Monday, December 30, 2013

Surviving the Moroccan Con

The title is  little unfair in that it seems to imply that Morocco is unique in its efforts to separate the naive from their hard earned cash.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Still, this is the first place where I have encountered an entire industry that is so complete and blazon in its dedication to the task. No, that's not true either.  The difference lies more in the extent to which the con, that is to say, the confidence deal, is built into the official systems of the land.  In the United States, the banks con you in a million different ways; the politicians con you; and in particular the entire social economy of consumption cons you.  In places like the United States the transaction is built on  different kind of power and sleight of hand.  Here in Morocco, the con is smaller and is only codified in informal ways.

A couple of things need to be in place for a con to function.  There needs to be, first and foremost, a mark who is in some critical way naive in regard to the matter at hand.  The mark needs to have something they need or want, or needs to be tempted by some new opportunity.  The con needs to have information or power that appears to be of value to the mark.  Finally, the cost or the service being rendered to the mark needs to be out of the control of the mark.  When you think about, for instance, banking in America, all of these circumstances apply, particularly for those who are less well educated or who have fewer resources.  It is not surprising that the structure of banking benefits the wealthy and tends to find opportunities to take advantage of the poor.

In Morocco the transaction is both more exciting and less costly.  Also, the beneficiaries of the con are likely considerably more deserving.  Here, the mark truly has more wealth than the con.  In the United States, the opposite is true.

I was thoroughly warned of this phenomenon before arriving.  Anything you read about traveling in Morocco is filled with advice related to how to avoid the various unofficial of vendors of services, both needed and unneeded.  Also, there is also a group of folks who will separate you from your personal belongings without the benefit of any kind of con at all, they just take it.  So, I arrived somewhat forearmed and as I stepped off the ferry in Tangier I was prepared to do battle.

By the way, I am writing this morning from the balcony patio of the Riad here in Fez where it is only 40 degrees but the sun is warm.  A rooster is crowing with great determination nearby. I am enjoying my coffee, which was left at my door in a charming whicker basket.  I am paying good money for the room, so its not's a different kind of con.

As expected, I was immediately accosted by taxi drivers, though at this point we are a considerable distance from any taxis of any kind.  "Sir, are you with group or private?"  "Taxi?"  I lower my head and press forward ignoring them completely.  It's not easy.  Eyes front.  Eyes front.  The advice you get is to look like you know where you are going.  Unfortunately, if you don't know where you are going and you just keep moving you will very likely end up in the wrong place.  It doesn't help that the debarkation area for the Ferry has no apparent order to it, though there are a limited number of options for wading through the chaos.  I manage to get through a remarkably informal baggage inspection station and head left out of the depot.  I am walking down a long ramp and in front of me is nothing that looks particularly useful.  Keep moving.  Eyes front. "Sir, Taxi?"  "Sir, Can I help you?"  Well, yes, of course you could but at this point I don't have the local currency and all advice suggests that I move forward.

Except I'm pretty sure now that I'm heading the wrong way.  Nothing looks like it's going to help me figure this out.  You can't stop.  If you stop you are lost.  There is a man at my elbow who smells panic, fear and desperation.  Inspiration!

"Where's the bathroom?  Banyo?"
"Yes, yes, this way?"  He points back up the ramp and though he follows me a few steps he falls away when he realizes that I really am heading for the bathroom.  An attendant offers me toilet paper at the entrance...more on that somewhere else I imagine, and I escape into the relatively peace of the bathroom to collect myself.  It's not an inviting safe house.  Hmmm....

Exiting the bathroom I spot a staircase I had missed earlier.  I head down the steps and what to my wondering eyes should appear?  A man in a uniform!  Huzzah!

I whip out my phone and show him the name and address of my destination.  He helpfully points up the side of the hill in front of us, on which this end of the old city of Tangier is built.  "Up the hill, in the Old City.  Take a little taxi."

