The horn blared over and over again. It was for people crossing the street, for cars almost hitting you, for a father and son riding on a motorbike with the kid barely hanging on sitting helmet-less in the back. It all rushed past me at such astounding speed, ever-near collision seemed so miraculous almost as if a spoonful of grace had been mixed into a bowl of chaos. My cab driver had already decided to rip me off, and he succeeded. I was naive, and honestly a little frightened so I agreed to overpay. No big deal, I thought, as long as I got to my hostel safe, what’s a few extra euro. But then he dropped me off in a square near my hostel, just a “few meters away,” or so he told me. When the driver dropped me in the middle of a busy square, he popped the trunk and gave me little to no acknowledgement as a few guys tried to grab my bags “to help.” The driver said something to them in Arabic which believe-it-or-not wasn’t covered in the one semester I took in college.
“We help you find your hostel, my friend, Rouge Hostel, eh?” The taller of the two said, the driver had told them where I was staying.
“I’m good, thank you.”
“No, we help you find it.”
Once again, firmly but politely, “No thank you.” I grab my bag and head into the alleyways. The alleyways are tight, no more than ten feet across. Littered among them are shops and their keepers who try to get you to come inside as you walk by, some are aggressive, others just sit and eye you up as you pass. The occasional beggar sits against the walls with their hand outstretched, usually soundlessly and without eye contact. Some of the begging women have absurdly thin children sprawled out into their arms. But as I enter, I feel something. It’s a new feeling for me; the feeling of being followed. As I look behind me, the guys from the square are following me with a third in tow.
Multiple people had sent me state department warnings about Morocco. Pick pockets, thieves, and even perhaps Muslim Extremists. Two people sent me the same screen shot of the same warning. I laughed at it then, and I’m still laughing about it now.
The taller guy runs up to me, “You passed it!” he shouts as he points to a sign for my hostel that leads down a quiet empty alleyway. I had passed it, damn it. “Listen,” he says, “I work for the hostel, my friend here (the smaller guy) is the hostel manager. We’ll bring you there.”
“I’m good, thank you for showing me the sign.”
“We work there, we’re going there, we’ll take you!”
Now I have a decision to make. They’re going to follow me down this alleyway, I have nowhere else to go but to my hostel. To be honest I have no idea where I am. I can feel my heart racing now. I just keep thinking, I hate this, I hate this, over and over again in my head. I read the sign, “Rogue Hostels” it says, it even has a hostelworld.com sticker. “I can find it from here,” I say as I turn down the alleyway hoping they won’t follow.
It was in search of warm weather that had landed me in Morocco. Having been to Iceland, Ireland, London, Paris, and briefly to Geneva with a glorified layover in Madrid, I was tired of the chilly weather and carrying around a giant red fleece that made me look like Clifford the big red backpacker. I wanted to go somewhere warm and cheap, I’d never been to Africa before, and Morocco (specifically Marrakesh) was supposedly pretty tame.
Another few turns and the buzz of the motorcycles in the alleyways faded, it was all quiet now. The two guys were walking with me side by side. One took a few quickened steps ahead and pointed to a comically small door with a Rouge Hostel & Hostelworld sticker on it. It looked more like the entrance to Hobbiton than the entrance to a hostel, but it did say Rouge Hostel. The taller one rang the buzzer. “100 Dirham for my trouble please.” He said to me, the equivalent of 10 euro.
Feeling emboldened by the fact that I had a door in front of me, I declined. His friend was there two, and they were standing almost all the way in front of the door.
“We work for the hostel!” The tall one said.
“I’m the manager.” said the shorter one. “You need to pay 100 Dirham’s for showing you the way.”
“I don’t have it,” I lied, “didn’t change anything over at the airport.”
“We saw you pay the cab driver.” said the shorter one as he rang the doorbell. I heard no sound coming from inside. I began to wonder where this would go if I didn’t pay.
“I can give you two euro.” I said, just wanting to be left alone. It was the change I had left in my pocket.
“No one here takes euro!” Said the tall one, also lying, pretty much every store, restaurant, or cafe in Morocco takes them.
“Look, if this door opens and someone from this hostel says I have to pay you, I’ll pay you.”
“I’m the manager!” Bellowed the short one almost indignantly. If he was selling this, he was selling it well. I was officially annoyed and more than a bit scared, but again, I had nowhere to go, so I just took my fist and…banged it against the door between them. Finally someone answered, they’d been ringing or at least pretending to ring an inactive bell the entire time. “Do I have to pay these guys?” I asked the guy who’d answered the door.
“Only if you want to.” He responded. At this I ducked my head and pushed through the door, leaving him to argue with the guys. My mind was aflutter with a thousand different thoughts. How the fuck am I going to do this place alone. Was the main one followed by what if these guys see me when I leave the hostel. I checked in and sat down in my bed. Texted everyone to say I’d arrived alright with no worries despite the fact that I could still feel my heart pumping.
I actually tried to do some deep breathing as if I were in some sort of crisis. Jesus, Chris, if this is how you handle this, imagine how you’d handle something bad actually happening. As my stomach, heart, and head finally began to settle, I heard people speaking in English in the common room and I sprinted down the stairs and jumped right on into their conversation. They turned out to be two solo travelers; Kat & Ayush from Canada and India. And just like that a crew began to form. If there was ever a place to get a crew it was Morocco. And as I left to head back up to my room to get ready for dinner, I saw someone else enter the hostel with the same two assholes right in her ear as they were in mine and she was making the same exact face I’d made moments earlier; welcome to the crew I thought as I introduced myself.
