Moroccan Henna: The Branding of a Gullible Tourist

in Morocco / Overland Travel
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After hours of walking through the winding maze of narrow streets that branch out from the center of the Marrakesh Bazaar, we finally reach a wide open space surrounded by tourist restaurants, snake charmers and roaming vendors who try desperately to push their trinkets into our hands in an effort to make an impromptu sale.

It’s here that I know I will inevitably end up paying too much money for something I don’t need.

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Center of the Marrakesh Bazaar — view from above

Getting ripped off is something I always budget into the cost of visiting a new country, no matter where in the world it is. I like to think of the excess money I spend in those first few days in a new place as my “foreigner’s tax” – the price I pay for my ignorance until I learn my way around the exchange rate, the local economy and what the real costs are of certain basics like bread, beer and taxis.

I remember vividly every experience when I was conned traveling to a country for the first time – the taxi driver in Cairo, Egypt who agreed on a price of ten Egyptian pounds to drive me to the Pyramids then said, “Oh, I meant ten British pounds, not ten Egyptian pounds,” and then refused to let me out of the car until eventually I kicked my way out, threw 15 Egyptian pounds at him and ran off in such a hurry that he managed to hold on to my favorite music CD. There was the bartender in Montreal, Canada who reversed the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar to the Canadian dollar so that I paid twice the normal price for my drinks. There was the Russian babushka who sold me a bag of ordinary sticks and convinced me they were a special type of Russian tea. And there was the bus driver in Turkey who charged me ten times more than the local passenger rate, assuming I wouldn’t know the difference.

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Marrakesh Market is full of eye candy

In Marrakesh, my foreigner’s tax comes in the form of an unwanted henna assault, which happens while I am trying to prevent a strange man from wrapping an enormous python around my neck.

As I try to peel the ten-foot-long reptile off my shoulders while nodding and smiling in an effort not to spook the snake, I notice my friends Kristi and Meg are having their hands stroked by two Moroccan women covered from head to toe in traditional garb. I use my friends as an excuse to escape the python and his handler but, before I can ask my friends what they’re doing, a woman grabs my arm tightly and starts drawing floral designs on my fingers with plastic tubes of brown henna.

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Meg is both amused and unsure of what is happening

“Wait…no…what does this cost?” I ask Meg and Kristi, who have succumbed to the entrapment of the smiling, crooning Moroccan women sat squeezing brown paste on their hands as though they are decorating a cake.

Kristi looks particularly unimpressed as her covered assailant works quickly and forcefully, drawing brown, squiggly designs all up Kristi’s forearm. She laughs, “I don’t even know how this happened. I told her to stop…”

The henna-drawing assault is over in a few short minutes, by which point Ryan has wandered over to me to see what is being done to my arms. “What in the…did you want this?” he asks as I shake my head vigorously. “What is this going to cost?”

“Sheep! Very sheep price!” The henna lady responds. Five hundred Dirham only!”

I stand up from my stool and shout, “Five hundred Dirham? Are you crazy?! That’s fifty dollars!”

“Very sheep! Beautiful!” The woman smiles, holding my defaced arm up to Ryan, who looks like he might turn the woman upside down and shake her.

I grab Ryan by the arm and tell him I’m absolutely not going to pay five hundred Dirham. Yes, I was forced into getting a henna tattoo, but I would give the woman what I feel is a reasonable price. I pull out a one-hundred Dirham note and hand it to the woman, who immediately spits and swats my hand away. “No one hundred! Five hundred Dirham! This nothing for you!”

I walk away from the woman as she screams after me, and I slow down my pace, as I’ve been in this situation many times before. The feeling of being conned never absolves me from the feeling of guilt that comes with knowing that such desperate tactics are born of a need and a struggle to survive, to put food on the table and to make a meager living off the wealthy tourists that pass briefly through these countries, their pockets lined with cash to spend on good food and souvenirs to bring home.

I turn around and face the woman shouting at me. “I will give you one hundred Dirham or I will give you nothing. Your choice.” I wave my arm at her and say, “This was not my choice. One hundred Dirham is generous.”

“No good!” The woman screams. But she grabs my one-hundred Dirham note and spins on her heels, walking away to grab another unsuspecting tourist in the market square.

Meg and Kristi walk up next to us with their heads hanging low. “How much did you give them?”

“Two-hundred fifty Dirham.”

“Twenty-five DOLLARS?!” Ryan explodes.

Kristi and Meg shrug their shoulders sheepishly as they say, almost in unison, “I felt bad!”

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Our gullible tourist stamps on full display

I laugh, sympathizing with how the henna transaction has made us feel; like we’ve been violated and branded with the tattoo of a gullible tourist, which we would wear with shame for the rest of our time in Morocco.

But, mentally, I reconcile our over-payment as a donation to local families in need. And I write off my foreigner’s tax as a necessary lesson in navigating the markets of Marrakesh: never let a man wrap a snake around your neck and never let a woman tattoo your arm without your permission.

