I was both over-the-moon excited and completely trepidatious about shopping in Morocco. Visiting the medina and shopping in the souks was high on my list of Things I Must Do. Aziz, the guide that walked me all over Marrakech for two days, included many of the souks on my walking tour. My plan was to look but not shop those first days in Marrakech, since I was going to be in Essaouira for 8 days, and that area is considered more relaxed, with less bargaining. There would be less choice in Essaouira too but since I'd end my trip in Marrakech, I knew I could pick up anything that I felt I had missed, and was dying to buy.
In Marrakech, there are certain rules, or customs, that go along with shopping in the souks. First, photographs are discouraged, unless you plan to buy something or to pay for the privilege. Aziz, who called himself "Man of the Medina," took care of that problem for me, since he knew virtually everyone. I was allowed to shoot to my heart's content with just a nod between Aziz and the shop keepers.
Touching merchandise is another no no. It seems to represent the start of the buying contract. If I touched something, I was invited deeper into the shop, then the shop owner would follow in behind me, and I was basically blocked from leaving. After this happened once or twice, I looked without touching, and didn't go past the outer tables of any shops, unless I really planned to make a purchase.
While I would highly recommend a private tour guide to walk you through Marrakech, there are a few little caveats. One was that Aziz would get to chatting up the shop keepers and I would end up waiting for him to move on. It's a bit of a double-edged sword. If Aziz wasn't such a friendly guy, I wouldn't have had the access I did. But I also didn't like waiting around for him.
The other, more significant caveat, is what I call "the drop-off." The first time it happened, we walked though a door where a woman was grinding argan seeds into oil. I was allowed to take pictures of her, which is highly unusual since Moroccan woman almost always cover their faces and refuse to be photographed. Another young woman introduced herself to me, took my hand (alarm bells should have started here but didn't; I was too jet-lagged and hungry) and then walked me into a small back room filled with shelves of creams, spices, oils, and jars of ground pigment. She encouraged me to take as many pictures as I wanted. My inner alarm was still on silent mode, not even buzzing, though it should have been. Then she started to explain all the products, and during her presentation, she shut the doors dividing the back room and the front of the shop. My inner alarm finally started to buzz, ever so faintly, but when she invited me to sit down, I was just grateful to have a chance to rest, and thought nothing of what I had gotten myself into.
A few minutes later, when the young woman was adding up my purchases, I began to wonder exactly where Aziz was? It turns out he was having a cup of thé à la menthe (mint tea) on the front steps, with a few neighboring shop keepers. I'd been dropped-off, and the young sales woman had completely seen me coming. I originally agreed to buy 3 or 4 different things but wasn't prepared to, or even given the opportunity to bargain, and as she totaled the cost of my purchases, I belatedly realized I was being wickedly over-charged, and put the brakes on. She was gracious about my rude change-of-heart. I was only a little miffed about the whole thing, and thought the story would make a fine blog post (right?!).
What did I buy that day? A lovely pot of vanilla-scented argan oil cream, and a sack of little black seeds that are supposed to help with snoring, if you sniff them before you go to sleep. I snore like a truck so those seemed worth trying! The sales woman also threw in a Magic Lipstick which is bright green but turns to a lovely pink shade once applied. I was worried the dye used to make the magic happen was a carcinogen but apparently similar products are available at Sephora for a LOT more money so I've been wearing it.
We have lots more souks to visit so check back in the next few days to see where we go shopping next. One of my favorite stories is when I got dropped off at a rug shop. Yup. I let that happen.
Some helpful definitions...
- Souk: market or bazaar. When I was in Morocco, I felt like people almost referenced a souk as a singular shop, rather than an entire market within the medina.
- Medina: word commonly used in Morocco to mean old city or old part of the city.