Experiences in Morocco

This article is meant to be read in conjunction with our guides to Morocco. We hope it doesn’t seem unfairly critical of Morocco or the Moroccan people, it’s just an honest guide of what’s happened to us during our travels in the country. To put our experiences into some sort of context, we are both Muslims (Lamia’s brown skinned and I’m white), speak a little Egyptian Arabic, dress modestly, are polite and try to travel as slowly and sensitively as possible. We’re not 5 star rich or bargain basement poor and we want to be treated as we treat others, which is, with fairness and courtesy, as we think most travelers do.

As we’ve mentioned in the guides, 96% of first time visitors to Marrakech never return (the percentage for Fez, where hassle is even worse, is probably the same). This statistic used to be widely quoted in the travel press before the Moroccan Tourist Office started buying advertising space and therefore allegedly the journalist’s silence in outlets such as Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Le Routard (it’s said that these publications answer to their advertisers first and you the reader second, if you didn’t realise, so don’t expect the truth from them if their advertisers pay for it to be hidden).

In our opinion though this reluctance of tourists to return to Marrakech isn’t entirely because of the poisonous atmosphere and bad treatment they’ve been subjected to from a few local people, it’s equally due to the unrealistic expectations that the travel press and guidebooks created before their journey was ever made.

If you go to the more touristy areas of Morocco expecting a lack of hassle and hostility, endless freely offered photo opportunities, friendly bargaining sessions in the souks and potloads of mint tea shared with random, genuine strangers (which is the picture painted by many a travel writer) then you’re in for a big, and very unpleasant, surprise. The reality is, bargaining in Marrakech or Fez is largely an uncultured business, you have to work tremendously hard for your photos, the mint tea is reserved for potential customers and also, no Moroccan that we’ve ever met on the street in Marrakech or Fez has ever allowed our meeting to end in a pleasant manner. No matter how the meeting came about or what it was for, it seems the rule is that it has to end negatively.

As for standards of service, if you’re coming from an inner city environment where people either ignore you or abuse you on a regular basis then you’ll probably be quite impressed with the treatment you’ll receive in Moroccan hotels. If, however, like us you’re arriving straight from a country that knows something about treating visitors politely and genuinely (we arrived after a month in the very friendly Sri Lanka) then you’re likely be extremely disappointed (unless you visit the Riads we recommend, which we’ve checked out and are satisfied with, and mix with the people we’re spoken of). We don’t expect a red carpet to be laid out for us but are genuine smiles and honest answers too much to ask for? In many areas you’ll frequent as a tourist in Morocco, sadly the answer is yes.

Quite why these attitudes are so prevalent in the country is a mystery to us as being as toxic as many of the locals are must be as distressing for them as it is for us, yet this is the way it is.

Before I lay out some examples of our own bad experiences here in Morocco, I’ll describe our last four days in Morocco, which were very typical of travel in the country.

We left our second to last hotel knowing that we had to catch a collective (shared) taxi to our next hotel. Our hotel manager told us where to find the taxi and how much it would cost. We walked to the taxi rank and the drivers pretended not to know what ‘collective’ meant, even though it’s a phrase they hear from Moroccans twenty or thirty times a day. They refused to take us collective, but offered us a ride for five times the price quoted by our hotel. Naturally we refused. It’s not merely a question of money; we also don’t enjoy being discriminated against. We just want to travel, chill out, be gentle and friendly and enjoy the country.

A kind shop owner directed us to where the collective taxis were, which was a different place than our hotel told us. It was a ten minute walk away. We found the collective taxi and got a ride to within fifteen minutes’ walk of our hotel. The Lonely Planet and every other guidebook, and our previous hotel, had said that the collective taxis drove right past our new hotel but that’s not the case. Never has been; the taxi stand for this area is at a petrol station 1km away and it’s separated from the hotel by a police road block that taxi drivers don’t like to get involved with. A km’s walk in thirty five degree sun, carrying all our luggage. Nice.

The fact that the information we’d got was wrong was not a shock; most of the guidebook writers I’ve met, and I’ve met a lot, never actually travel to the places they talk of. They stay in a city like Fes or Marrakech and just pump travellers and locals for information about other places, hence so much of what you read is wrong. Many of the writers also have sideline businesses selling tours or accommodation so all too often what you read in the major guidebooks is designed to steer you towards using those businesses, or the businesses of their local friends. Sickening, isn’t it? These guidebooks are meant to be written by fellow travellers who are on your side, but that’s just not the case.

