Last Morocco post, we promised tales of sass and swindle. The tail-end of that entry left us exploring Fes, after which we (and our entire trip) both literally and figuratively went south.
Are you picking up what I’m putting down?
Lemme be more clear: It was all Luis’ fault. It may appear as though I’m throwing him under the bus, but let it be known that he chose this honesty as comeuppance for his jackassery;). After all, it’s such a paltry price to pay compared to that which my conquered companion doled out (in dollar billz, y’all) amid the rolling dunes of Morocco’s desert.
If we rewind a bit, we’ll realize that we were fairly warned. Normally, I plan trips by Googling where I can snuggle with sloths and/or large and hopefully friendly felines. Sometimes though, the eager beaver in me might think to investigate common scams within each country, just because I’m sleuth like that. Thieves in some places (*cough cough* Buenos Aires) have elaborate schemes like donning thousand dollar suits while riding the subway, seemingly headed to high-paying jobs when they’re actually just pick-pocketing cameras and wallets from unsuspecting passengers. Damn those cheeky tricksters! Contrarily, I found Moroccan deception to be rather transparent in that most of the con-artists we encountered had a nefarious look about them. I thought this would put us at an advantage, but I wasn’t accounting for Luis’ gullibility annihilating any chance we had of outsmarting our swindlers.
I read on multiple online travel forums that Morocco’s desert is a hotspot for hustlers, and I recounted to Luis the simple rules I had learned to avoid any such hustle and hassle: 1. Don’t agree to unsolicited tours within bus stops/train stations, and 2. When you reach Rissani’s bus stop, patronize only marked Grand taxis.
Common sense, really. OR SO I THOUGHT.
Our downward spiral was initiated in Fes’ bus station, only minutes after our arrival. Just as our feet touched ground, a man with shifty eyes and squeaky loafers approached us and told us that he had “just the hotel for us!” To me, this offer registered as, “just the hotel in which to kill you,” but Luis was thrilled at the guy’s willingness to help a brother out. I simultaneously scowled and snarled at Lu to remind him that his decision-making privileges had been revoked after his consecutive lack of…cash-conserving choices. To avoid being on the receiving end of reenacted (but non-fiction, this time) scenes from Hostel, we politely declined the pitch and continued on our merry way. The man’s eyes suddenly flickered with hostility as he spat at us, “You be sorry,” and, “You unsmart to refuse me,” statements which were sprinkled with obscenities that were equally grammatically-off, and therefore very entertaining. A genuinely surprised Luis turned to me and said, “Wow, he seemed so nice at first.” I replied with a facial expression that in punctuation marks would look like this: ???????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
We narrowly escaped the death stares of our new frenemy and wandered out into the dark of the night. It was 11:30pm and many of the surrounding streets were poorly lit. We scurried from one hotel to the next, but each place we ducked into was full. I was seriously contemplating asking if we could pay to crash in one of their lobbies to avoid…you know, BEING MURDERED. When I turned to tell Luis my idea, I heard a low, scratchy voice behind me whisper, “Maybe you let me take you to hotel of my brother NOW!?” Either the man had been following us for a half hour, or he possessed teleportation powers. Either way, I nearly jumped out of my own skin. Luis firmly implored him to leave us alone, and luckily a taxi pulled up just then to whisk us off to anywhere but there.
Fast-forward three days and we were back at the bus station to catch transport to the desert, where camels and awesome sunsets awaited us. While passing time in the station, a familiar face approached us, bellowing that he had “just the hotel for us in the desert!” He clearly had no recollection of our previous confrontation, and with a smirk on my face, I turned to Luis for commiseration. Commiserating would have been easier if Luis possessed just an ounce of facial recognition, but instead, he replied, “Tell me more about your hotel!”
The man impatiently nudged us, saying that the offer was only on the table until our bus arrived. And what offer was that? He explained that he would collect our payment now, and his brother would pick us up in Rissani, take us to a beautiful hotel to rest, and then send us on a three day camel-trek. In other words, he would take our money now and NO ONE would meet us in Rissani because HE’S SO VERY CLEARLY A CROOK. I told him flat-out that the whole operation sounded shady, and he pointed to some German college students behind us who had signed up for his trip (as if their utter stupidity would convince me of his legitimacy). By this point, we had boarded our bus, and he had invited himself aboard to hover over us, pressuring us for a decision. Luis asked him to leave us alone for two minutes, during which I “gently” reminded him that this was the same maniac who had threateningly followed us around a few nights prior, and that under NO circumstance was I trusting him with my money. The man glowered at our response and threw some choice Arabic words at us as he shuffled away. Luis seemed befuddled as to why I would doubt such an “upstanding” guy, and I fell fast asleep, content that another crisis had been averted.
