It all started off so well. I was preparing for a volunteering trip to Rabat, Morocco when my volunteer coordinator introduced me to the other people signed up to the programme. Several of us immediately hit it off and planned a two-day trip to nearby Marrakech during our first weekend off. After my previous trip to Russia, I was beyond excited to volunteer abroad again and even more so now that I knew I had already made some friends before going.
Two of us (the students, predictably) booked into a hostel while the rest checked into a more luxurious riad. The hostel looked ridiculously opulent from the pictures, drapes and carved wooden bedframes and a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city like something out of Aladdin. It was everything I had expected from Morocco, all shoved into one building – and certainly more than I had expected from a hostel. I could only hope that it would live up to all the hype.
Incredible spice displays in the markets – how do they make it stand up like that?!
Fortunately, it did – and despite my truly awful weekend in Marrakech, I would quite happily stay in that hostel again if they would just pick the whole building up and move it to, say, Hawaii. The hostel, though, was the only part of the trip which did live up to my expectations.
So many people say that you cannot truly experience Morocco without seeing Marrakech, but for me, Marrakech was the exact antithesis of everything that was beautiful, cultural or inspiring in the rest of the country. Much of my time there went past in a haze – I got horribly sick, probably from the 47 degree (117F) heat, and spent the whole weekend fainting and vomiting everywhere (which is always fun in a hostel room full of people you don’t know). What I remember, though, is more than enough to ensure that Marrakech is officially on my never-again list.
Firstly, I was thoroughly disappointed by the much-hyped up Djemaa el-Fna square, which is supposedly full of snake charmers and fortune tellers and amazing food, but actually was just a load of orange juice stands that you couldn’t even drink from because the water the glasses were cleaned with was so dirty. Perhaps we just went at the wrong time – though the atmosphere was initially quite exciting, both in the late afternoon and at night, after scratching the surface I failed to see what was so brilliant about a bunch of orange juice stands, the occasional really bad, money-grabbing snake charmer, cash machines that steal your money and a few abused donkeys.
Secondly, the attitude towards tourists from a few people in this city was incredibly hostile. It may well, again, have been due to bad timing – we arrived during Ramadan, so understandably tourists running around in shorts and vest tops drinking coca-cola would rub anyone up the wrong way, local or otherwise. However, despite covering up from head to toe, often including a head scarf, strangers frequently yelled “prostitute!” at me in the street. We got spat at more times than I care to remember. The Filipino girl travelling with us received constant racial abuse, going far beyond anything that can be excused by ignorance or lack of exposure to other cultures (something which is, in tourist-orientated Marrakech, unlikely anyway). One man sprayed me in the face with disinfectant – I thought at first it was normal water, as the men often spray each other in the markets to cool down… until my face started burning. Then there were the taxi drivers, admittedly notorious in almost every country and hardly exclusive to Marrakech, who constantly cheat you by pretending you gave them different money, switching off the meter, driving the long way around, and then driving you to the wrong place into a crowd of people who will immediately seize you and drag you off to your correct destination and then demand 20 euros for their “kindness” or else.
The view from the hostel rooftop restaurant – a rare highlight of a trip I would rather forget.
Third and finally, although really it was first in our chronological list of problems – the trains. The train ride from Rabat to Marrakech was quite possibly the worst experience I have ever had on public transport (and back home I get around with Arriva Wales, so that’s really saying something). When two people muscled their way into my carriage (due to a mix up with the tickets, all four of us volunteers were sitting in separate compartments), I knew enough Arabic/French/body language to realise what was going on – there was only one other empty seat in the carriage but these people had paid for two. They understandably wanted both the seats they had paid for, but they had been taken by two women who were unwilling to move. After a few minutes of them squabbling between each other, everyone suddenly went silent and turned towards me at the window, the only foreigner. They demanded to see my ticket. They claimed that I was in the wrong class and that first class was actually further along the train. Bewildered and assuming they must be correct, I stumbled out of the carriage to find the ‘real’ first class – and within ten minutes, all four of us had been thrown out of our compartments in similar fashion. I had been lucky – another girl had been stuck in a carriage with a man who had to be restrained because he had tried to physically beat into her just how deep his hatred for America was.
We found a conductor, explained what had happened and he pointed us on to ‘the real first class’ – which actually turned out to be something a lot lower than first class, where air conditioning was a far-off dream and where we were stuck, struggling to move and struggling to breathe, when the train broke down for almost two hours in the middle of the desert in 47 degree heat. In short: I now understand how a jacket potato feels in an oven. Eventually, the train started moving again and another girl went to find a toilet – only to narrowly avoid being thrown out of the open door of the now full speed train while waiting in the queue by another American-hating Marrakech native.
