A Lesson in Bargaining in Fes, and a few other things as well – 10 April

In Morocco, Photo, Travel 2011 on April 11, 2011 at 1:04 am

Despite my less than ideal last night in the Sahara, the return camel ride put me back in a good mood, and after saying my sad goodbyes to Youssef, I was on my way back to Merzouga . . . To wait for the overnight bus to Fes.

I was looking forward to my two days in Morocco’s other major centre, and the experience certainly didn’t disappoint.

Having traveled a bit around the world, it seems to me that cities tend to come in pairs:

New York and Boston
Sydney and Melbourne
Paris and London . . .

Marrakech and Fes.

Fes is a whole other world. Where Marrakech feels like the old town surrounded by a new town with not much to see, every bit of Fes is a valley of alleys and roadways packed with shops and mosques and schools – none of which can be easily mapped, nearly all of which is worth a visit.

Much like the square in Marrakech, there is an icon to use as a sort of homing point when loosing yourself in Fes’s medina, but Bab
Boujloud – or the blue gate as most tourists call it – is a bit harder to keep track of when venturing into the maze.

The biggest difference between the medinas in the two cities is how you feel when you are in them. Visiting the medina in Marrakech is like going to a fair. It feels like there was a big empty space where merchants set up stalls centuries ago and just didn’t leave. The market creates itself.

Fes is different. Fes exists all on its own with tiny streets and alleys so narrow that they close in and block out the sun. Each is lined with doors to shops of leather, tapestries, scarves, tea sets, and numerous more commercial items like knock off Gucci bags and Chanel sunglasses.

Arriving in Fes, early early in the morning, I immediately had my first encounter with one of the infamous swindlers of Fes, coincidentally my taxi driver. He attempted to take me to his friend’s riad rather than the one I had booked – claiming that it was the riad I booked. He eventually gave in and took me to the right place. So all ended well, but my guard was certainly up – Fes had made it’s first impression.

My first venture to the medina took me through the new town – enjoying a bit of still busy but relatively easy to navigate smaller produce markets and gardens – and then through the blue gate.

I walked past restaurants and came to a split in paths. Knowing both of them would get me equally lost, I simply chose to veer right and mosey along at least to the edge of my comfort zone.

It was a holiday so the majority of the shops were closed, but there still many smiling salesman ready to invite me into the few open shops “just to look”. I put on my usual smile and shook my head no to each of them, until I met Kareem.

Kareem stepped out of his shop with a smile, offering me a scarf that was, admittedly, quite pretty. He started by asking where I am from, and I decided to chat for a minute. He explained to me that today was not a good day to visit the medina because so many shops were closed and asked what else I was planning to see in Fez and Morocco. Then he invited me for tea.

Now, when traveling in Morocco this is bound to happen, and the way I see it, it’s really just a bit of a gamble. On one hand, I could go upstairs in the shop and sit for some tea, only to have Kareem try to sell me something straight away and then charge me for the tea and a tour of his shop; or he could be just lovely, and we could sit with tea, just chatting, exchanging stories, and escaping the heat of the afternoon.

The gamble comes with how much you are willing to risk and to argue if the subject of money comes up. I decided that after my morning cab driver incident, I needed to give Fes a chance to redeem itself. So I followed Kareem upstairs.

My optimism and open mind paid off.

Kareem and I sat chatting about traveling, Morocco, religion, languages, relationships, siblings, and pretty much anything else two twenty-somethings would bring up in conversation, and i could not have been more comfortable with my mint tea, on a carpet, in a small room laden with the handicrafts he sells.

In our conversation, Kareem mentioned something I already knew – that there were lots of guides in Fes who sought to take advantage of visitors: charging them for a tour of the medina, while only taking them to shops where they could push sales in exchange for a commission. He told me that if I wanted someone to lead me through the medina, to find him the next day and either he or a friend would do it.

I spent the evening feeling pretty good about my chat with Kareem. Aside from being a little too complimentary about my henna, I got a pretty good vibe from him. So after a yummy little dinner with a few new traveling friends at Café Clock I went to sleep with the plan of taking Kareem up on his offer.

Another reward for opening myself to a culture that seems to only encourage walls:

I met Kareem around lunch on my second day in Fes. Actually, to be more accurate, he stepped in and rescued me from the most recently over-persistent salesman who was shadowing me while walking to Kareem’s shop. He immediately apologized because he had to stay at this shop, but his friend was available to show me around the maze of the medina. So off we went.

