I’m back from a weeklong trip to Morocco with my husband. It was fabulous (in part due to some great suggestions from Indagare). Morocco is a country of experiences: seeing the covered souks with people selling everything from brains to life size statues of lions, getting scrubbed up in a hammam, seeing men wearing the same cloaks Obi-Wan Kenobi wore, being glad I was sitting in the passenger’s seat (and not driving!) as my husband drove through the old city of Marrakech, squeezing through alleys and displacing donkeys and vegetable sellers.
Parts of Morocco are very well-developed, but a regular worker can make around 80 dirham ($10) a day. In rural areas, many people live in the same subsistence goat-farming style they did centuries ago. And then there are people in that odd middle — trying to make money off the tourists who come, but not in ways you, as a tourist, necessarily feel good about. Along the mountainous road from Marrakech to Ouarzazate, men would appear around every bend selling volcanic rocks with crystals inside. They’d have very little inventory. Just a few rocks. And they’d stand beside the road all day trying to sell them. Maybe some people enjoy standing beside a highway selling rocks, but I’m guessing that the reason they do it is that getting one tourist to overpay for rocks (and plenty of folks in Morocco would like to take you for a ride) produces a better living than anything else people could be doing.
And that is the adults. What is worse is seeing children doing it — selling packets of tissues, as one little girl kept trying to do by one of our restaurants, or hassling you to let them be your guides, whether you need one or not. Many of these children and teens are at least trilingual (Arabic, French, English) and yet with enough brain power to speak in three languages they are hustling to carry tourists’ bags. Because that is what it makes the most economic sense to do.
I am always struck, when I visit developing countries, how rich America and much of Europe are. Obviously, in the midst of some economic gloominess, we have our own problems. We have our own desperately poor migrants who exist outside any social support system; we have towns like the oft-profiled Pembroke, IL where there haven’t been jobs for decades, and people exist in a constant state of poverty. The recession has brought some of that weariness into more affluent corners. I read an article in the Economist recently profiling the town of Wilmington, Ohio, which was devastated by the departure of DHL, the shipping company. The Economist spoke with several people who’d been out of work for a year or more, including a man who’d lost his job as a fork-lift operator shortly after his wife lost her job at a trucking company.
Yet their total unemployment benefits, $573 a week for the two of them, even with purchasing power conversions, would go a long way in Morocco (it can go a long way in the US, too, but the problem is that people have set costs arranged when they were earning more, and since it is often hard to sell a house in an area with rising unemployment, people get stuck. And of course the benefits don’t last forever). Very few of us can even fathom the idea of sending our young children out to sell tissues to strangers, or trying to live off goat farming in the rocky desert.
And so, we never really drove hard bargains in Morocco. We got ripped off numerous times, I’m sure. But perhaps by overpaying for wooden toy camels for our children, we helped keep the vendor’s children in school in a more direct fashion than giving to charity. Maybe. Regardless, there is nothing like a swing through Moroccan desert towns full of crumbling huts to remind a person that, by being born in a developed country in the past century, you’ve pretty much won the lottery. What we should choose to do with those winnings will hopefully be the subject of this next book I’m writing. But it has to start with remembering that lottery of human history and the broader world’s present, and how easily it could have come out differently.