Thursday, 15 May 2014

Surviving Marrakesh

I had heard tales about Marrakesh. Reading other travel blogs, I always came across words like "overwhelming", "intense" and "frustrating" with regards to this north African city. I was curious to know if I would break down or crack open the city like a pro. As you will see, a bit of both.

In the souqs of Marrakesh
In the souqs of Marrakesh
I was a bit nervous about going to Morocco on my own, but as it turned out, I was never alone, apart from half of the second day, when the people I had met in my hostel went on an excursion they had booked the day before. I learned during this trip that in countries like Morocco, where the culture is so different from that of most travellers, it's much easier to meet other people than it is  when travelling in Europe or North America. I immediately teamed up with other people who were visiting Morocco: solo women travellers, groups of friends, and even couples were eager to spend some time together to explore Marrakesh.
 
Find my bearings. When I got off the bus at Jemaa el Fna, the iconic main square of Marrakesh, I was surprised: a girl alone with a backpack, and nobody was hassling me!  The riad/hostel where I stayed - you will hear a lot of tales about Layla Rouge in  my future posts - had sent me a video of how to reach it, a leisurely three-minute walk from the bus stop. Knowing how easy it is to get lost in Marrakesh, I watched the video twice, so I knew the way. Towards the end of my walk, I wasn't quite sure if I had missed the tiny hidden third arch I had to pass through, so I looked at the written directions I had printed out. Two young Moroccans soon started to ask "Are you lost? Where are you going? Looking for you hostel?", quite amused. I knew that some of these people sometimes ask for money for pointing you towards your destination, or that they can be a little too flirty, so I ignored them. The second time that I passed in front of them, they laughed very hard at me, and I laughed too. There are a lot of Moroccans in Italy, so I know some of them are cheeky, and a bit cocky. Some American girls I met in Marrakesh even compared them with Italian guys, and even though I was very surprised, I guess that on a continuum of flirty men on the street Italy is closer to Morocco than the United States are. I immediately found the third arch and the hostel, where I was greeted with mint tea and biscuits. Moroccan hospitality is legendary, and it is epitomized in my mind by the endless offerings of this very sweet tea with mint leaves inside the small glass.
 
Safety. I think the most dangerous thing in the medina of Marrakesh are... the scooters. Seriously, they speed up on the narrow streets and risk running over people (or stray cats and kittens, as the medina is full of them)! Jokes aside, the city did not seem at all dangerous to me. Even as a solo female traveller, the worst you could experience is an inappropriate comment on the street, often in French, provided you don't do silly things like walking at 3 in the morning alone or give too much confidence to somebody you don't fully trust. Moreover, as I told you, I was almost never alone.
 
I haven't heard of anybody being mugged or robbed while I was there, and while I kept my handbag zipped up and always in sight in crowded areas, I never felt threatened. I had a money belt in my backpack, but I never used it. I kept my passport and an extra debit card in the locker in my dorm, or in my daypack when that was not possible.

I met three girls on my first day in the city, two from Scotland and one from New Zealand. After dinner we went out for a beer. Yes, you can have beer in Marrakesh! And no, we were not raped, or harassed. It was an awkward experience to be honest. I don't know whom the girls asked, but we ended up in the bar of Grand Hotel  Tazi. Only a few older Moroccan men were there watching a football game, and us, four very pale Western girls. They only served Moroccan beer, no European brands. It was a bit expensive - 50 dirhams each (€4,40), which is perhaps not the price the Moroccan men were asked -  but, hey, I think it's silly to be stingy when in Europe you would spend much more money for everything, including nights out. I'm not one of those people who go crazy if they can't find alcohol for a certain period, quite the opposite. If drinking alcohol while on a trip abroad is essential for you, I suggest that you change destination (or priorities!). You really can't get hammered in Marrakesh, as it's frowned upon. In this bar, we were approached by a slightly drunk older Moroccan man, the kind of man you could also meet on the streets of Venice. He was innocuous, and only wanted to know where we were from. I wouldn't go to a bar to drink a beer alone, however. It was easy to understand that places like that are attended by a minority of Moroccan men, and by some tourists. Another restaurant I went to in the medina served alcohol, even though it was not on the menu. 

