Monday, May 25, 2009

Home sweet home

Oh, you just cannot imagine how good it is to be back at home! Ups, did i say home? I meant Morocco  of course. The truth is my heart leapt with joy when i arrived in Marrakech. Though me and particularly the city of Marrakech have not been the best of friends in the past, i think it’s all about to change, now that i’m staying in this city at least for the next 2 weeks, waiting for Jevgeni’s arrival.

First time i visited Morocco was in June 2008. I would never have guessed that this noisy, loud, hot and difficult country will have such a hold over me that even before the year passes i’m going back for the 3rd time. And i feel so pleased to be back - amidst all that roller-coaster of color, art and people. It feels like i’ve been away for way too long already, though it’s only been 5 months since my last visit. I can’t explain the hold Morocco has over me. It’s like a love-story that keeps burning with a bright flame, enticing and intoxicating me. I feel so unbelievably comfortable here and that’s the most difficult part to explain to other people. They generally seem to think there has to be more to it – like i have a Moroccan lover waiting for me or something. If i try to explain that the place is just too enchanting with it’s colorful and interesting people, wafting scent of tajines and spices in the air, mosaiclike ornamental art, captivating music, grandiose but refined architecture and delicate handicraft, then people look at me like: [cheesy smile] „Yes, yes ahah, but is there somebody .. hehe .. special?“ [cheesy smile]. Or another wave of genious comments have been „You’re not part of a jihad there, haha, are you?“. So i’ve given up trying to explain why i like Morocco and why i want return here every once in a while, because most people will not hear me anyway. They hear what they want to hear and that’s almost never what i’m saying.

When i observe tourists in the airport, they are generally spooked and sometimes even scared. Being in a new muslim country where people are often a tad more social/agressive and in your face than you are used to with can be intimidating. And wealthy middle-aged western tourists are generally known to be a rather fragile bunch. The positions on the social latter they have back at home are void here, they are automatically categorized as „stupid white tourists“ and taken advantage of which is often a national sport in Morocco (if you yourself let it happen, of course). They grip their bags tightly when they walk out of the airport - towards their first scam encounter in Morocco, which is the airport taxi drivers. There’s no chance in this universe that an airport taxi driver will cut a fair price to a first-time-in-Morocco-tourist, though it’s entirely another case if the tourist in question will actually be able to realize the extent the overpricing taking place :).

Though Morocco is definitely a country where people tend to assume that white = rich, the attitude is not nearly as heavy-duty as for instance in India or Cuba. For example the concept of “tourist on a budget” was completely alien to Cubans. You can explain it to them, but they just don’t seem to be able to grasp it, the mentality of “white equals rich” is too deep-rooted. In Morocco it depends on yourself how you will get treated. If you stand up for yourself and don’t let people overcharge you for goods and services, then you can get by very nicely. Of course tourists get overcharged by definition, but there’s a vast difference in sums and it depends directly on how you handle yourself.

While visiting shops, markets etc the most common questions from a salesguys is „where are you from?“ and „so .., is this your first time in Morocco?“ which upon answering truthfully will increase greatly prices offered to you. The first question serves the purpose of finding out if you are from a wealthy country and are you likely to have money. Tourists from the countries like Germany, Canada, UK etc are considered much bigger prizes than the ones from Poland or Czech Republic for example. Nobody has ever even heard of Estonia, which doesn’t mean that they will not try to flatter you with stuff like: „Ah yes, Estonia! I have a lot of clients from Estonia. Estonians are very nice people“, which will make any Estonian snicker in disbelief and thus prove to you that the guy is inventing stuff as he goes along :). The second part of the question is for finding out how inexperienced you are when it comes to knowing Moroccan prices. If you say that you are first time in Morocco, arrived just yesterday, then there’s a certain price level for you. They will give you an appearance of bargaining, but you will never even come close to the price of a experienced traveler, not to mention one for the locals. So, never say that this is your first time. Or mention at least that you’ve been traveling in Morocco for few weeks already ( = you are familiar with the local way of life), but be also prepared for follow up questions :).

I usually warn the salesguy with my cutest smile not to give me a tourist price, because i am not one and i actually live in Marrakech for quite some time already (or Fes, Essaouira, any city of your choice). They always ask what do i do here, i say that i work as an English teacher. Since i don’t know much about local schools, it’s safer to say that i give private lessons. The next question is usually where do i live. I know Marrakech enough to mention some credible neighbourhood or street name, if you say you live in a hotel, you are still a tourist for them. At this point the price has dropped about 2-3 times and you can carry on bargaining already on the normal level. If you have pretty light-colored hair, now’s the time to unbind them and let them flow freely – this always works wonders for getting the price you want :), hehe. Telling them that you live in the city is also good for making sure that they will not sell you a bad quality item. If you are a tourist and they sell you a cardboard „leather“ belt which breaks in few days, the risk for them is small. But if you casually mention to them that you live in the city, they know not to sell you anything blatantly fake or defected, because you might come back and create a scene.

