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Muddling through Marrakech

It seemed like a good idea.

The concept of traveling to Morocco on a whim, seeing three cities in three days, and having nothing planned save our hotels, seemed kind of alluring. Crazy even. It was the kind of thing my sane and practical friends would never fathom doing, which made it even more enticing. Armed with two more adventurous friends, I boarded a plane from Frankfurt to Marrakech ready for a thrill.

The little red taxi took us from Marrakech Ménara Airport through dusty city roads to our hotel. The drive was like a bumper car race; no lanes, just whoever could weave through and maneuver into the best position to finish first. May the best driver win. Our race participant rattled off partly in French, partly in English, and mostly indecipherable. He delivered us to the hotel in less than eight minutes.

We entered the shadowy lobby to meet the hotel manager behind the desk. He examined the three of us as we handed over our reservation details and said, ‘The room only fits two.’ We explained that we were unable to add an additional person when booking, but were willing to pay the extra fees now.

‘You can’t do that. The room only fits two, you must get a second room,’ he told us.

Slightly frustrated, we protested gently at first and when he persisted, we argued. How unfair!

The paunchy older man looked at us squarely and declared, ‘You can book a second room, or stay somewhere else.’

For fear of what we might meet elsewhere, we begrudgingly gave up the 1700 dirham—nearly double our originally booked rate—for the second room.

We climbed the stairs to the room only to find it fully equipped with a queen-sized bed and a single, more than enough space for three.

Dismal and unclean, the room was no particularly great place to linger, so we set our bags down and ventured out. A short five-minute walk brought us to Djemaa el Fna, the town square that is the center of daily life in Marrakech. At least the hotel had location going for it. I’d have to remember to include that in my review. There were so many things to see, merchants were selling everything. Ooh, henna!

I had always wanted henna. The designs displayed in the photographs were extravagant.

‘Don’t look so excited!’ my friend hissed, simultaneously jabbing me with his elbow. ‘They’ll think you are a sucker.’

It was probably too late for that and I didn’t care. I wanted to experience this. I moved closer to where the covered women sat. The larger of the two sprouted up immediately, taking my hand in hers.

‘Beautiful hands!’ she exclaimed in English, squeezing ink onto my hand in the same moment. She began before discussing cost, design, or anything with me.

Combien coûte-t-il?’ How much is it? I asked in the basic French I summoned from my ninth grade class.

‘Oh don’t worry, don’t worry,’ the woman replied dismissively. The pattern she drew was incredible, I observed in amazement. She murmured something in what must have been Arabic to the second woman. Woman number two peered at her cohort through the narrow slits of her chadra (facial veil) and began to ink my left hand. I wondered how much this was going to cost.

C’est combien?’ I inquired again.

‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, we make beautiful henna for you.’ They seemed so adamant that I shouldn’t worry I naively determined they might be doing this as a gift, or perhaps at such a nominal fee that I would not be fazed. I relaxed and decided to fret about the cost no longer. I watched as they painted my hands easily, as though they could do this with their eyes closed. After several peaceful minutes of indulgence, they were finished. They released my hands and I admired their work. I smiled gratefully and asked about the cost a final time.

This time, with the air of nonchalance, the woman replied, ‘500 dirham.’

I did a quick calculation of the new currency in my head—500 divided by…equals about…60 dollars?!—Was she serious? I wouldn’t even have paid that price for henna in the U.S.! I was not paying sixty dollars! I argued. I pleaded. I feigned ignorance at not having enough money. In the midst of my exasperated rant, the ink began to sting my hands with the full force of fire seeping through my skin. Then I complained.

‘Is it supposed to feel like this?’ I asked them. The women were angry and fed up, as was I. We settled, both reluctantly, on a fee of $35 U.S. dollars. I surrendered the still-too-high sum and was off.

As I passed the men charming snakes out of baskets, I made sure to only peek from the corner of my eye. I was afraid they might think I wanted to charm a snake with the rest of the dirhams in my pocket. Besides, I had to find a place to extinguish the fire ablaze on the backs of my hands. Immediately.

I found a restroom in a restaurant surrounding the square. Perfect, I could wash this off and then go upstairs for a bite to eat. The graying woman attending handed me four squares of flimsy toilet paper. I didn’t even bother to use the toilet. I had an urgent appointment with the sink. I scrubbed the ink vigorously from my hands as the woman curiously watched my every move. After most of the ink was gone and the burning ceased, I dried my hands with the four squares. The woman extended her hand in request for compensation. I dug into my pocket and handed her one of the coins I acquired from the airport money exchange and left. Only later, once we were seated awaiting our meal, did I realize I paid the woman an equivalent of nearly $3 U.S. dollars for the four squares of paper. At this rate, I was going to run out of money very, very quickly.

At least the prices on the menu looked reasonable. Excited to sample authentic Moroccan cuisine for the first time, I reviewed the menu thoroughly to be sure I’d make the tastiest choice. I settled on the mechoui, roasted leg of lamb. Yum.

The young man that had delivered iced water to our table approached again. Thinking he was ready to take our orders, I began, ‘ Je voudrais le—’

He interrupted my attempt to tell him what I would like to eat, and said, ‘Sorry, I give you wrong menu, I come back.’

Maybe he had forgotten to bring the specials page.

He returned placing the “correct” menus in front of us. These were identical to the first, all the same dishes, no new specials. Had he made a mistake and brought back the same ones? A few puzzled moments passed before I noticed what was different. The new menus had the same meals with higher prices. It seemed he had given us the “local” menu and after realizing that we were unquestionably foreign, he returned with the “tourist” menu. Sigh.

We were too hungry and defeated to argue. Instead, we waited for our now overpriced meals as we took in the view of the bustling square below.

The outdoor terrace where we sat was the perfect place to observe life as it happens here. People were everywhere. Men cooked meat over smoking grills and locals stopped to eat. Acrobats awed passing tourists. The henna ladies sought their next victim. The afternoon call to prayer rang out from the tower of the Koutoubia Mosque and people shuffled from all corners heading over to pray. In a matter of minutes, the once crowded square was completely quiet.

Finally, our food arrived and it was delicious.

Sated, we discussed what to do next. Had it not been an afternoon filled with dupery and monetary abuse, we might have pressed on. But we’d had enough for the day. Dispirited and utterly fatigued, we traipsed back to our hotel. Too bad the dank enclosure that was our room was not the sanctuary we craved at that moment. The intricate mosaic tiles, chipped and peeling away from the walls were the only indication that there was once beauty here. Nevertheless, we settled in and sleep came quickly. It had been a long first day in Morocco.

The adventure continued for two more days in Casablanca then Fès, dirhams swiftly leaving our grasp and padding the pockets of locals.

Every day around the world, from Los Angeles to Lisbon, travelers are at the mercy of local merchants. And while most will give you a fair bargain, you will inevitably encounter those that have turned swindling into an art form.

I was ill prepared for the adventures of a Moroccan medina. Next time, I’d probably consider traveling with a stronger backbone or a no-nonsense local to throw a little weight behind me. Maybe then I wouldn’t have ended up with an extra hotel room I never used, henna the price of a steak dinner for two, and a meal twice the normal cost. My sane and practical friends would have known this before leaving home. But then, where’s the thrill in that?

More by this author on her blog.

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