Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

It’s. A. Trap! (Fair Doesn’t Always Mean Equal)

Ourika Valley, near Marrakech, Morocco

“Very good price. Very low. Better than free.”

We’re standing outside the van on the road to Ourika Valley, a verdant, majority-Berber region about two hours from Marrakech, popular with tourists for its many waterfalls.

A half-dozen camels on short tethers wait for curious tourists to approach. It’s well past 11 o’clock, but the sun is just making it over the mountains to warm the deep valley.

The man speaking proffers a tangle of necklaces. Plastic. The artisanal products are waiting in well-planned shops, with tougher hagglers behind the counter. My companions for the day, a French couple from outside of Paris, laugh and tell him that’s a good marketing plan.

In a way it is, but then…maybe not.

You see, I don’t want anything for free (unless it’s a sincere gift). I don’t want the cheapest price (anymore). I want a fair price.

And that’s a very different thing.

Ostensibly we’ve stopped for photos, but the view was around the last bend, and we’re really here to have time to spend money. We’ll stop at three more tourist establishments (some would call them traps, but I won’t today and I’ll explain why soon) before actually reaching our intended destination.

> The Argan Oil Cooperative. Smiling women sit outside the building grinding argan nuts into a paste, which will later be separated into cosmetic oil and the base ingredient for savon noir (black soap). They beckon us to sit beside them. Ashkid, ashkid. (Come, come.) You can take pictures, we’re told. No problem. There’s a dish in front of the women with a few dirham notes in it. We can leave money there.

> The Berber House. A traditional Berber house, which I might have found more exciting had I not spent a great deal of the last five weeks visiting my Berber friends in their (yes) Berber Houses. We’re shown the kitchen, the store room, the family room, the hamam (bath) and the backyard. You can take pictures. No problem. On the way out, there’s a well-placed souvenir shop and a donation box for the welcoming Berber House family.

> The Guide. We stop in the village near the waterfalls to pick up the guide. We haven’t asked for the guide, but the guide is going to come with us. He accompanies our small group halfway up the trail, to the first set of falls, and then tells us it’s time to turn back. When we insist on continuing, and he insists on not going back without us, I convince him to wait at the halfway-up cafe while we finish the hike.

Now, I don’t like being forced to pay for things I didn’t ask for or want in the first place. I also don’t like not paying someone for work completed or services rendered. I don’t like feeling cheated out of my money. And I don’t like feeling I’ve cheated someone out of their fairly-earned money.

Most people in the world would probably agree with those sentiments.

I think all of these scenarios and concerns come down to the same fundamental issue: fairness. Fairness to local people working in the tourism sector, and fairness to tourists seeking to spend their money well (ethically, reasonably and in a way that feels good to them).

So, what’s fair?

I’m going to seriously oversimplify for a moment. The tourist-local marketplace dynamic—as I see it—breaks down like this:

Tourists don’t want to feel ripped off or trapped. (That’s a low bar.) These things are traps: Telling someone to take a picture (no problem, pictures are free!), and then asking them to pay for it. Insisting someone take a bracelet as a gift—and then insisting they pay for it. Following someone through the souk, though they have clearly stated they do not want a guide—and then asking them to pay for it. (These are all common experiences for unsuspecting foreigners in Morocco.)

Tourists do want to feel like they’re getting a good deal. Sure, some are pinching pennies, but most just want fair. Many, like me, will feel frustrated when they know an item’s market price, and then are asked to pay four times that because said item has been handily transported into a souvenir shop. They don’t want to pay “tourist prices.”

Local people want to make a decent living. They see foreign tourists and assume (reasonably) that if they had enough money to pay for a plane ticket to Morocco, they also have enough money to pay a few dollars above market price for a bottle of oil, silver necklace, taxi ride, and everything else. They might also encourage (or push) said tourists to spread their money evenly—a few gifts at the Argan Cooperative, a dollar to the Berber House, a tip to the guide. From this perspective, those tourist establishments mentioned above are not traps, but simply an integral component of the day’s adventure.

Some believe that tourists should pay tourist prices, because they can. And hey, I get where they’re coming from.

Naturally, I also get where tourists are coming from. I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, and I think the fair solution is neither “equal” (tourists often do earn significantly more than the locals they’re buying from, so why shouldn’t they pay more too?), nor excessive (no one likes traps and cheating). Rather, it’s somewhere in the middle, where everyone is happy—or at least not pissed off.

