Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Marrakech Madness: Souks and Scams

The taxi driver parked in an alleyway, none of the places in sight had the name of our hostel. He jumped out of the car and urged us, without a common language, to get our bags and follow him. He kept a fast pace, winding down endless narrow alleyways. We struggled to keep up as we wound around groups of people with our backpacks on. It was not long before I realised that I would not be able to find my way back again as, in my efforts to keep up with him, I hadn't paid enough attention to the turns we were making. After 5 minutes he warmly greets a man chilling on his motorbike in the alley, they shake hands, hug and exchange friendly greetings. The driver leads us into a small entrance and the other man follows, a sense of relief washes over me as I realise this is our hostel and the man that runs it. It is beautifully decorated in the Moroccan style and we immediately like the place. 

Shops in the Souks of Medina sell
weird and wonderful things...
We had picked a hostel in Medina, the walled old town, as it is close to the hustle and bustle of Marrakech, it wasn't long before we were out exploring our surroundings. The streets of Medina are a giant marketplace in every direction connecting like veins to the heart of Medina, Place Jemaa el Fina, a vibrant, bustling marketplace that has been in action since the 11th century, packed full of snake charmers, drumming circles, henna ladies, handicrafts laid out beautifully on rugs and 50 food stalls all selling exactly the same thing. The surrounding streets are awash with colour; brightly coloured ceramics, spices and clothes fill up every available space. Here you can find everything you could ever want, and more: jewellery, clothes, tagines, scarves from Pakistan, teapots, herbs, traditional medicines, swords, fossils, and even live turtles. Tourists explore the busy narrow streets, street cats and motorbikes dart through them in every direction. "Come look at my shop" The touts beckon, "Looking is free!" More often than not we are greeted in French and we immediately resolve to learn some. Touts we stopped to talk to invited us to drink tea with them, not knowing the etiquette and not knowing if this would be a costly mistake we politely refused the offers.

We weren't in Marrakech long before we were subject to our first scam. We had made our way back to Place Jemaa el Fina and were exploring the busy square. An old lady grabbed my hand and began to henna it, despite our protests, making it sound as though we get a tester for free. After 5 minutes I had a design spanning from the top of my finger to halfway up my forearm, Tom wasn't safe either. "350 Dirham" she said, approximately 35 euro or AU$50. We looked at each other dumbfounded, she had to be kidding. "But we didn't even want it", we protested. "It is very good henna, it will last 3 weeks" she countered (In reality it had started to fade after 5 days and had almost disappeared after 7). We told her it was way too much, I had had it done in Australia for much cheaper. Her arguing grew louder, making sure other people could hear, "But it is a good design, you pay me now". We offered her 50 Dirham (5 euro/$7.50) which of course she refused. We were tired and out of our depth, we convinced her that we only had 100 Dirham on us, which she accepted. It was still way too much to pay, but almost a quarter of what she initially demanded. She smiled broadly and kissed us both on the cheeks and walked off proudly, we knew 100% that we had been had. Henna ladies look old and sweet, but are strong and merciless! 

The henna may have been expensive, but she gave us free glitter!

A Berber Pharmacy  (The bottom
2 are deodorant and lipstick)
The next day we wandered deeper into the Souks, with no real destination in mind. At some point the tourist markets gave way to local fruit and vegetable markets. Raw meat smells wafted though the air, piles of oranges and trailer loads of watermelons are on display, hundreds of bees feast on the open slices of melon. The alley came to a T and we stopped to decide a way to go, a sign on the wall was pointing towards the old palace and we decided this was a good option. Just as we started to move a friendly local man began to talk to us, telling us that there was nothing in that direction and that we should instead go the other direction towards the tannery. "It is very interesting, you must go, it is on today only" he urged. Following his advice we begin to walk in the other direction, down a long, quiet, narrow alleyway. After a 100m or so we stop to survey the street, another man stops to tell us about the tannery, parroting what the first an had said and offering to take us there with him. The enthusiasm of these men gives us a weird feeling and we decide to politely decline and walk back in the direction we came. An hour or so later we met a couple in a local restaurant, they asked us if we had visited the tannery, then proceeded to tell us a similar story to our own, except they didn't turn around. The tannery is there everyday, they had to pay 200 Dirham each for 'entry' (we later found out it is free) and 300 Dirham to the man for the pleasure of his company, 700 Dirham/AU$100 in total. Happy that we were getting better at trusting our instincts we gave each other a mental high 5.

We relaxed after a few days, we had a better grasp on fair prices and we worked on our haggling techniques. We could walk the souks with confidence, drink sweet Berber tea with touts, enjoyed conversations, learned weird and wonderful uses for all sorts of herbs and spices and learned the difference between hospitality and a sales pitch. We even learned how to shake off the henna ladies, although they were never as aggressive as our first night. 


  1. Most excellent experiences, some of which I could relate to and must confess that I went to the tannery, however, didn't pay for the pleasure. You, little fairy, should be submitting travel articles...either freelance or for Lonely Planet.

  2. A very worthwhile account and one that mirrored my own experiences there. Despite the scams, Marrakech and indeed, Morocco remain two of my favourite destinations..... Even if the dirham has become stronger. Enjoy your twisted flight, my favourite fairy. xx

  3. Your writing style has matured miss. Most enjoyable. Sounds much worse than the Souks in Iran.

  4. Came a'calling looking for updates...?!?! What's up?!

    1. Hey EJ!
      Starting up a new project over here: https://chelseystravelstories.wordpress.com/
      Big love