Surviving Marrakech: A Girl’s Guide to Going it Alone

Unlike Casablanca, Marrakech is the poster child of Morocco so no expense has been spared to keep it a safe place for tourists. You can’t go far without seeing police on the street and you don’t have to worry so much when it comes to theft and violence. Even so, its best to be aware of your surroundings and know what you’re getting in to.

The Rooftops of Marrakech
The Rooftops of Marrakech

Learn Some French

Life in Morocco will be so much easier if you learn some French before you arrive. Yes, many people here have a basic knowledge of English but just as many don’t. And usually French is the first language people will assume you can speak. If you have a smart phone you can download the google translate app to use offline which is helpful and doesn’t immediately mark you as someone who’s out of their depth, like a phrase book will.

Shop Around

There are so many great products to buy in the souks and every store owner will be pressuring you to buy immediately from their stall. Remember that whatever you see will also be sold in untold other stalls so stay strong and shop around. Ask for prices and if it seems too high with no room to bargain, move on. And if you don’t want to buy anything then keep your resolve. Be polite but make it clear you are not purchasing.

Something that’s worked for me is playing the “Naïve Foreigner”. On my first day in the Medina I was invited to see the tanneries. I was interested to see what went on there but knowing what to expect from these unofficial “tours” I resolved not to part with my money until absolutely necessary. I saw the curing vats and dyes and leather being scraped which was really cool, if rather smelly. But I was also herded into stores where pushy store owners expected me to buy their wares. Pretending to be completely unaware of what was going on I admired their stores and thanked them for showing me their products. When asked to choose something I just laughed and said I’d have to find a job first. If you keep it light and friendly they can’ get mad… I think! Of course at the very end a burly man came up to me and asked for some money for the people who work there. But I managed to part with less than half of what he asked for (about $3.50 NZ) so that was a win!

Be Cautious With Photos

If people ask you whether you want to take a photo, more often than not you will end up paying for the privilege. If you have a few coins to spare then go for it, otherwise just enjoy the sight and maybe sneak back for a photo when no one’s looking! I really wanted to get a photo of some snake charmers but having other things to spend my money on, I decided against it.

Or sneak one from the air
Or sneak one from the air

Keep Walking

Moroccans are extremely friendly but often this tips into unwanted attention and harassment. If a man approaches you and strikes up a conversation just keep walking. Often times it’s nothing more than curiosity over where you’re from and a wish to welcome you to Morocco. But other times they’ll badger you to have a coffee with them, ask if you’re married and try to touch your hair. Even if you have no idea where you’re going, walk with a purpose, say you’re not interested and that you have to meet your friends. If you keep it up you’ll soon shake them off. And if someone wants to show you something/ take you somewhere, remember that it won’t be for free!

Find a Road Buddy

Morocco has one of the worst statistics in the world when it comes to road accidents. No one follows the rules, they don’t even obey the lanes painted on the tarmac. So when you’re crossing the street use caution and find a buddy. For best results cross with an elderly woman or man who is less likely to take risks like the younger Moroccans. You don’t want to find yourself running for your life in front of speeding cars!  I didn’t think too much about it until one day I saw a man lying on the road, the police tracing around his body with chalk just like the movies. Don’t let that be you!

It all looks calm until it's time to cross!
It all looks calm until it’s time to cross!

Stay Alert

As long as you’re aware of your surroundings you can’t come to much grief. From my experience everyone is always willing to help, whether it be with a heavy backpack, offering you a seat at the bus stop, or letting you know if a road has been closed off. Never the less, it’s always a good idea to keep to the busier streets and be aware of what’s around you.

I’ve even on a few occasions been offered a lift to the centre of town. Now while I wouldn’t get into a stranger’s car on my own, there’s really no harm in jumping on the back of a motorbike and zipping through the streets of the medina like something out of the Bourne Ultimatum. Because of the narrow roads and many people going about their business you will often be going slow enough to jump off if at any stage you feel uncomfortable. Trust your instincts but at the same time, have fun!

Take Some Help

The medina can at times feel like a labyrinth, especially if you’re in a hurry! And wandering around with a lost expression on your face is a homing beacon for people (men) to approach. But don’t worry, unlike other places in Morocco, people in Marrakech will point you in the right direction (after trying to get you to the tanneries/ Berber markets first). Sometimes, like the example above, they’ll even offer to take you there on their bikes, while others will walk with you. In my experience there’s a 50% chance they’ll ask for payment at the end but often it’s worth it just to find your way. And still cheaper than a taxi (if you need to go further afield).

Enter the madness
Enter the madness

Buy Water, Often

Every time you stop for food or a drink, ask for a bottle of water. Even if you don’t need it at that moment, within half an hour of leaving the café you will be grateful for your forethought.

Relax

Everything is disorganised and late. Go with it. If your bus runs every 30mins, expect to wait that long no matter what time you arrive at the stop. Once I waited 30mins in the 35 degree heat only to have the bus drive right past. I freaked out because I was supposed to be back at the house by a certain time and waiting another billion hours under the hot sun was really not going to help me keep my word. I arrived home late but surprise! Everyone else was late as well so it worked out fine. Just stay relaxed.

And Don’t Forget to Tip!

Yup, you need to tip at the cafés and restaurants. Nothing huge but don’t forget!

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