Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Fes Carpet Scam

These guys are good.

I arrived by train in Fes and found a small hotel near the station. After I checked in and got situated I went down to the lobby to go out for a bite. There, "Sammy" came up to me and started talking. Not pushy or anything, just chatting. He was meeting his friend "Tony" from Barcelona. While we were talking, Tony arrived and Sammy told me he was driving Tony to the medina and I could come along. Since I came to Fes without a guidebook or map, I decided to go, even though I sensed a scam coming - I was curious where it would hit.

Sammy took us to a riad owned by "a friend of his father's" for a very nice dinner. There, Tony and I talked for a while and Tony told me he had come to Barcelona to shop for some rugs for his new beach house and that he knew Sammy from prior visits. Tony showed me photos of his daughter, told me about his life and said Sammy was from a well-off family here in Morocco.

Sammy returned from visiting the folks in the riad and said his dad just called the owner and the meal was free. He told Tony in front of me that when they go to the "government house" tomorrow to look at the rugs, just trust whatever they tell you and that the price is fixed and the best around. After that, he drove us back to the hotel and said he was taking Tony around the medina tomorrow and I could join him. Heeven had a friend who would show me around the medina(old town enclosed by a wall) and souks(markets.)

The next day, I met Sammy and Tony and we went to the medina, where we met Mohammed, a "friend of the family" and an imam (muslim religous leader) in training who would show me around the old town. He seemed like a nice guy and we walked all around and went to the brass manufacturing, tannery, and various other sights and shops. At each of the places there was a brief tour followed by a moderate sales pitch until we arrived at the carpet shop. There, things turned up a notch.

When we arrived, Tony and Sammy were already looking at rugs. Mohammed was on the phone fairly often up to our arrival at the shop - I believe he was orchestrating the arrival. At the shop, Tony had selected a few rugs, but as soon as I started looking at a certain type of rug, he suddenly changed his taste to match mine.

Here is how it works at the rug place. You sit on nice cushions drinking tea while the salesmen parade rugs in front of you very quickly. They ask you to sort them into yes/no piles. The salesman and Sammy kept saying how a person could just take one of the rugs back to the their country and sell it to pay for all of the rest and still make a lot of money.

The salesmen told us this was a special, half-price day! Tony finally selected five rugs and they quoted him a price of 140,000 dirham - over $16,000. I had five rugs in my like pile and Tony asked me what they would cost - the sales guy said 105,000 dirham and Tony acted very surpised. He then left to "purchase" his rugs.

The rug salesmen kept asking me how much I would be willing to pay for the rugs and I kept telling him I was not in the market for a rug. They kept saying I could make money by selling one rug. Finally, after trying to get me to give a price, they resorted to the line - "give me shocking offer, please, just shocking offer, shock me! I replied that "free" would be shocking. At that Mohammed returned and we left for lunch.

At lunch, I was depositied in a riad(nice palace or home converted into a hotel-like operation) (Tony and Sammy did not show) and Mohammed left for some reason. As I was being served lunch, I asked about the price - $200 dirham - over $20! Now, you should understand that I have been eating in South America for a while and $3 seems pretty steep to me. Too late to leave, I ate. It was a nice lunch, but not worth that much. When I finished lunch, guess who showed up - the salesmen from the carpet shop. They led me back to the shop where they tried to get me to make an offer. Finally, frustrated, they offered me a rug for 5000 dirham ($600) I said no thank you and that ended it. After that, Mohammed returned and we went to the pottery place and then Mohammed dropped me at the hotel. Sammy called as we where driving to the hotel and said he would come pick Tony and me up at 8 PM. Of course that never happened and he was never heard from again.

So here is my assessment. These unauthorized guides prey on unaware tourists by taking them on "tours" which consist of high pressure sales at manufacturing shops. I am sure the shops are legitamite, but they try to sell things at very high prices and the "guides" get a kick back. My "guide" always stayed several steps ahead of me on the street and never paused unless there was noone else around. Once a policeman stopped him and I think he slipped the policeman some cash as unofficial guides are not allowed unless they bribe the officers.

