Souking out the best deal

I’m trying desperately to keep up with a Moroccan boy as he weaves his way quickly between narrow alleys, and trying to avoid sparks sent flying across my path from a merchant filing down a piece of metal in his shop front. Goods are hanging all around me, people are flooding around in every direction, and he gestures to follow as I try not to be overwhelmed by the avalanche of new sights and sounds…

On Monday, just after arriving in Marrakesh with Sarah and some of her uni friends (which I think I can fairly confidently say are now also my friends) we decided to take a trip into the Souks – dense markets that pervade the centre of town. Here they sell a variety of handmade goods, such as clothes, wooden boxes and game boards, lanterns, sandals, and many more things.

The haggling started before we even left the villa – our taxis arrived and demanded 150 Dirhams each, yet we’d agreed 100 over the phone. After a 10 minute discussion (where each party essentially threatened repeatedly to leave) we settled on 100 and headed into town.

It was set to be a hot day, and as I got out of the taxi, I became instantly thankful for the hat I’d brought along with me, despite the odd slant it added to my fashion statement. Hats just never look right on my head. I see and sometimes require the practicality, but can never quite make it look right, like putting a tea cosy on a cappuccino machine.

We wandered through the big square next to the palace tower past rows of horse-drawn carriages and orange juice stalls and got ready to start shopping.

It’s difficult to walk more than a few metres in the souks without being propositioned to buy some trinket or accessory and while it felt extremely rude to ignore people, eye contact and acknowledgement could get you into a ten minute sales debate you didn’t want. It’s made me appreciate being able to browse unfettered back home.

It was fun to stroll through taking photos, looking at goods and cooing at cute, although jarringly thin stray cats as passed them. We stopped for mint tea and a call to prayer went out. This sounds like a man yelling on a megaphone, like a call to arms against an oppressive regime if you don’t understand the language or context but to the locals it’s a cherished tradition and they pray 5 times a day at allotted times.  Not everyone joins in – it’s not like a ‘minute of silence’ across town but more like an optional reminder.  In the afternoon one Moroccan boy – or young man – kept asking me where I wanted to go, and when I said I was interested in the musical instruments, seemed on a mission to drag me and the rest of our group across the market.  I made it clear I just wanted to browse but he stayed close and waited for us to move again.  “No guide no pay” he assured me, but I doubted he was running a charity for lost tourists.

My mistake was to start following him at all because after that it was difficult to stop.  We marched through many new sights and sounds at breakneck speed until finally there was too much to take in and we stopped at a junction.  He kept gesturing for us to follow but I explained we were going to look around and take our time.  He seemed disappointed and told me I could just have a quick look in his spice shop at which point I understood why he’d tried to gather our group.  I said we would pop in just so we would be left alone.  I really didn’t like being marched around at someone else’s behest, especially at such insistence and with an ulterior motive.  We took in the feel of our new surroundings in this part of the market but five minutes later the boy walked past us again.  “Not a gentleman,” he tutted at me, wagging his finger.  I was immediately confused, then amused, embarassed, and finally settled into a mixture of resentment and disappointment.  I hadn’t asked for his help, not once, and certainly didn’t promise him any custom.  I figured this was all part of the bargaining game though, and life and competition in the souks is hard.  Vastly different to my life as a software engineer and I can’t take all the comments and opinions to mean the same thing.

We were in the heart of the market now and every stall was packed full of items and every other shopkeeper wanted us to go inside and look around.  I stopped at a couple of instrument stalls and within minutes was being shown a drum or handmade guitar.  There was one odd double-necked whistle that played two notes at once that made a real racket – more like a foghorn blast than a chord.  Most of the drums seemed good and would have made a nice present for my percussion friends, although they almost certainly would have had one already.

After our shopping session we had a look around the square which had come to life while we were away.  There were lots of food stalls manned furiously by staff who wanted you to eat at their one, and they would pull you in literally, as well as regale you with ‘classic’ English quotes as you pass by.  A couple of jolly greeters told us they were running “The Morrocan Sainsburys” and the food looked really good – lots of tasty kebabs and koftes.  They showed us some photos of them meeting famous chefs like the bikers and Jamie Oliver.  We ate there, and wandered around the square some more.  Everyone still tried to get us to eat at their stall, and when we said we’d already had dinner insisted we came back tomorrow.  Sarah got a few compliments as well – in an effort, I think, to appeal to Western fast food culture, one greeter described Sarah as “Finger Licking Good”.  I politely agreed, backing away.

Some people manning stalls were selling desserts, and Jake bought a big selection of them (for something really cheap like £3 for 10 different pastries).  He offered me one and I had the most delicious crunchy Macaroon I’ve ever tried.

Trying to get away from people continuously trying to sell us things, we walked down a busy road and towards a taxi rank, where our ride home, and an inevitable argument about the cost, was waiting for us.

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