I’m pretty sure if you know me and we’ve seen each other within the last six months you will have heard this story. It’s one of my all time favourite travel stories. And one of my all time favourite days. It goes a little like this…
We were settling down nicely on the bus from Marrakesh to Essaouira when I noticed an Asian man on the seat opposite and in front of us. He was alone, and swiping his finger across the screen of his phone at lightening speed. After a few seconds of watching him I realised he was writing Chinese characters with his finger, which were then being registered into the phone and put into a text message. Incredible. If you’re reading this and do this on a daily basis you’re probably slightly stumped by my awe. I apologise. Small things, small things. 🙂
I pointed out my amazement to Hannah (who was pretty amazed too, I’d like to add!) and we thought nothing more of it. The journey was simple and hassle free. Until we reached Essaouira and were met by a gaggle of touts. Armed with our well practised “laa, shukran” (no, thank you in Arabic) that came in very handy with Marrakesh ladies taking our hands to give us Henna tattoos, we Laa-Shukran-ed our way through the crowds and headed with a small group of English tourists towards what their map said should be the city.
The Chinese man followed loosely with his troop of touts snapping at his heels and clearly exploiting the fact that he spoke no Arabic, French or English.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” I said to Hannah.
I headed towards the Chinese man, mentally dusting off my Chinese knowledge.
“Thank you but he’s with us.” I explained in French to the tout, indicating to the Chinese man to follow us. “He has a reservation with us.”
“I speak a little Chinese.” I said to the Chinese man. His eyes lit up. That gave me the strength to stay strong against the tout.
“No, he doesn’t! He doesn’t even speak English! Now you come over here speaking Chinese! This is my life! I have a family to feed!” I clearly wasn’t going to make it onto the tout’s Christmas card list any time soon.
“Thank you, but no thank you.” I replied in French. I walked the Chinese man away with me and back into the group of English tourists, “Let’s go, quick!”
“What’s your name? I’m Lindsay. She is Hannah.” I asked him on our way into the city.
“I’m Shounian. Thank you.” he replied.
Fortunately the tout didn’t follow us. Unfortunately, the hostel we had reserved wasn’t easy to find. After about an hour and a half of dragging Shounian around, we stood almost defeated in the hustle and bustle of market day. He pointed to a couple stood with a map.
“Ahh! Very good!” I smiled at him and we headed over to the tourists.
“English?” They shook their head. “¿Español?” Another shake of the head. “Français?” Shake number three. “Italiano?”
“Sì!” They replied gleefully.
I opened the Italian box in my brain, “Perfect! I speak a little Italian! We are lost. Can we borrow your map for a moment?”
The Italian couple were wonderful and even offered to help to take us there. When we got there, there was nothing. A local boy even came and showed the Italian man exactly where it was. But there was nothing. Just a door. We knocked. We waited.
“What do we do?” Hannah asked.
“Well, how much is it?” I asked.
“8 pounds. We’re paid about 80p deposit so they have our card details.”
“I’m happy to pay £8 not to stay here. And we’ve dragged poor Yang around for hours now.”
We headed to the main street from our dark side alley and straight into the first hotel we saw. I switched my language brain back to French and asked if they had a room for 3 before realising that after all of this, Shounian might want nothing more than to get away from us! I flicked back to Chinese and asked him if he wanted his own room. He was happy to share so I asked the receptionist in French for the price and if we could see the room. When I told Shounian the price, he instantly pulled his wallet out. Me and Hannah burst into a chorus of ‘no’ insisting we see the room first. He took some convincing but eventually agreed to wait downstairs while we took a peek. He also took some convincing to let us pay and as it turned out, the best we could offer was to pay for dinner that night.
Walking around with him for the rest of the day, we learnt Shounian is a travel writer and photographer and has been to a grand total of 42 countries in his 68 years of life – all with no other language skills whatsoever!
Essaouira itself is a really nice place and definitely worth visiting if you’re in Morocco for any length of time. It is a complete contrast to Marrakesh!
That day in Essaouira was a real highlight to me of the importance of language learning (if you don’t know, I teach languages when I’m not speaking them to Chinese men and touts in Morocco!). Having some knowledge of foreign languages had helped me save a man from paying over the odds for a room, got us to our “hostel” and given us a free night in a nice hotel. On the other hand, there was Shounian. Making his way around with his camera paying far too much for accommodation and transport by throwing his money at someone if they give him a figure. I hope as he travels on, he doesn’t get exploited like he nearly did that day, but it saddens me to think that he probably will.
Moral of Essaouira? Keep learning languages.
Have you ever ended up speaking any unexpected languages on holiday? I’d love to read about it in the comments below! 🙂