Until the next morning, that is. We pulled into Rissani at around 5:30am, groggy and unsure of our next step. The small town is reminiscent of the Old West, and I half expected to see a row of saloons (where I would have gladly welcomed buckets of hard liquor…What? Who wrote that?). I gathered my belongings and prepared to park myself on a bench until some Grand taxis pulled into the station. Luis, as usual, had other plans. A man approached us from an unmarked 4×4 (why hello there, red flag!) and attempted to wow us with his impeccable English, which beguiled Luis in no time flat. He urged us to join him for an unforgettable desert journey, as we would only fall prey to scam-artists by sticking around the station. I said, “No, thank you” at the same time as Luis was saying “Sounds great,” and just like that we ended up in the back of a stranger’s truck. I started speaking to Luis in Spanish, attempting to illuminate that we had just been bamboozled into a ruse. Luis told me to have faith, and that if it unfolded poorly, he would cover the costs.
As if money were my only concern.
After breakfast, we set out for Merzouga, the launching pad for our camel-trek. Our bogus guide could sense that I didn’t trust him, which I validated by inviting him to prove me wrong. He handed me his driver’s license, as if a piece of plastic provides reliable proof of character. We sat in silence for a half hour as he drove us to a hotel room he had arranged for us in Merzouga. I turned to Luis and told him that I didn’t even think we were driving towards Merzouga. Luis pulled up the GPS on his phone, shaking his head in disbelief when his map verified my suspicion.
Luis showed the man our map, and demanded that he take us straight to Merzouga, where we would find our own hotel. He instantly flew off the handle and started screaming at us, telling us that we were bad people for hurting his feelings, that never before had anyone so deeply betrayed him, and that fine, if we couldn’t trust him, that he’d drive us back to Rissani. His behavior fell somewhere between infantile and psychotic, and I really wasn’t in the mood for either.
“No, no, you’ll drive us to Merzouga. You promised us Merzouga.”
“But that was when I thought we were friends, I’m taking you back to Rissani instead.”
With that, he abruptly veered off of the paved road, speeding over bumps to drive in a small circle repetitively while be berated us. Motion sickness, a tornado of dust, and fear that we were about to be buried in a shallow grave were summoned. Being so far from civilization, we had no choice but to surrender, which in this case meant playing nice with the lunatic and paying him the inflated price he was quoting for his desert adventure (and oh what an adventure it was!). We were dehydrated, deflated, and dirty, and I couldn’t wait to put this experience behind us.
By some stroke of luck, the hotel to which he took us (Nasser Palace) was actually inviting, but keep in mind that we were paying three times the listed price for our package. I also would not recommend the place based on the fact that their camels were emaciated and too old to be going on long treks. On the way home, Luis’ camel shrieked and squirmed before throwing him off, to which the guides casually responded, “You should have held on tighter.” Fortunately, Luis wasn’t injured, but after that ordeal, I felt worried that one of our camels would slip and break a leg in a sand drift, after which the guides would put him out of his misery (and I would need therapy for the rest of my life).
I did enjoy the trek for the most part, I just would have preferred a different tour company that didn’t neglect/abuse its camels. I found the ride to our basecamp peaceful in its predictability, and I really liked observing the camels’ mannerisms. Their faces look equal parts smiley and smug, while their movements are both graceful and clumsy. It’s always humbling to be perched atop such a large creature, completely at his mercy. In a few hours’ time, we were sitting at our camp with other tours, comparing notes about our trips (their camels were healthier, and their guides more helpful). We shared a really hearty and flavorful tagine and listened to the Berber nomads tell jokes, like “Why do people go to bed?” (Because the bed won’t come to them) and “Why did the guy say that there were three camels when there were only two?” (Because he was lying). That last one was so relevant to this leg of our journey that we overlaughed for many, many minutes. The nomads stared back at us with their dark eyes and toothy grins and my deliriousness made it so I didn’t really know whether to fear them or give them giant hugs for bringing humor to the table.
Our lodging for the night- a hut constructed of sticks, throw rugs, and wool blankets. Not fit for kings, but we slept like babies:
We woke up the next morning and climbed the highest dune to view the sunrise, and then we mounted our camels to head back to Merzouga.
When all was said and done, we were sore but satisfied, until we realized that Merzouga was ATM-less (meaning we had no way to withdraw money for our bus tickets to Marrakesh). We alternated between laughing hysterically and wracking our brains for a solution, until we overheard a group of French guys talking about driving their personal vehicle to Marrakesh later that afternoon. Had they not agreed to drive us those 10 hours (what kind and gentle souls!), we might still be in Merzouga, begging scam-artists to fund our travels with their “winnings,” most of which probably came from our bank accounts anyway.
After braving some rather treacherous roads, and sharing numerous snacks and iPod songs, we were safe and sound in Marrakesh with sass and swindle in our rear-view mirrors.
Moral(s) of the story, aside from “Your girlfriend is always right”: Never assume you are immune to well-documented scams. Be patient in your decision-making, trust your gut, and tape Luis’ mouth shut in train stations, bus stations, and airports;).
Next time, we’ll talk Marrakesh, Essaouira, and FOOD!