Thursday, January 26, 2012

In which we eat a lot of fish but not $35 worth

I think I've told you guys that Primo and I went to Morocco shortly after we met. I had been laid off from my job and had friends working in Rabat. He had vacation and frequent flier miles. The perfect combination of time + resources. The time was mine, the resources were his.

In retrospect, I should have been looking for a job rather than gallivanting around the world, but I was so confident that employers would snap me up that I thought I could delay the search a few months while I relaxed from the enormous stress of being employed and being able to pay my bills.

Employers didn't snap me up. I got married and stopped looking for work. Now I am discovering that a six-year gap on a resume does not entice employers. This is a problem. This is why I need to write and sell a bestselling novel - so I can contribute to the financial well being of this household and so Primo can quit his job, which has become a trial, and become a full time revolutionary or something like that. I have had my few years of staying at home. I guess it's his turn now. Plus I am bored staying at home. As a lounge around the house gold-digging wife, I have no reason to hire someone else to clean my house and have to do it myself and I hate cleaning house. If we were both working, we could pay someone else to clean the house, although the cleaning lady never cleans the house as well as I do, and not feel guilty and wasteful about it.

Anyhow. We went to Morocco the February after I was laid off. Then we went again a few years later - I was still unemployed - and got more adventurous. The second time, which I suppose was our honeymoon, as it happened one month after our wedding, we went off on our own to a small town on the coast. First, we spent the weekend with Steve and Megan and their kids at the beach. On Sunday, Steve and Megan went back to Rabat and Primo and I took the bus to Essaouira. We should have taken the Good Bus, but it cost a lot more (I think it was ten times as much) than the regular people bus. "I traveled through South America on local buses," I told Primo. "We can do this."

The problem with local buses is that they are filled with local people who sometimes do not have the same access to water to which we are accustomed and who are not spoiled with space as we are, which means that one is squeezed into a bus next to people who don't smell so good. I know. First world problem. At least we have indoor plumbing to go home to.

But the local bus was cramped and hot and slow and took forever to get Essaouira. The usual salesguy stood at the front of the bus and tried to sell us stuff. There was some sort of religious item he was pushing. When it made its way back to us and I took it to examine it, he snatched it out of my hand with some sharp words whose meaning escaped me but whose intent did not. I wasn't supposed to touch that stuff.

There is something about buses and bus stations that attracts vendors. A captive audience, I suppose. When I was waiting to board my bus at the La Paz, Bolivia, bus station, it of one of the nastiest bathrooms I've ever seen.

Oh now you want to hear about the bathroom. Of course. It's only natural.

The women's restroom consisted of a few holes in the ground. These holes were not separated by walls. They were right out there in the open. There was a wall around the restroom, but once inside, you did what you needed to do in plain view.

I was facing a long bus ride across Bolivia to Puno, Peru, and knew there would not be many chances to pee, so I did what I had to do. Not only did I do it - squatting over the hole while an Aymara grandmother and a little girl watched me, I did it with my big backpack on my back and my daypack in front of me. I did not want to put either of them on the floor. You know I am not that squeamish about that sort of thing (except for having to use a dirty shower), so you know that floor had to be in bad shape. I will say, though, that if I had to go through that every day, several times a day, I would have thighs of steel.

Oh. I didn't even tell you the main La Paz bus station story. This was the time that I saw the snake-oil salesman pushing snake oil and lizard oil. If you've ever wondered if snake-oil salesmen really sell snake oil, wonder no longer. They do. This guy had several buckets containing dead reptiles and snakes. (Is a snake a reptile? I can't remember.) He was touting the curative properties of the fat of these animals - good for cancer, back pain, liver problems, heat problems, skin, whatever.

He called for a volunteer from the audience. A man came forward and removed his shirt at the salesman's direction, then squatted. The salesman stuck his hand into one of the buckets and removed it after he had grabbed a hunk of rendered snake fat, which he then rubbed into the volunteer's back.

"My back feels better!" the volunteer exclaimed as the women in their full skirts and black hats surged forward to give the salesman their precious coins.

Maybe I should have bought some. Who knew it was so good for everything?

Back to Morocco. We arrived in Essaouira. Like other towns in Morocco, Essaouira is an old city with tiny, winding streets that don't fall into a conventional Midwestern planned city model. There are no right angles. It's all twists and curves and dead ends. Old stone and plaster walls, thick wooden doors adorned with the hand of Fatima and huge wrought iron hinges. It's really beautiful, but you better bring bread crumbs.

We hired a guy with a hand cart to take us to our hotel in the middle of the city and good thing we did or we never would have found it. He threw our bags into the cart on top of a few thick sheets of dried cod, a food like tripe in that I know how to say it in many languages just so I can make sure never to eat it, and pushed his way through the djellaba-clad crowd, yelling, "Balak balak!" which meant, "Get out of the way!" It was the human voice equivalent to the nasty beeping you hear in the airport when the cart is coming through with the old people.

We got to our hotel, which was a beautiful, elegant old building with a lovely rooftop patio that overlooked the ocean. The walls were bright white and accented with wrought-iron handrails and blue tiles. From our room, we could see into the narrow street and watch the women, heads covered with a scarf, bodies covered with a djellaba - Megan said that she liked to throw her djallaba over her PJs in the morning to run to the bakery - hurrying away.

