Tuesday, October 9, 2007

the fawlty code

I had a rather nasty hotel in Fez for which I had paid two nights. People were bothering me. I decided to leave a day early. I packed my bag, went to the office, explained to the receptionist that I was leaving early but I did not mind about the payment for the extra night. I started walking away. When I was out in the street the man at reception came running after me. He said something or other about the second night and the patronne. I thought she must want to offer a refund for the unused night. I went back. He put out his hand and said I must pay money for the second night. I said, No, I paid 140 in advance for two nights, it is all in order.

I wanted to get out of there. I went first to the bus station in the Ville Nouvelle, then to the train station, looking for somewhere to go. Finally I bought a ticket for a train to Marrakech that left at 1:50 am. So there were about 7 hours to wait at the station cafe, a quiet, gravelled place with bright lights under which to read. The train came. About an hour into the journey I felt pretty sick, so I got off at the next stop, thinking to find a hotel. The place was not in the guidebook. A taxi driver said he could find me a hotel. He drove through endless empty streets, saying, Look, if we can't find a hotel you can stay with me! So that's OK! He found a couple of places with FNDQ (funduq = hotel) on the wall, both claiming to be full. He talked endlessly. I said we must go back to the station and I would take a train to the next town. We got back to the station at 4.23. A train for Tangiers was already at the platform. There was also a 4.25 scheduled to Casablanca. I bought a ticket and pushed money at this driver who kept talking. Got on the train. Woke in Casablanca. There was a train at 8.50 to Marrakech.

Too tired and hot for more travel, but it seemed stupid to spend a day in a hotel in Casablanca. Took train to Marrakech. Taught two New Zealand children to write their names in Arabic. A man sat down across from me and said he liked the way I was with children and he would love to invite me home to a meal with his family, Moroccans are famous for their hospitality, he explained, he could advise me on how to buy and ship a carpet home, he worked with a government-approved artisanate, he would find me a taxi and a hotel and take me on a short tour and then show me the carpets. I said Thank you, but I am trying to write an article so I must concentrate on my article, and he stood up and walked off.

My guidebook described the Hotel Sharazade as a gem, a haven of calm within the medina. Every hotel I had been to so far had tried some sort of con with the price of the room but perhaps this would be different. I called and asked if they had a single and was told they did. I asked Combien? and heard something that at first I thought was cent cinquante. I said cent cinquante ou deux cent cinquante? The reply appeared to be deux cent cinquante. I said OK. I took a taxi, was dropped two streets from the hotel, dragged my suitcase in.

Three 60-something Australian women stood in reception, distraught. A princess stood at reception, unperturbed. (Think Sybil Fawlty reincarnated as a sweet young Muslim girl.) They had booked rooms by e-mail weeks before. The princess explained that the rooms had been cancelled. They had been sent an e-mail stating that the rooms would be held for them provided they arrived before 2. They had failed to confirm that they would be arriving before 2. One traveller said: But look, I have my e-mail to you here, I say: We will definitely be taking the rooms. The princess explained again that the hotel had then sent its e-mail stating that the rooms would be held if they arrived before 2, and they had failed to confirm, so the reservation had been cancelled. The traveller said: But how was I supposed to know I was supposed to confirm again? The princess said they might have another room, the guesthouse, but not at the same price.

This would have been a very good time to get in writing the quote of 250 dirhams. I was very tired and did not feel up to negotiations with the princess. I took the key to the room. Nice room. Time passed. I did not have a good feeling about it, because the price on the list of tarifs is 340. It's very common for hotelkeepers to quote prices that bear no relation to their tarifs, but it's also very common, if someone has made a verbal offer, to smuggle a higher price in later, and if someone tries this it is necessary to challenge it early on. One online reviewer of the hotel who had been there a week ago had said she had had a room with a double bed and bathroom with breakfast for 260 dirhams, which is in line with the quote on the phone, but this is not a point I want to be making to Sybil. I would have liked to stay in the hotel for longer than 3 days, but I could not face yet another argument with yet another traveller's friend.

This morning I went to reception thinking this must be done. I explained that I would like to stay longer if the room (or another) was free. I said that when I had called from the station she had said the price was 250 dirhams, would that price be all right for the extra days? Sybil said the price was 350 dirhams.

Devotees of Fawlty Towers will know that there is no point in getting into an argument with Sybil. I did not want to discuss a) the phone quote, b) the reviewer who had stayed there a week ago, c) the fact that the new price was higher than both the phone quote and the published tarif. I wanted a Sybil-free environment. I say, Oh, I see.

I go out of the hotel and find the Assia Hotel, which is billed in my guide as offering TV. (Good, good, I can practice my Arabic.) This offers a room with a double bed with bathroom, including breakfast, for 250 a night. They have a room free for 2 nights.

The Assia does not have the charm of the Sharazade (I think everyone who has stayed at the S has commented on its enchanting rooms and courtyards and terraces, and they are not wrong). It is somewhat dark. And it could be, that is, I am not convinced that it is rational to leave a place I like for the sake of 10 euros a night -- except that it is not a good idea for other reasons to form a habit of letting people walk all over you. I go back to the S and pack my bags and go to reception. Sybil is talking to a boy. I put 500 dirhams on the counter with the key and say I am going and leave.

