A Whole New World

Morocco was a trip. We entered via ferry from a port city at the southern tip of Spain called Algeciras into Tangier. Our original plan was to take a 3-1/2 hour bus from Tangier to Chefchaouen but decided to splurge on a $70 “grand taxi” that would take about 2 hours.

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We arrived in the afternoon and got settled at the Riad before hitting the streets in search of food. We found a cafe recommended by the host and devoured plates of couscous covered with caramelized onions and golden raisins. Mark ordered a lemon chicken tagine, the first of many we’d consume over the next week but we didn’t know that yet. Madison and I nibbled at a Moroccan salad until Mark raised the question of whether it had been washed in clean water or tap water, the latter of which could make us sick. So we stopped eating it and spent the next 6 hours wondering if every tummy gurgle was the first sign of impending gastro-trouble. Luckily, no one got sick.

We went to Chefchaouen for no other reason than I had seen pictures of it on Pinterest and thought it looked interesting. The walls, doors, everything is painted varying shades of blue – from bright turquoise to deep cerulean to pale Robin’s egg. Every turn in the road brought an even more beautiful scene of layered blues against paint chipped wood doors and rusted ironwork.

She's a weird one.
She’s a weird one.

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After lunch we wandered through the narrow passageways, you can’t call them streets because nothing wider than a donkey cart could fit through. We happened upon a rug shop and were greeted by its enthusiastic salesman, Youssef. Buying a Turkish rug is on my bucket list, but we aren’t going to Turkey after all on this trip and Moroccan rugs are just as beautiful so it was an acceptable substitute. Not to mention I was excited to partake in the buying experience.

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You don’t just walk in, see a few you like, negotiate a little, shake hands, and leave with a rug. There is a whole ceremony that unfolds.

First, we got comfortable on cushioned benches lining the walls. All of the rugs are neatly stacked in piles, separated into type of material used to weave the rug. Youssef and his assistant pulled several from each category, unfolding dozens onto the floor, each unique to the next. We exclaimed over Berber, antique Berber, silk, and wool in varying sizes, colors, and patterns while Youssef shared how the rugs are woven and the history of his Berber people.

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We were encouraged to take off our shoes and explore the rugs with our feet. Meanwhile, mint tea was brought out on a tray and we sipped the hot sugary drink between ooohs and ahhhs. Mads and I really enjoyed pretending we were on a magic carpet flying high in the clouds. Youssef largely ignored this debauchery and continued to pull more rugs out of the stacks. I’m sure everyone does it.

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Eventually it was time to whittle the options down to our favorites. There were at least 40 rugs piled on the floor. He’d hold up each rug and we’d yell “Hali” (Hall-ee) if we liked it or “Ishmael” (Ish-may) if we didn’t. The hali’d rugs were put in a pile while his assistant began folding and re-stacking the castoffs. We went through a few rounds of this because we’d hali’d a lot in the beginning and then became more discerning.

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Our favorites of the favorites were laid out on the floor so we could take stock and decide which one we wanted to haul around for the next week and eventually ship home at unknown expense.

Then came the real work. We had each selected about 4 rugs that we were deciding between. Youssef wrote out the price for each rug on a piece of paper and then left us to come up with our best offer. His prices were astronomical! He wanted 3,000 – 7,500 dirham for each rug, which is about $300-750 USD. We’d read that the initial quoted price can be three to ten times what it should cost.

At this point I think reality set in for Madison and she reconsidered how much she wanted/needed a rug. And I couldn’t blame her. She’s living out of a backpack. What does she need with a 5’x 8′ wool rug? So she low balled him. Like gave him a stomach ache low balled. He asked for “her best democratic price” – a phrase we would hear over and over throughout Morocco – and she remained firm. Firm with a smile. He guffawed and turned his attention to me.

I hate haggling. Someone is always trying to take advantage of the other person. It’s uncomfortable and demeaning. Madison and Mark have way more experience with it and assured me that a vendor would sooner lose the sale than let something go without a profit. With that in mind, I decided my cutoff and made an offer below that.

We went a few rounds and heard “best democratic price” over and over as I began to lose my patience with the whole process. I was ready to walk out empty handed but decided to try one last tactic. I had eyed some blankets in another part of the store and said I’d accept his price if he threw one in. He made a big scene about it and called his uncle for permission before finally agreeing (Madison pulled Mark aside and asked if Youssef was calling for extra muscle). I know this show was all for affect. In the end I paid about $130 USD for an authentic Moroccan rug and a blanket.

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Meanwhile he again asked Madison what she would pay for her preferred rug and then actually accepted her number! It was at least 1/4 of the price he’d originally quoted. They wrapped them up and everyone shook hands as friends.

Madison's beautiful rug
Madison’s beautiful rug

I’m really glad we partook in this experience but it was definitely a one-and-done shopping excursion. Many more people tried to lure us into their shops and all of them used the same song and pony dance. The same sales process of showing us their wares, writing the prices on a piece of paper, asking for our best democratic price. It was exhausting.

We kept finding ourselves perched on benches drinking mint tea because we thought the other one was genuinely interested in whatever was being hawked. We’d eventually have to extricate ourselves with profuse but assertive apologies to the vendors and walk/run away laughing about it.

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So Madison and I developed code words to express whether we were following along with actual interest or merely being polite. We’d look at each other and say “pineapple” if we weren’t into it and “watermelon” if we were. It made us incredibly efficient shoppers.

One of the highlights of Chefchaouen was playing soccer with these kids. We happend upon them while wandering through the maze of streets. We didn’t speak a word of the same language but it didn’t matter.

A goal is a goal. (He scored a lot of goals)

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A whiff is a whiff. (See the ball going left and I went right?)

I think the final score was 32-0. But we all had a great time and high fived at the end!

Spending one night in Chefchaouen was sufficient and then we took another grand taxi ride back to Tangier. I think we were all surprised to have survived the ride because our driver was the twitchiest little man who drove way too fast! Mark asked him to slow down a couple times (in Spanish, didn’t expect that to come in handy in Africa) but was pretty much ignored. Madison was on the edge of her seat, watching intently, sucking in her breathe with every corner. My coping mechanism was to listen to music like M.I.A. and Snoop because it made me feel like a badass just cruising down the street in my ’64 with my mind on my money and my money on my mind.

We were all overjoyed to exit the taxi when it pulled up to the train station in Tangier. Then we embarked on the longest, most uncomfortable train ride of my life to date: an overnight voyage from Tangier to Marrakech. But that’s a story for another time…

2 thoughts on “A Whole New World”

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