Monday, November 26, 2012

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 23

 Wherein We Get Swindled by a Berber

O, Glory Day, I have a whole afternoon, evening and following morning with nothing on my To Do list except write in my blog.  My Christmas shopping for the relatives in the US is done, (thank you Dubai mall), the packages have been mailed, the second mortgage has been taken out to pay for the shipping charges, my French homework is caught up and my hair has been dyed.  I even clipped my toenails, but that is probably more information than you needed to know about my To Do list.

We left off as I was leaving for Morocco, which is a country in Africa, in which we visited two cities, Casablanca and Marrakesh and drove cross-country between the two cities.  If you are a pleasure traveler, (i.e. not on a business trip), do not waste your money on Casablanca.  It is a very large, modern city sans character and it is hard to tell that you are even on The Dark Continent.  I was picturing an exotic, romantic village selling Humphrey Bogart t-shirts, but I don’t think they have ever even heard of that movie.  Or, if they have, their marketing people just suck.  (Hey, all you recent marketing grads with no job prospects—there’s a huge opportunity just waiting to be cherry-picked in Casablanca).   If you are on a business trip, however, Casablanca is great.  It has a Starbucks and Wifi in the hotels, a lovely waterfront with good seafood restaurants and a ginormous mosque that you can stand in front of and get your picture taken in order to change your Facebook profile.  It still has a long way to go, mind you.  Casablanca’s no Paris, but it is comparable to say, Omaha.  For Africa, Omaha is pretty good.

The car ride from Casablanca to Marrakesh was really interesting.  Our chauffeur, who was Mr. Big’s No. 1 guy in North Africa and who baby-sat us the entire time we were in his country, (truthfully?  I think he got some memo from the home office that said “Mr. Big and Trailing Spouse are your problem for the next five days.  Do not let them out of your sight and do not let anything untoward befall them”), was APOLOGETIC as he was driving us across vast swaths of hard-core desert studded with the occasional mud-manufactured village.  Hey, North Africa Guy, stop apologizing.  This is awesome!  This is Africa!  Cue the camels!

North Africa Guy was shocked and dismayed that we were planning on staying for three days in the medina.  The medina is the ancient part of Marrakesh where all of the tourists go to haggle and barter and get their picture taken with camels, monkeys and cobras.  The medina is, literally, a zoo.  It is also dusty, dirty, hot, stinky and a haven for pickpockets, hence, the reason North Africa Guy was so hesitant to drop us off there for three days without his eagle eye upon us.

NAG:  Are you sure, Mr. Big, that you want to stay in the medina?  There are lovely hotels outside the walls in suburban Marrakesh where, I say in my most humble way, you might be more comfortable.  Where there might be, say, clean running water and non-ptomaine-inducing meals to be had.

BIG:  No, no, NAG, it’s quite alright.  My beloved bride wants to absorb the true African flavor.  That, and she wants to launch herself into the thick of things and out-haggle the locals over some rugs.  Thanks anyway, though.

NAG:  It’s your funeral.

At least that’s what I though he said, but he mumbled and I didn’t quite catch it.  Maybe he said “it’s your decision” but I don’t think so.

Okay, as much as I hate to admit it, NAG was right in a lot of ways.  The medina is absolutely filthy.  DO NOT wear open toed shoes or light-colored clothing unless you are Jack Reacher and you normally throw away your shit at the end of the day and buy new stuff the next.   The medina is VERY third world.  There are no cars allowed inside the rabbit-warren of streets except on two or three main roads.  At any given time, one might see a giant tour bus filled with gawkers, surrounded by a donkey cart overflowing with green grapes for sale, three large men in caftans riding one scooter with a sheet of drywall balanced on their heads and a random street urchin with a pet monkey begging for change.  Glorious.

The name for a hotel inside the medina is a “riad”.  This translates to “charming, boutique hotel owned by a non-Moroccan that serves alcohol and provides an oasis of peace and calm at the end of a day which was spent inside the nightmare known as the medina”.  Our riad was the El Mansour  and it was owned by a fabulously gay Brit with an eye for decorating.  Really, it was heaven. 

