I read a lot about visiting Morocco while I planned this trip. Many of the blogs discussed safety and being hassled in markets. Marrakesh itself did not get glowing reviews. I thought I was prepared. It turns out, I should have taken what I read with a grain of salt.
We landed in Marrakesh after dark. Like most long journeys, by the time we got through customs we were tired and hungry. I had planned on us getting a cab to our hostel but it turns out, the winding alleyways here are too narrow for anything larger than a motorcycle.
So, my friend Marybeth and I had to walk we had to walk from the town square, known as the medina.
The medina was packed with people. It looked more like the beginning of an all-night party than a town square. There were men and women in traditional clothing like robes and burkas and mixed with locals in skinny jeans and Adidas shoes.
All the shops were open, there were performers, henna artists, fresh-pressed juice stands and shops lining the edges. It was noisy and lively.
The alley we started down was dark and narrow. Just imagine the same setting you’ve seen in Indiana Jones and Aladdin.
The alleys are packed with goods and baskets and donkeys and lots of people. You may think because it was night, they would be less crowded. In reality, the crowds come out at night here.
As I looked through our printed directions I realized this was going to be complicated. They included lines like, “walk a little ways through the market then take the second arch on your left”. A little ways? Hmmm, my backpack felt really heavy so that meant about 5 feet, right? Also, there weren’t alley names so we couldn’t tell if we were on the right track.
The separate alleys were demarcated with an arch over the top, and some of the arches had names. The alleys behind the arch could wind and split again without name. The one we needed to find was called Derb Snaan. Which sounded like a name someone came up with it while sneezing.
We weaved between people and motorcycles and donkeys pulling carts to try to find the second arch on the left through what can only be described as a labyrinth. No Derb Snaan in sight.
It was about this time that two men saw us reading the instructions and asked us where we were going.
This isn’t unusual in other countries. Often, if you look lost someone will try to help you to your destination, but they do it requiring a tip. They may try to take you to their cousin’s hostel instead of your own. They may try to get you to shop at their uncle’s shop on the way there. It is a huge pain in the ass.
The men kept pointing us down alleys that seemed the most likely setting for a crime scene in CSI Morocco. We politely refused to go their way and kept trying to muddle through our vague instructions. One man was wearing a big baggy jacket and a safety vest. He kept saying we could trust him then he opened his jacket and showed us a club he was carrying as though it was a way of proving his point! Just your average trust-worthy guy out clubbing. Neither me nor Marybeth felt reassured by this and so we didn’t follow his lead. We ducked into the next riad we saw to shake the two men off and ask for directions. The owner of the riad was an older gentleman and seemed concerned with our predicament. He went outside and starting talking with the men.
It turned out, the man in the vest is like a local neighborhood watch and actually was leading us to the right place. The riad owner introduced us to him and assured us that we could trust him to take us to our hostel. If not, we were welcome to come right back to his riad. He gave us instructions and we left, the man in the vest walking out front. He led us directly to our hostel and wouldn’t accept a tip when we got there. The second man followed behind and then kept asking for money. The man in the vest rolled his eyes at him. Once we got to our hostel, the owner opened the door, and smiled to see us. He showed us to our room, then made a pot of mint tea and sat down to drink it with us as a welcome Morocco.
Here’s the thing, if this had been the first country I had traveled to outside the western world, I would have been terrified by the ordeal with the men in the alley. My life would have flashed before my eyes. I would have gotten all sweaty and panicked and I probably would have gone back to the medina and sat in a restaurant until I could contact the hostel owner for help while trying not to cry.
But getting hassled is just part of traveling outside a select few countries.
As a woman traveler especially, I’ve learned to be more assertive in these situations and stay in crowded areas.
Usually, locals just want to lead you to their cousin’s trinket shop or for you to give them a tip for their help. In our situation, both men were legitimately trying to lead us to our hostel. One was doing it to protect us, the other wanted a few bucks. However, we didn’t know their intentions we had to look out for ourselves first.
It sucks because I think people naturally always want to be polite and friendly and it’s difficult to just say to hell with them if they get upset because you have to do what’s safe first and polite second. This situation was difficult and Marybeth and I were exhausted, but we’ve both traveled enough to know how to respond. I was grateful for that.
What I had read in other blogs was that Marrakesh is not a great city. The advice generally included some lines about staying long enough to see a few sites, then the markets and moving on quickly. There were warnings of how pushy people are and advice on avoiding haggling and going straight to a market where the price is already set. This is all fair and good advice, and you do need to be cautious for your safety.
We, however, were both surprised by how much we liked Marrakesh, especially the markets.
Here’s how it usually went for us; a shop owner would come out if they saw you looking at scarves or rugs or whatever goods they were selling. They would try to get us to come into the shop to show us all the different things they had for sale. Once, inside, owners bent over backwards to find exactly what we wanted. If we happened to find something, then the haggling begins.
We did this a few times and if we didn’t see what we wanted, we’d say so and leave. They’d try to get us to look at something else but after a second polite refusal they courteously thanked for stopping by.
In one shop, the owner helped us sort through stacks of textiles for at least half an hour. We tried on dresses, shawls and scarves. After each one, the shop owner cheerfully folded the garment and put it back in its place. At the end of this marathon, I found a dress that I wanted and Marybeth found a shawl. Let the haggling begin!
We went back and forth for a few minutes. He started at 1500 Dirham or the equivalent of about $150 and I started closer to $15. I know that sounds crazy but that’s how it goes. This is the thing, haggling can be a lot of fun. It should be a game. You should smile and joke your way through it. T
he shop owner wasn’t offended at my low offer and I wasn’t offended at his exorbitant price. He wasn’t going to give anything away without a profit and just wanted a win-win. All we had to do was find a price we both found reasonable. It takes some time but can be a part of the cultural experience. For example, in Egypt they were flirtatious in negotiating. “Where you get your beautiful eyes lady? Your mother, your father?” In Morocco they are funny, “You must be Berber woman, not American, you push for very low price!” the owner said with a wink. We ended up agreeing on around $20.
I realized during our first few days here that yes, the travel advice I got on Marrakesh may be true, but it’s all a matter of perspective. The shop owners are pushy by our culture’s standards. But if you have traveled more extensively, it’s not out of the ordinary. It’s sort of like the question, “Is Morocco Safe?” The answer is, well, it depends…
It depends on how you travel, how much experience you have travelling and how you deal with the unexpected. There are always going to be some circumstances outside of your control, but read up on conditions and know if you’re getting in over your head. You can’t always predict the other people but you can do your research and do your best to be prepared. In the instance with the men in the alley, we were lucky to know this wasn’t unusual to politely refuse and go our own way until we knew if we could trust them.
Are the markets pushy? Yes, they are but if you know how to respond you will still have fun.
Do your research, adjust your expectations and put your safety first.
Marrakesh pleasantly surprised both of us. I found the people to be really delightful. We were treated with a lot of kindness and hospitality. The markets were fun and Marrakesh as a city is actually a place I would have liked to spend more time. There’s quite a bit to see here, palaces, gardens, and great food. This most likely isn’t a city or country to come to as your first excursion away from the Western World. However, it is really a great destination if you are prepared.