Moroccan Henna: The Branding of a Gullible Tourist

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