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> A Brief Initiation to Morocco, Morocco, from the perspective of a student.
post Nov 22 2010, 02:08 PM
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The goal of this informal guide is to give a few warnings and impart some expectations for the average traveler who may be considering Morocco. Iím an American student studying in Al-Akhawayn University (Ifrane, Morocco), and have lived here in Morocco for the past year and a half. Iím not an expert of course, but Iíve had enough experience to pass out a little advice to those who are curious. Enjoy! Despite the warnings detailed below, I highly recommend Morocco as a vacation spot. You will never be bored, the culture is vibrant and exciting!

Getting to Morocco is fairly easy. Do not try to fly directly if you are from the Statesóit will be very expensive, if not impossible. People often fly to either Madrid or Paris, and then take RyanAir or similar carriers into Fes, Casablanca, Agadir, or Tangier. All these airports are safe and respectable.

Americans and a number of other nationalities do not need a visa to enter the country, you only need your passport. If you plan on staying for longer than three months, you must apply for a residency card. This can be done after you enter Morocco.

Choosing the airport depends on your plans for the trip. Do you want to do a tour of all Morocco? Then I recommend starting in Tangier (in the very northern tip of the country) and working your way south. If instead you are more interested in staying in oy one or two main cities/provinces, then decide between Casablanca and Fes (more centrally located) based on the airfare and proximity.

Transportation within Morocco comes in four main forms. Petit taxis are limited strictly to traveling within cities. They are not allowed to take you from city to city. Only three passengers are allowed per PT. PTs should have a functioning meter. If not, absolutely negotiate your price before getting into the cab. Many taxi drivers, especially in Marrakesh and other highly touristic areas, will try to cheat you. As a rule of thumb, 30 dirham is the upper limit for a ďPoint A Point BĒ trip in most cities, and even that is almost certainly too much. Until you get a better understanding of costs in Morocco, insist on the meter, and find a different cab if the driver gives you too much trouble about it.

The second form of travel is the grand taxis. GTs are specifically for between-city travel. They do not use meters, and you must negotiate the price. Speak to your hotel concierge before the trip to get an estimate of what you should pay. Grand taxis supposedly have Ďseatsí for 6 passengers. However, itís a very tight fit and you may end up half-sitting on a strangerís lap. If you are uncomfortable with that much intimacy, buy an extra seat. Both GTs and PTs have trunks for your luggage. If you are traveling to a remote are or a very small village, it is wise to arrange a pick-up time, or risk spending all day waiting for someone to happen by.

The third form of travel is the train system. The trains go to every major city except Agadir, as well as a large number of the smaller towns between them. They are acceptably clean for the most part, and have bathrooms. Train schedules can be checked online at www.oncf.ma. They are occasionally late by as much as 2 hours. You may buy a first class ticket for slightly more money, and be assured a certain amount of air conditioning and comfort. Second class seats sometimes have air conditioning, and sometimes not. They often involve booth compartments rather than individual chairs. Second class is still more than tolerable, though.

A trolley of snacks will almost certainly pass by the aisles, but it is somewhat expensive. If possible, buy your own snacks elsewhere. If you are a solitary female and traveling at night, do your best to sit near a Moroccan woman rather than alone or with a man. Incidents do not happen often, but it is a risk. Most of the time however, the trains are very safe.

The final form of travel is the bus system. There are within-city buses in some cities, but these are very confusing and difficult to take for a non-native. You are better off taking taxis. The between-city buses, on the other hand, are very useful and cheap. There are a number of companies, the most trustworthy and prompt of which are CTM and Superatour.

To buy a ticket, just go to the bus station (ďla gareĒ). Buses will have a checked-baggage undercarriage, but if you have fragile objects you should keep them with you. Seats have limited leg room. If you are tall, consider buying two seats in order to stretch out, especially on long trips, or otherwise try to get an aisle seat. Bus and train tickets have fixed prices, do not bother trying to negotiate them.

As a frame of reference, the trip from Agadir to Marrakesh on the bus us roughly 4 to 5 hours, and from Marrakesh to Fes is 7 to 8. Buses on long trips will make at least one stop at one small town or another for 30 minutes or so, to allow passengers to use the restroom or buy something to eat.