So, we arrived at our new hotel. It looked great. The welcoming smiles were wide and our room was fantastic. The hotel was known throughout Morocco for its food and on the first night we sat in the restaurant, looked at the menu and ordered our meals. It wasn’t easy, the menu was in French and nobody spoke English or our version of Egyptian Arabic. But that was our problem, not theirs. The food came and was ok. If you’re used to eating sub standard fast food then you’d think it was great but really, it was just home food. We’d be happy enough if a relative cooked it but it was nothing that we’re going to remember in years to come. The second night we sat down and the waitress’s smile was gone. We’d taken time to say hello and thanks to her all through our first meal, we’re fellow Muslims and we’d taken care to observe all the customs that she and the other staff might hold dear so it was nothing we’d done. But her attitude was normal throughout Morocco. The first day at many hotels the staff smile at you then from the second day onwards they start treating you like dirt. She actually refused to give us a menu and instead just told us what we could have. Luckily we remembered what was on the menu and we ordered that and she reluctantly agreed. The food wasn’t as good as the day before.

On our third night she refused again to bring the menu and also to take an order, she just told us what we would have. There was no point in us arguing. She hadn’t smiled at us since we arrived, in fact, we no longer looked forward to our food there as the atmosphere in the restaurant area was so hostile. Is this what it should be like when you’re on holiday? Actually fearing to go to the hotel restaurant because the staff are so rude, hostile and condescending? We’d have eaten elsewhere only this place was meant to be so good and anyway, there was no other restaurant for tenmiles in any direction, so it wasn’t that easy…

On day four we set off to travel to Tangier and then catch the boat to Spain. Tangier was just 114 miles away and it should have been an easy journey, on paper. However, no local, including the hotel manager, could tell us with any confidence how we might get there. The taxis may be running, who knows, they shrugged. As for the boats, there’s a new port 40kms outside of Tangier but taxis there from Tangier centre will cost the earth, the manager says. Catch the boats from the town centre, he advises, they don’t go to Algeciras in Spain but Tarifa. It’s quite far away from where you want to be but it’s easier. What about the free shuttle bus to the new port, I ask, and don’t the boats from the town centre cost twice as much? He shrugs. It seems the whole country has just one aim, to join together in an effort to fleece us of as much money as they can.

Of course, this isn’t the truth, we’ve met a few good people in Morocco. But we generally took photos of the people we liked, we wanted to remember them you see, and we only took such a photo of a local on six or seven occasions in several months (in Sri Lanka we took three or four per day). In the end, our first taxi cost us twice what it should have done, then we got a bus to Tangier, then the free shuttle bus to the new port did not appear so we had to take another taxi that wasn’t actually too expensive. We got there and had two hours to kill before the boat left so we went to the information booth and asked if there was a shop where we could buy food with our local currency. No, they said, not in the whole port. So we changed our money back to Euro’s at a terribly bad rate, walked through customs and found a cafe where we could only buy food in local currency, not Euro’s. It was a fittingly illogical and unfriendly end to our time in Morocco.

Our hearts were singing as we sailed away from Morocco. We weren’t homesick or tired of life on the road, we didn’t yearn for Europe, our own food or our own people. We were just sick of the deceitful, poisonous atmosphere than hangs over much of Morocco. And I’m afraid we’re more than likely part of the 96% who plan never to visit Marrakech, or Morocco, ever again.

However, that doesn’t mean you have to be the same. We’ve had plenty of good experiences, especially in places like Chefchaouen, Ait Ben Haddou, Essasouira and Tinehir. If you can somehow find a way to enjoy experiences like I’ve described, and will describe more of below, which will probably happen to you if you visit Morocco (in particular Marrakech, Fez, Tangier or any large town that is used to tourists) for more than a few days then you might just be able to find a way to have a good time.

In Marrakech

  • Whilst walking through the souks a young boy rode his pushbike past me, threw himself to the floor about three metres away and yelled that it was I who had pushed him over. A crowd of angry young men then gathered and started to threaten me. They’d planned this and they wanted money. Luckily my Riad was nearby and I managed to get to the door, not without being pretty shaken up though.
  • Whilst trying to locate a Riad I asked a shopkeeper for directions. The Riad was, I discovered later, just two minutes walk away. The shopkeeper asked a young boy to lead me. The boy led me on a twenty minute walk, in a huge circle, in an effort to make it seem like he’d done a lot of guiding work for me and deserved a large tip. Not funny, as I was carrying my rucksack and daypack and the sun was high in the sky and very hot. When I realised what he was doing I told him to stop messing about and lead me to the Riad. He got very angry, acted aggressively and then other boys appeared and demanded money.
  • Whilst photographing an empty street young men came up behind me, put their hands over my camera lens and yelled in my face. There was no mosque or holy/restricted building in sight and after they’d bullied me they walked away, satisfied.
  • Generally I found that if I was alone then local teenage men would attempt to bully me, every day. If I was with others, even Lamia (who’s very small and unthreatening), the bullying stopped.

