Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Look for the union label

posted Wed, 10 Aug 2005

We’ve had some really good guides and some really bad guides. Here, for your benefit, are our key learnings (yes, I am getting ready to return to work – time to get back into the lingo):

1. Pay more for the licensed guide. Demand to see his state-issued card. No, it doesn’t matter that he left his card at home and the ticket-seller will vouch for him. In guides, as in everything else (especially shoes and mattresses), you get what you pay for.

2. Don’t be afraid to tell the guide that no, you do not want to shop while he talks to his friends. This can happen with a guide you do not get through a personal referral. Even licensed guides can be bad. Well – OK – this can happen when you make the strategic error of shopping early on during the tour of the medina, so the guide thinks that is what you want to do during the tour. So if you do not intend to shop during the tour, do not shop at all!

This is Volubilis, the Roman ruins near Menknes. They are not as big as Pompeii, but there is almost no one there and they are out in the middle of the countryside. They are what I naively thought Pompeii would be. Our guide was great – well worth the $15 he charged. (OK, he charged $12 – the official rate – and we tipped him $3.)

3. Official guides come with official rates set by the government (at least in Morocco). A bad guide will give you a hard-luck story about supporting a family of 12 brothers and sisters, none of whom are working. He will do this while he is driving an air-conditioned car and talking on his cellphone. When you ask him if he wants to take you on another tour in the morning – you know, earn some money, he will hem and haw. Don’t tip.

4. That unlicensed guide in Moulay Idriss who wants $4 to take you through the city doesn’t even speak English, which is OK, sort of, but then he won’t speak slow French. Then he just appears to be killing time, walking you to different points of the town to show you multiple views of the mosque which you, as a non-Muslim are not, of course (of course!), permitted to enter. All you want to do is get to Volubilis, so he keeps pointing to it. You can’t see it, but finally lie and say bien sur, of course you see it, just to keep moving. When you complete the tour of the city, Steve does not tip the guide, so the guide, who has already proposed that he and Steve go into business together – he knows Morocco, Steve knows English, asks for a tip. Why, Steve asks. To buy a Coke, the guide answers.

5. A great guide is unassuming, multilingual, and educated. Nuordeen in Fez studied tourism in college, which included history, art history, artisania, and religion. He speaks five languages. He met us at the train station, took us to our hotel, and then spent two days taking us around Fez. He knew all the interesting history about his city and all the neat places to go. He wouldn’t let me buy peanuts from the street vendor – not safe, he said. But he took us to good restaurants and was great company. We knew he was getting a cut of anything we bought, but that’s OK. His fee was 150 dirhams per half day, which is about $15, but we paid him for two full days because we felt like we got that much from him. The fee for a full day is 250 D – about US $25.

6. A great guide also has a sense of humor, which is nice, even if it comes at my expense. During the tour of Volubilis, the guide, who spoke Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, French, and English – but only a little bit of Berber (he was half Berber), asked if we wanted to see the Berber surprise. Sure, we told him. He took us to a room behind the Triumph Arch and sat on a stone bench.

“For this part, I need a woman volunteer,” he said. He patted the bench next to him and told me to sit. “Sit like you would sit on a horse.”

I hiked my skirt up a bit and straddled the bench. I was a bit uncomfortable because I had to face him as I hiked my skirt. I was trying to keep my modesty. I am not in the habit of lifting my skirt in front of strange men. Or even normal men.

As soon as I was seated, he said, “This building was the brothel.” He stood, and where he had been sitting was a bas-relief of an erect penis. “This is what we call the ‘Berber surprise.’ It’s called that because it is the size of Berber men.”

I jumped up, embarrassed. Steve and the guide laughed. I said, “And you said you are only half-Berber!”

He explained that the sculpture was the advertisement for the brothel. They used the same signage in Pompeii and of course, that was my sister’s favourite part of the whole Pompeii tour. She made me take a photo of her standing behind it pointing at it. I was mortified.

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