Shop­ping in Morocco a mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - TRAVEL - By Maura Jud­kis

SCOTT needed the hat, des­per­ately. “Des­per­ately” was our first mis­take. We’d been wan­der­ing, lost, in the souks of Mar­rakesh for more than two hours, ev­ery wrong turn lead­ing to another. De­spite du­ti­ful sun­screen use, Scott was get­ting burned. We spot­ted an ac­cept­able-look­ing straw fe­dora, stepped into the shade of a shop and be­gan to hag­gle.

“How much?” Scott asked the shop­keeper in French.

“Three thou­sand dirham,” the shop­keeper replied — the equiv­a­lent of about $360.

Even though he knew that it was all part of the game, Scott flinched. As we’d re­hearsed, I be­gan to point word­lessly at all the hat’s flaws — spots where the brim seemed un­even, or where a straw poked loose — while he and the shop­keeper went back and forth: 100 dirham, 1,000 dirham, 120, 500. Fi­nally, they shook hands on 160 dirham, about $20.

It was our first time hag­gling for any­thing, and we walked out of the souk feel­ing pretty proud of our­selves. Scott had talked the guy down by 2,840 dirham, af­ter all.

It was a few more min­utes be­fore we re­al­ized that we were id­iots. That $20 hat was def­i­nitely worth no more than $10. It didn’t ap­pear to be hand­made. And yeah, the brim was a bit un­even.

We spent the rest of the day try­ing to ra­tio­nal­ize our poor men­tal math by talk­ing our­selves into the pur­chase, as any­one with buyer’s re­morse would.

Be­fore I tagged along with Scott, my fi­ance, on a busi­ness trip to Paris dur­ing which we skipped south for five days of va­ca­tion in Morocco, we’d spent time plan­ning our itin­er­ary and du­ti­fully ed­u­cat­ing our­selves on the cus­toms of the coun­try’s mar­kets — es­pe­cially the Je­maa El-Fna, a UNESCO World Her­itage site and the com­mer­cial center of Mar­rakesh’s old city. We knew that we’d have to hag­gle for ev­ery­thing and that, if we did it well, we had a chance of get­ting in­cred­i­ble bar­gains on beau­ti­ful decor for our new apart­ment.

One of Scott’s Moroc­can-born friends laid it out for us over din­ner in Paris, ex­plain­ing the four prices you can pay in the Mar­rakesh souks: One price for Amer­i­can tourists, a slightly lower price for French tourists, a third lower price for Parisian Moroc­cans like our friends, and fi­nally the low­est price, for lo­cals.

We knew that the lat­ter two weren’t pos­si­ble for us. But be­cause Scott is flu­ent in French and knows a lit­tle Ara­bic, we thought that we could try for the sec­ond price — as long as I kept my mouth shut, since I don’t speak ei­ther lan­guage.

Af­ter our fail­ure with the hat — and a few un­pleas­ant en­coun­ters with overly ag­gres­sive ven­dors in the souks — we needed to re­group. The man­ager of our riad told us about a fixed­price mar­ket near the Saa­dian Tombs that of­fered a stress-free shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence for wimps like us.

A sweaty stroll took us past La Koutoubia and the an­cient city gates to the mar­ket, which was stacked high with all the same goods you find in the souks — per­fumes, car­pets, tea ser­vices, lanterns and lit­tle sou­venirs. At a shop with all the am­biance of a Kmart, the staff were the ex­act op­po­site of what you’d find in the souks, mak­ing them­selves scarce be­hind the flu­o­res­centlit stacks of rugs or piles of scarves. Smaller, touristy items were on the first floor, while nicer goods were up­stairs.

And though it was cer­tainly not the shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence one comes to Morocco for, it was great for in­tel-gath­er­ing. We picked out a $75 rug that came with a tag ex­plain­ing its hand­made-in-Morocco prove­nance, some­thing we couldn’t be sure we were get­ting in the souks. We bought a few sets of qark­abeb, or Moroc­can cas­tanets, for our nieces and neph­ews, since they cost only about $2 each and it didn’t seem worth the ef­fort to hag­gle over some­thing so small at the souks.

And then we laid the foun­da­tion for all our fu­ture trans­ac­tions by walk­ing around the store, not­ing the prices for ev­ery­thing else there that we might want, to use as a base-line for later ne­go­ti­a­tions. Hand-painted pot­tery and dec­o­ra­tive tagines, for ex­am­ple, were in­cred­i­bly cheap — about $6 for a vase or $4 for a small serv­ing plat­ter.

Armed with this new in­for­ma­tion, we set off for Es­saouira, a beach town three hours away by bus. It might have been the cool sea breezes or the laid-back vibe of the wind­surfer-filled city, but shop­ping was eas­ier in Es­saouira. So, when we en­coun­tered a ven­dor with a spread of teapots and plat­ters, we put up our hag­gling dukes. Fig­ur­ing that Scott’s lan­guage skills weren’t help­ing us get low prices, we em­ployed a new strat­egy: ac­cept a higher price only if the ven­dor would throw in a sec­ond item.

And that’s how we walked away with an or­nate teapot and a su­gar pot thrown in to sweeten the deal — though we later re­al­ized that in our en­thu­si­asm, we’d over­looked its bent leg. But it was all for the equiv­a­lent of about $25 and, bol­stered by our vic­tory, we moved on to pot­tery.

A large black-and-white bowl, hand-painted in Fez with the let­ter­ing of an Ara­bic poem about hon­ey­bees and the sweet­ness of life, was our next buy, and for $20 we got the seller to throw in a dec­o­ra­tive jar with the same pat­tern, as well as a hand-painted tile.

Still, af­ter five days of shop­ping in Morocco, we re­al­ized that there’s no such thing as a fair price. Maybe it’s just our psy­cho­log­i­cal sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to what’s called choice-sup­port­ive bias, where you at­tribute pos­i­tive qual­i­ties to a pur­chase to jus­tify the money you spent, as I did with Scott’s hat. Or maybe it’s just pride.

But when we look at our sou­venirs and they bring us right back to our mem­o­ries — of the scrub­down we got in the ham­mam, of gal­lop­ing down the beach on a camel, of fragrant tagine din­ners on rooftops as we lis­tened to the call to prayer — we know that the price was right.

A view of Es­saouira, Morocco from the top of the Port du Skala, a for­ti­fied city wall. A tea pot, pur­chased in Es­saouira, and a ce­ramic vase and plate, pur­chased in Mar­rakech. Painted pot­tery for sale in the souks of Es­saouira, where visi­tors can hag­gle for their sou­venirs.

At left, a night view of the ven­dors and tourists at Mar­rakech’s Je­maa El-Fnaa square.

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