Marrakesh is a city of hustle and bustle, the main square was like nowhere else I’d ever been. During the day you have snake charmers, people walking around with monkeys, henna tattoo artists, people hocking watches, and little set up shops. The thing is, they’re still trying to get you. Some are and some aren’t, but you really come across the ones who are. If you take a picture of the snake charmers without asking, they’ll overcharge you. If you let one of the monkey owners to put the monkey on you, he’ll keep it on you till you pay him the desired fee. Luckily I had read about these things before I’d gotten there, so sorry, no snake charmer pictures to be had. We settled down for dinner and got our first taste of Tajine, a dish named for the pottery from which it is made it’s rather good and the meat tends to slide right off the bone. We watched the sun disappear into the haze from a top one of the terrace cafe’s and had ourselves some mint tea, a must have for any Moroccan excursion. Don’t worry it’s literally available everywhere.
While Marrakesh during the day is one thing, Marrakesh at night is a whole new place. The snake charmers and monkey handlers disappear to be replaced by story tellers who dance and make the crowd laugh. As to what their subject matter is? I have no idea, again only one semester of Arabic and even then I can barely get passed “Hello, how are you?” It was at night we had our second frightening encounter. A henna tattoo artist grabbed a girl by the hand and began to tattoo her. She then pulled her over to her bench despite her refusals and went to work. Once my friend was able to pull her hand away, the tattoo artist wanted to charge 300 dirham or 30 euro or 35$. When Ayush and I tried to bargain with her, she pushed through the group and once again grabbed our friend by the hand and demanded she pay.
What makes this situation a bit more frightening is that she was in women’s Islamic garb, I’m not saying this to be political, but having a person fully covered head to toe so much so that you can only see their eyes ask you if “you want a problem?” is frightening. Especially when she keeps looking off in the distance as if to signal people that she’s having an issue.
Needless to say we paid.
Following a day of more adventures in the square, and a long walk to the local gardens, our ever-growing group set out for Zagora also known as “the little Sahara.” We piled into a van at 7am along with a bus driver who only spoke French and Arabic and headed out into the Atlas Mountains. The drive was beautiful, but very long. So long a french woman and her two children dropped out after a nice lunch cry session. We made a pit stop in Kasbah, where we were handed off to a local tour guide (who also didn’t speak any English). He would point to one building and say, “Jewish” then to another and say “Berber” (pre-Arab Africans). Then he’d look at us and smile and nod exactly as I have 10,000 times since trying to communicate with those who don’t speak English.
Our long drive culminated with a two hour camel ride out into the Zagora. A few things about Camels.
- They’re huge
- I’m pretty sure they hate us
- They are graceful, those who ride them are not.
I expected camels to be about the size of a horse, but they’re actually so big that you get on them while they’re sitting down. Then when they stand, they get up from their back legs first while you face directly down to the ground followed by front legs, when they sit you’re pretty much at a 90 degree angle. Each and every step feels like a punch in the…rear. But, you know what? It was incredible. Taking these creatures into the desert at sun set was one of those experiences that I’ll never forget. Truly incredible. Even if my camel did drink the other’s pee.
Once we arrived at camp, which was amazingly accommodating to begin with, we conversed with our nomad guides, we took in their culture, they asked the girls in the group to marry them. All good fun.
After a dinner of desert prepared tajine, they treated us to music and song to be followed by desert star gazing. As we all laid on our backs atop a sand dune, we tried to spot shooting stars. One of the group, Melanie, was intent on seeing one and pledged not to go to sleep until she had. But the conversation between new friends proved to be a bit distracting as about four or five were missed before she finally caught one. When it was finally time to get some shut eye, we all settled into our beautiful tent which I just now realized I must have accidentally deleted the photo of and am not very happy. But it was such a nice tent Donald could
vacation run the country from it.
In the morning, we took a short camel ride back to the road where our driver, who only spoke Arabic and French, picked us up, and drove us back to the Kasbah where we would now get a more comprehensive (and in English) tour. For those wondering, the Kasbah has some cultural significance that I mostly forgot, but they did film parts of Game of Thrones and Gladiator there. After lunch, it was back out into the mountains where, I shit you not, our van broke down. In what was the most “you’re in Africa” experience ever, we sat and waited as other tour buses plucked as many members of the group up as they could to take them back to Marrakesh.
Now not to get all preachy here, but I’m worried you might read this and think, “holy shit, I’m never going to Morocco.” This is very much not my intent. The longer I’m on the road, the more I realize that the experiences I have are much grander when they’re paired with the real life circumstances around them. Morocco was absolutely incredible, the stories I have from there might seem a bit nerve racking, but they were manageable and they would’ve been more manageable had I taken proper precautions before traveling there. Should you go alone? That’s a question only you can probably answer. All I can say is if you do, make some friends while you’re there. But you absolutely should know what you’re getting yourself into before going. Simple little things like having your accommodation prepare your pickup from the airport can save you a ton of headache on the trip. I loved Morocco and I can’t wait to one day go back.
Recommendations: Jemaa el-Fnaa (the main square), Mint tea (you won’t be able to escape this one), tajine (it’s the dish not the actual food), a desert tour (they offer packages depending on how many days you can spare), and Kasbah.