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I prefer the beautiful things I choose to buy over the ones I’m forced to pay for
9 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Chris March 15, 2016, 10:12 am

    Great piece! We’ve all been there. I got roped into a haircut in Florence Italy. My long, youthful, curls were snipped and straight razored into oblivion. I left looking like a marine. A marine with hair gel. He handed me espresso after espresso, as I pleaded with him to stop cutting. To no avail. My Joe Perry hair was gone. Lying in a scattered mess at my feet. And I paid way too much. I felt like I was paying to get out of jail.

    • Tasha March 15, 2016, 11:03 am

      Ha! That’s exactly right — you feel like you’re paying to escape the torture. It’s awful and I try my best to minimize those experiences, but they always end up happening at least once on every trip.
      Tasha recently posted…Moroccan Henna: The Branding of a Gullible TouristMy Profile

  • Chris F March 15, 2016, 1:16 pm

    Canada isn’t THAT different than the USA (and poorly mathed bartenders is an international thing!) If you were in Quebec City maybe I would understand it feeling a bit more foreign. *grin*

    I remember once renting scooters in Cuba and we ended up in the middle of the poorest neighborhood well off the beaten path. A girl, who must have been under 15 years old by her appearance and VERY pregnant (I know, I know – meaning that far along, not that you can be more or less pregnant) was having a hard time walking down the street. I felt helpless for her, the way she was dressed (clearly poor) struggling to walk along, I had a couple hundred USD in my pocket and I gave her some money. And as we drove around in that poor area, just kept giving people $20 USD each for no other reason than they needed it far more than I did. AT the time $25 was a monthly salary for a doctor.

    First time poster / long time follower (I have watched all of your videos.. and am now signed up for sailing lessons in May. Thanks for the inspiration!)

    • Tasha March 15, 2016, 1:40 pm

      Chris,
      Welcome and thanks for posting a comment! I always love hearing from readers/viewers :-). You’re right in that Canada isn’t that different…the true backstory to that tale was I was 19, in college in upstate New York and I’d gone to Montreal with some friends because we could drink there and that seemed so novel. We all got ripped off by the bartender who insisted the exchange went in the opposite direction…this was a long time ago now (to date myself) so I remember that it worked out as paying double or at least near that.

      What a lovely thing you did giving money to Cubans where you visited. We’ve done a similar thing by donating to schools in areas we’ve traveled to, since we’ve always worked as teachers — schools tend to tug at our heartstrings.

      Thanks so much for reading and I’m excited to hear you’ll be joining the ranks of us sailors/dreamers 🙂

  • Ric March 17, 2016, 8:44 pm

    Always carry a wad of $1 US bills in a foreign country. If there’s any question, toss ten or so at them, they will never ask for more.
    Even they don’t know the exchange rate. There is no place in the world US dollars are not recognized, and accepted with glee.
    Of course, once you expose yourself as American, the sharks will start circling.

  • Brandy March 22, 2016, 4:28 pm

    Years ago I was traveling in Guatemala with my husband and we were sitting in a passenger van waiting for our driver. An older woman opened the van door and climbed right in to show us trinkets she had for sale. Our driver eventually pulled her out but hours later she spotted us and came over wanting to finish the sale.

  • Jessica April 7, 2016, 8:46 pm

    I knew the locals in Egypt were extremely forceful, but I had no idea they were that bad in Morocco as well. Thanks for the heads up, in case we actually get there on our next trip around! Hahaha, I can only imagine Matt in that situation. He would not survive. He exploded on some tut-tut drivers in Peru when they tried to charge him $3 instead of the $1 it should have cost.
    Jessica recently posted…A Night of Luxury in MiamiMy Profile

  • Ed Selby April 20, 2016, 11:24 am

    Man – I thought the vultures in cruise ship ports were bad!
    Ed Selby recently posted…Looking for a pretty faceMy Profile

  • Niklas May 2, 2016, 1:07 am

    Oh Morocco,

    I first went there when I was 17 years old. I was crew (student actually) on a three mast top-sail schooner going from Lisbon-Morocco-Canary Islands-Brazil-Caribbean. Anyway, I remember Morocco for all the wrong reasons like: “mister, you want to know my sister” to dealers forcefully trying to sell you hash, just to allow their police friends arrest you and blackmail you into not arresting you, whilst handing the hash back to the dealer (happened to another fellow crew).

    Some 20+ years later I decided to go with a friend in his VW Camper from Lisbon, where he lived, into Morocco, across the beautiful Rif down to Fes, across to Rabat and back home. We ended up cutting our trip short by a couple of days, nearly fleeing the country in sheer frustration with the locals and their relentless pestering, lying and attempts at cheating. Having to be constantly alert simply drains all your energies, and there is little left for actually enjoying the travelling.

    I am now 52, I have lived on three continents, in six countries and traveled to more places than I can remember; Morocco is probably the only place on Earth I can say with certainty that I shall never return to.

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