Africa, Travel

Morocco: Something for Nothing

You know that sensation when something happens, just for a moment, but it seems to stretch out for long enough to allow your brain the time to wonder “what the hell is this?”. That was the exact sensation I felt as Ibrahim the Moroccan mechanic leaned in and briefly sucked on my neck. You could not have described it as a kiss, there was too much…ingestion. Kiss verses suck. Even if it only lasts a second, you can tell the difference. It wasn’t so shocking that I recoiled immediately, but jarring enough that, when the mechanic asked for a photo with my boyfriend and I just seconds later, my expression could only be described as that of a bewildered sufferer of chronic hemorrhoids.

As we drove off, I looked back at the workshop.

“That guy just sucked on my neck” I said to my boyfriend, Oscar.

“What? The mechanic?? Didn’t he kiss your cheek?”

“Nope, it was my neck, and it was a fleeting but definite suck.”

“That’s fucking weird” said Oscar.

I couldn’t help but agree.

Erg Chebbi post-neck slurp

Things are often like this in Morocco, you can go for a long time believing things are one way, in this instance, avoiding physical contact with men, smiling, touching your hand to your heart and feeling incredibly smug and culturally aware, only to have someone greet you not with a polite but distant gesture but by performing an alarmingly accurate garra rufa fish impression right under your left ear.

Maybe Ibrahim was going for a fashionable French cheek kiss and missed the mark? Maybe the neck-suck is an ancient Berber greeting which I should have returned? Probably, it will remain a mystery.

One thing to know about Morocco is that it is almost impossible to be truly alone there. You can drive for miles away from the nearest village, over dunes soft as flour and through near-impassable river beds, to a place where the only sound is that of a fat black beetle dutifully shuffling a ball of camel shit towards its hole. Wait five minutes in that serene and silent spot and a chair salesman with 7 wicker stools strapped to his scooter will appear like a mirage. “Hello my friend! You want chair? English car yes? Lovely jubbly!”

Stool salesman territory, Moroccan Sahara

The other thing to know about Morocco is that people will ask you for things, and demand them in some cases, whether they need them or not, on the offchance that you’ll give it to them anyway. Thousands of French tourists visit Morocco every year. Most of them drive sinfully ugly but expensive campervans, and most of them make a habit of bringing giant bags of sweets with them for every visit so they can toss them out the window to local children like leathery, pétanque-playing Santas. The effect of this well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful gesture (depending on who you talk to) is that almost anywhere you might choose you stop your car, your bike, or linger in a public place, you’ll be swarmed by either children demanding bonbons, or adults inviting you in for a cup of tea and then asking for a tenner.

The third thing to know about Morocco, is that, even if people aren’t simply putting their hands out and begging, they’re probably thinking about getting your money some other way. Indeed, in a lot of places, opportunistic scamming is basically a national sport. We experienced this more on our trip through Morocco’s more cosmopolitan areas in 2017, but found it was still alive and well this time around. Take this story from our friend Hamid (who swears he doesn’t do it anymore) as a shining example. Hamid is a desert guide who lives in Merzouga, on the edge of the vast and glorious dunes of Erg Chebbi. Morocco is pretty strict when it comes to drugs and booze, but according to our entrepreneurial friend Hamid, that doesn’t stop desperate tourists from seeking it out.

Hamid the entrepreneur

“Sometimes I went out to the desert with the tourists, we stop for the night, have some food, watch the stars, have nice time. I pull out my hashish and I smoke. I say nothing. They say, “is that hashish?” I say yea. They say “man, can you get us hashish? We’d love some hashish”. So I say yea I can get it, but it is difficult. There is not much hashish in Merzouga, so it’s expensive and there are problems with police. Same with beer. Then they say “oh man could you get us beer too?” I say yes but will take longer. They say they want beer and hashish. I prepare to go walk and say, if I’m not back in one hour and a half, there are problems with police. So I go over one dune, just one big dune, I sit and smoke for 2 hours, maybe 3 hours. I already had my hashish in my bag, this much”

(He shows half a thumbs worth)

“It cost me twenty dirham”

(approximately €2)

“I go back to camp and get beer from kitchen which is already there. I go to tourists and say ‘I’m sorry there were problems with the police, I got a big fine’ they say, “no problem man” and give me two hundred euro.”

