Monday 18 January 2010

Aren't you going to haggle?

Hotel Balima, Rabat, Morocco

This not having my laptop lark is pissing me off a bit, as I am having to write everything a couple of days in arrears. But here goes anyway.

We postponed a trip to the Roman ruins at Volubilis on Saturday due to an inclement stomach, opting instead to loiter around Meknes. We headed through the back streets and, just off the main square, found ourselves in a great covered market. Spices, soaps, oils, olives, pastries and sweets.

I am wandering about taking the odd snap, when I slightly shake at a cage full of baby tortoises (I have an inane dislike of them). I turn to look down a new aisle of market. The butchers’ aisle. First sight that greets me is an upside down cow’s head, tongue out. Intrigued, I can't help but wander down the aisle. Sheep’s heads hang from stalls; stomachs, intestines and various unidentifiable entrails are nonchalantly displayed on the counters. I’ve got a pretty strong stomach when it comes to these things, but getting to the end of that walk, that was hard. I turn and go back in case I missed anything good, this time plucking up the courage to ask the guys if I can take photos. (I’ll post them when I get home). Al is using his increasingly (in)competent French to schmooze one of the butchers, telling him that he is a cattle farmer in Australia, and even taking the opportunity to shitcan the English.

Heads you win

In another aisle I get a look at the much fabled chicken plucking machine. It’s rather more medieval than I imagined, and for some reason I expected the chickens to still be alive whilst being subjected to this operation, and obviously they were not. The guy operating it politely declined a photograph, and given that he was wielding a freshly plucked chicken at the time, I obliged.

I can't say I was too sorry to breathe fresh air again. On their own, the smells are bearable, but as an ensemble they stack up into a pretty vile stench. Not exactly appetising anyway. Immediately outside we are confronted with the Meknes equivalent of an outdoor pound shop that extends indefinitely. This is a bit of a shock actually. In my ignorance I had assumed that most of the markets and souqs would be peddling complete tat, but actually most of the stuff on sale is of a very high standard. Except for on these few streets, where most of the stuff looks fresh off the boat from China. We venture off the main drag into the alleyways and rediscover the quality stalls tucked neatly away.

In stark contrast to Fes,
no-one is trying to sell you anything. We look into one store and the guy, a Berber, gives Pen and Al the best soft sell I have ever seen. He starts with a long and interesting discussion of Moroccan history and Berber culture. Pen admires a Hand of Fatima and he explains the difference between that particular one and an antique one, which he happens to have kicking around. Before long they are upstairs in the carpet zone, while I slink off in search of doughnuts. To their credit, they emerge empty handed, but completely charmed.

I am in search of some handmade wooden spoons. We eventually stumble upon a place, but it is hard to work out who even owns it. There is no rush to drag you in here, just a couple of dudes hanging around looking disinterested. Eventually the owner appears, on crutches. I pick a few out and we engage in the obligatory haggle. Before long we are off to see his brother’s metal work shop a few blocks away. Old Abdul is not so quick on the crutches, so this takes a while. I admire some of the
Damaskini, which is thread silver hammered onto scratched metal and polished. We begin haggling over yet another bloody Hand of Fatima (how many hands did that woman have? They can’t all be genuine).

Now, Al has a rule about haggling; you basically always end up exactly in the middle of your two prices. Here there is a difference though. I would like this thing, but not
that much – not 450 dirhams anyway. I offer 150 and he laughs. But a lot of bullshit and the old walk away later and it’s mine for 200. Probably still over the odds, but I’m happy. Until I start thinking about all the other purchases that I really did want and almost certainly got taken to the cleaners over. Oh well. Abdul pays me the ultimate compliment though, and tells me I haggle like a Berber. Flattery. Gets me every time.

Fifty? For this? You joking my friend, catastrophic price. This hand made from finest...

Before we know it, Abdul is now our official guide for a tour of the oldest part of the medina. He is actually a lovely guy, so I don’t mind this at all, but he is pretty slow on those crutches. Once I get used to taking small steps, it’s quite a refreshing change to be on a half-paced tour, especially when everyone is on Moroccan time anyway. We take in loads of things we’d never have seen without him, and my initial impressions of Meknes are reinforced over and over again. Special people, special place.

Abdul's Tours: Best give them a miss if you're in a hurry...

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