual flow of pedestrians, cars, donkey-driven carts, and mopeds. Walking anywhere is an adventure just in itself.

With that in mind, you’re left with two strategies for exiting any building: either know exactly where you’re going or look like you know exactly where you’re going. If you don’t, someone will surely assist you.

For this particular exit, my journey began with attempting the latter. I had a last-minute change in my itinerary and I needed to kill some time. After visiting the Ben Youssef Quranic School, I decided that I would wander the markets, but with intentionality.

I step outside of the school and head down a main thoroughfare, casually glancing at my phone for anything interesting that would get me off the street. However, this labyrinth I found myself in was also a bit of a mystery for Google. Despite wanting to maintain my unwavering linear direction, I was forced to make a sharp 180 to correct for a turn I had missed a few yards behind me.

It was at this point that I lost my façade.

In an instant, street “experts” emerged from the shadows informing me that the road ahead was closed and that I should promptly follow them for a shortcut. True or not, I had no interest in finding out. I resolved to continue my backtracking despite the surrounding demands around me. Simultaneously a local, heading in the same direction as me, cast them all off in a series of Arabic rejections.

“It’s best to ignore them. If you’re trying to see something interesting, follow that road — trust me, I only do it for the shukran”, he advised.

“Thanks. What’s the shukran?”

“You know, thank you, shukran. I do it for the thank you. No payment.”

“Ah, well shukran!” I then proceeded to confirm the list of directions he had previously given.

Whoops.

“You take that alley and follow the narrow path before taking a right and…Come come I’ll show you.”

“Oh, no no…I thi-“

“I do it only for the shukran. Come, follow!”

Now, I had been warned of situations like this. But, despite everything within me saying I should disappear before my new guide turned around, I persisted, camera in hand and deeply curious.

So where were we going? Between his many suspicious phone calls as we walked, my guide informed me that only once a week the Berbers travel from the Atlas Mountains to bring their goods to sell in the Medina. This especially included leather and rugs. Fortunately for me, I had caught this opportunity on the last day the Berbers were in town.

Our first stop, which didn’t relieve my out-of-body experience, was down a series of vacant alleyways and to a literal hole in the wall.

(My guide on the left, the tanning machine operator on the right)

I was a little unclear on what this machine specifically does, however, I believe that it’s part of unhairing or shaving the leather. Exiting the wall, we make a quick succession of turns before reaching the tannery.

Before we enter through the black gates, my guide introduces me to another guide — a “friend” specializing in the actual tanning process. Taking the lead, he hands me a fistful of mint to hold up to my nose that barely covers the intense smell and begins explaining the process.

As you can imagine, this part is a bit of a blur for me. I really wanted to pay attention to the tour, but I was also preoccupied with seeing my life flash before my eyes and trying to keep tabs on possible exits. But, seeing a couple other tourists in the compound temporarily pacified my fight-or-flight. Here’s what I can say about this whole authentic tanning process:

Before animal hides can be turned into goods, they need to be softened first. This is done by soaking the hides in pools of water and lime. Then, workers add waste products from chickens, dogs, and other animals until thoroughly soaked and softened. From there, softened hides can be left to dry. You can probably imagine the smell now — pretty ripe.

(Interestingly, I was hoping to photograph the laborers at work, but I was quickly discouraged)

After the tour, we exited and walked to our last stop. On the way, my tannery guide points out men holding a spindle of string that seemed to wrap around whole buildings. Indeed my eyes were not deceiving me, and the man really was wrapping the bottom level of the building in thread. This is part of the process of creating threads used in weaving Moroccan rugs. Don’t ask me why they do this, it’s authentic OK?

After a brief walk through some more alleys, we end at the official gift shop. I was hurried in and connected to a new man trying to get me to purchase literally anything. Now, I was genuinely interested in buying a rug, so I thought, why not give into the tourist trap a little? I knew of the haggling aspect of every purchase in Morocco. I felt prepared.