That is a kind of swindling genius you really can’t fault, but all the same it gives a certain insight into the national psyche.

So, keeping in mind those above three points, we headed into the High Atlas Mountains with excitement and a twinge of trepidation gnawing away somewhere deep in our skulls.

The mountains were beautiful – tiny mudbrick settlements with horses grazing in front of towering snow-dusted peaks, crumbling roads being whipped by some of the wildest winds we’d ever experienced. About three hours in, we found ourselves on a winding dirt track overlooking a green valley. Around the bend, a house appeared, and two figures running like hell towards us. We lowered the window and a pair of wrinkled hands clamped onto our door frame with the strength of of a pair of hands that had clamped onto many hundreds of door frames in the past.

“Dirham! Dirham!” the old woman barked. Now, we might have been inclined to give the woman some food, but if you give money to everyone who asks for money in Morocco, you’ll barely make it past the border. Besides, she didn’t ask very nicely.

Gently, Oscar pried the old woman’s fingers from our vehicle, and we trundled off to the distant melody of Arabic swearing. It wasn’t for another few minutes, when we heard a metallic clunk and then a dull thud, that we realised we’d forgotten about the second distant figure, and while the woman had diverted us with her vice-like grip, her grandson had climbed onto the boot of our car and begun untying our worldly belongings. If it wasn’t for the fact that aluminum clothes racks make quite a bit of noise when they hit the ground, we might never have noticed. Oscar pumped the brakes, and chased a skinny-jeaned teenager, sans clothes rack, up the road. If the kid hadn’t been laughing and pointing at us, I might have assumed he was in more of a desperate situation.

High Atlas Mountains

On we trundled, down deep into the guts of the mountains, along the valley floor with the light falling and nowhere to camp in the howling wind. We were greeted by a large family who must have heard us coming for miles. They seemed excited, the road had washed out some time ago with no obvious efforts made to replace it. Visitors didn’t pass through often. They spoke over each other in French and Arabic, inviting us in for tea or a meal, we said we had to keep going, but to avoid another attempted clothes rack heist, plonked a perfect round orange into the hands of each family member.

Their reactions were not ones of satisfaction, in fact they looked truly confused. They spoke to each other with unfamiliar words but an entirely recognisable tone. They hadn’t asked for anything, they’d simply wanted to help us out, why are these stupid white people tossing oranges out of the window for no good reason? We left feeling abashed. Onwards into the night in a place we didn’t know the rules for anymore.

The next morning, we came across Omar and his brother, two charismatic young Berber men trying to hillstart their dusty car. We gave them a jumpstart and were invited in to meet the family and have breakfast. The house was toasty warm, with the morning light streaming through the window and a medical reality show playing on the small TV in the living room. After a sleepless night in our tent cowering from the wind, the steaming mint tea and bread with jam was a godsend. As we left, we asked Omar if he wanted anything in return for the hospitality.

Bristling slightly, he replied.

“Porquoi?”

Why indeed, we left reprimanding ourselves again.

Breakfast at Chez Omar

Call it southern hospitality, or luck, but from that point on every single local we met wanted nothing but to talk, and be friends.

In Mirleft, Bokhtar and Ali shared fishing tips and some of their catch. In Dakhla, we spent two days camping next door to Jelili, who kept us topped up to the eyeballs with tea and insisted we join him for a feast of fish tagine, lemony and delicious. At the border of the Western Sahara, a disputed territory and former conflict zone, Abdes, a military police officer, kept us lingering under the blazing afternoon sun as he showed us what seemed to be every picture ever taken of his new wife, a wide eyed beauty with an impressive cake repertoire.

Ali and Oscar with the day’s haul

Morocco is an enigma. The constant clamour of touts and opportunists can make you feel miles from home, desperate for the cool indifference of a Glassons sales assistant. On one hand, people back home aren’t going to mount your moving vehicle to steal your clothes rack (probably), on the other hand, New Zealand Police wouldn’t invite you into the office for breakfast to say sorry after giving you a speeding ticket, and they definitely wouldn’t wave you down to show you pictures of chocolate gateaux.