As I am walking down the street the boy comes after and grabs my arm. He says You owe more money. I say No, I don't. She gave me one price for the room on the phone and now she has tried to change it. I don't want to stay. He says: But you don't just walk out like that, you should talk to her. I say: I have nothing to say to her. He says: Well, I will hold you and call the police. I say: Fine, call the police. We stand for a while and I say, OK, look, I will talk to her. I go back. Sybil has been joined at the desk by an older woman. We have a discussion. I explain that Sybil had quoted one price on the phone and had later changed the price of the room. The woman explains that misunderstandings can occur on the phone and I should have got this in writing on arriving at the hotel (a point on which we are, of course, in perfect agreement). I suggest that confirming the price of a room is more commonly seen as the responsibility of the receptionist. We have a further unprofitable discussion.

The Lonely Planet Guide urges visitors to book rooms at the hotel well in advance, because they go quickly. This might, I suppose, avoid misunderstandings about the price of a room; the problem is, though, that those who follow this advice can have no reason to believe that their booking for the quoted price holds good. It would not be much fun to travel for 24 hours, turn up in Marrakech under the impression that one's hotel had been lined up, and be told that the only thing now available was the guest house at a much steeper price.

Every hotel I have dealt with has tried to pull some sort of dodge -- and the fact is, the sharp practice of a hotel has very little bearing on whether it is a good place to stay. The Souika in Chefchaouen tried a bait-and-switch and was rather nasty; the Chams tried to smuggle in a price inflation which was caught early, and was a place anyone with a passion for an environment of carved woodwork would be sure to enjoy. The Majestic in Meknes quoted a price that was 30 dirhams over the tarif posted in its rooms -- a hotel of gloomy provincial grandeur, with knowledgeable, helpful staff. The clerk at the Erraha in Fez offered me a special deal, I paid for 2 nights, and as I've said he tried to make me pay twice for the second night when I left. (One could go on.) The Sharazade was the nastiest to deal with. It may be the odd one out, an innocent victim; I am not absolutely sure that it was playing off the usual tricks, but it is certainly a hotel that travellers who expect to spend long hours on the road should approach with the utmost caution.

This is rather dull for those who don't plan to go to Morocco, but I thought I should put up a post in case anyone else Down Under liked the sound of the oasis of calm in the medina.

[later. I must add that the staff of the Assia Hotel, where I have spent the last day and a half, has been helpful and pleasant, and it has been a piece of luck having a TV in my room so I could practice listening to Arabic. (This was 250 dirhams a night including breakfast.) They don't have room tomorrow night so I am moving to the Souria Hotel, which so far looks equally stress-free (though no TVs), at 100 dirhams a night, about 11 euros; the proprietor of the latter asked for the first night's payment in advance to hold the reservation, which seemed fair, sensible and efficient. Marrakesh itself is fabulous.]


Jenny Davidson said...

I have a colleague with whom my dealings have always been helpfully colored by my more-than-subliminal awareness that he basically IS Archdeacon Grantly from Barchester Towers and The Warden.

(I am sorry your hotel stays were so troublesome, but it is definitely economical to make judgments about people in this way. It is the technique Agatha Christie--annoyingly--associates with Miss Marple, who is always reminded of some character in St. Mary's Mead--you know, the mechanic's boy who jilted the baker's daughter, or whatever. But your way is better!)

Anonymous said...

But helen, I don't understand--money is not a personhood currency, you should not feel bad you should just pay what you want and move on. You should not be afraid of the police because they won't hit you in all liklihood if you are an adult woman and if you are american and right in the argument. Just pay what you feel is the right price and leave, and as they are trying to talk to you yell a little and make a scene, it is one of the only good things about being a girl--in most cases and cultures (virtually all aside IL) people won't hit you. I don't really understand what is the bigger problem, maybe if you can explain.do you think they will hit you?(i have not been to that country but many of my friends grew up there---still maybe i don't know an important fact?) Thank you!

Helen DeWitt said...

anon. I wasn't afraid anyone would do anything, certainly not that the police would cause problems, I just thought it would be a nuisance to wait around for the police to turn up. It seemed simpler to go back to the hotel and talk than wait for the police and then go back and talk.

My impression is that the management of the hotel did think money was a personhood currency. One thing they might have done was see the room they had rented out as a sunk cost; they had 500 dirhams on it and could move on. Another thing they might have wanted was to try to extort extra money for the room, whether by intimidation or other means. Neither of these seemed to be what they wanted. What they wanted, somewhat oddly, was to haul a departing visitor back to the hotel so that they could explain that it was unacceptable just to leave the money on the counter and walk out without explaining, insist that the receptionist was not responsible for making clear the terms on which a room was offered, and so on and so forth.

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

aieee, ja, downside(s) of Morrocco... sounds very familiar, that Alice in Wonderland logic playing out around you, very different way of operating. I was never really able to relax - there was a constant tension in the air...

Anonymous said...

I have spent two days trying to decide whether I should book a week's tour in Morocco in December and I'm already looking for alternatives!

Helen DeWitt said...

saif, I was going to respond to your comment in the comments, but perhaps I should put further developments in the main post

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