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The Godfather of All Travel Scams

I love stories about ridiculous scams, and this has to be one of my favourites. An American guy told me the story over a few drinks in Marrakech years ago, and I must have retold it dozens of times. I don’t even remember the guy’s name, so let’s just call him Jack.

Jack was waiting for a train from Meknes to Fez when a man asked him for the time. They got talking, and ended up boarding the train together. The man, Mohammed, was the quintessential Moroccan – while the train rattled around him, Mohammed sat in his loose djellaba like a cat – totally at ease, yet supremely self confident at the same time. His breath smelled like espresso. Every so often, his middle-aged-heading-for-eldery face would light up with a smile that pushed his triangle cheeks into folded bundles. He was immediately likeable, but as a seasoned traveller, Jack was a little suspicious; especially when Mohammed asked if he had a place to stay.

“Well, not yet, no I guess not,” Jack responded.

“Ah, don’t worry,” said Mohammed said with a flick of the chin. “I’ve got a friend who runs a hostel, I’m sure he’ll give you a good price, and I can even call him now.”

Jack smelled a rat, but when Mohammed got off the phone, the price he gave actually sounded pretty good.

Not too good or anything, but good.

“They’ll even throw in a free pickup from the train station,” Mohammed said, shrugging in a way that suggested Jack was getting a surprisingly good deal.

An hour later, Jack had bid Mohammed farewell outside the train station, and was getting in the back of a cab. The driver, Aziz, was a real man’s man. They got along great, with the conversation going from women, to sports, to women again. Aziz claimed he had an American girlfriend from California – hey, just like Jack!

The hostel turned out to be a pretty alright place, and Jack felt a slight prick of guilt for being suspicious of Mohammed before.

As Aziz was about to leave the hostel, he looked back over his shoulder at Jack.

“Hey, you know you seem cool, would you like to visit my family? It’s little Eid, and we’re having lamb. There should be plenty for one more” he offered casually.

He was right about the lamb. When Jack and Aziz arrived at the family home, they found a lamb with its throat slit dangling in the bathroom above a pool of red. Aziz’s father was yanking the skin off in one big piece, like it was a tight sweater clinging to the limp carcass.

A few hours later, Jack was reclining in a leafy courtyard, his stomach full of barbecued lamb. By this point, all suspicion had faded. Jack thought to himself, “This is great! I’m just sitting here, chilling out with this adorable Moroccan family!”

Over his umpteenth glass of mint tea, Aziz suggested Jack accompany his cousin Mehmed. Apparently, Mehmed needed to get his fiancée a present.

“Where should we go, the market or the tannery?” Mehmed asked.

To Jack, both options sounded a little touristy, but curiosity got the better of him, and before he knew it they were being given a tour of Fez’s famous tanneries. The tour was free, but of course, they had to exit through the gift shop. This was when the tour guide jumped Jack.

“Just look at the craftsmanship, pure leather, and only $500,” he told Jack as he waved a jacket in his face.

Jack really wasn’t interested, but just for the sake of it, he tried on the $500 jacket. Mehmed gave him a thumbs up, and privately Jack conceded it felt pretty damn good. Still there was no way he was buying it, though somehow he found himself killing time by half heartedly haggling with the guide.

“$300 then, but that’s a steal. Here, look, this is quality leather,” he said, running a lighter along the flank of the jacket. The flame bend low beneath the leather, flickering as it moved.

Jack was side-eying the door, when a familiar face entered. Aziz strode in, and made a beeline for a rack of jackets just like the one being thrust on Jack. Aziz slipped one gently off the rack, and threw it over his shoulders in a wide arc. Then in one crisp, coordinated motion he zipped it up to his neck, and shot himself a cocky look in the mirror.

That was when he saw Jack.

“Woah! Jack! What are you doing here? Oh, buying a jacket I see. I’m getting one too. Got a hot date tonight with my American girlfriend, and I need a good jacket.”

Aziz gave Jack a grin, and nodded in a way that suggested they should be walking out in lockstep … with matching jackets, of course.

“How much? $300? Perfect,” Aziz said, promptly handing over a floppy wad of dirhams.

Another of those priceless grins were shot at Jack, who responded by shaking his head, “I’m not buying a jacket!

“Ok, ok, you can have it for $200,” the guide sighed.

They haggled for another few minutes. The guide flicked water on the jacket, and together everyone watched as the little beads ran off the smooth surface. All the while, Jack hoping to eventually find a good excuse to run like hell.

Then another familiar face came through the door. The djellaba hung from his shoulders, the pointy hood drifting behind. Calloused feet in leather sandals padded catlike, and the faint smell of bitter caffeine followed in his wake –

As Mohammed sauntered in.

“Jack! I didn’t expect to see you here,” exclaimed Mohammed, and one of those enormous smiles engulfed his face.

“Oh!!” started the guide.

“You know our manager? Well, you get a special price!”

Ten minutes later, Jack left the tannery in his new jacket.

◊◊◊

Over our fifth or sixth or seventh or maybe eighth beer, Jack told me he didn’t regret the decision.

“Hey man, it’s a seriously decent jacket,” he said while leaning over the table.

“And I mean, a leather jacket never goes astray in LA, and the final price of $100 was way cheaper than what you’d get in the states.”

But, that wasn’t where the story ended. “You won’t believe what happened when we got back in the car,” he said, before swinging back another mouthful of soapy Flag Spéciale.

“So we get in, and I’m like, ‘man, you guys are good’! Aziz throws his hands up, and says something like, ‘hey, nah we’re just friends, doing friend stuff,’ but I cut in and say, ‘no, seriously dude, that’s a compliment. You guys are really, really good at what you do.’”

The door snapped shut, and Aziz looked out the window. Then he relaxed a little behind the wheel, and said, “Well look, we gotta make a living somehow.”

Over the next five minutes, in the car alone, Aziz told Jack how the system works. Mohammed would wait around at the station in Meknes, and pick out a mark. During the train ride, he never actually called the hotel, which was in itself a perfectly legitimate business. Instead, he’d call one of a dozen or so people he has on ice. If today’s mark is a young, 20-something buck, then Mohammed would call Aziz. A female traveller would be given someone better at connecting with women. If they wanted to sell a jacket to an older person, Mohammed would call someone who specialises in buttering up seniors. You get the idea.

Then, it doesn’t matter what happens for the rest of the day, but all roads lead to the tannery gift shop.

As Jack put it, “There were so many colourful characters, it was a bit like The Godfather movies or something.”

“But whatever, Aziz was right,” Jack said while he finished his last beer.

“I mean, they’ve gotta make a living.”

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