Okay, I need a little taxi.  Good enough.  Walking away from him I realize I need to exchange my Euros.  It's not obvious how to do this and as I consider turning around to ask, though moving forward, eyes front, eyes front, I encounter another helpful soul.  "Taxi?"

Somewhere along the line you have to consider the possible benefit of giving in to the con.  After all, if it is a true con you are going to get something out of it, you just might pay more than you should.

"Yes!" I say with some vigor.  "But I need to change my Euros."
"Bank.  This way."  He says this while pointing to an assortment of disappointing looking shacks near the parking lot and starts leading me in that direction.  A lot of things go through your mind at this point.  This doesn't look like a bank?  Why am I following this guy?  Does he have a little taxi? Why a little taxi?

As I continued to let these confident positive thoughts circle through my brain we approach a somewhat temporary building which appears to have someone in it and the lights are on.

"Bank."  He says with confidence.  It ain't Chase Manhattan, but when I stick my head through the door there are computers and cash and I ask, "Can I change Euros here?"
"Yes, of course."

Okay.  It seems legit.  The two guys in the room appear to be doing some kind of banking and are willing to exchange my 50 Euros for what I know is the right amount of dihrams and they make me sign an official looking form.  So far, so good.

Out the door to the taxi.  He does have a taxi.  There's a taxi sign right on the roof.  Thinking I'm smart, I ask him how much.  "100."  Okay, that's only $12.  I can do that.  I throw my backpack in the back of the cab, have a seat and show him the address.  Off we go.  I notice there is no taxi meter in the dashboard.

Riding in a cab in Morocco is a particular kind of excitement.  Imagine streets that are roughly the size of the car, or if they are wider then cars are parked so that the remaining space is about the size of the car.  Now, add people.  Lots of people.  It's Saturday night and the old city is filled with people.  You might imagine that this would mean the taxi moves slowly, but you would be very, very wrong.

My driver speaks passable English and chatters all the way to the hotel.  He is very informative and describes some useful landmarks as we zip along the edge of the Medina heading for my hotel, the Dar el Kasbah.  We arrive directly...I assume that since we're working with a fixed fee that he is motivated to be efficient...and I give him 120 dihrams, figuring a tip is expected.  I'm very satisfied with this arrangement as he has deposited me at the door of my hotel, which is barely labeled and which I would never in a hundred million years found on my own.

Success, you think? Well, yes, but also I was the "victim" of a con.  Now, understand, I was a very happy victim; however, I have since learned that a little taxi is an official taxi which is blue and labeled, "Petite Taxi".  They have taxi meters and the trip I took from the ferry station to my hotel should have cost about 20 dihrams -- which is about $2.40 US.  So, I paid an extra $10 or so as a result of my naivete, but here's the deal.  Judging the transaction from my Western perspective, I am perfectly satisfied.  I needed him, he needed me, the price met my requirements.  Voila!

The next day I took a taxi from Cafe Haffa to the train station.  This trip is pretty much all he way across the central portion of Tangier, but the meter only made it to 10 dirhams...$1.20.  Unfortunately, I didn't have change, so I had to give him a 100 dirham note.  He looked at me and what followed was a halting negotiation as to how much change I was going to get.  He made a cutting motion across the bill.  "Yes, 80 for me, 20 for you."  I thought this was fairly generous, though I was still shaking my head over how cheap the official taxi is.  He implied that he couldn't make change and seemed confused as he rummaged through his pockets pulling crumbled bills of various denominations.

And that was the nature of his con.  I would call it a petite con.  I think on some level that he hoped I would give up eventually and just let him keep the change.  Honestly, in retrospect, I would have happily paid him 100 dirhams for the trip, but at that moment I was invested in negotiating the transaction successfully.  Eventually he gave me 70 in bills and a handful of coins, which I later realized was the correct change.

Side note -- I have now moved downstairs to the salon, which is next to the garden and has a fireplace, for breakfast.  Good lord, such a feast.  Food will be another post, but suffice it to imagine that I am sitting in a beautiful place, eating fresh fruit, yogurt, granola, tea with honey, orange juice, and freshly cooked breads...and continuing to journal.  Yup, that's the idea.

