I really wanted to like Morocco, and I thought I would. But it is difficult to write this in a balanced way as sadly my experience was tainted – I was robbed which really traumatised me. It is difficult to separate the two in my mind, but this blog is about my experience of Marrakesh before our holiday went wrong. Next week I’ll write about the robbery and aftermath.
Let me start by writing about the positives about Marrakesh
I was amazed at how we can get a medium-haul flight from the UK (it’s not much further than some parts of Europe) and reach such an exotic, different destination. It is certainly a different cultural experience, without having to go long-haul around the world. The main square, Djeema El Fna, was full of entertainers – such as snake charmers and monkey-handlers, which was certainly interesting.
If you like hot sunny weather, you won’t be disappointed. It was 30-39 degrees C. For me however this was a little too hot, so you need to drink a lot of water, seek out shade etc, and take this seriously or it’ll bite you in the ass (see my next blog!).
The souks were interesting, especially if you’ve never seen a souk before – it’s basically a large marketplace with narrow alleyways with lots of stalls selling everything from poultry to tourist souvenirs. Every so often you’ll come across a mosque with a pretty minaret. The architecture was nice.
When we wandered away from the tourist areas it was even better – there were no other tourists around and I felt that we were seeing the “real Morocco” as opposed to touristy bits. People were interested and respectful of us.
Our hotel was beautiful. Swimming pools, and lawns inside a walled garden. I was so happy we had splashed out on a nice hotel, as it was an oasis of calm for us to retreat to. We don’t normally do this, but it was a saving grace.
The food was nice. Not amazing to me, but it was nice. Prices were very reasonable. The restaurants overlooking the main square with high-up balconies were lovely as you can see the hustle-and bustle below but from above. I also loved the street-food stall called “Chez Hassan, No 32”, which is on the end of a long line of street-food stalls. The staff were lovely and and other customers were very friendly and made room for us to sit down. The food was gorgeous – the speciality is a small plate of tomato sauce, small sausages, and bread. Simple but delicious.
And now… the negatives about Marrakesh
I expected market traders shouting at you every waking minute of the day. This isn’t fun but it is tolerable, but it went further – men would approach us and thrust a monkey or a snake onto our shoulders. (The idea is that your partner will take a photo of you holding said beast and then you will pay the vendor for the pleasure). I did not like this at all, partly because I’m scared of these animals, but also because I am always wary of rabies and would rather just avoid animals all together. Plus the concept of being forced to hold someone’s monkey (not a euphemism) against your will and then being inevitably pressured for money is just not right. So I had to duck and dive out of the way. Not ok if you do this all day every day.
The main square, Djeema El Fna, was full of entertainers – snake charmers and monkey-handlers in the day, and a man who puts pigeons on your head, many dancers, musicians, and other games to play after dark. I also took a photo of the square which had the crowds and the pigeon man in it (it is hard to take a photo with no-one in it as it’s so busy!) and he rushed up to me about 10 metres away and demanded money. I refused. He then demanded that I delete the photo, which I did – I wasn’t bothered about a random photo of the square, which you can take anywhere, so thought this was the easiest way to resolve it. But it wasn’t pleasant to have someone standing over you demanding money.
Many of the hawkers at the street food stalls insulted me and my partner also, with comments about how fat we are. We can laugh it off and walk on by, but it’s a) rude and hurtful, b) not the best way to get business as we ain’t eating there after that! This is something we have never experienced before.
My BF has been to other North African countries like Tunisia and Egypt, so he warned me about the persistence of market traders. In other countries my BF was physically dragged into someone’s shop, and followed all the way across town by a man insisting that he get money out of a cashpoint. This was my first time in Africa, but I have also travelled widely and experienced pressure-selling in markets in various places. So I knew (or, I thought I knew) what I was getting into when we went to Morocco. But it still took me by surprise. Maybe I’m getting old, or maybe it’s time to admit that I’m just not adventurous enough to deal with this stuff, but whatever. I would prefer a more relaxing break.