I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in Morocco, and travelled many thousands of kilometres within its borders. People sometimes ask me what to expect from the country, and frankly, I wish I knew. You can prepare to be swindled, but you should also prepare to be as surprised by the kindness and humility of the Moroccan people as you would be by a cheeky neck-slurp. Like Forrest Gump’s infamous box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get, and to be honest, that’s at least two thirds of the fun.

Agadir sunset

Etoh’s house, Mid Atlas Mountains

Tata gorge

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Africa, Travel

How to save and stay sane in Morocco

Ah Morocco, for want of a better word, it’s completely fucking nuts. A relaxing, carefree holiday destination it is (mostly) not, but is it worth going? Absolutely. From scam avoidance to how to get around, to what to do during Ramadan, here are some handy dandy hints.

Scammin

Let’s face it, if you’re not Moroccan, you’re going to get ripped off at some point on your journey. Like coming down with a paralysing case of the shits (yes that’s a medical term), getting conned out if your cash in Morocco is going to happen. As many Moroccans will happily tell you, stall holders, restaurateurs, tour guides and parking guardians see you as a dollar sign in harem pants. You’re probably never going to get the same deal on anything as a Moroccan, but you can come close.

Tip #1: Trust no one

If this seems harsh, blame it on the Moroccan who said it while laughing at the fact we accepted ‘help’ from a stranger on our first day in Tangier. Lost? That’ll be €20 please (not including tips). Many locals offering assistance with directions or luggage say you can repay them for their act of kindness by taking a tour with them. If this sounds like a good deal, it’s not. Unless it’s pre-arranged or you know and trust the person it’s best not to accept the offer of a tour at all. Attractions included will vary depending on what city or town you’re in, but the last few stops will always be to market shops specifically designed for tourists, where the basic premise will be the same:

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Carpets on display in the Essaouira medina

1. Carpet shop

Forget all your romantic Aladdin-related preconceptions about woven carpets in far away lands, because all the carpet hawkers in Morocco will make you never want to see another carpet again. For the love of god do not buy a carpet if they give you the price in euros. Don’t buy anything if it’s priced in euros. That nice silk throw they’re plugging for a seemingly reasonable €80 ($125 NZD) costs 60 dirhams ($11NZD without bargaining) at the average market.

2. Berber pharmacy

The Berber pharmacy is where you can buy most of the same spices you get at home except in a jar instead of a Gregg’s box. You will be offered tea with ‘no obligation to buy’. No obligation to buy means that they’ll stop just short of chasing you down the street. Again, if it’s part of a tour, the prices will be dramatically marked up. You don’t need to pay €5 ($8NZD) for a 10 dirham ($1.40 NZD) lipstick.

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Spices in Rabat

3.  Traditional Moroccan lunch

Don’t buy food on a tour. Don’t buy anything on a tour. Just don’t go on the tour ok.

Tip #2 Takeaway is the way

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NZ $1.50 worth of pastries in Essaouira

Although Morocco is brimming with cafes, eating out isn’t a massive thing. If you want to smoke a dozen cigarettes and drink tea for a few hours you’ll fit right in at one of the hundreds of cafes, but sitting down to a restaurant meal isn’t so common. That means almost all the restaurants you are likely to come across will be touristy as hell. You should never pay more than 30 to 50 dirham for a tagine ($4.30 NZD), but in hot spots they go for up to 100 dirham ($14NZD) a pop. That would still be cheap back home, but you’re not back home, so don’t pay it ya bloody moron.

Look out for restaurants that leave drinks off the menu, if the food is reasonably priced and you’re assuming your Coke will be a piddly 10 dirham like most other places, you might feel like a spontaneous tagine-infused vomit when 2 drinks bump the bill up by another 100 dirham. You can always argue it if you feel you’ve been taken advantage of, but it can make things pretty tense.