I expressed interest to my sales-attendant and he promptly sat me down and beckoned two assistants to begin modeling rugs for me. He advised me to indicate when a rug “spoke to me” as each rug has a destined owner. After seeing a few, there was one red rug that caught my eye. Careful not to reveal my favorite, I made a mental note and casually requested for the next rug to be shown.

I was pretty pleased with my “tactic” and I eventually ended the show with an aloof look on my face. Exasperated, my sales-attendant asked to know my thoughts.

“Nothing is really speaking to me, but I do like that red rug," I responded with a subtle shrug.

Within a few beats, he whips out a order form and pen, waiting for my signature. I'm already losing my act of pretend indifference and beginning to sweat a little and so I “expertly” maneuvered with, "...umm, how much?”

"My friend, the Berber women put backbreaking work into weaving each rug by hand. It will be 4000 MAD.”

Now, he’s not wrong — there is a ton of effort put into these beautiful hand-made rugs. However, 4000 MAD is about 400 USD…for a 3ft x 5ft rug. After the stressful journey I just had, I wasn’t feeling too understanding.

“Wow”, being sure to over-act, “I don’t think I can do that. How about...3500.” I really thought I did something there with that counter. Surely that was a respectable counter point? I didn't want to offend him.

He recoils, “My friend, these old women travel all the way from the mountains! These are really poor people you see my friend. We’ll do 3800 MAD” and he stands and presents his hand for a shake.

The thrill of the haggle was waring off and I was feeling pretty out of my depth. So, I conceded with what I thought was a minor victory — “3800 MAD it is”. I sign, he charges my credit card, and I put the wrapped up rug into my backpack. My nerves coming down a bit, I thought our story was about to be tied up in a neat bow: I got a serendipitous tour from a suspect series of strangers, got some photos, I haggled for a rug, and ended it up still in one piece. Scam safely avoided?

Upon exiting, I’m immediately accosted by the tannery guide — “Now, you pay me!”

I turn my hands up at my “shukran” guide, but he pleads, “I get nothing from this, just pay him!”

Call me slow, but it was at this moment I realized that I was near the end of a relay race, and I was the baton. An elaborate choreography of hand-offs, starting from the moment I was told the road was closed.

It’s so obvious, of course, but I was swept away by it anyway.

The tannery guide demanded 200 MAD, however I demonstrated that I only had 150 MAD in cash and I just paid for a rug. The 150 would have to do. He began to protest, but he quickly decided to accept the smaller amount and disappeared.

(The Moroccan rug that spoke to me. It now lives at the foot of my bed.)

Now, you’ve probably concluded that I was fleeced. I don’t disagree with you. However, you probably don’t know just by how much.

That night, I had dinner with my AirBnb host at his restaurant. Still in disbelief, I readily shared what I experienced that day — being sure to take a little extra time on my redeeming haggling “win”.

He chuckles and points at the long rug we’re sitting on — about 12 feet long or so.

“I paid half for three times the length.”

“$200? For a rug the width of your restaurant. You’re kidding.”

“Not at all — you were conned. But, don’t feel bad, this happens all of the time. Next time, don’t talk to anyone on the street and when you haggle, cut your counters in half.”

A humbling and stressful experience for sure. But, hey, had I been more economical with how I chose my friends (and my rug buying), I probably wouldn’t have a story and the lessons to share! Worth it in my book.

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P.S.
While writing this, I considered if I should recommend visiting the tanneries in Marrakech. While certainly a fascinating process and a good way to understand the effort involved in some souvenirs you might want, there are more colorful tanneries you can visit in Fez. I've never been to Fez, but from what I've heard, it may yield a more pleasant experience.

Of course, while I'm absolutely grateful for the entire experience and don't regret a thing, I wouldn’t recommend wandering into any tour like I did. Anyone who says they're a guide without an obvious and official badge is not a guide. Please get an official guide as Morocco heavily regulates them for your protection. In my experience (after the adventure above), they are absolutely worth the extra expense and planning, and will enrich your trip.

— Mark