Most evenings, all the people on the streets were men. There were very few local women – the guidebook said that in Morocco, “there’s an attitude that all ‘good women’ should be at home after dark” (quote from Lonely Planet). This made me uncomfortable – maybe unreasonably so, but I don’t think it’s a place for a woman on her own. My Mum went on holiday there on her own a while ago, and was followed around by a man all day until she approached 2 tourists and asked if she could hang around with them for a while to shake off her tail.
Some people may not describe this as a scam, but it is a way to pressure unwitting tourists for money, so i think it is. Either way, it was not pleasant. You can google for “Marrakesh tannery scam” or similar and read about it. This happened to us but we managed to get away unscathed, but I have read online that that it has happened to many other people, and it was worse. What happened was this:-
We were walking down the souks at the North-East end of the main square and a Young Lad said “if you’re looking for the Tanneries and Berber Market, it’s that way” and pointed down an alley. We thanked him and I remarked to my BF “wow, that’s the first person who has given us directions or advice without wanting a tip afterwards!” (ha ha, how naive was I?!). We followed his directions because we could see some tourists going the same way so we judged it to be safe. The Young Lad popped up later saying “it’s that way” and he called over a random man in a Red T-shirt and said “if you’re going that way, can they follow you?”. Red T-shirt man looked surprised but agreed and walked away to continue his walk going in the same direction. We followed him at a distance but whenever we stopped to take photos, Red T-shirt man would come back to ask if we wanted to follow him. Eventually we said “No”, so he shrugged and walked off. We lost him, then followed where he had gone at a greater distance. We saw some western tourists ahead – including a group of 4 girls, and a group of 2 lads so we continued and followed them. Sure enough the 2 western lads walked into a tannery. We followed.
We were met by a “guide” who invited us in and offered us a sprig of mint to cover the HIDEOUS smell of dead cow. I obviously realised at this point that the guide would ask for a tip afterwards for his “tour”, but figured that this was fine as we wanted to see the tannery anyway. He walked us through the tannery which was culturally interesting but smelt like death (literally) and was a health and safety hazard by western standards – watch where you are putting your feet so you don’t fall in a vat of unthinkable liquid!
After the walk-through, which lasted about 3 minutes, the guide led us to a gift shop (of course he did!) I figured that this was how they do their business model – a free tour and then hope you purchase something. The salesman was charming and funny and we perused the leather, but the prices were incredible. We had seen a leather Pouffe (footstool) for sale in a market near the main souq, and he was selling it for about ten times that. I would have possibly bought one but for the prices, and despite negotiating, he wanted so much more than other places in Morocco. So we didn’t buy anything.
By this point the salesman realised that we probably weren’t going to buy anything and resorted to (a) begging us to buy anything, even a belt or a small handbag, which were cheaper items, as they need the money. Unfortunately these were still too expensive – I told him that my handbag was £6 from Primark in the UK so I was never going to pay £45 for a new one, no matter how nice it was. I offered to give him a tip for his time and tannery tour but he said mockingly “I don’t want a tip, I want you to buy something!”. He then became even more unfriendly and mimicked us so when we said “ummm” he mocked us, repeating “Ummmmm!!” in a mocking way. At this stage I knew we had to leave as nothing good would come of it. I grabbed my BF and dragged him outside.
Who should be waiting for us outside? The guide from the tannery, of course, wanting a tip. At this point we saw the other characters, Young Lad and Red T-shirt Man who were bringing their own group of tourists to the gift shop, confirming what I suspected – that this is a set up, designed to bring tourists from the main drag of the souk, to their shop. Now you could say this is clever, the gift shop is were located in the back of beyond so no tourist would ever find it otherwise. In itself, that is OK – it’s the pressure selling and exertion that is the issue. I have since read online that the salesman gets aggressive and even violent, so i was pleased to escape as we did.
