Finding Magic in Morocco

Magic does not come easy in modern day Morocco. The magic is here, but I need to work for it much harder than I had thought. It requires endless patience, humor and an eye for recognizing the spectacular before someone points it out to you.

Modern Morocco struggles with contradiction. In my tangled alleyway, I see a weary donkey loaded down with enough propane to fuel a jet plane. I quickly move away. A milky-eyed child sits on the ground with his wares spread out in front of him.

I will see fields of poppies, camels rolling about in the sand, the oasis of Marrakech rising green out of the desert, monuments, castles, poverty and bounty. I will learn the difference between a Berber tent and a Bedouin tent and how to read the style of the turbin. I will also learn the meanings of cloth colors in a country of strangers and visitors. I will have my face painted with kohl in a spice market. I will even hold an asp in my right hand with a king cobra only two feet from my left hand. These are my spectacular discoveries. The magic I seek can be found everywhere. It is in a nomad chastising me for being married three years without producing any children. It is in the crisp alpine air of the Atlas Mountains. It is found when I duck through a seedy alleyway and open a door to find ornate silk pillows and sweet mint tea on the other side. Smugly, I know that I have achieved my adventure.

ACHIEVE YOUR ADVENTURE

Be a savvy, prepared traveler. As with a visit to any foreign country or big US city, learn to recognize danger signs. Keep a low profile. Be gracious. Read about Islam. Pick up a few key phrases and polite niceties in French. Try cooking a Moroccan dish or two before you go. Smile (it is universal).

Leave your preconceived notions of right, wrong, up and down at home. What is considered standard in the West does not get past the door in Islamic Morocco. For many, this is their main source of culture shock. Morocco is a wealthy nation when compared to other African countries. However, Americans, Canadians and Europeans are viewed as the wealthiest people in the world. It is a land of beautiful monuments and hungry mouths. Your may be a welcomed visitor, but you are also a goldmine. Be sensible and sensitive. Do not flash excess jewelry, expensive cameras or electronics.

LANGUAGE

Moroccans speak Arabic first, French second. You will find that merchants, tour guides, con artists and children can speak any language that you can. If you find Arabic civilities difficult to master, learn them in French. A pocket phrasebook will help, even if you are with a group tour.

ARRIVAL IN MOROCCO

You will find tourism in Morocco year round but many find spring and winter best for beating the heat. There are two main and most used entry points for most travelers.

? Ferry from Algeciras, Spain to Tangier, Morocco
? Flight in to Casablanca

Flying in to Casablanca is ideal, as it is a good starting off point to “ease” you in to the Moroccan way of life. It is a large, metropolitan, European and modern city.

Tangier can be a slap in the face, but for many travelers it is the only option. Crowds of aggressive “guides” will meet you at the ferry port. Some are shocked to learn that the guides are often children. There are government-sanctioned guides, non-sanctioned guides and hustlers. It can be confusing. Those who are not with group tours may opt to wait until they are at their hotel to arrange a tour with a city guide.

Secret: If you are traveling independently and want to get through the mess at the port somewhat unscathed, pretend you are with a tour. Wear a nametag on your shirt or jacket. A sticker or a plastic sheathed tag will work. This small symbol tells guides and hustlers that you are with a big tour and off limits. When you get to your hotel, ask them to arrange a good city guide for you.

CITY GUIDES

Your guide can make or break your trip.

If you are traveling without a tour, you will likely hire a guide in each city you visit. The markets are literal labyrinths. For a first visit (or if you have a bad sense of direction!) it is a good idea to have a guide at your side. It is inexpensive and guarantees a level of safety. Other hustlers and guides will leave you alone when you are escorted.

If you are traveling with a tour, you will likely have a tour leader on the bus with you throughout your entire trip. The tour company will also pre-arrange guides for each city that you visit.

All guides (sanctioned and non-sanctioned) make a commission off of what you buy while visiting the markets with them. This is not a secret although they are not likely to volunteer that information to you! It is expected that all Westerners are looking for a mad shopping spree. Expect a crazy tour of shops. Consider it a miracle if you make it out of each city without a new rug.

Secret: If you want more than shopping out of your trip, promise a substantial tip. Explain that you want to meet people, see architecture, history and taste the food – but that you are not very interested in buying trinkets. Explain that you will be happy to look but that you are not going to buy a rug or metal works or large quantities of leather. Make it clear that he will receive a substantial tip for showing you the beauty and culture of his city. If he costs you $20 USD for the day – give an extra $15 to $20 USD in a tip. It is worth the extra money to stay out of the high-pressure sales areas.

