Wednesday, April 7, 2010

All that talking

A group of backpackers are sitting around a hostel lounge in Turkey. They're talking about touts, the hustlers that try to grab backpackers on the street and sell them something at inflated prices, take them to a hotel or bus for a commission that the traveler then has to pay, or just generally try to lie, cheat, or steal to get a fast buck off of unwary foreigners.

"India was unreal. So many of them!" One says.
"I dunno, Cairo was pretty bad." Says another. "One guy followed me in and out of five stores. Five. Just so he could get a commission from whatever hotel I went to. I told him to go away and he just wouldn't listen."
"I had some bad ones in Thailand." Says yet another. "Guys kept telling me whatever place I wanted to visit was closed and I should go see this other temple I'd never heard of. Then it would be a gemstone scam! Tried to sell me these pieces of green glass he called 'uncut limestone.' Ridiculous."
"But you know what the worst country was for this?" The first guy says. "Morocco."
"Worse than India?"
"Oh yeah."

I'd been part of this conversation more than once in different parts of the world. Morocco was a byword for hassle for travelers. So when I landed, I had my guard up. Especially after a stern talking-to by my hostel owner-- basically said "Don't talk to strangers here, you can't trust them." Went on for quite some time about it.

So, my first morning in Fes, I walked into the 700-year-old Ville Nouvelle (as Lonely Planet apparently says, only in this part of the world could a 700-year-old area be called "new town"), and waited for the plague to descend. Nothing. People hardly gave me a second glance. I walked down the street. One or two restaurant owners called out 'Bonjour' and gestured to a table, but that was it.

I tried an experiment. I walked by a cart selling sunglasses and let my gaze linger on a pair for three seconds. In many countries, this would cause the merchant to chase me down the street, bellowing "Hello my friend! Special price for you!! Hello! Hello!" Here? Nothing. I grew bold, walked back, and openly looked, taking my time. Still nothing. I walked up to the display and inspected a specific pair. It wasn't until I caught the merchant's eye and said 'salaam alekum' that he even gave me a second glance before returning to sipping his mint tea.

Was this even the same country that the others had told me about?

In some ways it wasn't. It was when I came to one specific part that was mentioned in the guidebooks that I suddenly found myself surrounded by English signs, chintzy decor, doubled prices for food on actual menus, and White and Asian tourists. But even there, hassle was minimal. It was on the outskirts of this area that I started meeting a few hustlers, one who gave me a little push in the back and told me to 'go away' when I ignored him.

And once I was past that part, they melted away. Just some curious glances from other pedestrians, and some cute kids playing tag and yelling "bonjour!" when they saw me.

Later, I was having some mint tea with a Moroccan guy who spoke English, and he told me a story from a couple years ago. He'd been sitting in a cafe, speaking to a British guy in English, and another foreign woman came over and asked if she could ask a few questions. She was from the National Geographic, she said, and she was writing a story about Moroccans who come back after a long time in Europe. She offered to show them what she had so far. He read it, and was so disgusted by the amount of lies and factual errors, that he made her tear it up into pieces. He gave her a couple hours a day, just to set the facts straight about Morocco and Moroccan culture.

"People go to these places and they think they know what they're talking about but they don't. Not really. They just take whatever s*** they read about it before coming. Or they talk to people here who don't really know what's going on. It's true! They don't know. Not like me. I know."

I don't think he saw the irony when, later that evening, he proceeded to outline his complaints about European society, never having been to Europe himself, but defending his assertions with a heated "I know what it's like! I watch it on TV and I talk to friends! I know!" But, after my talking to in Fes about not talking to strangers, I was a amused that one of his assertions was that you could trust strangers in Morocco and not in the West.

I've heard a saying that a fool thinks he knows everything, and a wise man marvels at how much he doesn't know. Because after all that talking, you never really know that much, do you?

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Very intriguing travel story. Thanks for the heads up about the different countries.

  2. But did they round up the usual suspects? Sorry, couldn't resist.


  3. This reminds me of the "bus from hell" tales I read before I took my trip into Egypt. While writing my own blog I made a point of saying that my entries were based on MY own experiences. After all, I didn't find the busses there THAT bad! We all have different opinions on what's "bad"... But I will say that the touting by the pyramids are the worst! ;-)

  4. So, my first morning in Fes, I walked into the 700-year-old ville nouvelle (only in this part of the world could a 700-year-old area be called "new town")

    man, if u want to write a book..don't copy phrases from the lonely planet ok? everyone reads it, and look pretty bad!

    (only in this part of the world could a 700-year-old area be called "new town")

  5. Levinson-Axelrod- Glad you enjoyed it, thanks!

    Helen- ...of course you couldn't.

    (The other) Helen- Good policy. And yeah, the pyramids were bad, but at least they had the cops watching them. On camels. That kinda made my day.

    Anon- Actually I heard it from another traveler, laughed, and asked if I could use it. If I'd known he got it from the Lonely, I probably would have at least... is it really that exact phrasing? I don't have the LP so I don't know. Anyway if I do write a book, I'll need someone like you looking for stuff like that, because you're right, it does look bad. If you're interested, send me an email.