Abdoul and I walked quickly down the streets and alleys to the tanneries. I knew this was one of the first tourist pit stops on any medina tour. So i was a little skeptical. Already my supposedly honorable guide was following the path of the swindlers I had read so much about. At the leather shop, though, I found I had nothing to worry about. We walked upstairs in the shop and looked down into the tanneries. One of the owners explained the process of bringing the skins from the butcher, removing the hair, drying the skins, treating them and dying them. All the while I listened while holding a sprig of mint close to my nose – disguising the wafting smells of chemicals from the vats below.

Walking back through the shop, I looked around, browsing only with my eyes so as not to show interest in any one particular item. The owner showed me the difference between the finished leathers: cow, goat, and camel. Then I moseyed past the row of belts noticing one in particular and deciding it was worth the risk of opening the bargaining process to try it on. I reached out for it, and the owner smiled, complimenting my taste.

He held my bag while I wrapped it around my waste and pegged it in place: a braided camel leather belt held snug by a silver clasp with a camel bone accent. I tried to hide my obvious admiration of the handiwork now on my waist.

“How much is it I asked?”
“650 dirham,” he said.

Ha, right. The equivalent of sixty-five euro – even with my under budget status, there was no way I was swinging that. I figured I wouldn’t pay over thirty-five euro for it: the price I would pay in the states, plus a little extra for the good story it would come with.

“Oh,” I cringed, “it’s very beautiful, but it’s just too expensive for me. I just can’t afford it.”

I unhooked it from my waist and started to place it back on it’s hook. As I suspected, he stopped me and tried to sell it a bit more, telling me about the techniques the women used to make it and eventually pursing his lips to say:

“575 dirham. That’s as low as I can go.”

I smiled at him and shook my head. “It really is a fair price,” I tell him, “but I just can’t afford it”

He calls my bluff on this one and lets me put it back. Then starts to lead me downstairs, back to the front entrance of the shop. Almost to the stairs, he stops me and asks how much I would pay.

“Oh,” I stop to think, “it’s far too low, I know, but I really just can’t go above 200 dirham.”

Bargaining low, knowing that he is going to push me up.

He dramatically rolls his head back and cringes at my suggestion. I console him assuring that I know my offer is much too low. I just have expensive tastes with a tight budget.

He goes back and gets the belt off the rack saying we are going talk to the other owner downstairs to see what he says.

Bringing in another person – now I’m outnumbered.

I followed him, and my coveted belt, downstairs to find a slightly overweight Moroccan sitting behind his desk punching numbers into a calculator and jotting notes on a yellow pad – obviously the business manager of the place. They spoke quickly to each other in what I think was Berber, and the man behind the desk burst out laughing, assumedly at my low-ball of an offer, and looked over at me.

“I know. I know. It’s beautiful, and of course I want it, but I just can’t afford 575. I really can’t go above 200, which I’m sure is far to low.”

He smiled and tried to sweet talk me with compliments, telling me that I should marry a hardworking rich man so that I can afford my expensive tastes. I laughed, agreeing with him, and he gave me his final offer: 475 dirham.

Closer, but still 125 over my actually desired price. I feigned a bit of internal conflict to show I was certainly still interested and had not thrown in the towel. Then I threw out my offer of 275 dirham.

He smiled and shook his head. 200 under his “lowest offer”. It was almost insulting, but I just smiled back and shrugged.

“I know. It’s too low” I agreed, “but it’s as high as I can go.”

He fingered the belt and once again spun stories of how it was made, pointing out the same attributes already explained to me by the other merchant.

Then he offered 400. I countered with 300, and we settled on 350.

I looked back at Abdul. He smiled and nodded.

We left the shop, my belt in hand, and spent the afternoon in much the same way, visiting spice shops, Abdul’s father’s tapestry shop and the ceramic cooperative. Admittedly, I did buy a bit more than originally planned, but I never paid more than I wanted for any one item, and I was always happy with what I determined as my fair price.

And that’s just it, When shopping in Fes and traveling in general, it is easy to be overwhelmed: Am I getting swindled? Was that a good price? Was that an authentic experience or something fabricated for tourists?

At the end of the day, it’s what I take away from it. I’m happy with the prices I paid. I’d rather trust the people I met rather than think up the ways they could have been fooling me, and I’m happy with the things I learned and experiences I had.

One day I’ll go back, and just as Marrakech changes from day to day and Fes could not be more different than Marrakech, and Merzouga is worlds away from both of them, I’m sure the Morocco I meet then will be very different to the one I know now. I just know that I’ll be there again, that I will have more to learn, and that it will teach me new things. . . Ensha’llaah.

A few pictures from Fes:

With Abdul and Kareem in Kareem’s shop.

The Blue Gate of Fes – Bab Boujloud

The tanneries.

Will edit and upload more pictures to my galleries soon!


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