NAG dropped us off, hesitantly, at the edge of the medina with strict instructions of where we were to meet him for dinner, “right here.  I will meet you right here at 8 p.m.  Not one minute later.  Do you have my mobile number?”  Yes, NAG, you have given us your mobile number at least ten times.  You even wrote it on my hand.  I know he was thinking, please, please, dear Allah, let these people still be alive by this evening.  We were met at the edge of the medina by one of the riad employees and escorted, on foot, through a bunch of twists and turns, deeper and deeper into chaos.

Once inside the hotel, and after a welcoming pot of hot, mint tea which was oddly refreshing even though it was 90 degrees F outside, we were given “the lecture”.  This is where the hotel employee STRONGLY ADVISES you where to go, what to do, what NOT to do and, basically, how to remain intact with all of your belongings still attached to your person, while you are outside “in the wild”.  His recommendation?  Use a private guide/escort everywhere you go.

Did I listen to this man who has lived here all his life, probably since the time that he, himself, was an urchin-monkey-boy?   Of course not.  I am too stupid to do such a rational thing.  My reasoning was thus:  I am on a mission to buy a bunch of cool rugs for pennies on the dollar and a guide is not going steer me to the good places.  A guide is going to steer me toward his family and friends, ergo, not into bargain land.

C’mon, Mr. Big.  Put down that cup of tea and let’s get a move on.  Time’s a-wastin’.  Now, if there was ever a time in 26 years of marriage that Mr. Big shoulda put his damn foot down, now was the time.  But he missed that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and off we went without a guide.  We had a map.  We had a few francs and a few euros.  We had a general idea of where we were headed.  And, after about 8 minutes and 400 meters, we had a new friend.

Ooooh, let me tell you.  This guy was good.  Really good.  We were walking down one of the main roads on the way to our first destination, the rug souk, (souk = market), when a semi-normal looking guy sidles up beside me and says “Monsieur and Madame, bonjour!  I’ve just finished my shift at the El Mansour and I saw you walking toward the market.  Do you know about the Berber market that is only held on Saturdays?  No?  Well, they have much better merchandise, especially rugs, than in the daily souk.  The Berber market is just here, to the left, would you like me to show you?”

Well, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, so I was a little skeptical.  This squirrely little guy did have three things going for him:

1.        He was speaking in French, so he knew we were Swiss.  (No.  They ALL speak French.)
2.        He did work at our hotel.  (No.  He was a street spy.)
3.        He dangled the carrot of some exotic market THAT NO ONE ELSE KNOWS ABOUT in front of me.  (Please.  I may want to revisit my comment about the turnip truck, because, apparently, I DID just fall off of it and it has left me in the dust.)

I offered some token resistance to the Squirrel to the tune of “no, but thank you anyway, and, before I totally blow you off, can you tell me a little bit more about this secret market?” kind of thing and, at that point, he knew he had a fish on the line.  What can I say?  I followed the Squirrel down a side street toward what I was sure was going to be some fabulous, hidden, Berber rug market.  I mean, it would be worth it to just meet a real Berber, right?

Okay, it was a rug shop.  But it was a three story rug shop being run by a 400 pound man of dubious Berber descent wearing white robes and a gold pointy hat and gold pointy slippers.  Y’all!  It was Ali Baba!  And the legends are true:  Ali Baba does have piles and piles and piles of beautiful carpets.  I was BEDAZZLED.  It was sick.  (At this point, it is important to remember that we still think our new “friend”, Squirrel, is legit and works at our hotel and that he is doing this out of the kindness of his heart.  This sentiment, however, was about to come to an abrupt end.)

I realize this story is going on too long, but I’m trying to set the stage, here.  So, we’ve got Ali Baba, the Big Kahuna, sitting on a bench with me with his hands resting on his giant belly and his pointy, gold feet peeking out from under his robe.  Squirrel has disappeared completely.  Instead, we have Ali Baba’s henchmen unfurling carpets out in front of me one after the other after the other and we have poor Mr. Big pacing around the edges of this brick and mud building praying that the Navy Seals are going to swoop in and save him.

The negotiations started getting down to brass tacks.  I was enamored with Ali’s carpets made out of goat skin.  I had never seen such a thing.  Ali even had one of his henchmen take out a Bic lighter and TRY TO LIGHT THE CARPET ON FIRE to show me how resilient his Berger goats were and, though my chalet might burn to the ground one day, my goat skin rug  would still be lying there, intact, on top of the ashes.   I was like, dude, I’ll take two.  What else you got?