Also, one of the most effective ways of getting the price lower is walking out of the shop, but leave that for a last resort, used only when all other ways of bargainings have been exhausted. If you have bargained with a sales-guy for the last 10 minutes, he will definitely not let you walk out of the shop without lowering the price at least somewhat. But when you have only once asked about the price and then walk out in hopes that he will run after you, then you may not achieve the desired result. And most important – do all that with a smile. Bargaining is a game for them, they are not looking for a business approach, but some entertainment.

Though i generally don’t like the business of bargaining, it did drive me totally up the wall in Ireland & UK how fixed and organized everything was. In Morocco i feel that i have some control again, even if it might be just an illusion.

I love that i’m back in a country where 1) i can afford a private hotel room, no more those damn dorms! 2) i can manipulate the prices of products and services by being extra blond, lovely and cute with the salesguys. I can be almost candy sweet when i need to, specially when a person i’m talking to is pre-inclined to like me (a blond blue-eyed white woman), as guys in various southern countries usually are.

„Really?“ she asked smiling cutely while rolling a lock of her blond hair around the finger. „You think i’m very pretty?“. Hiding her blue eyes she said blushingly: „It’s the nicest thing anybody has ever said to me ..“

I arrived in Marrakech around 9 pm, took a bus from the airport (bus nr. 19, cost 20 DH one-way and 30 DH for return ticket) to the city’s main square Djemaa el-Fna and started looking around for a hotel. Pretty soon i found a random hotel for 100 DH (1 DH = 1,44 EEK) a night, which was ok enough for the first night. Youth hostels as such are not widely spread in Morocco, though you can find some if you book online. But there’s really no point to book a place in a crappy over-populated dorm for 150-200 EEK/night, when there’s an abundance of hotels in the central city area for as low as 100 DH/night (about 144 EEK) for a single or double room with a shared bathroom. Those dorms are more for people who feel petrified with the idea of arriving to an Arabic country and not having a confirmed booking waiting for them. Morocco isn’t Europe, when it comes to accommodation, the same rules apply as they do in other southern countries like in India, China, Mexico etc. There are very many walk-in options, not to mention that in the last resort you can always find somebody to take you to a decent place and even with the guide’s commission you will still get a cheaper price than in those youth hostels. Hotels around Djemaa el-Fna usually have pricelists on the wall by the reception desk, so you don’t even have to worry about bargaining if you don’t want to.

After i found a room, i dropped my bags and headed for a dinner on the famous night market of Djemaa el-Fna. Now, while being impressive sight of lights, smells and people, this place in the same time is not for the weak hearted or should i say for the weak stomached. Words like hygiene and cleanness are not really associated with it and if you want to eat on Djemaa el-Fna you better not pay attention to small little details like cook handling the money with the same hands he later serves you food with etc. The word on the street is that since Djemaa el-Fna square has no running water and every food-stall is given only one bucket of clean water in the beginning of the evening, then all the dishes, hands etc are being washed in that one bucket all night long. Some say that left-over food from the previous night is mixed in with the new one in the following evening. The freshly-squeezed-orange-juice-vendors use local not-so-clean tap water to make ice-cubes and often dilute the juice with it as well. So you see – there are many reasons not to eat on the nightly food market, but there are also so many reasons to say „to hell with all that!“ and gorge yourself full. My advice is that if you indeed do decide to experience the madness of the Djemaa el-Fna (congratulations for having cojones) - bring your own hankies and don’t pay too much attention to the dirt & lack of hygiene, but enjoy yourself. Even if you do end up chained to a toilet the next day, at least enjoy the process of getting there and make it worth your while! :)










When you go to eat on the Djemaa el-Fna, i recommend bringing some change with you, having lot’s of coins is the key for quick transactions. Specially if you eat in more „local“ food-stalls, which btw are far better than the touristy ones. The vendors are deliberately not very math savy and if you don’t speak any French or Arabic, it might be annoying to sort things later. I suggest to keep an eye on the menu and give them the exact sum. They are not necessarily trying to deceive you, but most of them do operate under the assumption that the tourist is rich and any excessive money is a tip for them.

The universal travel truth „eat where the locals eat“ is 100% true here as well. On Djemaa el-Fna i usually pick a food-stall which has mostly locals sitting by it. I definitely keep away from the stalls with agressive salesguys with good English, the food is never as good as the talk. They target tourists and they don’t care if you didn't like the food and you're not returning the next evening, which is by far not the case with the food-stalls that locals prefer. A lot of people think that Djemaa el-Fna is purely a tourist place, in reality it’s also very popular among locals, because the food is good and on the cheaper side. During the day the Djemaa el-Fna square is mostly empty, only some henna-girls and monkey/snake guys pitching their stuff to tourists + orange juice vendors. Around 6 pm the food-stalls start to arrive and the place fills up with chefs cooking vigorously and delicious smells floating about. The earliest clients are usually tourists, but around 10 pm locals outnumber the tourists already. All that commotion ends by midnight just to start all over again the next evening.


The photos i've used in this post and will use in future posts as well are mostly from my previous trips to Morocco. The full gallery is available on my travel-photo webpage:


Note: This article is part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Blog Carnival #10 "Your favourite place", hosted by Anne-Sophie Redisch  from Sophie's World. Follow the link to see more photos and read stories about what are the most favorite places of Blogsherpa bloggers in the whole wide world.

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