Steve's a multi-faceted guy, and a multi-talented traveling companion. Although I do most of the planning, he drives, and does it well. And when it comes to bargaining, he rocks.
That's not to say he's much of a shopper. Neither of us is. But before embarking on this trip, I'd pointed out that we might want to buy some rugs in Morocco. Our living room rug has been peed on by at least a half-dozen puppies over the years. It looks pretty shabby. And we've never had any rug on the wood floor of our bedroom. I measured what we'd need for those spaces, and Steve grudgingly consented to do a bit of looking.
We went to the artisanal center in Marrakech (one of the few places in Morocco to sell rugs for fixed prices) to get some idea of what things cost. But we decided to save the actual rug-shopping for Tinghir, home to a Maison Berbere outlet that our guidebook recommended. After we checked out Friday from Philippe's amazing kasbah, we headed there, arriving around 9:45.
We found a parking spot and a street attendant to watch our car. Before we even entered the narrow lane leading to the shop, an escort had spotted us and led us to the ornate wooden door. Other men in flowing robes, some turbaned, swarmed around and greeted us, leading us to seats on a bench along the one side of the enormous room inside. Then one of the men approached with a cruet that he explained contained rose water. He poured some into each of our cupped hands then sprinkled his head with the stuff. Hours later, Steve confided to me, “When they brought out the rose water, I knew we were in trouble.”
Someone served us the ever-present Moroccan mint tea, then the rose-water guy hauled out item after item illustrating various aspects of Berber culture — a duffle bag made out of ornamented camel skin, a chart of the symbols used by various Berber tribes, and so on. All this laid the groundwork for the chief salesman, a tall commanding man named Omar, to begin the Presentation of the Rugs. He ordered one to be brought out and explained its fabrication and the significance of its patterns. One after another followed, each more beautiful than the next, until almost all of the marble floor was covered, a riot of glowing color and textures.
We sat down though I made it clear Steve was calling all the shots in this transaction. (I'd learned years ago, when we were traveling in China, how steely and sophisticated his bargaining technique can be.) Omar fished out a a piece of scrap paper and wrote down a number that startled me by its magnitude. But a minute later, he stated that it was their custom to give a special discount to the first customers of the day. So he crossed out his first number and wrote down another, 5% lower.
Steve pondered for a moment then said the rug was obviously of the highest craftmanship. He talked about how some people in California, where we lived, were able to afford Mercedes Benzes and Bentleys, but he was man of more modest means and drove a Toyota. (Actually, he drives a Chrysler but he figured they wouldn't know what that was.) He said he wouldn't want to insult the Berber people by naming a price that might make them think he didn't appreciate how nice the rug was. Omar insisted he would not be offended. So after more reflection, Steve wrote down a number that was a little over a third of Omar's original figure. Omar didn't flinch or reel. He was cool. But he crossed out both his number and Steve's number and said the former was too high for Steve, but the latter was too low for him. He gave Steve back the paper and asked if he could give him a better price.
Part of what I think makes Steve so effective is his ability to sit and think, silently. I found it utterly nerve-wracking. But the Berbers never acted irritated or impatient. From time to time, Omar would murmur something encouraging; talking about how long a rug like this would last (forever) or how little we would regret such a purchase. After what felt like an eternity, Steve increased his number to one about 45% percent of Omar's initial number. “Give me your final offer! Best offer! Just a little higher,” Omar wheedled. Another eternity passed, and gravely Steve increased the price by $25. Omar stuck out his hand and then smiled broadly. He shook hands with me. Happiness washed through the room.
Steve and I dashed out to get cash from an ATM machine, and I thought for sure we were done for the day. But upon our return, Omar broached the possibility of our acquiring a larger rug. To my amazement, Steve seemed game, and the whole process essentially repeated itself — more agonizing over the right size, more figures written down and crossed out, more pleas for Steve's best offer. At one point, Omar laughed and shook his head and said that Steve should come to work for them. Steve later told me that he thinks they were flattering him, but I think they were genuinely impressed.
By the time we walked out of the shop with our two bundles (compressed down into packages that are amazingly compact and not that heavy and will fit into the extra duffle bag we brought with us), it was 11:15. Although we hadn't begun the day's touring and sightseeing, it felt like we'd already learned a lot.