The Writing on the Ceiling



When I was in high school, a common joke was to say to tell an overly trusting someone ”gullible is written on the ceiling.” Usually the person would look up and, as they realized their mistake, everyone would laugh. (Yeah, we really knew how to live) If you fell for this joke once or twice, you became hardened to the cruel ways of high school and made sure your eyes stayed glued to your challenger.

Well, eventually, some jokester actually wrote the word gullible on the ceiling of the drama classroom in large black letters. (Like I said, we lived large). The next time I walked in, someone said “Hey, did you know gullible is written on the ceiling?” I then sternly informed them that this wasn’t my first time at the rodeo and refused to look up. I had, of course, fallen right into their trap.

In travel, as in real life, you sometimes find that its difficult to walk the line between overly trusting and overly cynical. Sometimes, you just have no idea what’s written on the ceiling. You don’t know if its more foolish to check or not to check.

Such was my situation during our trip to Morocco in 2010. After spending an evening falsely suspecting our awkward but honest dinner companion of trapping us in a scam, I felt abashed at our cynicism. How had our keen traveler’s sense turned into a wall that separated us from the local people? Were are own suspicions keeping us from experiencing everything Morocco had to offer?! I for one, had vowed to change my ways. I planned to become the cosmopolitan traveler I prided myself on being; not the tourist who clutches his money belt as he walks by everyone who resembles a local.

So, when we were approached by another local man during the trip, I jumped at the opportunity to prove my recently renewed open mindedness. We were in the side streets of Marrakesh, searching out the Jewish Quarter and the Old Synagogue. We had been wandering around, lost by all accounts, for about an hour when an old man approached us and said he would show us the way.

We knew this wasn’t purely good will, we had been through this before: someone more familiar with the streets would show you the way to your riad or site of choice in exchange for a few dollars.  Not only did it save you the time of getting lost, the guide could usually be counted on to provide some helpful comments about other things that were passed along the way.

So we agreed and followed him through the windy streets as he pointed out the cemetery, old synagogue and town center. Towards the end of the tour he paused and asked us for a donation for the synagogue. We agreed and proffered a few coins.

We were shocked when he rejected our coins and asked for a larger donation – to the tune of $50. My first reaction was to refuse and walk away, but then I looked around. I suddenly realized I had no idea where we were. We were totally alone in a narrow, deserted street with a strange man – We didn’t even know how to get back to the main square. Suddenly, I was very afraid.

Quickly we handed the man the money and asked to be taken back to the starting point. Obviously realizing this was a cash mine, he walked a few steps before asking to get paid for his services. Angry now, we pointed out that we had just paid him.
“No, that was a donation. This is for me.” He argued with a grin.
Five dollars later, we were finally back with the crowds and we quickly headed back towards the riad, our budget for the day totally depleted.

Once again I was left wondering – how do you know when to trust and when to run? I didn’t have the answer and I still don’t. Its a fine balance each traveler must find – especially the solo female travelers. In our quest for adventure we should never put ourselves in danger. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t let our fear keep us from living our lives.  Sometimes, you just have to look at the ceiling. Even if you get laughed at, at least you won’t miss anything.

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23 Responses to The Writing on the Ceiling

  1. Michelle Cusolito says:

    What a great post. It's so true. Balancing trust with caution is hard. Yes, there are scammers out there, but there are also many wonderful people who just want to interact with you. How do you know when to trust and when to walk away?

    My husband and I found ourselves in a similar situation as you when we were in Safi, Morocco. Luckily, we realized it and got out before we got in any real trouble.

  2. says:

    I consider myself a good judge of character. All that practically goes flying out the window when I travel.

    We're all searching for those genuine experiences with locals but we risk setting ourselves up for major (and costly!) scams when we do so.

    In the end, I feel like I betray my gut instinct when I travel. But luckily my wallet instinct remains intact.

    I really identified with this post, though!

    • ElizabethJ_Bird says:

      I think its something all travelers deal with. I have to admit that like you I sometimes tend to think more with my wallet than with my gut.

  3. rob says:

    I have to say, I never trust anyone who offers something. I might miss out on experiences, but I’ve never been scammed either. Too bad the world is that way :<

    • ElizabethJ_Bird says:

      I always think of the saying “no such thing as a free lunch…” it might be something I need to remind myself of more often when I travel.

      • rob says:


        From the book “The moon is a harsh mistress”. I recommend it for some light reading.

        The problem is, we’d *like* to think that people are being nice. We like people to be nice here in our country. But in the developing world, no matter how poor we think we are, we’re fantastically wealthy to the people we’re amongst, and they often view us as ATM machines… But I suppose that’s just part of the experience!

  4. Thats true, your wallet instinct is a good place to start and while at it always bargain services before they are delivered. As who to chose to deliver such services, be choosy and dont pick anyone off the street for directions. Even I dont do that when im in a new town right here in Kenya. I always try to get a referral from people at the hotel, the taxi at the hotel parking lot …

    • ElizabethJ_Bird says:

      Thanks Robert. I agree – getting referrals from reputable sources is a great way to make sure you are dealing with trustworthy organizations.

  5. Sabrina says:

    It’s so hard to know what means what and who is who in your own culture; and it gets exponentially harder in a culture not your own. I started out travelling a little gullible, then wisened up a little (probably became too cynical for a while), and am still trying to find a good balance. I know I have missed out on a lot of opportunities when travelling because I just didn’t know if I could trust that person. I feel better though erring on the side of caution.

    • ElizabethJ_Bird says:

      I agree – I think its always better to play it safe and miss out on an oppertunity then to end up in a dangerous situation.

  6. banggrly says:

    50$ a day was your budget? What a joke.

    I would have gladly offered the man the money- guided trips are usually much more than 50$ and if 50$ was your budget for the day, I’d hate traveling with you. DOWNVOTE

    • Matt says:

      $50 a day in Morocco is completely doable. I managed to get away with about $20, plus $20 a night for room and breakfast. Don’t knock traveling cheap until you try it.

    • ElizabethJ_Bird says:

      Well I should probably have been more clear – this was less a guided tour and more of an aimless 20 min wandering. Also, $50 is a very standard budget in Morocco. Sorry to hear we won’t be travelling together.

  7. Alexa Blair says:

    I love the honesty of this post. I want to go to Morocco!
    -Alexa Blair

  8. Daniel says:

    The same thing happened to me in Rabat, except that I actually knew where I was going and never agreed to take a “tour”. A guy just talked to me and my friends as we walked through the casbah and then demanded payment for it. Our Moroccan friends later explained that this is a common way for people in the medina to make money, and it is very uncool not to pay them. You just have to know to negotiate the price beforehand, so you don’t get stuck in some back alley with a guy demanding $50.
    Now if only I could start charging tourists every time they ask me what that big white building at the end of the Mall is.

    • ElizabethJ_Bird says:

      Yeah well .. lesson learned. Haha. Next time you should walk them there, tell them its closed and then ask for a tip.

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