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4 February 2015

The Shopkeeper

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Sometimes, in the middle of a trip, when all the planning has been done and the miles are slipping away, traveling ends up turning into a process of working one’s way down a list of attractions. The list seems perfect, it has everything: cities, monuments, restaurants, vistas, all that the guidebooks and online forums could offer. But these lists are missing spontaneity, they are missing the spirit of travel, and most importantly, they are missing people. This is why you’ll often see us on this site encouraging travelers to get off the beaten path, to explore in an effort to get to know the real spirit of a place. I did this all over Morocco, but it was in the middle of the tourist din of Marrakesh, right off of the Djemma el Fna, that I found the human spirit of Morocco.

It was a bead shop, nothing fancy, that had been mentioned in the guidebook as well stocked and fairly priced. I needed some trinkets for people back home so I wandered down the street toward its position on the map. I knew it immediately by sight: it was a stall fronted by waterfalls of necklaces plunging into silver pools of bracelets. It was messy but beautiful, and enchanting. But nothing could have prepared me for the friendliness of the owner, who walked me through his goods, helped me pick out things for women of varying relationships, and gave me a very fair price.

Then, as had happened to me many times, he invited me into the back of the shop where we sipped on mint tea and talked. What did we talk about? Oh, the usual: places we’ve been, the people we’ve met, and the stupidity of the politicians in our respective countries. He was friendly and outgoing, hungry for new words and new stories. We talked until dusk and then he looked troubled. I asked what was wrong. He replied that he had to run some errands but needed someone to watch the shop. Would I mind hanging around for a little while and keep an eye on things?

Now I know the other shopkeepers were watching the stall too, but that didn’t detract from the thrill of being trusted, or the thrill of minding a small trinket shop in northern Africa. I spent maybe a half hour sitting on his little bench, reading the book I always carried with me, making friendly small talk with tourists who stopped to examine his (my!) wares. I was afraid to sell anything of course, I didn’t know the value of this stuff, but I kept the shop open, made sure nobody stole and told the people who were interested to come back later. The other shop keepers smiled at me and stopped by with tea from time to time to chat in broken English.

I was a little disappointed, but mostly relieved, when he returned, and we spent a little while longer sifting through necklaces and old coins. He gave me a gift, and I rummaged through my bag to find something for him, too. I don’t remember what I found, but I remember him being touched. I shook the man’s hand (his name long lost to my terrible memory) and set off into the smoke and smells of Marrakesh, one friend richer than I had been just a few hours before.

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