Marrakesh, Morocco

Photo: Zellij Photo: Snake charmer Photo: Spice shop Photo: Red walls

Marrakesh is a pretty intense place to start my first trip to Morocco. In addition to the basic culture shock, it always takes me a few days to get used to a new country’s language, currency, food, etc. Marrakesh’s confusing maze of markets and non-stop fake guides trying to take you places you don’t want to go make this process even more tiring than usual.

Fortunately after a few days here I am already feeling pretty comfortable: ignoring or joking with people trying to scam me out of my money, eating and enjoying street food, and gradually getting to know what fair prices are for things. The exchange rate from Canadian dollars to Moroccan dirham is 1 to 6.5; I have always found rates like this (close to 7) are the most difficult to convert in my head, but I figured out a handy trick for this rate: instead of dividing by 6.5, multiply by 1.5 and divide by 10, both of which are pretty easy to do in your head even while trying to maintain a poker face when haggling over prices.

My initial plans for this trip were to take a full month off from work to spend exploring the country at my leisure, but due to slacking too much this summer I fell behind at work and decided to work my first couple weeks here before taking a few off. I spent most of my first few days in Marrakesh working and travel planning, so aside from wandering around a bit I didn’t see very much. (I only took one picture in my first three days here!)

After spending my first couple nights in a hotel in the ville nouvelle (new city) area I moved closer to the action, to La Casa del Sol, an excellent riad (a traditional house set around an internal courtyard) just a few hundred meters from Place Jemaa el-Fna, located within Marrakesh’s medina (old city), which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Place Jemaa el-Fna is a big square in the center of town, a chaotic place full of musicians, storytellers, acrobats and snake charmers as well as outdoor food stalls and carts selling juice, snacks and snail soup.

Photo: Place Jemaa el-Fna Photo: Place Jemaa el-Fna Photo: Place Jemaa el-Fna Photo: Place Jemaa el-Fna Photo: Portable restaurant Photo: Snack cart Photo: Snail soup seller

Unfortunately it sounds much more charming and quaint than it is: I have never been anywhere where tourists are as targeted for handouts as they are here. Any time you take a picture or stop and watch something for more than a few seconds, someone will be right in your face demanding outrageous sums of money.

Now, I am happy to pay for performances that I actually enjoy — when I was in Paris in May I saw these Ukrainian dudes playing and singing in a Metro station, and was so blown away that I left the station to go find a bank machine before returning to show my appreciation by buying a CD.

But these guys insist on being paid large sums of dirham for things that aren’t even performances. One night I stood in the square watching a guy with no shirt run back and forth shouting to rev up the crowd; I kept waiting for something to happen, expecting him to start doing some acrobatics or something. He had been doing nothing but run and yell for the minute or so I was there when some random guy came up to me with a hat, pointing at the “performer” saying “my friend” and insisting I give him something. I tried various ways of communicating no thanks/not yet/I’m just trying to watch/I’m waiting for something to actually happen/if I do give money, it will be directly to the performer and not some random guy who asks for it, but he kept insisting, then finally stood between me and the performer and told me to leave, completely ignoring the 30-50 locals who were also gathered around the circle watching; apparently they’re exempt from having to pay for bogus non-performances.

I know this situation is kind of a natural outcome whenever you have thousands of relatively rich tourists passing through somewhere poorer, and as a tourist/traveler myself I try very hard not to be part of the problem (I hope to write more on that later), but I have been to poorer places than this with way higher ratios of tourists to locals, and never seen anything like this. It’s astonishing.

I’m not the only one to have had this reaction, see e.g. this review on tripadvisor (edited):

We spent a few days in Marrakech and we were very disappointed that they still think that they can get away with this third world rubbish where westerners are treated as gullible idiots with cash to throw at undeserving people who only want your money with no return in the form of service or cultural exchange. Marrakech is not romantic or exotic, its just a dirty badly maintained place full of desperate scroungers offering poorly made rubbish and awful food. Do I need to say “not recommended”. There are lots of poor countries in the world full of nice decent people who want to earn an honest tourist dollar in return for a valuable experience, this is not one of them. Never again!

I’m not quite that sour on the whole Marrakesh experience, but I am disappointed.

The snake charmers were especially bad: groups of guys would sit around on blankets waiting for tourists to walk by; whenever there seemed to be a critical mass of tourists they would uncover a couple snakes and play some annoying repetitive music, with no real connection between the snake charmers, the music, the snakes, or people watching. Meanwhile one or two guys would walk around nearby putting smaller snakes around people’s necks without permission, hoping their friends or family would take pictures so they could demand some money.