MONEY SENSE

? Check the foreign exchange before you go, but the general rule is 10 Durum to $1 USD at the time of this article.

? ATM’s are readily available, many inside of hotels. However, they work sporadically and it is wise to carry traveler’s checks in case you are unable to access your account. Most hotels will exchange money. The rate is the same if you exchange in a hotel or a bank. Call your bank and let them know you will be in Morocco. They will make a note on your account and authorize their system to accept ATM transactions from overseas.

? Wear a money belt. For those that find the traditional belt uncomfortable, try the newer styled money pouches that attach to your actual belt and tuck right inside of your pants or skirt. The best are made by Eagle Creek and can be found at many luggage stores.

? Only carry spending money in your wallet – keep credit cards and bankcards in your money belt. If needed, just pull extra cash or your credit card out in a safe spot.

? Bargaining and haggling. For Moroccans, this is an art. For you – it is an experience! When you get a price – and you are really certain that you want the item – offer Ã?¼ to Ã?½ the original price. Be reasonable. Think about what you would most likely really pay for that item. You will talk, ask questions, and get a counter offer. If you end up paying somewhere around Ã?½ of the original price, be happy. You will find out that you paid $20 for an item and a fellow tour member paid $2. That is part of the experience. Laugh.

? Secret: If you discover that haggling leaves a bad taste in your mouth – make friends with someone who is good at it!

? Do not feel obligated to purchase a carpet. Moroccan merchants are consummate salespeople and have perfected the high-pressure sale. You will be offered tea, given information and told that a family had to sell the beautiful carpet to the merchant in order to buy bread for their children. Guilt is readily employed. Stand firm. If you do not want a carpet – state firmly: “I do not want a carpet. I will not buy a carpet”

HEALTH & SAFETY TIPS

? Hepatitis A or immune globulin shots are strongly recommended. Booster shots for measles may be wise as well. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests arranging shots 4- 6 weeks prior to departure.

? Drink and brush your teeth in bottled water only. It is readily available (with or without “gas”)

? Do not eat salad or raw fruit and vegetables. Stick to cooked veggies and fruit with a thick skin that needs to be peeled before eating (such as oranges).

? Avoid “mint tea” unless you are positive the water was boiled before making the tea. Mint tea is frequently offered and frequently the cause of traveler’s diarrhea.

? US Medical Insurance is frequently useless overseas. You may be expected to pay cash up front for medical treatment.

The above suggestions are purely precautionary. Moroccans are used to their water, their digestive systems are accustomed to it. Westerners are not. You will see other tour members helping themselves to the salad bar at the buffet in the hotel. Smile and wish them luck. Many do not get sick. Many do. Don’t risk it. Not even at a “5 Star” buffet.

PACKING LIST

? Bring a sun hat, sunglasses and a good sun block (spf 30). Morocco can be temperate in areas, but it can also reach temperatures as high as 110 F in the spring.

? Shorts, while comfortable, are not seen frequently in Morocco. They show up on the occasional tourist. In some areas they are frowned upon while in others they are ignored or tolerated. By going “local” and wearing pants or a skirt – you keep the hot sun off of your body and don’t draw extra attention to yourself.

? Invest in excellent walking shoes! This may be the most important tip. Make sure you break them in a few months before your trip. Do not bring brand new, never worn, bright white boat shoes or sneakers. You will be miserable, they will quickly get dirty and they will mark you as a target. Mephistos, Eccos, New Balance etc� are worth the extra money when your feet are trekking through miles of meandering alleyways and uneven ground.

? Unlike Europe, some of your personal items, sanitary items and prescriptions are not likely to be found in a local pharmacy in Morocco. Bring what you need with you. Make sure all prescriptions are in clearly marked original containers. Pharmacies are marked with a green cross throughout Morocco.

PHOTOGRAPHY

Morocco offers one of the most colorful photography experiences in the world. So much is new to your eyes and you will want to capture as much of it as possible. However, be wary of the following points:
? Many Moroccans do not take well to being photographed – especially without permission. If you accidentally take someone’s picture, you may be expected to pay a fee to that person.
? There are certain guards that are illegal to photograph. Ask your city guide to point out the different uniforms and explain them to you.

The hours in the tangled alleyways of Fez are causing my feet to ache, but I am too distracted to really care. I will rest later. I am here, in Morocco. I made this adventure happen. I am touching the ground and breathing the air of a mystical place. I have achieved what I set out to do. How could I not go?

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