After you have successfully gotten to your city of choice, itís time to figure out where to stay. Most hotels do not have their information on the internet. The ones that do will charge you much more than the norm. Hotels of all levels exist in Morocco, from dumps to 5 stars, so you should be able to find something that matches your comfort level. If you are on a tight budget and know how to ask, Iíve heard of people sleeping on terraces for less than 30 dirham. Cheap hotel rooms with limited amenities (shared facilities, often lacking hot water, uncertain cleanliness) can be found for 50dhm per person.

Rooms costing 100-200dhm per person should assure hot water and clean rooms, though at the lower end you may still be sharing facilities. Many hotels in this range will call themselves a Ďriad.í This means that it has an open-air courtyard, and you can expect a more traditional room. Anything costing higher will often be a more modern, western-styled hotel, or a very nice riad. If you are the less adventuresome sort, the resort hotels will have their prices listed online.

Hotels will sometimes offer breakfast, either included in the price or at an extra cost. I suggest refusing for the most part. You can get better food outside of the hotel, and for cheaper. Not all hotels are negotiable, but the majority of them are. At the very least itís worth a shot.

You will hear people talk about the gender issue. Moroccan law technically forbids non-married couple to share a room, but this is almost always ignored for tourists.

Letís talk about language for a little while. Most Moroccans are at the very least bilingual. Arabic is the official national language, and French is very wide-spread and often used in school rather than Arabic. In the north, French might be replaced with Spanish. In the far (largely uneducated) south, only Arabic might be spoken.

Itís important to note that the Moroccan dialect of Arabic (called Darija) is like no other dialect. It is unintelligible to many people from Arabic states such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, etc. So if you are learning standard Arabic and come to Morocco, do not be surprised or upset if you canít understand a thing. It takes a long time to get used to. However, most Moroccans will be able to understand standard Arabic.

There is another language that is worth noting: Berber. Berber, also known as Amazigh, is completely unrelated to Arabic or any other language. It is the language of the Moroccan Ďindigenous people.í Many Moroccans do not understand or speak Berber, and if you stay on the beaten path you wonít encounter it much. Only if you go to small villages, especially in the mountains, will you run across Berber with more frequency. Most Berbers also speak Darija, but there are occasionally enclaves of people who speak only Berber, due to a lack of education. Only the truly adventurous traveler is likely to experience this.

If you speak nothing but English, you can manage. It is not a huge deal, especially if you stay in the touristy areas and the main imperial cities (Fes, Marrakesh, Rabat, etc).
However, if you have any French at all, it is much preferable as you will be able to talk to more people, get your point across better, and get better deals. Moroccans like when native-English speakers make the effort to learn the local language, and you will be rewarded. If you speak even a modicum of Arabic, standard or dialectal, be prepared to be loved like a long-lost child. Even just learning a few words or phrases in either language will do a lot of good for your relationship with the Moroccan people.

Itís far from necessary for women to cover their hair. However, both sexes should be respectful and aware of the culture, as with any place you travel. You may wear short sleeves, but itís best if the shoulders are covered. Definitely do not wear anything that shows your stomach. Women should not wear shorts or short skirts. Moroccan men do not show their legs at all, but it is more acceptable for male tourists than female tourists to break this rule. More conservative areas will be a bit offended by the sight of knees. More modern areas are used to lots of tourists and different cultures, so you can get away with more there.

Women will have a harder time in Morocco than men. There is a stereotype that white women are Ďeasy,í and therefore shouldnít be respected. You will get a lot of catcalls and harassment, no matter how you dress. However, dressing more conservatively will help to limit it and will gain the approval of many Moroccans. The harassment is reduced further if you are in a larger group of women, or are accompanied by a man.

As I said, catcalls are something women will experience on a regular basis. Moroccan women experience this as well, but not nearly at the level of female tourists. Itís become somewhat of a socially accepted pastime. The best way to deal with it is to not respond at all. Donít turn around, donít make eye contact, donít talk to them, above all donít get angry about it. Itís an obnoxious thing, to be sure, but the hecklerís goal is to get a reaction, even a negative one. If you do respond, they take it as encouragement and can become hard to get rid of.

However, donít tolerate any form of touching. Whether itís a grope, someone touching your hair, or something as simple as a hand on your shoulderóit is not acceptable, and the men know that. Do not hesitate to be vocal in your disapproval. I have had to become violent with men who didnít know when to stop.

