My first experience of the business mentality of Marrakech kicked in within a day. The guidebooks were quite adamant that the best way to see southern Morocco was by car (unless, of course, time is coming out of your ears, in which case public transport is often more intense), so we started hunting round for a decent deal. Anything that requires handing over your credit card for an imprint is worrying in any country, but in the developing world, where surreptitiously taking two imprints is not uncommon, it demands a leap of faith that I have a problem mustering. You simply can't believe salespeople, and that's true the world over.
So we thought we'd check out the hotel's own car rental agency, because at least we'd know where to firebomb in case of extraneous charges appearing on the bill, so we parked ourselves on one of the Hotel Tazi's sofas and started examining the car prices that they'd thoughtfully inserted below the table's glass.
The prices looked good, so when a man in a sweeping robe waltzed over and asked us if we were interested in renting a car, we nodded.
'Great,' he said, 'then please come with me. I will take you to our office.' And like obedient little lambs we tucked in behind him as he shot out into the streets of Marrakech. Two minutes later we'd been passed to a woman in the street like a couple of batons in a relay race, and she guided us through the winding backstreets to another hotel.
Then the negotiations began, though before I'd put my brain into gear for bartering, the price for ten days' hire had tumbled from Dr4000 to Dr3500 to Dr3300 without us saying a word.
'But the prices in the hotel started at Dr250 per day,' I said, 'so ten days makes Dr2500.'
'Ah, but that does not include insurance,' she said, 'and you need insurance.'
'The sign said it did include insurance,' said Peta.
'No, this cannot be,' said our host, 'but Dr3300 is very good price. New car, not two months old, very reliable, you go all round country and I give you my mobile number in case of problem. It is good, no?'
We'd been expecting to pay more, so we agreed that it was a fair price, and could we put it on credit card?
'Credit card has six per cent surcharge,' said our host, 'but you can pay by cash, credit card, how you like.'
'Ah, we might as well get cash from the ATM,' we said. 'It's cheaper that way.'
'OK, then we have a deal,' she said. 'Can I take credit card for imprint?'
'Sure,' I said, handing over my Visa card, which she slipped under a credit card ship and rubbed over with her pen until the numbers showed through. 'Shall we go get the money now, then?'
'Yes, that is good,' she said, 'and you come back in ten minutes, pick up car and you can park next to your hotel – I know the people there.'
'See you in fifteen,' we said, and sauntered back to our hotel, my mouth tingling with the slight metallic taste I get whenever I've put my financial future in the hands of someone from the business school of hard knocks. At the hotel, though, things got interesting when we asked about where we could park the car.
'You renting from us, yes?' said the woman at the hotel's car agency.
'Yes,' we said.
'Four-wheel drive for tonight, yes?' she asked.
'No,' we said, 'a small car for tomorrow. We've just been talking to the woman about it.'
'Are you sure?' she asked.
'Um... no, I guess not,' Peta said, and handed over our rental agreement. It was as if someone had flicked a switch on the woman's back marked 'Roll eyes, increase blood pressure, throw hands in the air and pout, hard.' She flung out of the room, jabbering in Arabic, and when she had composed herself she came back and started to grill us about whom we'd been speaking to, and what they looked like.
It turned out that we'd been poached from the hotel by the man in the flowing robes, and our hosts weren't happy. So unhappy were they that they instantly offered us a much cheaper price (Dr2800 all-inclusive), which for a Moroccan business is the equivalent of them handing you the shirt off their backs. It sounded worthwhile, and the heat had put us in the mood for a bit of a contretemps with the lady from the rival firm.
Our first attempt to let her down gently didn't work; she simply wouldn't believe us when we said that the ATM wasn't accepting our cards, probably because to survive in Morocco you need a sixth sense as to when people are telling porkies. So we eventually turned to the truth, perhaps an unusual step in Moroccan business practice.
'OK, here is la verité,' I said. 'The man who brought us to you said he was from our hotel, but it turns out that he was lying, and when we asked at our hotel for parking details, they said that you were nothing to do with them. And that is not trustworthy business, so we do not want to do business with you. Please can I have my credit card slip back?'
'But I am with your hotel,' she said. 'I have good car.'
'OK,' I said,' I tell you what, let's head on back to our hotel, and you can tell them that.' And we stood up and walked out into the street.
'But I have good car,' she stammered, running after us and betraying the first glint of panic in her eyes of a potential deal fading to nothing.
'Yes, but you just lied,' I said, 'so can I please have my credit card slip back. We do not have a deal.'
'Why you not want to do business with me?' she asked, fluttering her doe eyes at Peta, instantly turning from hardnosed businesswoman to lost and lonely six-year old child in the fraction of a second. 'It is not my fault that the man lied.'
'I know,' said Peta, patting her on the shoulder. 'It is not your fault the man lied.'
'Then we still have a deal?' she said, inclining her head to Peta like a child to a mother when caught red-handed stealing from the cookie jar.
'No, we do not,' said Peta. 'Please return the credit card slip, and tell your friend not to steal people from hotels by lying.'
Perhaps it was the failure of her emotional approach, or perhaps she realised that the deal was simply dead, but we got the credit card slip back and ripped it up into a million little pieces. And she turned back to her hotel, tail between her legs but ready to fight another day in the cut-throat world of Marrakchi business, as we got ourselves a car from the very grateful, and much cheaper Hotel Tazi.