The Creme de la Creme is the carpet shop. By trying to establish my trust with the Sammy/Tony scam, they tried to get me to believe you could actually resell a carpet and pay for everything, ridiculous as that sounds. Using Tony - a guy from Barcelona who works with people in Morocco and happens to also speak some arabic - they establish trust. The free dinner also helps. Then if they can get a high price for the carpet, they all get a share.

It also works at a smaller scale at the potery shop, tannery, apthocary, tailer, etc.

I knew it was a scam from the beginning (except lunch, where I got sucked in - oh well, made up for dinner) but it was fun playing along with them. While Sammy and Tony were obviously not entirely honest, I think most of the people you run into in Morocco are some of the warmest, most genuine people you will meet, even the touts.


I decided to make Fes my only stop in Morocco because it seemed a city steeped in history. And it is, over 1100 years of it. It is so easy to get lost in the Medina that a guide is pretty necessary. But beware, there are scams here. More about that in my next post.
In the photos, I think the guy in the photo with the eggs is really Tom from Mill Creek. I guess he must have lost his job and is now selling his eggs on the street in Fes! He is making farting sounds with his armpits - soooo Tom.
Because the streets are so narrow, donkeys and hand carts are still the primary mode of moving goods through the Medina. I did get almost bowled over by the donkeys a couple of times, but what really bowled me over were the smells!
The pits are part of the tannery. Lots of great smells there!
Tomorrow I head to the Atlas mountains for a day and then back to Madrid.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Last Photos from South America - Colombia

It has been a great five weeks of exploration, but now it is time to leave South America.
Military are everywhere in Colombia, though my bus was only stopped and searched once. They are actually quite friendly and posed for the nice photos, complete with smiles.
El Capitan by Botero cracked me up. I went to the Botero Museum here in Bogota today and enjoyed it thoroughly.
I did not eat the giant red mushroom you see here, although I was sick with stomach problems for a few days.
The town square is in Villa de Leyva and is the largest in Colombia. It and the rest of the streets in town are paved entirely of large cobbles, which keeps the cars down to 5 mph - better than speed humps, which are everywhere here. It is a neat colonial town whose buildings have not changed for four hundred years.
The other photo is the hostel I stayed in in Villa de Leyva - had the upper dorm room (with five others) for under $6 per night. A relaxing place.
Take Care - Next stop ... well, check back in. I am at the airport now.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Northern Colombia

Here are a few pictures from Tayrona National Park near Santa Marta in northern Colombia. The beaches were great -warm clear water. I went diving one day - this is a great spot to get your diving certificate or instructors training as it is pretty cheap.
The crabs are coconut crabs that live on land. The lizards were not huge but colorful. The grub was about 10 centemeters long.
I am now heading to Bogota and then to Madrid. Take Care,

Monday, May 11, 2009


I am in Cartagena now, but l'm heading out of town - going east to Taganga where I hear the water is clear and the diving/snorkeling is good.

Cali was not my cup of tea (coffee is probably more appropriate, as it is Colombia and the coffee is smooth here.) I found it to be dirty, slummy and loud. So I left the next morning and came here to Cartagena. The old town, surrounded by walls, reminds me of a clean, compact New
Orleans. Every building has balconies covered with flowering tropical plants. It has been a pleasant couple of days, but I have now grown bored with the city life and hope to see other beautiful parts of Colombia. Hard to get too many photos of interesting things in Colombia for some reason. Still, here are a few pics. Craig

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Lady Liberty/Justice, Chilean Style

What is so unusual about this statue of liberty/justice next to the house of justice in Valparaiso? A couple of things...
Notice that there is no blind fold. I guess justice is not blind in Chile.
Also, the scales are not held in balance, but are draped at her side ... I guess justice is not fair either.
The story, I hear, is that this statue was created by a French sculpture who recognized the unfairness of the class structure and ability to buy "justice" in Chile and depicted it in the statue. When it was presented to the Mayor of Valparaiso in 1902, so the story goes, the Mayor asked why there was no blindfold and he was told that justice needs to see all the facts. Hearing that explanation, he accepted the statue. Don't know how much of this is true, but makes for an interesting story.