We all knew damn well that we had been cheated out of our seats by both the passengers and the conductor, but it wasn’t until we returned to Rabat and spoke to the Moroccans we were staying with that we could confirm it and know for sure that we had, of course, been in the real first class to begin with. In the meantime, I lay around on the floor for two days in the hotel room one of the other girls had kindly let me share with her (like I said, throwing up in hostels with spectators is not much fun, for me or for them either), trying to stop the room spinning and struggling to keep water down. It was hardly the highlight of my trip.
What was that I was saying about dressing conservatively in Morocco?
Despite all this, I can’t help but feel that we are the real problem with Marrakech. Outside of that city, every single Moroccan person I met ranks among the kindest and most intelligent people I know and I have to stress that the anti-Americanism was something I never, ever encountered again in my remaining month in Morocco. In Rabat no-one looked at me twice, no-one cared if I was white, black, Islamic, Christian, American or Iraqi. I am willing to bet that 99.9% of the people in Marrakech care just as little and are perfectly lovely people too – it is just that the huge numbers of disrespectful tourists really does bring out the worst in the worst of people, in every nation. If thousands of tourists didn’t invade its streets every day, flouting its religious laws, laughing in the face of Morocco’s conservatism and culture, then perhaps Marrakech would be visibly filled with friendly locals, instead of the vocal minority representing its kinder majority. Perhaps it wouldn’t attract the very worst and the most desperate Moroccan people, just like many other cities across the world are full of desperately poor people looking for the next ‘rich’ tourist to scam. My prolem was that I let these people define the whole of Marrakech for me. For the duration of that weekend and the week or so beyond, in which I seriously and desperately contemplated giving it all up and using all my savings to fly home, my experiences lent me an image of Marrakech – and indeed, of Morocco as a whole – as a racist, terrifying and dangerous place.
I was wrong.
After all, would getting mugged in London in my native UK make me think all Londoners are crazy thugs? No, probably not.
Would I go back to Marrakech? I’m not going to lie to you – I highly doubt that I ever will, even though I now realise how extreme my experience was and how most of it was down to pure bad luck rather than a bad place or bad people. But if you go, what can you do differently to make sure you have a better experience than me? After all, it is undeniable that Marrakech must be such a huge tourist hub for a reason, so there must be something there to enjoy.
My “hindsight is 20:20” advice would be:
- Don’t let the constant jeers and cat calls get to you.
- Be aware that it is going to be crazy – that stall-owners are going to yank at your hair and your bag to get you to come to their stall and buy from them.
- Don’t base your trip around Djemaa el-Fna square like we did.
- Try not to go during Ramadan. I adored being part of such a special time back in Rabat – but in Marrakech, it made everything worse. We were hungry and dehydrated and simply by being in Marrakech put ourselves in the same group as the tourists running around in their short shorts eating McDonalds during one of the holiest times of the year.
- Try and find a hostel close to a major landmark, not inside the medina down ten narrow winding unlit alleys like we did.
- Go with a male in your group if you can – you’ll get far less harassment.
- Don’t let anyone push you around if you take the train.
- Don’t let the bad things get you down or ruin your trip like we did – there are a lot of wonderful places and people in Marrakech (or so my guidebook tells me, as I was too sick to see any of them) and it would be a shame to miss out because you’re miserable.
- Don’t miss out on anything due to your own stupidity, either – Marrakech is hot. Really hot. I couldn’t drink water because of Ramadan, but I should have known to rest earlier than I did. Stay in the shade if you can, avoid the hottest part of the day and keep well hydrated.
That wonderful hostel view again.
And finally, my biggest tip for surviving Marrakech? If I’m honest, it would be: go somewhere else. Stay in Fez or Essaouira and take a side trip for a day or two. There are so many incredible, wonderful things to see in Morocco, from the incredible, enormous Sahara to little details like the spice stands in the souks, eating constantly from tagines and the haunting call to prayer at dawn. If you do go to Marrakech and you love it – or you have been and you had a great time – then I am so happy you managed to find something amazing there and enjoy it like so many other people do. But if you go and you have an experience like mine? Don’t let it ruin the rest of Morocco for you. Get out and see some more of it, because honestly, there is so much more waiting – and it is wonderful.