Photo: Snake charmer Photo: Snake charmer Photo: Snakes

I decided I couldn’t leave Marrakesh without a few obligatory snake charmer pics, so I asked one of these guys how much for pictures, he said “what you want”, so I snapped the photos above and offered him 10 dirham ($1.50 CAD); he said “no no, 100 dirham” ($15 CAD), then we spent a few minutes arguing about it before I walked away.

Aside from these non-stop tourist traps, Marrakesh is a pretty cool place to visit: my riad is right in the middle of all the action, between Jemaa el-Fna and the souks (markets), a confusing maze of narrow corridors with shops selling leatherware, carpets, metalwork, baskets, jewelry, clothing, spices and herbs.

Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Closed shops Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Souk (market) Photo: Cool bike Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Souk Addadine (metalwork market) Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Red walls Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Souk (market) Photo: Souk (market) Photo: Souk (market) Photo: Carpet market

I escaped the chaos for a bit by visiting the Musée de Marrakech and Ali ben Youssef Medersa (theological college). I’m not really into museums but I did enjoy how peaceful they were compared to everywhere else in the medina, and the tilework was pretty impressive.

Photo: Zellij Photo: Zellij Photo: Musee de Marrakech Photo: Musee de Marrakech Photo: Ali ben Youssef Medersa Photo: Ali ben Youssef Medersa Photo: Zellij

One day when I was wandering around the souks a guy came up and said something about leather tanneries, “today only” and pointed like it was around the corner. He didn’t really seem to care if I followed him or not, so I figured I might as well check it out and kind of walked in that direction. We walked together for a while, he pointed out a few things on the way and I figured I’d have to give him a buck or two afterwards for his guide services. He was pushing a mountain bike along with him so I showed him some pics from Crankworx on my camera and we made a bit of smalltalk along the way in broken English and French.

We ended up walking a lot longer than I expected, maybe 10-15 minutes or so, before he handed me off to another guy who gave me a sprig of mint to hold under my nose (”moroccan air freshener”) while I toured the smelly tannery with him.

He told me a bit about how they treat hides, kept telling me it’s OK to take pictures, etc. At one point he left me inside one of these places and went running out into the street and I figured I was about to get jumped or something and started for the street myself, but he came back a few seconds later.

Photo: Leather tanners Photo: Leather tannery Photo: Leather tannery Photo: Leather tannery Photo: Lime pits

After my tour of the tannery I was dumped into a leather goods shop which didn’t surprise me, and I feigned a bit of interest in the quality of the goods but told the guy there I wasn’t going to buy anything. He immediately lost his friendly/smiley demeanor and led me out onto the street where the tannery guide demanded 200 dirham ($30 CAD) for his services. I laughed and offered him 10 ($1.50), we argued for a while before I gave him the 10 and walked away, then my original guide came and demanded another 200 or so, “for the family” working in the tannery (yes, I’m sure they’d see a lot of that 200); I offered him 10 and said if he expected me to pay 200 he should have told me that before leading me here. He became really aggressive, said “you want problem”, etc.; I asked if he wanted the 10 or not, then gave it to him and walked away while he shouted profanity at me in broken English. Good times.

Photo: Rue de Bab Agnaou Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Bath time Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Olive shops Photo: Olives Photo: Olives Photo: Herboriste des Amis Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Herbs and spices Photo: Herbs Photo: Spice shop Photo: Rahba Kedima Photo: Apothecary stalls Photo: Marrakesh

I think my negative experience in Marrakesh has a lot to do with spending too much time in the medina and not enough exploring other areas of the city. Whenever you have that many tourists gathered somewhere you’re bound to have a lot of people who prey on them as well; I have just never been anywhere where they are so relentless and aggressive.

Once I was taking a little break in the shade reading a guidebook, when a boy about 10 years old came up and offered to help me find something. I said no thanks a bunch of times, he said don’t worry he’s not a guide, showed me his school ID etc., I still said no thanks, he pointed towards Jemaa el-Fna, then sure enough asked for some money for the help he gave that I didn’t want and had refused a number of times.

I keep waiting to meet someone genuinely friendly, to learn more about Moroccan people, but I have yet to meet anyone like that here. I keep giving people the benefit of the doubt, and they keep letting me down.

I wouldn’t recommend starting a trip to Morocco in Marrakesh. If you do start here I would suggest staying somewhere away from the medina and visiting it only for a half-day at a time or something.

Next I plan to visit Essaouira which is supposed to be a chilled out beach town; hope it’s as good as it sounds!

More pictures in Marrakesh…

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