Foodies don’t need to panic though. One of the main draw cards throughout all of Morocco is the dusty, spiralling, glorious markets. There will be a market in almost every city or town you could hope to visit, so buy food from there. A bag of delicious treats including breads, pastries, fruit and veges for 2 or 3 meals will only cost about 50 dirham ($7NZD) which will have you feeling a whole lot better about all those shady tagines.

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Bread, fruit, veges and deliciously oily fried fish from the Essaouira market

Tip #3 Parking guardians

Unless you’re staying on the outskirts of the city, there’ll be a parking guardian almost anywhere you might choose to park your ride. The guardians are self-appointed, and there’s debate as to whether their presence is a benefit or not, on one hand, it means there’s no metred parking in Morocco, on the other, they can be a gigantic pain in the ass. Parking wardens are identifiable by their hi-vis vests and the huge grin whenever a non-Moroccan (read: cash machine) comes into view. Should you pay them? Yes. Should you pay them what they initially ask for? Usually no. Unless there’s a sign with the price on it, (usually only at popular attractions, priced from 5-10 dirhams for the day) there is no fixed price for parking. Moroccans pay a few dirhams for a few hours parking and up to 25-30 for a few days. Demands of 30 dirhams for a few hours or 60 for a few days should be responded to with a jolly laugh and a convincing lie about how you’ve been living in Morocco for 3 months and you know how much you should be paying. Again, it’s a few dollars in New Zealand money, but are you an ignorant tourist willing to be taken for an absolute ride? Maybe, but let’s pretend that you are not.

Where to crash

Morocco can get you down if you let it. Sexual harassment is tiring, near death experiences with donkey carts are tiring, having to do a wee in an excessively barbed bush on the side of the highway is tiring. If you’re seconds away from throwing in the towel and heading to some highly cliched tropical island, stay at an Airbnb or small, locally-owned hostel.

You can unwind at a hotel, but if you need to be reminded that most Moroccans are good people, and in some cases borderline saints, nothing beats staying in someone’s home.

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Shisha at Fatima’s

In Rabat we met Fatima, who invited us to break fast with her during Ramadan, we ate, joked, smoked some sneaky shisha, and generally had a wonderful time. In Casablanca we met Kamal, who after noticing we were a bit late getting to his place (because we were hopelessly lost) went out and bought us a Moroccan SIM card and helped us set it up. He called us every half an hour the next day until we figured out how to get to our next destination. And at multiple hostels in Essaouira, Marrakech and Tinghir, we stayed up late, telling and listening to stories, and drinking so much mint tea it felt like our teeth were going to melt out of our faces. This is the famous Moroccan hospitalality you hear about, and it absolutely exists, you just need to go to the right place to find it.

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Breakfast is served at Hike and Chill hostel, Tinghir

Driving

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The Fiat Punto takes on Tafraoute

So you’ve decided to drive around Morocco. Perhaps your life is far too safe and predictable in its current state, perhaps you are morally opposed to lanes, perhaps you are simply pining for an early grave.

Driving in Morocco is refreshing. In Western countries it is frowned upon to let children run on the motorway, it is not recommended that you drive into oncoming traffic, so it’s a nice change when people get in their cars and stop caring about anything that might prolong the life of themselves and those around them. Here are some tips:

Tip #1: if you can’t beat em, join em

Moroccan drivers will get extremely pissed if you appear to be adhering to any kind of conventional road rules, including stopping at intersections, traffic lights, or indeed signs that say ‘stop’. Initially it looks like chaos, but if you adapt, it works quite well. If you want to overtake someone, honk and then go for it, whenever, wherever. Get familiar with the brake in preparation for a child or animal crossing the road in front if you, this could happen on a dirt road or a highway. Use your hands – if you’ve made a mistake, it’s time for a friendly wave, if they’ve made a mistake, friendly wave, if they’re crossing, friendly wave, if you’re crossing, friendly wave, and on it goes. Occasionally there will be a considerable lacking of friendly waving and a considerable abundance of angry yelling in Arabic. The solution? You guessed it. Friendly wave.

