Sunday 20 August 2017

On the market... How the souks of Marrakesh make suckers of us all

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I had a misplaced sense of ownership during a recent visit to Marrakesh with friends and family. Unlike my travelling companions, I had visited the Moroccan city before, which, of course, entitled me to be an insufferable know-it-all for the better part of the week.

As the soi-disant Tour Operator (TO), I had the inside edge on the best restaurants and the trendiest boutiques. More importantly, I had mastered the art of haggling - and I was ready to teach these philistines a thing or two when we hit the souk.

Our first stop was to the herbalist to pick up argan oil and Barbary fig oil. These are the only cosmetic oils worth buying, I explained. Just be careful to smell them first (lot of vendors sell olive oil, don't you know) and don't let them talk you into anything else.

We were still there an hour later.

The herbalist was giving me a back massage and suggesting that I buy a stress-relieving massage oil (€15). Apparently I also had eczema, which can be relieved with a balm (€10), and poor circulation, which can be remedied with saffron tea (€5). And obviously I had to buy nigella sativa for my sinus condition, mainly because he said it was called 'magic seeds'.

We left just as he was describing the effects of 'herbal Viagra', while using a large, phallic-shaped tuber vegetable for demonstration purposes.

For all my street-smart affectations, I walked out of the herbalist with a bigger bag than anyone else. However, I was eager to point out that I hadn't been hustled. No, no - not me. I knew the souks like the back of my hand. (Did I mention that I've been to Marrakesh before?)

Onwards we ventured through the warren of stalls and the thick midday sun. Vendors promised that they "give us good price" but we were now on a mission to find a restaurant. As someone who had been to Marrakesh before, I was keen to convey my grasp of the local geography. "Just follow me," I said to the group. We didn't get very far, though.

A sarong in the perfect shade of Majorelle blue had caught my attention. Twenty minutes later and it was wrapped desert nomad-style around my head. The vendor said I looked "très chic" (€20).

Meanwhile, my friend was talked into buying an authentic red Moroccan fez hat - a key piece for any capsule wardrobe.

The hunger was gnawing at us now but our trek towards the restaurant was interrupted by Fatima, a henna artist, who started painting pretty little flowers on my arm before I had the chance to tell her otherwise. "You marry good man soon," she assured me (€15).

At this point the group had reached the tacit agreement that their TO was asleep on the job. Somebody else took the lead, which was just as well as I had been snake-charmed into yet another jewellery shop.

They eventually managed to pull me out - "Lunch! Now!" - but we only got another 10 paces before I was accosted by a man with a monkey on his shoulder. "Don't make eye contact!" I warned the group as I looked the monkey dead in the eye. Getting street harassed by an animal is something of a social minefield. As someone who has been bullied by a seagull in the past, I know that the threat is very real but the level of protection accorded to victims is negligible.

The monkey was still giving me a dirty look when I came upon a pair of shoe-menders.

Before I knew it, my sandals had been pulled off my feet and I was standing barefoot on a piece of cardboard. They said they would repair the heels for €5, which seemed fair. Only this soon became €15 when it transpired that the soles were damaged too.

Everyone has a hustle threshold and this was mine. "Non, non, non!" I shouted. My sister's fiancé overheard the commotion and came running over like Indiana Jones.

Not, I hasten to add, because he was saving me from the shady shoe-menders, but because he had just been coerced into buying a brown fedora hat (€40).

The henna tattoo was now melting down my arm and my Lawrence of Arabia turban had collapsed over one eye.

I fancied myself as a bona fide local just a few hours previously. Now I had to concede that I was the Moroccan equivalent of the tourist who wears a fanny pack and Minnie Mouse ears when she gets to Disneyland.

"I'm never, ever buying anything in the Medina again," I huffed as I walked away from the shoe-menders wearing what now looked like a pair of orthopaedic sandals. My friend just nodded her tasselled fez hat in agreement.

How did I spend €200 on the way to a restaurant? How had I once again been hustled by the very same characters who had extracted all of my spending money during my last trip?

How... Ooooooh! A handmade basket bag with fluorescent pink pom-poms! How much?

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