First time in Morocco, first time in Africa, first time being so absolutely bewildered by almost everything I experienced. Morocco has a reputation for being a very European area of Africa, but what I lived there was such an interesting departure from everything I expected and thought I knew.
In my mind (whether it be fueled by the media, common stereotypes, or hearsay by others who have been there), I expected the predominantly Muslim Morocco to be a bit lagging in modernity, oppressive toward women, and nearly impossible to penetrate culturally. Unsurprisingly, I was mostly wrong. Throughout our week in Moroccan cities both large and small, I estimate about half the women I saw wore headscarves, and most had their faces exposed. Many wore “Western clothing,” jeans and tops of varying tightness. Many wore make-up and many times I observed them interacting with their friends, both male and female, the same way I interact with mine. Thanks to the current Moroccan king, women in Morocco enjoy more freedom than in almost any other Muslim country.
Another assumption of mine was about the landscape and climate. We all know what happens when one assumes.
I stupidly equated “Africa” with deserts, heat, and all things brown. Morocco, in its infinite complexity, offered us rain, sand, snow, wind, desert, mountain, and sometimes landscapes that reminded me more of Switzerland than anywhere close to the Sahara. Driving north from Merzouga to Fes was astounding, as we passed from the Sahara through the snow-covered pine trees of the Middle Atlas mountains, and then back into the heat of the city.
From city to city, the differences were also astounding. We started out in a mountain town in the north called Chefchaouen. Known as “the Blue Pearl,” Chefchaouen was small and very relaxed in all its beautiful blue splendor. It was easy to navigate, perfect for wandering, very chill, and cheap.
Marrakech was very different. I felt overwhelmed. Everywhere was crowded, bustling, things were generally more expensive, getting lost was inevitable, and I was constantly on edge.
I was constantly on edge because Moroccan people can be very “helpful.” I put the word in quotes because you never know if people are being nice to you because they are altruistic or because they expect money. Several times in our wanderings, we would encounter natives who wanted to “help” us by leading us somewhere. They would say “don’t worry, it’s right by my house and I am going that way anyway.” We were extremely wary every time, telling them that we didn’t have money and we would not pay them. They usually told us not to worry. Then, upon arriving at the destination, they would put their hands out expecting money. If we didn’t pay, they would become very angry, and if we did pay, it usually wasn’t as much as they wanted.
I understand that this is just part of the reality when traveling to Morocco, and I also realize that a few inconsequential euros to us means so much more to them, but the clear manipulation left a really bad taste in my mouth. It is very disconcerting to never know why people are being nice to you and whether or not you will end up regretting it.
But then we met Ammar Karraoui, the MVP of Morocco! A few friends and I met Omar in the midst of a crisis about time, distance, and flights to catch. In his words: “there are always solutions.” Not only did he get us where we needed to be, he helped us with bus tickets, hotel reservations, introduced us to monkeys, taught us about Arabic language and Berber culture, and introduced us to his friends who showed us amazing food and our first time at the hammam. This dude speaks six languages, has THE most contagious laugh, and is definitely my top pick for the Most Interesting Man in the World. Ammar is definitely the most generous person we met in Morocco and always made us feel like we could trust him.
Morocco, in all its contrasts and bustle, is worth every ounce of effort. The colors, the simple yet still unsettlingly delicious food, the cheap prices compared to Europe, and the overwhelming character everywhere is ideal for those who like to engage and wander.
- if you want to see everything (mountains, desert, coast, Marrakech, Fes, Chefchaouen), leave yourself more than a week. Transportation is LONG, and it takes a few days in each place to feel comfortable and like you won’t be taken advantage of
- CALL AMMAR! He is well worth whatever money you pay him, extremely kind and knowledgeable, and extremely hilarious.
- pack for all weather. Going in late March, I expected it to be mostly summery weather and I was so wrong. Not to mention most of the (budget) riads and hostels don’t have heat or have open roofs, so it gets cold at night.
- wherever you go, shop owners will accost you. They can be very aggressive at times and I found that a stern “no” (“la” in Arabic) often pissed them off. I learned that a smile and happy “next time” without breaking stride worked pretty well.
- do your research. Things, especially in the medinas, can be hard to find. So make sure you have directions to the place, or if not, know the number someone can call to ask.
- Haggle. A lot. Start at 50% of their original offer and then go from there. The more indifferent you can look, the better.