We have many stories of unpleasant happenings in the souk. The way that bargaining is meant to work is the shopkeeper says one price, you offer a third to a half of that and you settle amicably from there. However, the way it often works in Marrakech and Fez is the shopkeeper says one price, you offer a third to a half of that and then they either usher you out with a volley of abuse that continues as you escape down the alleyway, or they throw the goods at you, tell you to ‘take them for fucking free and fuck off’ and then spit in your face if you’re a girl or push you around if you’re male. This is no fun and probably not the sort of thing you want to happen whilst on holiday. Here’s a specific account of what happened to us.

We found this shop just near the spice souk in Marrakech; it had lots of interesting looking cameras. The man who owned it seemed friendly so we browsed.

After I’d tested the shutter mechanism out a few cameras it was clear that they were all junk, not one of them worked. We felt sorry for the man, he wouldn’t even be able to sell them on Ebay for a dollar. We wanted to give him some business so we offered him $2 for a metal keychain that was worth 50 cents at the most. He got very angry and grabbed my collar, threatening me, telling us to pay 100 dirham for the photos we had taken. We obviously refused so he threw us out. It was pretty upsetting; every time this sort of thing happens it chips away at our trust of local people, and we don’t want that. We want to like the people we are among, not feel mistrust for them.

We’re not saying that every shopkeeper in the Marrakech souk is as unpredictably aggressive and mentally unstable as this man but enough of them are to make dealing with them a lottery. Do you really want to risk meeting one? After all, you only need one of these men to cross your path for the experience to ruin your day, and quite possibly make you become one of the 96% who never visit Morocco ever again…

The fact is, if you want to buy goods that look like they come from Morocco/the Orient then you’re better off buying them in your home city (you’ve probably got some sort of hippy shop there that sells them). Yes, they’ll be twice the price unless you’re getting them in the charity shop but at least the salesperson won’t physically or verbally abuse you and you can take them back if they break or fall apart. Or failing this, if you’re really keen on buying in Morocco, then shop in the more expensive, fixed price or Female/French owned boutique shops (such as the Ensemble Artisanal or the excellent ‘Kif Kif’ or ‘Al Nour’) that you’ll find just outside of the main souk in Marrakech. We can’t emphasize enough the benefits of shopping in a place that’s either controlled by the government or by women. Ask any tourist if they’ve been hassled too much in Morocco and every single one will say yes. Ask them if any of those people who hassled them were women and, unless the tourist has been frequenting prostitutes, they’ll say, absolutely not. Basically, if you need to ask something of a Moroccan in a shop or the street and you can’t find a pharmacist, who often speak English and have better things to do than try to cheat or abuse you, then find a woman and ask them.

In Fez

  • Whilst at the Merenid Tombs, where I went to watch the sunset, gangs of teenage boys threw stones at me, demanded money and hung around making life a misery until I left.
  • Whilst in the main souk many times teenage boys would ask for money or abuse my wife. The abuse will be offered in Arabic, with a smile, so if you don’t understand the language you’ll think they’re saying ‘Hi!’. Ignorance is bliss in this case, unless it turns aggressive, which it does on occasion.
  • You will be told, every five minutes, that the way you are walking is closed. The touts will do what they can to make you feel bad about ignoring them. It gets pretty wearing, having these guilt trips laid on you twenty times a day.

Everywhere Else

We booked a four day tour with Travel Exploration Morocco (www.travel-exploration.com

). When we emailed to get confirmation they didn’t reply. We emailed again two weeks later and were told that they’d cancelled our tour because we’d never got in touch with them. These people have a Trip Advisor certificate of excellence too. Be careful if you deal with them, they’re unprofessional.

We can’t recall a time when a taxi driver didn’t try to charge us at least double the local rate. If it bothers you that you’ll be charged more for taxi or many bus rides, or various other services just because you are foreign then don’t travel to Morocco.

With the following types of people that you’ll encounter as a tourist, whatever you offer as payment will never be enough. Whether you offer 20 cents, $2 or $20, they will scowl and act as if you have insulted their mother. If you choose to deal with them then accept that the final transaction will be unpleasant and no appreciation will be shown, no matter how generous you are.