We got up the next day and wandered around. Essaouira is famous for its fish and the fish market. On the south end of town, in a little square, the fishermen drop off their catch at about a dozen booths. Diners choose the booth, examine the fish, which has been cleaned and placed on ice, select the fish that they want to eat, and wait at the picnic tables while the cooks grill the fish.

We had noticed a sign in the middle of the square stating - in French, which I speak very badly but speak anyhow and Primo speaks well but won't speak because he doesn't speak it perfectly - that the fish was priced by the kilo and by law, the prices of the various fish and shellfish were x, y, and z. We had thought, Well, that's the price and that doesn't seem to bad.

We selected our fish, got a real Coke made with cane sugar (is anyone else sad that the Dublin Dr Pepper bottling plant has been acquired? maybe there are other places to get soda made with cane sugar in the US, but I don't know of them), sat at a table, watched the cats waiting for their share of fish, and then ate a delicious meal of fish, fresh baguette, and tomato, onion, and parsley salad. The sun was out, the ocean was beautiful, the sky was blue with puffy white clouds, the temperature was perfect. It was a lovely day and a lovely lunch.

Until we got that feeling.

You know that feeling. That feeling of realizing that you paid too much. I am talking about the tourist tax, of course -- the extra a foreigner pays because he 1) doesn't know how to bargain, 2) doesn't want to bargain because hello it is considered rude in our culture, 3) doesn't know what he should be paying and 4) doesn't speak the language so can't bargain even if he wants to.

We paid 300 dirhams, or about $35 for our fish. That doesn't sound like a lot (well, I think it's a lot for lunch, but I'm a real cheapskate), but consider we got two first-class train tickets for a 70-mile trip for $20 and that you can get a big schwarma (like a gyro) with lots of meat for $3.

It didn't occur to us to ask the weight of the sardines, langostine, and calamari we had chosen and do the math ourselves. It wasn't until after we left and saw the sign again that we realized that we had paid way too much -- that our lunch should have cost about $6.

When I was in South America, I became a master of bargaining, telling taxi drivers that I was foreign, not stupid, and that I wasn't going to pay the gringo price. Here, I was 13 years out of practice, I didn't speak French well, and I was dealing with Moroccan traders, who are master negotiators, as we had learned during our great Rug Purchasing Adventures. This chick from the Midwest didn't stand a chance against thousands of years of camel traders.

I was angry. It's not that it was so much money - although we never have $35 lunches at home - it's that I felt cheated. I don't like being taken advantage of. But what were we going to do? I complained and whined and Primo got tired of hearing me.

Then that night, we paid too much for spices. Our fault, I know. I should have known my prices. I should have listened to Megan, who told me to do all our shopping in Rabat because that's where we would find the best prices. Ha. Like someone who had lived there for four years would know.

The next morning, the guy at the internet cafe wanted to overcharge us. Sure, it was only a dollar, but by then, we were getting a little tired of the gringo target on our backs and the socialized pricing, especially with the internet thing because they had prices posted and I had kept very close track of the time.

They told us 20 dirhams for the computer time when it should have been 10. The guy insisted that Primo had spent an hour and five minutes on the computer, which would have thrown him from the ten dirhams for an hour into the 15 dh for an hour and a half.

I had worked 55 minutes, with ten minutes lost because my computer crashed and then the guy couldn't get the new one to switch to the English keyboard. (They were French keyboards, which are not easy to work in. There is a program that will switch to an English keyboard - not the actual keys, of course, but what letter shows up when you strike a certain key, which is fine for someone who is a touch typist but not so good for someone who looks at the keyboard when she types, but it was still better than having to seek the letters I wanted on the French version.)

I was loaded for bear. I was mad as heck and I was not going to take it anymore. Very politely but very firmly, I insisted that we owed them only ten dirhams. They rolled their eyes -- good grief, a woman telling us what to do, but I persisted. Again, politely but firmly. Very firmly. Until the guy gave us ten dirhams back.

Flush with victory, Primo and I strolled to the fish market. We found the sign with the prices and a phone number for consumer complaints. I wrote down the phone number and the prices, then we went to the stand where we had eaten.

I wanted our money back. We had been overcharged and I didn't like it. Primo, who will take items back to Target or Menards for a one-dollar price adjustment three weeks after he has made the initial purchase (not a special trip, but on his way to somewhere else), had suggested we just let it go. What's one to do when one is a tourist in a foreign language?

But a twenty-nine dollar overcharge? That was more than one should have to stand. That was egregious. I might have let the internet overcharge of a dollar go if I hadn't been overcharged by 29 dollars.

I had to try.

I marched up to the guy who had sold us our fish the day before. My lovely French sounded something like this: "Yesterday, one eats here." I showed the list to the guy -- "one eats seven sardines, four langostines, and of calamari. One drinks the coke. One has of the bread. One has of the salad. One takes not of the water. The price it should to be 50."

The guy insisted that as we had ordered off the menu, the list prices did not apply.

I persisted. "The sign there it say that the price she is fix. That is the price one should to pay."

No, no, no. A new guy came over. I insisted. "It must be done that one pays the price she is fix."

The manager surrendered. Fine, madame. You eat here today whatever you want and there is no charge.

We ate. It was delicious. And it wasn't until now that I realized that we still overpaid for the two meals put together.