Sunday, 26 October 2014

Introducing colourful Girona - a town with character

I'd like to introduce you to the colourful town of Girona, located a little bit more than an hour away from Barcelona. You can easily get there with the train (I paid 24€ for a return ticket), and you'll also enjoy views of the gorgeous Catalan countryside on the way. Girona is famous for the Ryanair airport, that's for sure, but also for these picturesque houses along the river Onyar, and for the charm of its cobbled streets.
The famous houses on the river Onyar

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Tackling poverty and tourist exploitation in Morocco

Morocco is technically the first third-world country I have visited. It's really true that even if you have watched documentaries, read books, and in general you know about the problems of this part of the world as much as you want, it's quite another thing to be there and see it with your own eyes.

Man sleeping under a cart in Essaouira

On the morning of the second day of our bus tour to the Sahara region, we stopped in the countryside near Todra Gorge. This part of central Morocco is truly beautiful, but also quite poor. We walked through irrigated fields where traditional herbs are grown. Here, old women still cut the grass with a sickle, and take the bunches on their heads, while donkeys are used instead of tractors. A child - perhaps six or seven year old - was begging for money: "un dirham pour favour, mademoiselle, pour manger, merci beaucoup". He spoke very little French, but had probably learned this sentence by heart. When he understood that we were not going to give him any money because he was supposed to be at school, he asked for "bon-bons", sweets. It has been estimated that around 28% percent of the population of Morocco is still illiterate.

Even though I was prepared for this, the encounter left a mark in me. This boy was waiting for groups of tourists - perhaps every day - just to ask them for some change. After that, an old lady who was cutting grass approached us. She spoke only Berber, but she said something to our guide, who explained that she was eager to have her picture taken with us while cutting the grass with a sickle. I felt a bit weird: was I really going to take a picture of myself together with an old Moroccan lady cutting grass? I took it as a chance to finally have a portrait of somebody. I am very shy about asking people for pictures. Two or three pictures were taken of the others on the tour smiling next to the old lady, but when my turn came - I don't know, perhaps she saw my awkwardness - she put the sickle in my hand and asked in a kind of French that was clearly learned by heart "vous pouvez me donner un stylo, mademoiselle?". "Do you have a pen to give to me, young lady?". I didn't have any, and I felt mortified, but also weird.

Woman and donkey in the countryside of Morocco
This attitude of making a tourist attraction of oneself for a little money is widespread in Morocco. Artists and performers in Jemaa el Fna, the main square of Marrakesh, often aggressively ask for money after seeing  that you snapped a picture of their traditional snake-charming or of their traditional costume. This is why I don't have many pictures of the performers in the square. Apart from the fact that I often found myself without small change, I don't want to take part in the exploitation of animals or in the "spectacularization" of oneself in a way that I find so fake. What is ironic is that some men, selling vegetables by the street or sitting at their doorstep, don't want their picture taken, and shout at you, even if your intention was not to take their picture but that of the door behind them, or the cat sleeping inside their cart. I was not prepared for this contrast.

Scared by the reaction of many Moroccan people and too shy to ask for portraits, I started taking pictures of people from behind, so that their faces are not recognizable. I feel that this does not intrude too much in their lives. I find the pictures to be beautiful, because Morocccan people, especially women, wear very colourful clothes. This didn't always work, however. When I tried to snap this picture, one of the two ladies turned around and gave me this look. I guess she wasn't happy about being photographed.

Women in the countryside of Morocco

Another thing that really concerned me during my trip to Morocco, and that I had never considered before a trip, are how animals are treated. Soon after my first night in Morocco, I figured out that animal rights are not really in the mind of most Moroccans, at least in the not in the touristic areas of Marrakesh. In Jemaa el Fna, a place that is incredible as much as it can become annoying, I saw monkeys on a leash, a vulture, and snakes being charmed. After learning that the mouth of some of the snakes are stitched to stop the poison, I refused to take part in any show on the square that involved animals. Sometimes I felt that us - Western tourists - were being fed touristic bites that involved things we were expecting from Marrakesh. I loved the city and I loved Morocco, but sometimes when I  stopped to think about certain things, I found lot of material for further thought.

Snake charmin in Jemaa el Fna
In the desert, we took a camel ride. I wonder how the camels were treated: sometimes they seemed to be annoyed, but perhaps it's just their in their nature to look as if they are pissed off all the time. After all, it mustn't be very funny to take giggling and Instagram-obsessed tourists up and down the dunes every day.

A camel in Merzouga, Sahara desert

I have also experienced what many people complain about: feeling like a walking ATM. Being a tourist in a country that's poorer than yours is not always easy. Some locals will take you for a dupe who will pay whatever sum of money they ask for the poorest quality service they can get away with. This is not unique to Morocco or to third-world countries, however, as it is unfortunately relatively common in Italy, too. Too often tourists are seen as someone who's there for one day only, or for a few days at the most, and then will never be seen again in that town.

Being offered tea in a Berber house/carpet shop

Managing to stay happy while travelling to difficult places isn't always easy. Morocco is a country of contrasts, where luxurious palaces with incredibly decorated interiors are juxtaposed with littered streets and beggars. Trying to be compassionate, and to understand people, what they go through, how they live, what they think is the key to have a happy stay in a country that sometimes get on your nerves. If it's true that there will always be people who consider tourists as a mere way to make a lot of money by selling poor-quality products,  I've also met many people who are genuinely committed to teach you about your country, that make you feel welcome and that  make you want to return to Morocco again and again. I think that the key is to stay positive and not be discouraged by the difficult situations you may encounter.  If I had more time in Marrakesh I would have loved to visit a charity institution. If I'm taking another trip to Morocco - I still want to visit Fez and Chefchaouen at least! - I'll make sure to do that.

Me in front of a door in Essaouira: looking happy!
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