A day at the market in Essaouira, Morocco

I went to Essaouira for the DIPINTO17 Retreat for Creative Entrepreneurs – but as you all know, a retreat is never “all work, no play”. A retreat is first and foremost a learning experience, motivational, inspirational – and a great way to make new friends and learn about the culture of the host country. While visiting the traditional market (the souk) in Essaouira, I got to experience shopping in a way I hadn’t done since I went to Tunisia with my parents. I got re-introduced to the concept of haggling. Modest as I am, it’s not something I feel comfortable with – but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. Right?

There I was, watching and learning from others before – somewhat – getting the hang of it. After all, back in Tunisia it wasn’t me who took care of the haggling. I was a seven year old kid back then. I remember my parents buying me a lot of souvenirs from the island of Djerba, and little did I know how much effort they had to go through to buy me those souvenirs for a reasonable price.

Reasonable price is never the price written on the price tag. That price is a rip-off, and only naive and modest tourists (like myself) will ever pay that price for something you can get half price if you just grow a pair and speak up. When I first arrived at the souk in Essaouira, I ran around like a headless chicken, not knowing what to do or what to say. My only advantage was that I speak French and could pretend to be a penny-pinching French tourist instead of the vendors thinking I’m some rich American throwing money around and buying everything from everyone. Yes, those are stereotypes, and no, they’re not always true. I know that, you know that, the Moroccans know that.

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The market in Essaouira is a lot more relaxed than the one in Marrakech. Here, there are no snake charmers, no monkeys on a leash, no one trying to nearly force you to get Henna tattoos done, no one getting mad at you for not looking at their merchandise. Although I love certain things about the souk in Marrakech, and although the chaos and energy can sometimes be fun and although it adds to the experience,  I will have to admit that I prefer the traditional market in Essaouira.

The vendors are generally quite relaxed. If you don’t enter their shop, they will not say anything. And once you enter the shop they will ask you if you’re looking for anything special and help you find what you’re looking for. And obviously propose other options.That’s it. And that’s the way I like to go shopping.

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The number one beauty product to invest in when in Morocco – the motherland of Argan oil – is exactly that, argan oil for hair and body. And where better to buy it than in Essaouira, the part of Morocco where the oil is produced. I asked a vendor how much he wanted for a travel size bottle, and he pointed at the price tag. It seemed like a reasonable price to me. My new friends from the retreat – including a local – gave me a surprised look and asked me shockingly if I really did pay the price written on the price tag. I was confused. Of course I did. It seemed cheap. And doesn’t an actual price tag mean that the price is fixed? Apparently not.

“You should have haggled!” they said. I tried again somewhere else. I entered a shop selling beautiful pashmina scarves. I took a deep breath. The vendor offered a price. Was it high? Was it low? I had no idea. We negotiated. I suggested fifteen dirhams less. He suggested five. We met halfway, I paid and we shook hands. I was still confused as to whether or not I should have gone harder or if I was too hard on him. I took another deep breath and moved on.

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Leather wallets. I wanted to get one as a gift for my partner. I found the perfect one and I negotiated harder than I had done in the previous shop. I almost felt sweat dripping from my forehead as I tried to act stubborn and hard to sell, when all I really wanted was to say “I can’t do this” and just pay, shake hands, smile and leave. But I did it. I negotiated!

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I wanted to take a lot of pictures at the market but worried I’d offend the vendors if I photographed their merchandise without buying anything. So I purposely photographed only the places where I bought things from, the places where I’d asked for permission first – and a few sneaky shots taken in a hurry. While photographing my surroundings I noticed an adorable little kitten sitting on a man’s knee while the man was playing guitar. I couldn’t stop looking at the cute little kitten, and felt rather embarrassed when I suddenly made eye contact with the man – who probably thought I was staring at him all this time!

And then there was the strange experience that turned out to be the highlight of the day. One of my friends from the retreat had entered something that looked like Ali Baba’s cave, a tiny room with multiple treasure chests (yes, treasure chests) filled with gorgeous jewelry. The happiest man I’d ever seen, with a bright blue turban, welcomed me and three of my new friends (we had been separated from the rest of the group) to his cave and offered me and another woman a seat while the guys waited in the back. “What do you like? What do you need? You can try anything!” he said joyfully and dug his hands into one of the treasure chests and offered us a handful of random jewelry. “Try whatever you want” he said. One of our friends tried a bracelet that turned out to be a tad bit too tight and the vendor laughed and said “You eat too much couscous, my friend!”. “Here – try this one!” he laughed and suggested some other options. Before she knew it, she had three bracelets on her arm. She also tried on a beautiful necklace. Everything was gorgeous. She liked it too, but put on an act to not seem too easy to sell. “You are a strong Berber woman!” he laughed, referring to the Moroccan Berbers, an unconquered people.

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I tried on a few bracelets. Many of them were way too big for my tiny wrists (the only thing tiny on me). “You don’t eat enough couscous!” he laughed and offered me to try another one. A bracelet I fell completely in love with. I also tried on a lovely necklace but wasn’t sure whether I wanted to buy it or not. “It is perfect for you” he said, trying to convince me to buy it. I hesitated and told him “If I buy too much, I’ll have no more money for couscous!”.

In the end we all ended up with jewelry for a ‘family price’ discount, and the funny vendor even handed out some freebies for our two male friends. Now this guy could sell anything to anyone, just by being the funniest and most dynamic vendor I’ve ever met. I didn’t even go there to buy jewelry. I went there for the entertainment. The jewelry was just a pleasant bonus. Someone give this man a one man show!

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What a day it had been. What an experience. Oh, how I’d love to go back to Essaouira with an empty suitcase and just stay at the market for one more day – or two. And that’s coming from someone who has a phobia of haggling.

Photos below are from a restaurant I want to visit next time I’m in Essaouira(we didn’t have time while we were there). There’s live music in the evenings, and just look at how amazing and artsy this place is!

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While heading towards the market, we saw a lot of this.

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And this. I love the colors!

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Our villa was a 20-25 minute drive from the city centre. Domaine La Colline des Oliviers .

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