Having a beer in Marrakesh!
 
 
The maze of streets. There are no street signs in the medina of Marrakesh, and a map is useless. Having lived in Venice for a few years now, I thought I knew how to deal with labyrinthine cities: you have to trust your "inner compass", I said to myself. Apparently, this doesn't work well in Marrakesh. On my second day in Morocco, the only day when I ended up exploring the city by myself, I got lost twice. And when I said lost, I mean utterly lost. A young boy of about 14 told me in French that I was going in the wrong direction, and that the city was finished there. I decided to listen to him, as I was lost anyway, but he started following me and asking me where I was from and where I was headed to. He went on explaining that I was in the mellah, the former Jewish area, and that there was a Berber market nearby. I knew that I would have had to give him some money in the end, but I really didn't know how to get rid of him or how to find my way back to more familiar streets. In the market, an old man explained to me the use of many strange expedients Berber people use to rouge their lips, or remove their calluses. I made clear, however, that I did not intend to buy anything. 
 
The boy led me to a residential area, and there I began to feel uncomfortable. I didn't understand where he wanted to lead me, if to the Saadian tombs or to the Royal Palace. He lightly and very casually kept putting a hand over my shoulders or even further down. I told him not to touch me, and he was a bit embarrassed and said he was sorry. In the end, I gave him 50 dirhams (€4,40) and finally got rid of him. I found myself in the area of the royal palace, which was closed, and eventually asked a policeman to point me to Jemaa el Fna. As it seems, it's almost a  rite of passage in Marrakesh to get lost and to give some money to someone to be led to familiar territory. I'm okay with giving a few dirhams to a friendly Moroccan person for showing me a part of the town, because after all Moroccan people earn very little compared to how much tourists can afford to spend, but I'm not at all comfortable with that apparently casual but absolutely deliberate touching! I feel very hurt by the way Western women are sometimes perceived in this part of the world. I was not wearing shorts or a tank top, if you are wondering.

I was determined not to let this unpleasant experience mar my stay in Marrakesh, even when I got lost a second time that same afternoon and had to ask some other tourists for help. I found this a good solution: I made friends with some French people who clearly had a better idea of where we were. The way to  the main square, after they explained it to me, was after all very easy. It took a while to shrug off this challenging day. My reaction, when back in the safe haven of the riad, was to book a cooking class for the following day, which revealed to be one the highlights of my trip to Morocco. Mariam and Aida, the girls who taught as the secrets of Moroccan food, were extremely friendly, and showed me a completely different side of Morocco. More of this in another post. 
 
The craziness. Scooters that speed past you, unpleasant smells, flies that buzz around meat and sweets that somebody is supposed to eat at a certain point, donkey carts, poo lying on the street, touts, shouts in four or five different languages, dust, litter, and much more. The medina of Marrakesh has the potential to irritate you, and it will. By the second day, I didn't know if it was me or everything around me that stank so much. However, I didn't let this unpleasant side of Marrakesh ruin the beauty of the place. Literally in every corner of the medina lies a surprise: a shop that sells carved-wood items, a beautiful archway or a door, a street vendor in a traditional djellaba that greets you in French, or a spice shop with more colours and smells than you can think of.

In the streets of Marrakesh
The medina of Marrakesh
 
The peace of a riad, or any kind of palace like Bahia Palace or medersa Ali ben Youssef will soothe you. Inside my hostel the atmosphere was relaxed and quiet, such a contrast to the hustle and bustle outside. In the rooftop terrace you couldn't believe you were in the noisy and smelly medina of Marrakesh. I usually don't spend much time chilling in hostels, if not in the evening if I don't feel like going out, but here it was a pleasure. Embroidered cushions were everywhere, while the friendly manager of the hostel, Abdel, would come up and exchange a few words with the customers, giving suggestions on how to do this or that.
 
