Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Scenario #4: Did we foil their devious plan?

This weekend we went up to the coast for a day or two of sun and relaxation. On Saturday night we decided we could do nothing better than walk along the seafront and find a place overlooking the Mediterranean where we could drink tea, "shrub" arguile (smoke hookah), and chat while watching the calm sea and the stars.

We found our mini-paradise in one of the most sha'abi (perhaps best translation to English would be 'ghetto') cafes we've visited. Because of their amazing location overlooking the cliffs, they could get away with rickety plastic chairs and tables, a sore lack of options in drinks, no bottled water and slow service. After all, who cares about frivolities at a cafe when you're breathing the midnight Mediterranean air? Plus, I think we were all looking forward to a relatively inexpensive night.

The cafe was located on three or four terraced clifftops overlooking the sea, and our group settled onto plastic chairs at the lowest level. There was nothing but air between us and the rocky beach below. And the people above us were out of hearing distance as well. Idyllic. The guy working at the cafe gave me a little flashlight and said just flash it in his direction if we needed anything and he'd come on down.

Well, we didn't need anything until we were done and ready to pay. So I flashed him down. He came down quickly and I said we wanted to settle up because it was late. We'd ordered 5 arguiles, 7 drinks (which, uh, included 2 tap waters!), and that was it. So he said, "OK, the arguiles are 100 each, the drinks are 35 each... so... that adds up to... mmm... 2500."

100 x 5 = 500
35 x 7 = 245
500+245 = 745
But he asked for 2500. I thought he was bad at math, so I asked him to talk it through for me.

His response was that the guy up top (he pointed in the general direction of up) actually wanted 3000, but he was going to take a loss and charge us 2500. So I talked it through for him: 100 x 5 = 500, etc. We got to 745 and I asked what else? He said, "The tissues" and pointed to two full bags of tissues that he's brought down.

Since the difference was so ridiculously big, I accepted the stupid tissue charge (50 x 2 = 100, 745 + 100 = 945). What else, I asked him.

"Well, the tables. And the fact that we didn't seat anyone else down here on this particular cliff."

I replied that we hadn't used the tables and we'd made a point of saying at the beginning of our visit that if anyone else wanted to share our cliff they were welcome.

He said, "Ask any one of the customers up there. They know they pay for their table!"

Ah, clever ones, isolating us out of sight and sound of the other customers. So I asked him how much the table was, because surely it couldn't add up to 1500 more! (1500 more is about 30 dollars - and again, this place was ghetto!) We did a little more math and I could see justification (unfair though it may be) for him charging us a total of 1600. But it was still robbery, I said, and if that guy up there, whoever he was, wanted 3000, then that man was a thief.

So he called to the man upstairs, who came down. They had their routine all rehearsed:
"Sir, you are charging me 3000, right?"
"Yes, 3000."
"See?" (to me), "I'm going to lose if you don't give me 3000."
I fussed and accused them both of robbery and worse.
The first guy continued, saying, "You know what? I liked you guys. Out of respect for you, I will take a loss if you give me 2500, but I can't go lower than that."
The second guy nodded, with a cruelly straight face.

So I asked for a minute to consult with the rest of the group, but they wouldn't let me alone to talk it out. Group members were clueless, and were asking me, "How much for the tea?" I was having trouble explaining to them that the price of the tea somehow had nothing to do with our bill... and was still fielding the rehearsed fuss of the two men continuing to demand 50 dollars at a place worth 2.

Something popped in me and I blew up. I told the man shame on him, and shame on his partner, or boss, or whoever he was. And shame on Latakia, actually, I would never come back to this seaside town again. Which is a pity because I have a dear friend from here, but if her city-mates are so evil, conniving and deceitful then I wanted to wash my hands of this place. And even more shame on them because I wanted to show my foreign friends the beauty of this place and they are only seeing the frightful state of human nature and this city's people. He in turn accused us of being rich and staying in the nicest 5 star hotel in town, weren't we??? I replied that no, we were part of a sponsored programme... Not that he believed us. Liars don't believe people who tell the truth.

What happened next was a result of our confusion over the situation. It was not staged at all, but it played out perfectly. Many members of our group had brought no money or little but pocket change. So I went around taking donations from all members of the group. One gave 50, one gave 100 and we continued to come up short. So we went to them with 1000 and asked if that was enough, but they refused. So we took up more collections... oh how pathetic we must have seemed, a group of foreigners scraping the bottoms of our pockets! We came up with 1300. The first guy was still adamant, but the second guy's heart finally gave up on the charade and let us go.

After we left, I was furious. Being the Arabic speaker, I felt like it fell on me, and I wanted to show the group a pleasant evening, not a fight. But I had to admit that in the end we did win. It was a bit confused because some contributed and others didn't contribute and so some paid more than they owed and others paid nothing. But for the sea view and perfect weather and the clifftop setting, plus the drinks and arguiles (and tissues), what we paid was a fair price.

So I got to wondering what those two men had been chatting about up top as we'd been chilling down below. Who was the boss and who was the employee? And how much would they have charged locals? And what had they expected of us? ...Because I'm sure my fight and our group's overall patheticness had not been in their plan. Yes, in the end, we won, but by how much??

1 comment:

Katharine said...

Traveling is wonderful, but I hate it when these types of situations arise!! What a lot of gumption you showed in arguing for justice with the men. Way to go! :-)

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