BUYING STORIES IN MOROCCO: AIT BEN HADDOU
Our senses are pretty highly sharpened when it comes to scams, and sometimes this makes us joke about being too cynical when we travel. There was one experience in particular that made us also start to wonder if, perhaps, it was ok to be ignorant of being scammed. If, perhaps, being scammed actually made people happy?
Case in point: our day in Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco.
We were staying in the nearby town of Ouarzazate (pronounced ‘where-za-zat’), which is kind of known as the ‘gateway’ to the Sahara. This meant that there were an abundance of tour companies offering tours into the desert where you could ride a camel, sleep under the stars, eat tagine and basically fulfil your Sahara dream. The problem was, horror stories about these tours were rife - sneaky hidden costs, mysterious ‘break downs’ of vehicles and air conditioning, unexplained ‘detours’ - the list went on. We were actually ok with all this - it was all part of an adventure wasn’t it? As long as we were expecting the potential scams we surely couldn’t really be disappointed, and besides, we really really wanted to see the Sahara so it was probably worth it. What we were quickly NOT okay with was being promised the world (which we knew wouldn’t be delivered) for upwards of 350 euros per person, per night. Ouch. When you’re on the road for a year, this really blows a hole in the budget…
Then we met Abdul and Abdul.
We had spent the morning in Ouarzazate coming to terms with the fact that we just couldn’t afford to do a desert safari at this point in our trip, and so decided to head to Ait Ben Haddou in the afternoon. We walked towards the ancient town through a quiet street lined with little shops, and got talking to Abdul, one of the owners.
‘Have you been to the desert yet? You really must go!’ he urged us. ‘My family is from there.’
He was kind and friendly, and keen to tell us about his family in the Sahara. When we told him about the standards and prices we’d found in Ouarzazate he nodded understandingly and suggested we speak to his brother, who runs small trips into the desert to visit their family - you know, a very ‘authentic’ experience…
We’d spent all morning talking to people about what they could offer in the way of desert safari trips, so figured why not talk to one more - we had nothing to lose, and everything to gain if it turned out to be legit.
Abdul’s brother was roughly the same age, looked nothing like him, and was also called Abdul. He had a small shopfront advertising his tours and welcomed us warmly with mint tea. Abdul the first left us in the capable hands of Abdul the second, and went on his merry way. Abdul the second gave us a family photo album to familiarise ourselves with where he came from. He wasn’t in any of the photos but they showed a number of people living in the desert. At the back were several photographs of previous happy customers circa the 1990s.
Being a little short on time, and a little over the whole ‘tour shopping’ experience, we asked Abdul to give us the lowdown straightaway - what was he selling, and for how much?
No, no, no! Apparently this was NOT how Abdul worked! What ensued was about 45 minutes of learning about Abdul and his experiences. He was actually a really lovely guy - gentle and kind and eager to share his passion for his country.
His little tour company had been built from scratch over the years. He had spent 120 days with a BBC documentary film maker showing them through Morocco, and had a letter of appreciation and a DVD boxed set to prove it. He had spent months with a culinery American couple as they compiled a cook book, and he proudly showed us his picture alongside his recipe contribution on page 93. His tours had been featured and recommended in a Japanese tour book from the eighties (which he also showed us) and he had a beautifully tattered book of testimonials from previous customers.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Abdul spoke of the magical places he could take us: through the Atlas Mountains, small villages, vast landscapes, and of course, an unforgettable night under the stars like we’ve never seen them before - and not in one of those cheap nasty camps they put you in when you drive out from Marrakech. Abdul’s tents were more private and special, the music would be local, the food, authentic.
I really think that if our scam radar hadn’t been in overdrive we may even have thought the price (when it came) could be worth it. 650 euros per person for one whole night in paradise arranged by a Morrocan guru who’s family still lived in the Sahara? What a dream!
That’s when it kind of dawned on us.
People want to buy stories.
Sure, we could jump online and find a cheaper deal to go to the desert and have virtually the same experience as Abdul was offering, but where is the story in that? How much more wonderful is it to go home and tell your friends and family that you stumbled across a family run tour that took you to your homeland and gave you an exclusive experience they promised you couldn’t get elsewhere? And the guy that ran it was a veritable celebrity!
As much as we wanted to believe in Abdul, we just couldn’t. We wanted to buy his story. We wanted to buy this story for ourselves, but too much just didn’t feel right. We bargained him down from 650 per person to 170 per person (and he threw in some sand boarding) but it was still just out of our price range. If we had the money, however, we might have been ok with spending a little more, for a little more story. We might have let ourselves believe it all, and therefore had the magical experience he was offering, but our cynicism and practical frugality just didn’t let us.
This is where we thought, maybe people like to be ‘scammed’ once in a while. Maybe suspending one’s disbelief in an elegantly crafted tale, true or not, is what makes an experience more special. Sure, Abdul was offering exactly the same as any other tour we saw, but he was also selling us a beautiful story to take home, and perhaps, to some, that’s worth a little more.