A corner of the rooftop terrace
 
 
The touts and the pressing vendors. I can shrug off touts pretty easily. Maybe it's because there are some touts in Italy too, especially in touristy places like Venice or Rome. My tactics is to say "no, thank you", or nothing at all. Some friends I met in Marrakesh had different tactics, for example to always greet and answer but never to accept their dubious offers for help. What good can it come from somebody who spends his time at the entrance of a bus station asking to foreigners if they are making their way to this or that other city? A girl I met, also travelling alone in Marrakesh, got completely overwhelmed and left the city earlier to join her friends in Rabat, a less touristic city. As a matter of fact, these annoying people abound in Marrakesh, but only in the medina, the old town, which is very touristic. I found Essaouira, which is a pretty town along the Atlantic coast, much more relaxed, and the hustlers were practically non-existent as we drove closer to the Sahara desert.
 
I have heard of girls being grabbed by the hand by a woman for an unwanted henna tattoo in Jemaa el Fna. They found themselves in the embarrassing situation of having  to negotiate down the exorbitant price asked for the tatoo. This hasn't happened to me, anyway. In my experience, a simple "no, thank you" was enough and the touts left me largely alone. I'm not the kind of traveller who spends lot of money on souvenirs, or lingers for hours browsing them if I don't intend to buy, so perhaps the touts knew they didn't stand a chance with me. 

 
Palace Bahia, Marrakesh
Palace Bahia

 
The scams. It's easy to avoid scams if you know about them. Sometimes vendors try to "scam" you for one or two euros. I wouldn't even call that a scam. After all, most people think that being charged for "coperto" in Italy is a scam! The last night we stopped at the famous food stalls in Jemaa el Fna, a waiter did his maths wrong on purpose to get a few dirhams more from us. Perhaps he didn't like the fact that we didn't eat all of our food, I don't know. After all, right at the same stall, just a few days before, a friendly waiter gave us a small discount as we had gone back to that stall three times. Everything in Morocco seems to be based on personal relationships: if you manage to joke a little or to connect with people, you might get a small discount. I think I got a fairly good price for my 3-day tour to the Sahara.

It's important that you consider the fact that not everybody is there to scam or mislead you. On my second day in Marrakesh, when I tried to enter Palace Bahia, the guard didn't have the change for my 50-dirham banknote and sent me to the post office to change it. As I didn't know where the post office was, I wandered around the palace walls looking for a place that looked like it could have some change. A guy told me that I was going in the wrong direction - a common thing you'll hear in Marrakesh - and I decided to try my luck and ask him where I could change a banknote. When he went inside a covered walkway, I was expecting him to lead me somewhere strange, like his uncle's carpet shop. Instead, it was a small cornershop where an old man changed my money. I thanked profusely and went back to Palace Bahia. The guy didn't want any money from me, nor did he try to flirt with me.
 
The haggling. Some people have fun haggling for beautiful handcrafted goods in Marrakesh, but I am one of those people who find it frustrating and exhausting. In my country it is usually considered disrespectful or shameful to ask for a discount in a store. I don't know what's wrong with me, and maybe I will come to terms with this in the future, as I know it is part of the culture in many countries other than my own. Moreover, I can never haggle to the price I think appropriate, even if I know the general rules of the game. Right now I'm just somebody who's learning to swim, timidly and clumsily trying to accomplish my first few strokes.

Tajines in Marrakesh
Tajines for sale in Marrakesh
 
In terms of taking a break from the chaos, the hustlers and the unwanted male attention, it was regenerating to go on my 3-day trip to Ait Ben Haddou and the Sahara desert. The day trip to Essaouira was a delight, too. I would suggest the latter for when you feel stressed out by Marrakesh. Another place to go to recharge if you don't fancy going somewhere that far are the Majorelle Gardens, in the new town. Such an oasis of peace and much-needed shade!
 
Majorelle Gardens, Marrakesh
Majorelle Gardens



Moving around. I usually dislike taxis. Even in my own country, you are at risk of being overcharged. I took one in Marrakesh, however, together with an American couple, in order to reach the Majorelle Gardens. We had asked our hostel manager how much the fare should be, and the first taxi driver we asked directed us to another taxi driver, who quoted the exact same fare, 30 dirhams (€2,66). At other times, I used buses. It is perfectly safe to take the airport bus, and thus avoid a pricey hotel transfer or a taxi, at least if you're arriving and departing during the day. In my experience, it is also safe to take a bus to go to places like the train station, or to take a long-distance bus to another city in Morocco. I have heard that trains are also safe, especially by day. As a solo female traveller, I would suggest a personal curfew, in order to avoid wandering the streets of Marrakesh alone at night. Keep an eye for other tourists, or for women who look like they could speak French, or some English, if you feel like you are in unfamiliar territory.