So, when buying abroad, keep three questions in mind:

1. How much is this worth to me? (How much do I want to spend on it? Keep in mind, for perspective, what you would spend at home.)

2. What is the “market price”? (What would this cost a local?)

3. What can I afford? (What’s my budget for this day? Week? Holiday? Will this meal/souvenir/excursion put me over?)

The “fair” price exists somewhere at the nexus of those three answers.

Happy shopping!


And to justify this blog title:


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“Paying the Rent”

It seemed about time to talk about what I am currently doing for money “to pay the rent.” As previously mentioned, I have five jobs at the moment. Only one, however, really pays the rent. It struck me recently that this one job may actually be pretty unhealthy for me.

That job is waitressing.

I identify myself as many things. As a writer, a yogini, a dancer and a wanderer. As a Jew, an artist, a woman and a traveler. Fairy, unicorn, and bird sometimes slip into that list as well. But never that I can recall have I identified with my current occupation. Waitressing, or “serving,” is something that I do to earn money, wholly separate and distinct from my essence or self.

Now, before any servers start raising their hackles, I am not offering judgment on the value of food service professions.  I have a coworker who has payed her mortgage and supports herself through waitressing. This can only be viewed as impressive, and I respect her and anyone else who chooses to make a living as a server. I only wish to observe that I do not identify as such, probably because of the negative qualities that this profession has begun to hold for me. The longer I spend in it, the more conscious I am of its advantages, and its shortcomings. Most importantly, I am realizing that these are really two sides of the same coin. In writing this, I hope to explain why I am doing this work to begin with, and why, ultimately, I do not like it.

While I do not intend to pass judgment, I am fairly certain that it also steals a little bit of your soul. Make of that what you will.

So here they are, The Advantages of Waitressing… and Why They are not so Advantageous for me:

Pro: There is no contract.
That’s right. You can leave whenever you want (though it’s courteous to offer at least two weeks’ notice, especially if you hope to be welcomed back), and, if you find a good place, it is very likely you can come back whenever you want. It is also fairly easy to get shifts covered or traded. This makes being a server the ideal job for travelers, musicians, mothers, or anyone else looking for a flexible work schedule. For example, I am taking a week off in the middle of the busy season to go to a festival. What other kind of work would allow that?
The Flip Side: There is no contract.
Slow night? You might get cut (sent home). Over-staffed? You might get cut. Chef doesn’t like you? You might get cut. Really. There can’t possibly be a workplace more subject to the vagaries of individual whim. No contract means no promises, and that cuts two ways. I was recently cut from the schedule for several weeks at my second restaurant job due to over-staffing (as far as I know, no personal dislike was involved), and that’s fairly normal.

Pro: You work for tips.
Many times customers have tipped me 30 or 40 percent, or handed me an extra twenty for no apparent reason. (Maybe they liked my face?) There are a lot of generous people out there. Plus, in the U.S. it is convention to tip 18 percent on average.
The Flip Side: You work for tips.
Your hourly pay is about four dollars. If it’s slow, you make $4/hour. Plus, there are a lot of obnoxiously stingy people out there, and there are no actual laws on tipping. That means, outside of automatic gratuity, nothing is guaranteed. You depend entirely on the generosity of others for your wages.

Pro: You work on your feet.
You are constantly moving (running) around, with barely any time to drink water! Out of a six-hour shift, you spend six hours on your feet. There is very little need to add any additional exercise if you do this full time.
The Flip Side: You work on your feet.
You are constantly running around, with barely any time to drink water. It’s kind of exciting, but mostly it’s dehydrating and exhausting. Sure, I’d hate to be at a desk all day, but that doesn’t mean I love the unadulterated chaos.

Pro: You get to work with people.
New faces every day. Cool regulars that you get to know as the months go by.* I can’t think of a more effective way to hone communications skills.
The Flip Side: You have to work with people.
Horrible, self-important regulars who never tip well. Screaming children who insist they hate pasta as soon as the pasta they ordered arrives at the table. Every person who stubbornly refuses to notice you are waiting for them to leave so that you can go home. A lot of humanity passes through a restaurant’s doors… you end up wishing half of them would learn to cook and leave you alone.

Pro: You make other people happy.
I truly like this part of the job. I love giving people food, and I enjoy seeing them enjoy it. If it were that simple, I don’t think I would have so much to say.
The Flip Side: Making other people happy can be a pain in the ass.
Some people do not want to be happy. They want to be grumpy and discontented. They are demanding and unreasonable, and they can turn a day bad.

