Monday, April 17, 2006

The "Big Bill" Production

... but first won’t you join me for a Marrakech Moment:

The Djemaa el-Fna – Marrakech's tourist mecca extravaganza – is a huge slab of pavement (cleaned up almost beyond recognition since my last visit) and home to about a 100 braziers belching smoke into the evening sky (all with identical menus), snake charmers and storytellers (none of whom I've ever seen but the guide books swear they're there), a few wizened water sellers (decked out like Mexican donkeys in red pompoms & wide brimmed straw hats), gypsy-esque tribes of hypodermic needle-wielding henna whores (I hate those broads) and a gazillion tourists. Around the perimeter of the square are a few restaurants (boasting the same menu) where, for several dirhams more than the freestanding brazier stands, you can have the pleasure of sitting cheek to jowl with other patrons, being served by a surly waiter and choke down bland food under the ravenous gazes of a clan of semi-feral cats. Odds are, every time you cross your legs, you'll kick a cat, a diner or a waiter. Because my companion's Moroccan friend (see below Menara Meanderings) required tajine for 2 of his 3 daily meals, we forewent the braziers so that he could eat his stew in a pylon.

The first outing was a testament to mediocrity done right. Because I do not eat meat, my options were French fries, tomato salad and rice. All yummy & nutritious! My companion requested an omelette aux fines herbes, which ultimately got lost in the mêlée (as it turns out, a sign from the gourmand gods). Our waiter was adamant that she had not requested it and an altercation of the verbal sort arose. Someone could get rich here by giving customer service seminars – except for the fact that no one would attend. Unfortunately, the waiter did not lose my order of salad & rice. The rice was glutinous and tasteless - much how I would expect boiled larvae to taste. I would have pushed it to the side but our table was so small that I would have beaned a cat with the plate. The salad was passable but would have been much improved without the addition of an entire bunch of coriander but it was a far cry better than that tardy omelette whose fine herbs were a few leaves of iceberg lettuce. Kind of made my rice look good. Well, not really. The tajine, apparently was a hit, but truth to tell, the friend didn’t strike me as an epicurean; rather, the type who – as my family might say – could eat shit on a stick and ask for seconds. So lunch sucked, our waiter was a complete asshole, and continued to demand his tip as we left, falling over the chairs of our neighbours, sending cats flying.

The next day, as the day grew long and our stomachs rumbled, my companion suggested returning there for lunch. I looked at her incredulously, “Why, I asked, because the food was so good or was it because of the stellar service?” Honest to god. The friend, smelling a tajine a mile away, suggested the restaurant – identical in all respects – beside Café Crap. It was so crowded that we were relegated to the upper enclosed room where some patrons had a view of the Djemaa el-Fna (an arguable trade-off for the stifling air), while we had a view of the toilet. From the identical menu, I order fries (although sorely tempted to get the rice to see if it too resembles larvae), a salad & a juice. Companion orders the same, friend orders tajine. The tajine comes, the salad comes, the beverages come – no fries. Finally, after flagging down our waiter, we learn that it was so busy today at Café Crap Deux, that they ran out of fries. Hmmm, too bad nobody told us this, say 20 minutes ago when we ordered. He shrugs and walks away without asking if we’d like something else – say, the rice. My overpriced breakfast donut (see below Menara Meanderings) and my plate of cumin-soaked tomato salad (an “interesting” variation on the coriander salad of the previous day) will have to tide me over until supper.

We go downstairs to the kitchen to pay and I hand over a 100 dirham note – roughly 10 Euros or $12 Canadian. Granted, my “lunch” was only about 15 dirhams but I needed the bill broken. Small bills are a hot commodity & banks never seem to have them. The waiter asks for something smaller. I have nothing. He does not believe me. I am shaking my head in shame as I type this but I actually opened up my wallet to show him that I had nothing smaller – as if I had to justify it to him. He is intransigent. He looks at my companions, and tells them to pay for me, all the while holding my bank note as if it were a particularly smelly piece of poo. I am furious – I remind him that if business is so good that they ran out of food for my lunch then surely, they can break my bill. In response, the waiter slams my note down on the table and screams, “Your lunch is free!” I remonstrate (why you ask? good question), screaming back that I want to pay for my lunch but that he won’t let me. The Moroccan friend, because this is normal for him and I am being unreasonable, slips the waiter my 15 dirhams. And a tip. I am seething with rage.

This colourful little glimpse into my fabulous Marrakech junket is not atypical. In fact, this was just a variation of the Big Bill Production – an exhausting little farce played out throughout this country. The acquiring of change (anything from 10-centime coins to 20-dirhams notes) could be an Olympic event in Morocco, or perhaps in the Panafrican Games. I am always on the lookout for small bills and coin although, truth be told, I have never had any use for 10- or 20-centime coins – except to give to beggars, which I suspect even they disdain. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I fear the blind man runs away when he sees me coming. I might add that I felt very much put in my place when I saw a Belgian tourist in Marrakech give a beggar a 20-dirham bill. I am undoubtedly going to hell.

It is the pursuit of 5- and 10-dirham coins and the 20-dirham bill that consumes my every thought here. Frankly, a 50-dirham bill is pushing the envelope. If I am obsessed by this, it is because the obsession has been thrust upon me. Everyone – everyone – asks for exact change: store clerks, waiters, you name it. But the worst by far are taxi drivers. They’ll balk, pout, and stick their lower lips out so they look like members of the Botocudo tribe, all the while making a huge to-do (aka, the Big Bill Production) of searching every crevice of their vehicle to change a 50- and sometimes 20-dirham note. This for a 11-dirham fare. Surely the dozens and dozens of people who have preceded me in this taxi paid in cash? Why isn’t there change? Is there a barter system afoot in which no one has initiated me? But no, he either has no change or is unwilling to cough it up.

Yesterday I took a taxi out to Marjane – Morocco’s closest equivalent to a Walmart (you can’t buy guns there but you can buy a live sheep at Eid el Kebir to slaughter on your balcony). I was delighted that I had enough change to get out there without fear of the Big Bill Production. As I completed my shopping, I looked in horror at the total: 298 dirhams. There would be no change for the taxi – all I had were those massively huge 100 dirham notes (remember – 10 Euros). Should I ask the cashier to deduct a purchase from the total? – no, my French isn’t quite that evolved. Instead, I asked the her for change and she responded by slamming the register closed and saying “I have none”. Wow! – must be that nebulous barter system again. Perhaps the family in front of me paid with bushels of cactus pear or dates.

Desperately I zipped about the “mall” (picture the first shitty mall that opened in your neighbourhood in 1971), looking for any place where I could change a bill. A sale sign in the window of the Yves Rocher cosmetics store lured me in and I grabbed the cheapest thing I could find (30 dh). I handed the sales assistant the Fleur de Lotus de Laos shower gel and a 100-dirham note and she asked – I kid you not – do you have change? I shook my head. I briefly considered telling her about the taxi drivers and the Big Bill Production but she probably wouldn’t understand – this is her world and it’s probably just me who’s unnerved by this. She shrugged, turned away from her cash and, in full view, opened up a small safe (!) and removed my weighty and substantial change of about 7 Euros. I sighed in relief – that 20-dirham note would get me home production-free.


As I returned home from a meeting this afternoon, I stopped by my hanoot and bought a 3-dirham package of Crax snacks (don’t ask). I sheepishly handed hanoot-man a 100-dirham note but remarkably, he thanked me as effusively as always and gave me my change without a fuss. Must have been the Laotian Lotus shower gel.

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