The other con that is very difficult to avoid has to do with what I would call, "Saving the Lost Traveler."  Should you be so foolish while walking down the street as to pause and look around, you can be assured that someone will spot you and begin the approach.  They are so friendly, and so happy to meet you.  There appear to be two variations on this con, the Quick Buck and the Full Monty.

I have succumbed to the quick buck twice.  The first time was Saturday night.  I was looking for a particular small shop in a more modern section of Tangier near the French Embassy.  As I peered across the street there was suddenly a guy beside me, "Can I help you?"  I laughed and we had a short conversation about how I must have appeared lost but was just looking for a store.  He knew exactly where it was, which wasn't hard since it was across the street and well marked, but he led me there regardless.  We had a nice conversation about places to see in the area, including an English pub, but I knew this was not a good sign since he could have easily pointed the way and wished me God speed.  Then he led me inside the store.  Then he helped me make my purchase.  Then he followed me outside.  Realizing that I needed to get rid of this guy sooner rather than later I announced that I was returning to my hotel and thanked him firmly.

"You pay me?"  Yup, there it was.  "For what?"  Of course, we both knew what I would be paying for and it wasn't for helping me find the store.  The real negotiation that needed to take place was to see how much it would cost to get this guy off my tail. He wanted 100 dirhams which was ridiculous, but at that point I was pretty engaged in getting him to go away.  Eventually I gave him 50dh, about $6 and figured that was a cheap lesson in how the Quick Buck might work.  He let me walk away from him, though he slipped up to me after I crossed the street and asked me if I liked hashish.  That would be the entre for the Full Monty.  I don't really want to think about how badly things might go awry if you were to follow this guy in search of a party.

While looking for the Riad in Fez I had a similar encounter when two younger guys became very interested in helping me find the Riad.  Again, I made the mistake of pausing to look at a sign, but this time I very emphatically repeated that I was fine and knew where to go.  This was not good enough, though, and they trouped along with me to the entrance to the restaurant where I was to find my host.  These two guys encouraged me to keep going. "Is closed.  Riad this way."   This time I ignored them and headed for the restaurant entrance, which was open.  I knew that safety lay in going inside.  One final mistake, though.  I turned back to them and said, "I am meeting my host in here.  Thanks!"

"You pay us."  Again.  I could have just turned around and gone inside, but there is a deep desire in me, and I believe in most of us from the West (maybe everywhere) to complete our social interactions.  It seemed rude to just walk away.  That is ridiculous, I know, but there you have it.  Besides, there efforts were industrious.  I reached in pocket and after some poking about pulled out two coins.  I had no idea how much it was but I was confident it was much less than they hoped for.

"This is nothing," he says!  I laughed.  "Sorry."  Into the restaurant I go.  I think I gave him about 1.20rh, which is about fifteen cents.  After I realized that they were trying to lead me astray for some variation on The Full Monty I felt like I had done pretty well in that exchange.

So, rules to live by.
  • Don't talk to anyone on the street unless you initiate.  Period. [Udate:  Ignore this.   Talk to everyone.  But be prepared to say no with some vigor if you are offered assistance you don't need.]
  • Use the blue taxis.
  • Find a cop and get advice. [Also, shopkeepers and other folks engaged in meaningful activity.  You might want to be a little careful of folks who are loitering, but it's okay to be nice.]
  • Plan ahead.  
  • Have some coins or small denominations ready to help you disengage.  
Of course, as long as you keep to public places and are firm about negotiating, the Quick Buck con is somewhat entertaining and generally cheap.  The thing to avoid is the Full Monty, that's the key.  Bottom line is its hard to avoid a con the first time you are in a new place.  Naivete and the need to find things will make you the perfect mark, so in some instances you just have to relax and pay the tariff!  Remember, it's all cheaper than banking.

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