And then.  And then.  It came time to pay for three rugs that I eventually decided upon at a price that I THOUGHT was awesome.  Granted, it wasn’t pennies on the dollar, but I was pretty proud of myself for haggling Ol’ Ali down by 80%.  Yes, pretty durned proud.  I pulled out my credit card.  (Hey, it’s a STORE, right?)

Ali Baba:  Madame, don’t you have cash?

Me:  Well, I have some cash, but not enough.  Don’t you take Visa?  It’s a Swiss Visa, after all.

Ali Baba:  How much cash do you have, exactly?

Me:  I have x amount of euros and x amount of Swiss francs.  (It wasn’t a lot, not nearly enough to cover the price of the rugs.)

Ali Baba (while trying to peer into my wallet, no lie):  I will take all your non-Moroccan cash and, perhaps, your husband could go to the bank machine and get the rest?

Me (starting to get a little bit uncomfortable):  No, I don’t think so.  I think I am done here.

Y’all.  The price of the rugs miraculously dropped by 50% in an instant and, in a peculiar juxtaposition, also fell my my blood pressure, common sense and any remaining futile resistance.  At that point, I looked at Mr. Big and said, “Honey, it is time for you to go to the ATM”, and lo and behold, Squirrel appeared in the doorway with, you guessed it, A SCOOTER, on which he was going to whisk Mr. Big away to take him to the ATM, which he did and we paid fully in cash and I got my rugs.

Okay, these people, these pseudo-Berbers, were not subtle.  As soon as Ali Baba had the cash in hand, he started doling out PORTIONS to all his henchmen and Squirrel, The Finder, right in front of us.  What a racket.  But, really, I didn’t care because I had my goat skin rugs and I was happy.  Mr. Big, whose eyes were rattling around in his skull over all these happenings that were astronomically outside his comfort zone, and who had still not recovered from his scooter ride where he spent the entire time trying not to come into physical contact with Squirrel’s back, grabbed my elbow and said, “we need to get the hell out of here before A) we die, or, B)you buy any more rugs of questionable skin content.”

Squirrel disappeared as soon as he had his commission in hand, never to be seen or heard from again, abandoning Mr. Big and I to find our own way through the lab rat maze out onto the main square where the hits just never stopped coming.  It’s a well-known fact that all of the activity in Djamaa-El Fna, which is pronounced like “c-e-n-t-r-a-l  s-q-u-a-r-e”, is the number one tourist rip-off on the planet.  Should you really, really want your picture taken with a monkey or a camel or a cobra, well, it is going to cost you.  If you even get within 10 feet from these hucksters, they are going to try to take your money.

While we were strategically skirting around the edges, being careful not to make eye contact with any shysters, suddenly Mr. Big finds himself with a snake just a-danglin’ around his neck.  Yes.  He had been roped in by one of the Snake Charmer’s handlers.  I was like, okay, here we go.  This is the way it works.  The main attraction sends out “feelers” into the crowd.  This advance guy negotiates a deal with the tourist.  The tourist pays 10 euros into the kitty and the tourist then gets to take a bunch of pictures of the main attraction, which, in this case was a snake charmer and also, not unimportantly, gets to have the snake removed from around his neck.

Luckily for me, all of these Moroccans speak French.  Well, I lit into him like I was his mother and he had just tracked dirt into the house.  He thought, just from looking at my husband’s clothes, that he had snared some naïve American tourists.  No, sir.  I have just been swindled by a Berber and I am now wise to your ways.  You need to get that stupid snake off of my husband’s neck before I make somebody bleed (which is the most horrible thing I know how to say in French.)  Needless to say, I got my pictures of the snake charmer and his cobra with no further ado.

This has been a long story, but a good one, yes?  I will have to begin writing Marrakesh Part Two.  I mean, I didn’t even get to the part where we were walking in front of the movie theater and spied the man carrying two live chickens upside down.  I also didn’t touch on the bizarre practice of the butchers who leave the penises on all of the animals.  Good stuff coming, my friends.

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