  • Any hawkers in the main squares of Marrakech and Fez (guides, snake charmers, drummers, story tellers, water sellers, shoe shines, carriage drivers).
  • Custodians of minor sites (such as Kasbahs; the lady and her daughters at Tamdaght are especially unpleasant).
  • Anybody who demands money in exchange for posing for a photo.

Don’t think that wearing local clothes says that you’re not like all the other uncouth tourists and that you should be treated differently. It just means that you’re interested in spending money and can be persuaded to buy a massive tagine pot.

Also don’t think that speaking real (Egyptian) Arabic means anything at all. Moroccan Arabic is nothing like real Arabic and although most Moroccans can understand it thanks to their love of Egyptian TV they won’t admit to it. Try walking into a shop or restaurant in Morocco and asking for water – Fii Maiya Hina? – and see the blanks stares you’ll get until you ask for it in English. It simply does not pay to learn Arabic if you’re a two week tourist in Morocco; every local that we met in Marrakech or Fez who treated us fairly was usually educated enough to speak English, everybody else didn’t seem very interested in our language skills, only our money. Obviously there are lots of non-English speaking Moroccans who are superb people but as tourists we were never going to be mixing in their circles, and it’s not likely that you will either. Speaking Arabic won’t get you better photos either. You’re going to get hostility whether you speak Arabic, English, French or Martian.

Our Advice

There are many fine people in Morocco but don’t think that you can just travel freely, as you could do in many other countries, and meet them by chance, as the likelihood is that unless you make definite plans the unpleasant people, who are more pushy, will get to you and suck the joy out of your day before the good ones have a chance to brighten it.

So, if you want to try to ensure you have a great trip to Morocco, then browse our guide (we mention the decent people we’ve met) and get advice on where to find other honest locals from other websites which seem legit (those with no advertising on them are a good bet, so avoid the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide for starters) or people whom you know personally and trust. Then email those locals before you leave your own country and arrange to employ them as your guides or your accommodation providers, or to meet up with them as friends.

Travelling successfully in Morocco is like moving from island to island through poisonous waters. The islands are your Riads, your trusted restaurants and the few ‘sites’ that are run by honest people and the poisonous waters are the touts, the souks, the bus rides (unless you’re riding with CTM or Supratours), the lousy hotels and restaurants and everything else in between. Arrange to stay and eat with decent people and travel between these places with the help of other decent people and you’ll go some distance to cancelling out the hassle that will 100% come your way.

If you’ve no set destination in mind but just want to see the country at it’s best, make Chefchaouen your first port of call. Stay at Riad Baraka, speak to Joe or Trevor and get some honest advice on where else to visit and stay. They won’t lie to you and they know the country like few locals do.

Also try to stay with Mohammed at Kasbah Tebi in Ait Ben Haddou. He’s a great guy, very honest, he cooks the best tagine in the country and runs a very comfortable and good value traditional style hotel made from mud and straw.

From a photographers point of view the best thing you can do in Morocco is stay in decent Riads or Kasbahs, such as the Riad Noga in Marrakech or Riad Dar Bensouda in Fez, and eat at well recommended restaurants, such as Dar Hatim in Fez or Riad Kniza in Marrakech where the scenery is stimulating, the food superb and the staff honest and photo-friendly. Not only are they unique accommodation and eating options that you won’t find in any other country but also when the touts, the souks and the tourist sites aren’t kind to you at least you’ll come away from your holiday with nice images of interesting buildings, brilliant food and lovely people. Like I’ve said, I probably won’t be returning to Morocco, but I shall remember the following people with great fondness and admiration. I suggest you look them up at some point if you’re in the country.

Chefchaouen – Joe and Trevor from Riad Dar Baraka. Mr Labissi from Molin Arte Restaurant.

Fes – Kleo from Dar Attajalli. Robert and Sue from Riad Idrissy/The Ruined Garden Restaurant. Said from Riad Dar Bensouda, the staff at Palais Faraj and the family who run Dar Hatim Restaurant.

Tinehir – Roger Mimo from Hotel Tomboctou.

Ait Ben Haddou – Mohammed and his staff at Kasbah Tebi.

Tamdaght – Michel, Collette and their staff at Kasbah Ellouze.

Marrakech – Helga and Mark from the SOS Animaux animal shelter. Hassan the taxi driver, and Hassan’s and Helga’s friends Rosemary and Abdou. Christine from le Paradis du Safran. Stef from Kif Kif. Kamal and Mohammed from Riad Kniza and the staff of Riad Noga, Café Clock, Kui Zin and Ksar Essaoussan Restaurant.

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