A lesson learned in the Rabat Medina
02.07.2009 - 02.07.2009 80 °F
It's safe to say that I took home more than I bargained for, literally.
I'm going to Fes, Morocco, this weekend and Fes is known for its leather products and ceramics. We will be taking a trip to the tanneries where you can see how animal hides are turned into soft leather products in a variety of colors. But, the dyes used in the tanneries are made from natural materials such as pigeon poop, cow urine, and acids....can you imagine the pungency of the smell already?? Ughh... Supposedly it smells so terrible, they give you a "Moroccan Gas Mask", which is essentially a handful of mint leaves that you literally shove up your nose. If this sounds familiar...you may have seen the show "Dirty Jobs" where the Fes tannery is highlighted...or, in this case...lowlighted.
So, in preparation for Fes, I took my second trip to the medina (an enclosed carnivalesque market) as I was planning on pricing out leather items in Rabat, attempting some meager bargaining, and hopefully learning the price range of certain items. My goal was to gather enough info to not be naively "taken to the cleaners" in Fes. We took the local bus to downtown Rabat where we stuck out like a sore, and sweaty, thumb. Envision me with my pasty skin and blue eyes accompanied by blonde haired friends, in American clothing, boarding a bus filled with dark skinned locals in traditional clothing. I think that every man on the bus offered up their seats for us. Although it is a male dominated society, I will say that I have felt a since of chivalry here that I did not expect.
We got off at the gate to the medina and walked through the large gates. The gates and surrounding area of the medina give a false impression on serenity.
However, as soon as you pass through the orange entryway, you senses are attacked from all angles. You see narrow alleyways filled with a myriad of shops and people. It is also not everyday that you see an entire lamb being cooked (well, unless you come to Greek events with me, where you can see glistening Greeks hovered around the spit in excited anticipation) or see the upstanding lamb heads set upon tagines. While it may not be culinary heaven to most...it sure is a sight to see! There are also gypsy carts set up with a continual line of people wanting the fresh squeezed orange juice. You smell mint, cumin, and hot beef with onions being cooked on rolling carts with small grills on every corner. You hear the meat popping and frying on the grills, mopeds whizzing in and out of the foot traffic, rythmic Arabic music, and conversations in a multitude of languages. You can feel yourself sweating as you navigate in and around casual walkers, while maintaining a tight grip on your purse at all times.
At the beginning of the medina, there are a lot of small items such as plastic toys, cheap watches, wallets, purses, and shoes, everyday American clothing, traditional Moroccan clothing, and even clothing items showcasing American pop culture (picture "fancy" t-shirts with Lindsay Lohan's face...in an Ed Hardyesque fashion...I don't get the fascination, yet I just may pick one up for my "Secret Santa" gift this year...won't you be lucky, whomever you are ). However, as we walked further into the medina I began to see fantastic Moroccan items - hand painted ceramics, colorful glass lanterns, Berber rugs, a plethora of colorful leather items, and so much more. I was really nervous to walk into a store, express interest in an item, or even make eye contact with a vendor. Without knowing French or Arabic, I have often felt very powerless...ignorant even. But, we walked into this leather store where orange, saffron, magenta, teal, and green leathers line the walls. It was overwhelming how many choices there were! I started to barter on the price of these "poofs" as I call them....they are like bigger leather stools used as Moroccan seating. I quickly learned that things are not as expensive as I thought. I had heard that all prices are negotiable and that you don't take the first offer...instead, you slice it in half - offering 50% of their original offer. In Morocco it is a game that you must play. It is a piece of the culture that is woven in the fabric of society. You smile and joke...yet, stay firm in what you can pay. For example, the "poofs" were first offered at 300 dirham (8 dirham to $1.00, so the price was about $37.00). I countered with 150 dirham and was laughed at....I wondered though...is that the desired reaction, or am I wrong in my bartering skills?? Hmmm.....I'm good at games...yet, I'm a little unclear on these rules. In the end, it was offered to me for 200 dirham...not bad I'm thinking...but now what? Is it ok to invest this time, get a final offer, only to walk away? I end up saying "Merci...but, no thank you, " in an embarrassing jumble of French and English. As I walk away, the man says surprisingly in English, "Ok. 180." Hmm...I'm getting the hang of this, I think, feeling good about myself. But I shake my head no and say, "Merci." I scan the rows of bags and come up on a gorgeous magenta bag about the size of a carryon...jackpot!! Now that is what I am talking about! The same man comes over and we go through our little game of offers and smiles until I decide that I don't only want the bag....but I need it. I end up taking his third offer, pay him the money, and then slip my beautiful new item into a large black garbage bag. I'm so excited and happy with my purchase that I decide this moment needs documentation.
On a "shoppers high" we decide to walk to the nearby cafe which is perched on the water's edge and frequented by Europeans and women alike. We are in need of a cold beverage and a small treat. We immediatly feel welcome and relaxed...which is not a common feeling here. Most restaurants and coffee shops are for men only....while not a rule, but general knowledge. I happily put my leather bag on the seat beside me, order a Coke (it should be noted that since arriving in Morocco I have been dying for a beer or cocktail....but seeing as how alcohol is prohibited under Islam and not sold in many establishments...I go with what they have) and a coconut cookie. Delicious!
We start telling stories, laughing, and joking and while feeling very thrilled to be "out and about", we quickly wonder...what is that awful smell???? We are sitting under a terrace while the warm breeze helps to cool our skin...yet... this unappealing smell is wafting through the air. I can't help but think where are those "Moroccan Gas Masks" now? I quickly realize that that the horrid smell is coming from my beloved new bag. I take a big whiff and nearly gag! It turns out that my fantastic "deal" is stinking to high heaven! I proceed to make everyone smell it....only to confirm that I got duped into buying a rank leather item. "They should have paid YOU to take that off their hands," Jami exclaims.
After we finish our treats and take in the view one last time, we trek back to the bus, where not surprisingly...no one wants to sit next to me. This is especially true since - go figure - all the windows are closed, turning Bus 58 into the carrier of "Eau de Cow Poop Parfum."
We got back home and I quickly put the cow-pasture purse outside on the balcony. Later, it surprisingly rained. One might think that the smell might just "wash off"...but, no, now it's a spotted-magenta malady of a bag! I brought it inside to dry. It was 12:00 AM...so I couldn't entirely be sure if the mass exodus to the bedrooms were a result of tired eyes...or my pink pooper of a bag.
Yet, I can deduce that I got more than I bargained for...and, sadly, so did my roommates.