I can proudly say I'm a Marrakesh survivor! In spite of the reasons that make it an intense and yes, sometimes overwhelming and frustrating experience, Marrakesh is a colourful, vibrant, and amazing city that is absolutely worth visiting. It should be on everybody's bucket list, and people shouldn't be prejudiced about it. There are so many wonders to be found inside the walls of a riad or a palace, or in the souqs of this exotic city, but also in small things, like the Arabic writing on something usually as familiar as a Coca-Cola.

Marrakesh is a city I came to love and hate at the same time. I can understand that it can be scary to buy a plane ticket and go to Marrakesh alone, especially as a solo female traveller. I was dubious for a long time, and I thought that I would never find the courage to travel there by myself. But you know what? I am so happy that  I decided to go, and that I managed to see this amazing country that never stops to amaze, not even for a second. My suggestions if you're travelling alone to Marrakesh are:


1) Stay in a hostel if you are travelling alone, so you will have plenty of possibilities to meet new people. If you shudder at the thought of sharing a dorm with strangers, no problem: you can always book one of  the private rooms, and then meet other people in the common areas;

2) Try to have a positive attitude. The moment I was taken by negativity, everything seemed hostile to me and I was very easily irritated by the chaos of the city or by all the unwanted male attention;

3) Dress conservatively, especially if you are a woman, and in general be prepared about do's and don'ts in Morocco. There are plenty of tourists with shorts and tank tops in Marrakesh, but this doesn't mean you have to wear them too. You'll see the men will flock to those of your friends who wear skimpy clothes, and you will walk behind them almost forgotten;

4) Take extra precautions. Don't hesitate asking your hostel/riad manager if it's safe to do this or that alone. You'll learn it's pretty easy to navigate the town once you've learned two or three things about the city. Ask for approximate taxi fares, for instance.

5) Have fun! Don't be paranoid, Marrakesh is a great city with plenty of things to offer.


Would you want to miss this?

 

12 comments:

  1. Morocco is so gorgeous! I agree, the scooters could be a bit scary, but same is the case in the alleys of Udaipur (especially during the festive season).

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    1. The scooters are not that scary if you are used to them. Plenty of scooters in Italy too! And I have an instinct for protecting my handbag when I hear one behind me...

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  2. Great tips! I love all your pics! I've been wanting to go to Morocco for some time now so this post is great! :) I'll have to check Ryanair for some cheap flights there for sometime this year :)

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    1. Yes, do go to Morocco, and don't forget to get out of Marrakesh (or Fez) at some time!

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  3. Glad you had a fun and safe trip to Morocco and that you didn't let the harassment affect your overall experience there. I'd love to go to Morocco someday soon, and I'm looking forward to learning more about it through your posts.

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  4. I am glad you survived Marrakesh. I've also heard a lot of horrible stories about people being robbed in the street. As for haggling, high five - I hate it as well! Some people have fun haggling for beautiful handcrafted goods in Marrakesh, but I wouldn't! It's also so frustrating for me.

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    1. If people chose to rob me, they would be unlucky: battered old smartphone with facebook always crashing, very little cash just for the day, and a debit card that I can easily block, ahahahahahah!

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  5. I'd love to go to Morocco and Marrakesh one day, it looks incredibly beautiful even though it can be quite crazy as you said. I wouldn't be able to haggle though, it's not in my nature and I'm truly rubbish at it, well done for doing it! :)

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    1. I'm happy to know that I'm not the only one who has problems with haggling! It really drives me crazy!

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  6. we're planning our trip soon, so i'm really digging into your posts! thanks for all of the very helpful info!

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    1. Keep reading in the following weeks, because I have more posts on Morocco coming up!

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  7. Our Morocco Travel Packages By Morocco Xcursion are exclusive for families, you can choose bike riding, camping in the desert, cooking class and much more to have a wonderful trip of Morocco.

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