bazaar chumps and camel humps

My sojourn in Marrakesh couldn’t have had two more contrasting settings: the bustling, energetic Medina and the calm, expansive Sahara. In the Medina I spent too much money. In the Sahara I spent none. In the Medina I was overwhelmed with colors, smells, sounds, and people. In the Sahara I was just overwhelmed. The magnitude of the dunes, the fineness of the sand, and the camels. Just, everything about the camels. The camels were cool.

I spent about four days in Marrakesh, arriving the night of the 7th and departing the morning of the 11th. The night I arrived I was met in the square by someone from my hostel and led through the winding unmarked roads of the Souks, finally arriving at the door of La Casa Del Sol. I wondered if I would ever be able to find my way out and back again the next day. The hostel was great, and worth much more than the 70 dirham ($7) a night I paid to stay there.

I was taken to the common room, a narrow room lined with thickly cushioned benches, and offered some sweet mint tea. You drink a lot of mint tea in Morocco. Mustafa, the hostel manager, showed me a map of Marrakesh and circled some of the main sights, and gave me some tips.

  1. Boys will offer to lead you to the sights, some of which are pretty hard to find in the Medina. If you’re hopelessly lost, you can let them, but set a price in advance. They will ask for 100 Dh. Offer no more than 20 Dh.
  2. With haggling, on big ticket items, divide their initial offer by three and start from there. With little ticket items, divide by four. Don’t ever pay more than half their starting price. And they’ve all basically got the same stuff. Be willing to walk away. Playing them off each other is a good way to get to the price you want.

After that, I thanked him, finished my tea, and was led to my bed. The next morning I DID brave the winding roads myself, and while they were confusing, I managed to get myself around. I first tried my hand at sight seeing, and found the museum, school, and ancient mosque they highlighted. Leaving was a bit harder, because it became impossible to retrace my steps. I ended up treating the Medina like a forest, on a hike whose trail I had lost. I treated the roads like rivers, using the mentality “well, if I keep following the cars and turning onto progressively bigger roads, eventually I will get out of the Medina at least. From there I can figure out WHERE I popped out using the map, and follow the big roads back around to the square.”

This method worked for me, and I was out of the Souks, in fact out of the entire old city, in no time. When I found myself on the map though I realized I was at the entire opposite end of town. Since it was early afternoon already and I had been walking all morning, I cheated and took a $2 cab back around to the square. From there I had some lunch, took a break, and prepared myself for the second half of my day: Shopping!

There is a lot of cool stuff in the Moroccan marketplaces. It can be overwhelming and hard to decide what to get. It can also be a lot of fun! Here are some haggling aids I picked up while trying my hand at this ancient art.

  1. Price a few guys out first, just ask their starting price and walk away. You’ll be amazed at the variety you’ll find, even here.
  2. Keep different amounts of money in different pockets. The best way I found of getting the price I wanted was to stick to it, and say that was all the cash I had left. Even take out the cash and show him that’s all there is. Then at the end, scrounge around in another pocket for some loose change and say “Ok look, this is REALLY all that’s left”. They’ll usually take it.
  3. Really scrutinize the product, look for weak points or defects. Tell him, you’d buy it for the price he’s offering, except for the mistakes. Then offer him another price.
  4. Like I said before, play them off each other. Tell him there’s a guy around the corner that was offering it for the price you want (use the numbers).

  5. Agree to go up in price if he’ll throw in something small like a figurine or scarf.

These are the styles I found most successful while haggling. Hopefully some will help you too! Some may be a little underhand, but its all a game anyway. My favorite victory was when I wanted a green leather purse and talked the guy down from 600 Dh to 250, and then he handed me a wooden camel as I was leaving. Who gets presents for haggling down the price to almost a third of the starting price? Funny stuff.

The next day was the Desert Day and the energy totally changed. In the early morning I hopped on a bus with several other Americans, some Italians, and some Australians. We took a winding ride through the High Atlas mountains and arrived at the edge of the desert in the afternoon. Now I’ll admit, it didn’t just suddenly turn into sand dunes stretching out before us as far as the eye could see, like a golden ocean. It was just kind of rocky and brown, trailing into dusty dirt. But on the left of the road was a big group of camels, lying peacefully on folded legs. CAMELS!!! The desert men, complete with robes and turbans, tended to the camels and waited for the tourists to assemble. We were taught how to wrap turbans with any length of fabric on hand. One girl even used her Burbury scarf, which made quite a silly turban, to be sure.

The camel ride into the desert was nothing what I expected. It was BUMPY! My bum is still sore! The camels were adorable somehow, with their giant feet and bushy eyebrows and fluffy swiveling ears. We wandered on, led by a desert guide, until we could no longer see the road behind us. Gradually the rocks and dirt did give way to sand and small dunes. Nothing like the mountainous, frozen waves of sand I was envisioning, but sand dunes none the less. Toping one rise we saw a tent village in the distance. Our destination. Our home for the evening.

Sadly, the sky was cloudy, and not a single star revealed itself that night. But our eyes were kept grounded by the entertaining drumming of our hosts around a campfire. After a sunrise and a quick breakfast the next morning, we again mounted our camels for the ride home.

Chastise me for taking a dreaded Tour if you wish, but my mission was accomplished. I wanted to ride a camel and check out a desert, both of which I got to do. On top of that, I got to play a ceramic drum with a desert nomad. And I learned how to tie a turban. Well worth the $100 price tag.

Next up- Essaouira and the beach!

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2 thoughts on “bazaar chumps and camel humps

  1. And I really can’t wait to hear what it’s like to ride a camel!

    Have you ever heard “Tea In The Sahara”? Your writing made me think of it… It’s possibly the best thing that Sting/The Police ever did… I’s just an awesome slow, desolate-sounding lyric and song… It’s acoustic, with a medley of “Walking On The Moon.”

    I don’t know you much, but I think you would like it :)

    Jay
    Silver Spring, MD.
    202-279-1676

  2. Wow, super cool! Nice to hear you had someone from the hostel waiting for you when you arrived. And good to know that they still take care of Westerners at this volatile time (like they do always, I guess)… Anyway, I hope you liked this latest diary entry… I admired your haggling, like always, and your tips for first-time Marrakesh travelers are right-on as usual. So many people would waste so much money otherwise!

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