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- Travel to Northern Africa
Sometimes there is no escape. At tourist centers, fake guides rope foreigners into relationships based on dependence and guilt. The local insists that he is helping the tourist out of the goodness of his heart, but really, he knows if he dedicates enough time to a tourist, he will be monetarily compensated. They abuse the Arab reputation for hospitality. They mock honest human interaction.
My mom messed up. She had promised our afternoon in Rissani to the service of such an individual. The city was not a major tourist destination, but significant enough to distract wandering tourists. Local capitalists had developed strategies to take advantage passing travelers. A young man sat at the edge of the restaurant as we ate out lunch. He kept track of us, making sure we didn't disappear from my mom's promise. He would take us to our guide. I saw no opportunity for escape. There were no excuses. We had eight hours to kill before our night bus to Meknes, and I had no idea how else to spend the day. After our meal, we followed the young man to meet our guide.
His face was puckered, his neck like a turtle's. I saw nothing in his eyes but hollow pits. His mustache was mostly grey, and I think his hair was too, but a dirty cap kept it covered. He was a little bit passed middle-age, but greeted us with energy. "Did you drive here in a car, or did you take a bus?"
"We came on camels," I was not in a cooperative mood.
"This is a good idea," he forced a laugh.
He showed us the old fortified city, boring me with worthless facts. My mom seemed interested though, so I let him go through his routine. His English sounded good, but only when reciting the facts he had listed for tourists so many times before. We skirted against mud walls, trying to keep to narrow strips of shade. The old town was not beautiful, but had a certain historical charm to it. At the edge of the Sahara Desert, Rissani had been an oasis of relief, and the gateway to the Kingdom of Morocco. Centuries ago, there had been great wealth for those who could transport resources and luxuries across the sea of sand.
"Now, the tour is over. I invite you for tea, because you are good people and you are my guests."
I did not want to have tea with him. He was a liar. He was not inviting us for tea because he liked us. He was doing it because he was curious about what we might have hidden in our wallets. The idea disgusted me. Our relationship with our guide was fake. I sensed manipulation. I had been living in Morocco long enough to know the difference between getting hustled and getting invited to tea. Still, we had no where else to go and we needed shelter from the pressing heat. We agreed to drink his poison and he led us into the rug cooperative.
Shapes and colors dangled from the tall walls, a perfectly arranged waterfall. I was struck with admiration. My mom was in love. She ignored the tea and began to explore this new world.
I could already feel a bubble of guilt in my chest. I grew up with capitalism and learned that nothing is free. It would be an insult to not buy anything. However, if we did make a purchase, the transaction would be tainted by my own disgust of the situation. I determined the pressure should be on my mom. She was the one that got us into this. She had money. I lay down on one of the Moroccan couches lining the tapestries. Sipping my tea, I tried to let the energy of the room flow through me.
Our guide transformed into a salesman. He laid rugs out on the ground, describing each one. The first was a style from the anti-atlas region in southern Morocco. The next was made from both sheep and camel. The third contained a sequence of traditional symbols. Describing the rugs was his profession. I could tell he was very good at it. As much as I wanted to hate him, I enjoyed listening to his descriptions. His terrible English had a beautiful well-rehearsed rhythm to it. He would even speak to me in comprehensible Arabic, as if to kindly admit that my Arabic was better than his English. By the end of his performance the tile floor was drowned by twelve rugs.
"Which one do you like? It is not so I sell it to you. No, I just want to know your opinion. This is a cooperative so the money is not a problem. This is not like Fez or Marrakech where they lie about the quality and the prices. If you like something we find a good price. This one is a beautiful piece, yes?"
I explained again that we were not going to buy anything, but my mom was happy to pick a favorite. The man had held the bait in front of her and she bit. The rug was colorless, freckled with grey symbols and highlighted with dark outlines. It’s angles were honest, and patterns subtle. Such a balance could complete any room. My mom was enchanted by it. Everything was going according to salesman's plan. He smelled blood and was going in for the kill. On a scratch piece of paper he wrote down a price: 250$. My mom said “let me buy it for you. I owe you a birthday present. I can make up for all the birthday’s I’ve missed.” I froze, unsure what to do. Then, he scratched out the price and wrote 200$. I shook my head, something felt wrong. The feeling was making me sick. The feeling would curse the rug. He scratched out 200$ and wrote 160$. I couldn't remember why I didn't want the rug, but my stubborn attitude persisted. A minute later he wrote 120$. I had an urge to start crying. My head was swimming and if I didn’t cry I was going to pass out. I tried to talk to the salesmen, but my voice wavered and the words couldn’t form. My emotional state took him aback, and he stopped trying to sell the rug. I apologized to my mom for being unable to accept her gift.
With the tension snapped, a strange energy hung in the room. Relief washed over me, but at the same time I couldn’t shake off a feeling of guilt. The man’s wife entered giving us something else to focus our attention towards: food. She served a humble meal of bread and beans, and refilled our empty tea glasses. The man’s brother joined us and we all enjoyed an enlightened discussion about history and politics.
Clearly, the salesman wanted to make a sale, but he did his best to hide his disappointment. I expected him to bid us farewell after our snack, but he continued to be friendly. Then, he transformed back into guide form, offering to give us another tour. Would he expect a tip from us? Maybe, having spent the last four hours together, we had become friends. After a short walk around the city center, he took us to an archeological site. At first, it looked like a wasteland, the soil grey and hard. Then we begin to walk past pockets of ancient homes, mostly buried. Any day now and it seemed like the ruins would disintegrate into dust and be washed away into the Sahara Desert. In one direction we observed the geometry of the modern city. In the other, an oasis of infinite palm trees. We stood in between, resting in the shade of a 1000 year old wall.
As we strolled back into town along the edge of a dry riverbed our guide introduced us to his friends. He greeted nearly everyone, doing his best to make them smile. We arrived at the bus station comfortably early. I kissed our guide farewell on both cheeks. My mom shook his hand, and we thanked him for all his help. Indeed, we had been stuck in an unknown town. He had sheltered us from the sun, fed us, shared his knowledge, and introduced us to an otherwise meaningless city. He had given his entire day to us. We were exceedingly grateful for his hospitality.
Before we got on the bus he gave me some business cards. "Tell your friends to visit the cooperative. Maybe they will want to buy a rug.”