4.   Passing Grade

By Paul Vanderveen

Copyright © 2003 by Paul Vanderveen

Some differences between Senegal and Morocco were evident as soon as we landed in Casablanca on a ten day vacation. Morocco was wealthier than Senegal, and the modern world had made greater impact. The "Caution Children Crossing" sign on the way into town was a welcomed relief, something I hadn't seen for the last couple months in Senegal. There were more trees and grass, less trash.
     After spending a night in Casablanca, we took a nice train to Marrakesh, reveling in the green fields and red poppies--a refreshing sight after the dry, sandy environment of Dakar. Morocco had suffered a long drought, but the winter brought heavy rains and now, in the spring, the fields were green, colorful with flowers, especially the red poppies.
     The smooth modern rails gave us a comfortable ride for the first segment, but gave way to the more typical clickety-clack as we got closer to Marrakesh. We had seats by the window and, after other occupants had disembarked, the compartment was ours. Camels appeared along the tracks, and when the train weaved around the hills and through towns, we could see the engine and other cars.
     A man paused by our compartment door, then opened it and hesitantly addressed me as though he recognized me from before. I figured it was a well-worn line, but we welcomed him anyway and he joined us for awhile, giving us some useful information and ideas--and encouraging us to have tea with him in Marrakesh and visit a cooperative with which he was associated, specializing in carpets and artesianal products.
     He gave us many tips. We would not need a guide in Marrakesh. We would eventually walk out of the medina and regain our bearings, if we walked straight in one direction. He taught us some basic expressions in Arabic. While many people spoke French, we would get further with locals if we tried to use Arabic.
     We first entered the Marrakesh market from "the meeting place of the dead," so named because long ago a king used to stick the heads of people he didn't like on poles. A couple would-be guides spotted us immediately and walked along, as in Dakar, trying to lead us in one direction or another. While we didn't hire anyone, we did allow one guide to steer us in the direction of a particular leathersmith. It was probably a family member, we figured, or a merchant who gives him something.
     We wandered around idly thereafter, browsing, and he eventually got the idea and left us. As he walked by some people with a professional tripod and large motion picture camera filming something in the medina, he gave the camera the finger, close-up, ruining whatever they were filming. I guessed that many people here didn't like photographers, as I had been told was the case in West Africa.
     When entering the medina thereafter, we walked decisively, as though we were old hands at this. It seemed to help to talk to each other while we walked, scanning everything. I was pleased with each success, acknowledging the guides' existence, saying hello but not hiring them. A direct, decisive approach seemed to discourage them.
     Occasionally we bought something, but often we just wandered around, looking. Some shopkeepers, as we browsed through their stalls, tried persistently to sell their products, asking "how much you pay?" After evading high pressure sales efforts for awhile, I thought of a more interesting response--the"ridiculously low bid" ploy. To one guy who wouldn't stop bugging me and whose opening price for something which I did not want was 750 dirhams, I said hello--acknowledging his existence--and added respectfully, "10 dirhams." I looked at him ignorantly, with a straight face, and waited. "You can't be serious!," he seemed to be saying. We had a brief conversation, I added that his product was of high quality--and he loosened up.
     After that approach worked the first time, I tried it again, improving on it--and it usually worked, usually eliciting amusement from the seller, although sometimes I first had to match his expressive astonishment and dramatic gesturing. Shopkeepers responded in different ways, a few just ignoring me at that point, but most getting personal in a friendly way, such as explaining how much they pay for the product or giving me advice on how to negotiate. One seller, from whom both Jan and I had made purchases, negotiating separately, confided that I should let my "Berber girl" do all my negotiating for me, since she was so much better at it.
     The shopkeepers were real people with different personalities and situations. "Acknowledging their existence" was beginning to pay off. Why feel put upon by our vast differences? Why do things the expected way and convey lack of interest as a rich foreigner who did not deign to acknowledge their existence? Doing the unexpected could get us beyond facades. I felt a tinge of worry at what I might find, but often it was just a human being trying to earn a living.
     The last time we entered the Marrakesh medina, no guides approached. A few tourists were easy to spot by their dress and hesitant way of walking.
     Outside the medina, especially on the streets around hotels, I started to spot potential guides before they spotted me. Some were sitting on walls, hanging out, and jumped down when they saw us. They were very accustomed to tourists trying to ignore or evade them. When they approached, I engaged them in conversation and used lots of body language. It was not hard to thank them and convey, even with my very limited Arabic and French, that we knew our way around and did not need a guide.
     After checking out the beautiful lobbies and orange groves of the most expensive hotel in Marrakesh, we passed by the guides outside, saying hello and declining their offers. When one guy asked whether we were guests at the hotel, I answered that we couldn't afford to stay at a place like this. He invited us to stay there on him next time--a good joke, since he could not dream of doing so himself.
     By the time we left Morocco, Jan gave me a passing grade--75%, much better than my initial failure experience in Dakar. Most of the time, I could acknowledge the existence of hustlers, peddlers and guides and, on a friendly note, get them to stop hustling us.

  1. First Bribe
  2. You Decide
  3. Acknowledging Others
  4. Passing Grade
  5. Two Foreign Cultures  < Next
  6. How Do You Say "Help" in Arabic?
  7. Risks in the Developing World
  8. Un, Deux, Trois
  9. Hello But No Cadeau