We got out a tip for the guide and gave it to him, but he turned his nose up at it, saying “that’s not enough!”. My BF went into his wallet to get more money out but I thought it was better to be firm, as otherwise you’re on a slippery slope. I offered the tip to the man but he didn’t want to take it so I was like, “do you want it or not?”. He didn’t – he wanted more. I was happy to keep it and marched away, BF in tow. Unfortunately the man followed us, shouting that he wanted more money, and was soon joined by other locals, who called out things like “he’s the manager of the tannery!”.
So here we were, me, my BF, crowded by about 5 or 6 men shouting at us. Definite pressure. Thank the Lord, me and my BF remembered the way back to the main square, so we were able to walk along purposefully. Thank God also that there was a ready supply of tourists along their supply chain (ie. in the gift shop, coming into the gift shop, waiting to enter the tannery, etc) so by the time we reached the entrance to the tannery I handed the guide his unwanted tip and carried on fast-walking off, and luckily he stopped (and needless to say, didn’t say thank you ha ha!). He must have known that his time was better spent harassing fresh tourists, than following us. If he had continued to follow us I don’t know what we would have done! My and my BF walked away fast and didn’t stop until we reached the main square and safety.
Maybe the best advice is, Don’t Go! But it was interesting to see the Tanneries, despite the smell.
If you do decide to go:
- Make a mental note of where you came from. You need to have good directional-ability as it’s a very intricate route and you end up (literally) kilometres away from the main square. If you follow a guide, don’t just blindly follow- look around. If you can’t remember your way back, you are much more vulnerable.
- If you want to buy something, check the prices in the main souk or surrounding craft shops first so you don’t pay over the odds.
- Honestly I think the best policy is to get out of the gift shop ASAP. Don’t accept their offer of a sprig of mint to cover the smell in the tannery, or a drink of mint tea in the shop, as these will make you feel indebted to them /guilty for not buying something.
- Be strong – decide what is a reasonable tip and stick to it. Be aware that they might well demand many times more than what is reasonable. This didn’t happen to us but I read they did with other people.
Sorry – this sounds awful. I had to be fairly hard-nosed with this. You may judge me and think I’m a complete bitch, and after all these people have to make a living. In which case, please do go and ignore all my advice 🙂 This advice is just to prepare you so you know what you are walking into. How you deal with that is up to you 🙂
So this was my experience of Morocco before the robbery. For the first 2-3 days I found it overwhelming and didn’t really enjoy it, but after that, despite the challenges I settled into it and started to enjoy myself. It was as if we had become impervious to market-sellers, and so on day 4, me and my BF were able to walk through the main square and everyone ignored us. Maybe our walk had become more purposeful, I don’t know. But we definitely settled into it and we even became adventurous enough to try street food, which was delicious (see above). And so after a few days I was finally happy in Morocco… and then I got robbed.
Next blog: Robbed in Morocco
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Oh, I am thinking about visiting Morocco, I should learn more about this ‘Tannery Scam’.
yes – it’s a good idea to be prepared. Hope you enjoy your time there 🙂
Still in list. 🙂
Of all the countries we’ve traveled in, Morocco was the most challenging. The exception was Imlil, where we enjoyed walking in the High Atlas Mountains with a great guide, Rashid. Marrakesh was different. It took us a number of days to learn our way around the old city and we rarely “shopped” so the requests to come in to buy were limited. We loved seeing so many of the wonderful sights and staying in a lovely riad. Still, we didn’t always feel comfortable when we walked through the narrow alleyways. Was our discomfort real or imagined?
I honestly don’t know! I tend to research the place in advance so I wouldn’t go somewhere if I thought it was unsafe (obv!) BUT I also think you can’t disregard the way you feel and if you have intuition I think it’s best to follow it, wherever you are. It’s a shame we didn’t get to the Atlas Mountains – I know it’s meant to be nice so maybe it would have transformed our experience, but who knows! Thanks for your thoughtful comment 🙂