Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Merzouga - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 5 (Part 3)

As we drove on, the terrain became sandier. From time to time, we would drive past small piles of sand on the side of the road and some sand blowing across the road. We passed fields of fences built in patterns of connected squares, which Mohammed directed our attention to and explained they were built to slow the expansion of the desert. We noticed that in many places, these cubes were filled with sand and seemed to do a good job of stopping the sand from blowing across the road. We also saw a lot of interesting desert plants. I saw some plants that appeared to have clusters of fruit much too large for its size. I asked Mohammed if those fruit contained water. He told me "Never touch one, they are filled with acid!" It turns out that these plants are of a species called Calotropis Procera, and that the fruit were just leaves folded in a peculiar way. I had hoped that what we were seeing was evolution creating a desert plant that, like cacti, stored extra water, but just to protect it from animals, also make the water unusable to anyone else. I was disappointed to find that that this was not the case. However, Mohammed was right in that the plant was filled with acid. Calotropis Procera contains a toxic and an acidic resin, likely used as a defence mechanism.

As the terrain became sandier, we started seeing large piles of sand on the surrounding hills. I was so excited the first time I saw the steep slopes of a distant mesa covered in sand. The sand was crawling up about two thirds of the mesa, forming ripples. One can also see the sand being blown over the top of the mesa in thin wisps dancing in the wind.

We decided that it would be a good idea to buy a headscarf before going into the desert. Mohammed decided to take us to a trading post called Maison Touareg, named after the Tuareg people of North Africa. Little did we know that Mohammed seemed very buddy-buddy with the owner of the shop. We suspect this was another of his standard stops for tourists, unless people in Morocco are just always very friendly with each other.

Upon arriving at the trading post, we were led in some gates to a relatively large compound of mud buildings. Upon entering, we were immediately served mint tea and the owner and his aides unrolled a variety of different carpets for us to see. Apparently Morocco is known for its carpets. Two interesting things that I learnt was that many of their carpets were made of cactus fibre, which I found fascinating. Cactus fibre made a very smooth, thin, and cool-feeling carpet in contrast to the thick wool carpets. The second interesting fact is that the Berbers in the area are divided into a number of tribes. These include the Glaoui tribe along with some other tribes with exotic sounding names, one of which I think was named the Sahara tribe. All of the tribes except for one follow the Islamic faith, except for one, whose members are Jewish. Since Islamic beliefs forbid depicting God's creations such as humans and animals, all of the carpets made by the Islamic tribes are decorated only with patterns. This makes the carpets from the Jewish tribe easy to identify, as theirs are the only carpets that are also decorated with stylized animals and human figures. We were shown a gorgeous example of such a rug, which had pictures of birds on a red background.

After being shown the carpets, we were ushered into different rooms accompanied by different aides. This was done quite subtly, and when I found myself separated from Felix, I tried to re-join Felix, but was blocked on my attempts. Although I was a little bit worried about being separated, I realized that this was a very clever negotiating tactic. They were separating us so that each of us would have to deal with multiple opponents during negotiations. Having no desire to purchase a rug that day, I was not worried about ending up with a overpriced carpet, but only mildly annoyed at this delay is us getting to the desert.

The owner moved between me and Felix, and while he was gone, his aides stayed with me. I kept telling him that I was not interested in buying a carpet and that I probably won't have enough money to buy one anyway. He kept badgering me and eventually I agreed to write an offer on a sheet of paper. I wrote 600 dirhams for a large cactus fibre carpet, in which he responded by offering me a smaller cactus fibre carpet. After a series of refusals, he got the message that I was not willing to pay a price that was acceptable with him, so he took me back to the headscarves that we picked out earlier, upon entering. He told me that it was 150 dirhams for the headscarf, which I knew was overpriced but not wanting to negotiate with him any longer, I accepted. I was then led to a room filled with interesting antiques in which I would have to wait while they finished dealing with Felix. After a while, we were reunited. Felix had his headscarf with him, which I found out he paid a different price for. I can't remember exactly now, but I think he paid 200 dirhams for it. On the way out, the owner picked up a fossil and gave it to Felix. If I remember correctly that Felix paid 200 dirhams for the headscarf, this was probably to prevent us from finding out we were dealt with unequally later on. However, I may have been willing to pay 50 dirhams for a fossil, as Mohammed told us that this area was famous for producing fossils, which the many shops and signs along the highway would attest to.

As we were just about to enter the car, the owner ran up to me and tried to make me a new offer. He wrote a number, which I think was between 1100 and 1300 dirhams on a sheet of paper and pointed at my pants that I was wearing. He told me that the offer was for the cactus fibre carpet I had liked and that he would take credit card and the price included shipping. It didn't surprise me that my pants became part of the negotiation as I had been aware that it was common to use articles of clothing in negotiations in Morocco. I had been told that if you wear a baseball cap in Fes, people will offer to exchange a fez cap for your baseball cap. I don't know what I was thinking, but I thought he was going to give me that much money and the carpet for my pants. Since I hadn't seen any pants like the ones I was wearing (pants that had zippers to convert to shorts when needed), I had thought perhaps these kind of pants were very valuable here. In return, I wrote a higher number, which he stared at in a confused manner and said okay. The whole time Felix was trying to tell me not to buy the carpet as he had also had enough of this negotiating and felt we were being ripped off, but was silenced by the owner. It was only after we shook hands on the deal that I realized I was to pay him the money along with my pants in exchange for the carpet. I felt so bad and was very embarrassed about the misunderstanding. He didn't seem very happy with me but accepted the mistake. I took his business card advertisement to make him feel better.

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