Pro: You make a lot of money.
The Flip Side: You make a lot of money.
Enough that it seems illogical to switch to something else. But these days, I kind of think it’s a trap. You do make a lot of money waitressing. That is why a lot of people choose to do it. That is why I chose to stick with it while I save money to travel. But the longer I stay, the clearer the flip sides become. The more painful certain customers’ arrogance, self-centeredness and smallness feels. The more the lack of any consistent real human connection begins to wear on me.

That is why I do not identify with this job. I am good at it (I forgot to mention that), but I can’t love work that yields negativity and spite in tandem with flexibility and profit. So I am scaling back, spending more time working for less money, and more time on writing, which pays nothing at present, but brings me joy.**

*I think I will do a follow-up piece soon to describe some of these characters in more detail!
**Stay tuned for the consequences of this ‘more writing’.

Sorry, no pictures to go with this post. I promise I will include a lot of pictures next time to make up for it!

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Asia, Culture

Everything is Possible; Nothing is Free

The hub of my front tire was bent at a worrisome angle. The brakes screeched so loudly they forgot to perform their intended function.  The bell did not ring and my feet did not reach the ground, but paying 10,000 kp, or $1.25 per day, I couldn’t complain about my rented bicycle.  It carried from the northwestern tip of Don Dep four kilometers along a wide dusty path to the southern side of the island, across a bridge to Don Khone, around, and back—about 25 kilometers in total—and never once muttered about the heat of the midday sun, which is more than I could say.  Don Det and Don Khone are two of the largest of the four thousand[i]islands that break up the Mekong River at the south of Laos.  I stayed on Don Det for four nights instead of my expected two, lolled into oblivion by the heady lotuses of palm trees, green water, good company and late-night bonfires.
Both Don Det and Don Khone are incredibly flat, and my bicycle and I managed to navigate them easily enough. I stopped to see the Phapheng Falls—the massive series of cascades and rapids that thwarted 19thcentury French efforts to chart a water route from Vietnam to China.  I still haven’t seen the Phapheng Falls because when asked to pay a 25,000 kip entrance fee (approximately $3 and by all accords an inconsequential sum) I had a minor breakdown and went on my way instead.  Let me explain… I am more than happy to give my money to fledgling tourism industries, support the countries I am visiting within my means, and in normal circumstances I would never forgo a stunning natural sight over three measly dollars.  However, at that particular moment, something inside me snapped, perhaps triggered by the cold and offhanded attitude of the ticket taker: I wanted my humanity back! I was tired of being a wallet on legs, and I could not bear, at that moment, to pay for one more thing.
A few hours later, repenting somewhat and feeling rather silly, I thought about doubling back, but the distance left to travel and the thought of the ticket taker’s face deterred me and I continued on without another thought for the waterfall.  I am not the only foreigner to lose patience with the aggressive profiteering in Southeast Asia, and I think I conducted myself relatively well.  In my two weeks in Laos, I witnessed shameful shouting matches between backpackers and tuk tuk drivers over a couple of dollars’ misunderstanding; I watched haggling turn ugly over the last quarter, and I saw smiles turn to anger in countless market interactions.
In most of Asia, where haggling is accepted and even expected, the problem lies not in the bargaining itself, but in its tenor.  Backpackers especially complain that the locals try to cheat them and see in them only potential profit; locals complain that backpackers, who measure their poverty by a different scale, are stingy, want everything “cheap cheap” and ask rudely.  Both sides give reasonable cause for the other’s accusations.
Everyone wants to be treated like a person. No one wants to feel like a tray of samosas or a wallet on legs, or a scheming villain.  In my opinion, for tourism to truly succeed someplace, a country’s motivation for drawing visitors cannot be solely monetary.  Obviously tourism is an industry and its purpose is to generate income, but when the desire exists to share one’s culture with outsiders, welcome them into it and benefit from their presence not only in a financial sense, transaction takes the leap to interaction.  In this best case scenario, we break the too-common boom-bust cycle of the tourism industry and see the birth of a new sustainable development model, with tourists returning regularly to places that are welcoming— neither “untouched” nor “ruined,” but real, warm, and human.

[i]An approximate measure which I suspect was chosen for its poetic appeal in collusion with the ministry of tourism.
Another beautiful waterfall in Laos, which I did pay to see. 🙂
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