Almost everyone I talked to before coming to Morocco reacted in the same way: “Morocco? And you’re going alone? Like by yourself? You’re not meeting anyone there? Be very careful!!” Just the looks on their faces was enough. They thought I was crazy. They thought I was going to get harassed non-stop and continuously groped while walking down the street. They thought I was going to have a terribly stressful time and have all my money scammed away from me. Some probably thought I would get into even worse trouble, imaginations ran wild. To be honest, it got to me a little, and my confidence was stretching thin by the time I arrived.
By the time I had been in Marrakech for two hours I knew one thing for certain: all of these people who thought Morocco was this stressful and dangerous place had NO IDEA what they were talking about.
I read a lot about what to expect and how to survive before I came here. As a solo female traveller you do need to have your wits about you and you can’t just go willy nilly into all kinds of countries without any sort of preparation. The main thing most people advise for women travelling in Morocco is to dress conservatively. Before I had even left the airport I knew one of the main reasons why this country has such a bad reputation, and the crux of it is this: people are stupid. By wearing mini skirts, high heels and tight sleeveless tops you’re not making a statement on gender equality or modernism or freedom, you are asking for every second man on the street to stare at you, make lewd comments, pull suggestive faces, and in some extreme cases, yes, grope you. I’m sorry but you’re asking for it, and that’s the end of the story.
This is probably the only time I’ll ever talk about fashion in this blog, but in this circumstance I think it’s important, so:
1. I have chosen an ankle-length, flowing skirt that covers my legs but also creates a breeze so it feels like I’m wearing nothing at all which is great because the weather is very hot.
2. I am wearing a loose-fitting black tshirt that I think is a men’s cut, it covers my shoulders and part of my arms, it covers my collarbone, and it leaves basically everything to the imagination.
3. I have my hair tied back. This is great for the heat and also mimics many local women who choose this option over a headscarf.
4. I am wearing comfortable sandals to walk in the street. I read that the streets are dirty and it is advisable to wear enclosed shoes. This is not true in the slightest. Shoes and socks are way too hot and the streets are actually cleaner than many popular European cities. They are well paved and well kept and there are people employed to sweep the streets on a regular basis.
5. Sunglasses are the perfect way to avoid eye contact.
And what reaction have I received from the locals? Basically none. It’s almost disappointing. Did I suddenly become super ugly and unappealing as soon as I arrived in Morocco? I personally have had none of the sexual harassment that is supposed to be rampant in this city directed at me. I’ve seen it a few times with other women who were wearing short dresses but even then it was harmless. In Jemaa el-Fna, the main square, there is a strip of dining stalls at night and they all employ young guys to sweet talk customers into choosing their stall over someone else’s. Some are pushy and annoying, but most are just trying to do their job, and they do it bloody well considering how many rude tourists they must have to deal with on a daily basis. So when I was told “you can’t have eaten already, you’re too skinny” I just laughed, and he laughed too, it was a nice moment, and then he just said “come back later when you are hungry, I’ll be here” and that was that.
Then of course you have the people who try to sell you things. “Taxi? Taxi? Best quality! Hello beautiful lady! Where you from? Excursion? Trekking? I give you best price, special price just for you! Come look in my shop, many more things inside. Smoke something?” One guy tried to sell me a tshirt and when I said no he tried to sell me hash… Because that makes sense. But if you’ve travelled almost anywhere in the world you’ll recognise most if not all of these phrases as universal. From Kathmandu to Florence to Cuzco, it’s exactly the same. Marrakech is no different.
For most a simple and careless flick of the hand is enough to tell them no. It’s easier than swatting flies. For others who are more persistent you can add “no thank you” to your hand flick and maybe a pleasant “bonne journee” (have a nice day) to let them know you’re serious. The key is to not be rude, let it wash over you and smile, but be firm. The worst ones are the guys from Senegal (I’ve talked to a few, they all seem to be from Senegal) who try to sell you fake Rolex and Raybans, “is fake but good quality”, and the African tshirts. They are persistent, they follow you, and if you engage in conversation it can be very hard to make them leave you alone. Wearing a watch and sunglasses is a great deterrent, “I already have one!”
Probably the most confronting thing is the area of Jemaa el-Fna where the men sit around under their umbrellas and do their snake charming. Some people walk around with the snakes so watch out, if you get too close you’ll have a snake around your shoulders AND you’ll be expected to pay money for it. And it gets worse. Next to the snakes are the monkeys. Many of them are wearing dresses and nappies and all of them have chains around their necks. They wheel them into the square in a block of cages and drag them around by their chains from tourist to tourist. Don’t go near the monkey men. And if you’re desperate for a photo of a snake or monkey be very sneaky about it if you don’t want to be harassed for money by a guy holding said snake or monkey.
Having said this, not everyone selling things in the street is out to scam you. The guy working in my hostel told me that if I wanted a SIM card (which I did) I shouldn’t buy it from a shop because they would rip you off. He showed me on a map which part of Jemaa el-Fna to find the guys who sell SIMs on the street and told me the price to expect. I found the guys in the square, there were about ten of them hanging around looking super dodgy but with the network company names on their shirts. I walked up to the first one and asked him for a SIM card. For 30 dirhams ($4.30) you get 2gb of data to use over a month. And the guy was so helpful. He popped out the SIM for me, asked around all his friends for someone with a pin to open up my stupid iPhone SIM slot, put it in and fixed my other one back into the card so I can keep it safe, and then I paid with a huge note that he didn’t have change for and he asked almost everyone he laid eyes on in the street if they could change it for him, even a guy riding past on a bike. And he didn’t mention payment until he made sure it was actually working.
Maybe my travels up until now have desensitised me. Yes, in Marrakech I’ve been harassed by people who want my money everywhere I turn, but I don’t FEEL harassed. I felt more harassed in Florence actually, but that was three years ago and in that time I’ve been exposed to these things in many different places. It’s just part of the way things are and I accept that. Having a positive or negative experience really does depend on perspective. With the right perspective and attitude Marrakech can make a chilled and cheerful experience for anyone (except when walking past the snakes and monkeys).