More of Valpo

More Photos of Valparaiso (hereafter Valpo) for viewing. It really is not possible to capture this city in photos. That is why there are so many artists here. I have been trying to figure out where this city reminds me of - I would have to describe it as an amalgem of San Francisco, Seattle, Fremont, and Cinque Terra, mixed with psychodelic mushrooms...The graffiti is everywhere and cool, the houses are colorful, it is sometimes very clean and other times filthy.
In general, Valpo is much more mellow than La Paz or Lima. I am captured by this city of about 2 million people. It is a port town that was in its heyday before the Canal was completed. The Cerros or hills were populated by various foreigners - Germans, Americans, Yugoslaves, and they each brought their own touches.
The Chileans are much different from Peruvians or Bolivians. They are more European, slur their Spanish, and are very talkative and helpful,even though most do not speak English readily. There is much less selling here and very few tourists are evident. It has been about two weeks since I have met another person from the US.
I spent the day walking around and still want to explore again tomorrow before I head off to Buenos Aires for the weekend and then to Colombia. Chile is a bit expensive - I am paying 10,000 pesos for my room and breakfast (about $17.) Meals are around $5 or so. Colombia will be about half that.
A bit about a couple of the photos - the food one (the hot dog) is a picture of the Completo I had today - it is a popular snack in Chile. I watched the bus driver down three of these at a rest stop on my 24 hour ride to Santiago. It is a hot dog, layered with tomato, avocado and topped with mayo - real healthy, no? Another one is of an Ascensor (elevator) that is used to go up the steep cerros around Valpo. I have ridden several of these now. Not sure how safe they are...
All for now,

Monday, May 4, 2009

San Pedro de Atacama and Valparaiso

After a grueling 24 hour bus ride (even on the nice bus you see in the photo, I have left San Pedro de Atacama and arrived in Valparaiso. San Pedro is a cool little town that revolves around tourists. Still, it does have a certain character - quiet, warm and laid back. The photo of the dog in the street is very typical of San Pedro. I hated to leave, but there is so much to see in this world.
Valparaiso is a unique place. A bit San Francisco and a bit Italy, with a decided bohemian focus. This quirky city is colorful, artsy, and historic. A Unesco world heritage site, it has some interesting walks and rides. I have added a picture of one of the elevators found around this hillside city. The elevators take you up or down the steep slopes for 100 pesos (580 pesos = $1.)
I will explore more tomorrow and take more photos.
Take Care,

Saturday, May 2, 2009

More Bolivia photos

Here are some more photos from Bolivia.

From top to bottom:
  1. Weird desert plant that grows like coral on the rocks.
  2. Bolivian Public Works employees using their equipment.
  3. Llamas have no dignity.
  4. Tom's frozen shorts after we soaked in the thermal pool at 16,000 feet. They froze in a few minutes once we got out.
  5. Our tour gang at dinner in our 5 star accomodations at Laguna Colorada, 14,000 feet.

Bye for now.




I have just completed a quick trip through Bolivia that included a tour of the southern part of the
country around the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world. We spent a day on the salt flats and then two days in the mountains. It is really high here, we were between 4,000 and 5,000 meters the whole time. Both nights we slept above 14,000 feet.

It is an amazingly desolate country, but beautiful. The volcanos are classic shapes, but without snow because this is some of the driest country on earth. There are steam fumerols, boiling mud pots, high lagoons with flamingos, and steaming volcanos.

I am now in San Pedro de Atacama, which is, in fact, the driest desert on earth. Tomorrow I head to Valpsaraiso, and then I am not sure where.

Hope you are all well.