Tip #2 Need for speed

There are cops stationed seemingly everywhere on Moroccan roads. Many are stationed at checkpoints where nothing much seems to get checked (we were waved through every time) but despite the noticeable lack of fucks given about the most basic of driving errors, the one thing the coppers will stop you for is speeding. Give them your best ‘I’m an ignorant tourist’ smile (maybe even a friendly wave) and hope for the best. Going 20 or 30km over the limit will win you a 300 dirham fine, 150 dirhams if you’re only over by 10 or so kms, which is fortunately only just enough to deter you from doing it again.

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Getting friendly with the Gendarmarie

Tip #3 Take the scenic route

The motorways linking major cities are absolutely littered with toll booths. You’ll be charged 7 or 8 dirham at most points, but it can get into the the 20s and if you’re driving around the whole country, it adds up. Getting off the major roads is more scenic (and is presumably part of the reason you got the car in the first place) and gives you a chance to experience the tiny villages and mountain passes you’d never see by bus. If your car can hack it (and you should probably check this beforehand) the Tizi n Test pass and the Atlas Mountains are particularly stunning areas to drive through.

Ramadan

The month of Ramadan is the holiest time of the year for Muslims, which means it’s celebrated by practically everyone in Morocco. Those who are fasting can’t eat, drink (not even water), smoke, or have sex from sunrise to sunset. Many still have to work physical outdoor jobs. It requires the sort of self control people like me simply do not possess, so some tourists choose to avoid Morocco during Ramadan, which is silly. A few tips, and you’re good to go.

Tip #1 You will not starve

Unless you’re used to breakfast at 3:30am (times differ depending when Ramadan falls on different years) it’s unlikely food will be as readily available when you get up as it would be in your usual country of residence, but you don’t need to panic. Restaurants and cafés are closed for most of the day (and in some cases all month) but, given the prices at most restaurants, consider this a blessing. There are markets everywhere in Morocco, and supermarkets too, you just stock up, and you’re good to go. Medinas are busiest a couple of hours before iftar, when everyone is stocking up, and a few hours after, once everyone’s eaten. If you’re caught short and desperate for a greasy feed after hours on the road, McDonald’s is the non-fasting persons best friend. Your local Maccas is usually chock full of tourists, kiddies who are too young to fast, and their incredibly envious older siblings. It’s also totally fine to drink the tap water, I drank it for a month and remained cholera free. It won’t cost you anything, and it means you’re less responsible for the sea of discarded water bottles you’ll find around the country.

Tip #2 R.E.S.P.E.C.T

As a general rule, it’s better to cover up in Morocco, but it’s even more important during Ramadan. Would you go to communion with your sunburnt arse cheek hanging out for the perusal of the congregation? No. Put some pants on. I tried to dress as similarly as reasonably possible to the local women, with shoulders and legs covered whenever I was in town. It’s super easy to find cheap, lightweight clothing at the markets, and you’ll be less of a target for the many variations of “hello lady give me some love” if you don’t have your rig on show.

When it comes to eating, drinking or smoking, look around. Most of the people you’re sharing the street with are absolutely fizzing for a glass of water, so don’t chug a big bottle or scoff a sandwich in front of them like a wanker. Finding creative ways to escape the crowds is part of the fun of travelling during Ramadan, it might take you to a sand dune, a park or an extremely dodgy looking side road, either way, it’s something to write home about.

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Private lunch at Parc Perdicaris, Tangier

Tip #3 Be nice

If you get hangry at the mere thought of travelling without a jumbo bag of assorted calories, imagine how Moroccans feel about mid-afternoon. Tempers can flare, and arguments can erupt. In the Rabat medina I witnessed one old man who went as far as taking out his teeth and putting them in his pocket so he could fight another old man. Try to dismiss these rare incidents and innocent cases of really craving a pastry. If stall holders are being annoying, a polite no thank you, or 5 polite no thank yous (coupled with a compulsory friendly wave) is always better than aggression.

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Rabat medina, where he denture incident unfolded

These are some of the things I wish I knew before travelling to Morocco, now you know them too, so loosen up your friendly wave hand and get there.

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