On to the money system: the Moroccan currency is called the dirham. At the time of this writing (November 2010), the exchange rate is roughly 1USD to 8MAD. You may exchange as many dollars for dirham as you like, but be careful! You can not take dirham out of the country (it is illegal to export it), and there are restrictions on how many dirham you can change back into dollars. So donít take out too much at once, or youíll be stuck trying to figure out how to get rid of all the extra money. Be aware of the exchange rate when converting. If you are not at a bank or inside the airport, your exchange-man may try to take a hefty Ďfeeí. Discuss the transaction before giving him the money.

Do not come expecting to be able to use travelerís checks, it will not work here. You may convert cash, or use an ATM card. ATMs are all over the country, you should not have any issues finding one. Very small, non-touristy villages are the exception, and you should make sure you have enough cash before going. Some very nice hotels or shopping centers may have the option of paying with debit/credit cards, but this is very rare. Nearly all transactions are done in cash.

Expect to pay 35 to 50 dirham for a tajine or couscous lunchĖtraditional Moroccan meals. Very nice restaurants will charge higher, though the taste may not be different. The Moroccan soup Harira can be bought for as little as 3 dirham in Marrakesh, though it is more commonly set a little higher. Fresh juices ranges anywhere between 10 and 25 dirham, depending on the type and the area. A single apple should cost less than 3 dirham. A glass of mint tea is roughly 7 to 10 dirham.

The bargaining system is in full swing here. Everything you see on the streets, except restaurants, can be bargained for. A beginnerís system for the uninitiated to follow is that the Ďrealí price is roughly half of the Ďgivení price. But donít say the real price! Say something below the real price, and then you will eventually meet the vendor half-way. This Ďrealí price is still somewhat higher that it probably should, so if you are capable of getting it lower, try it! If he is refusing to budge at a certain point, walk away. If he does not call you back and adjust his prices, he may have been giving you the ĎMoroccaní price (a phrase used often to mean a fair price). Keep that price in mind for the next time you try to buy that item.

Haggling can be a fun and friendly experience that involves making friends with the vendor, and sometimes drinking tea with him. The tea is a traditional thing, it doesnít mean anything too intimate, so donít worry if you get invited. On the other hand, haggling can turn vicious. If a vendor is too aggressive, donít bother. You can easily find the same item in a different shop without as much hassle. Just walk way. Try to be aware of the absolute maximum that you are willing to pay, and donít let yourself be bullied into paying higher. Donít allow shopkeepers to drag you from item to item if you donít want to look at them, just say no. Be firm without being rude.

On that topic, Moroccans run the gambit from being the nicest, most generous people you will ever meet, to the most underhanded, sly, and money-grubbing. You will meet men who would give you the shirt off their back, and men who will flat out lie to earn a buck. You will meet woman who will treat you to lunch simply for the conversation, and you will be accosted by ďhenna harpiesĒ who grab your arm and force a henna tattoo on you. Be careful about the company you fall into, it will make or break your trip. Donít be afraid to simply get up and leave if you are in a situation that makes you uncomfortable, but donít think that everyone you meet is out to cheat you either!

In particular be wary of tour guides. Morocco has official guides and illegal guides. The official guides will have credentials they will be able to show you, and can most easily be found by inquiring at the local tourism center.

The illegal guides will jump on you wherever you go. Not all illegal guides are bad people, but as with all things be sure to negotiate the price before they take you anywhere. Donít allow them to rush you, donít allow them to change the price, pay only after your guide has finished. If they take you to specific shops, I highly recommend not buying anything. The prices will be significantly raised, as the guide gets a cut for bringing in customers. I prefer not to use tour guides of any type, and discover the area on my own.

If you have the fortune of making good friends with a Moroccan and being invited into their home, absolutely accept. The hospitality will amaze youóthat stereotype is absolutely true. Youíll be treated to amazing food and good conversation, and hopefully be able to meet your friendís family. The Moroccan family dynamic is absolutely fascinating, so take the chance if you get it. For women, if your new friend is a single man who lives alone, and you donít know him that well, Iíd recommend suggesting you meet at a restaurant instead, just to be on the safe side. If he is married or lives with his family, it will be perfectly fine to go to his house.

As with everywhere foreign that you travel, be careful in crowds and hide your money. Pickpockets abound in some areas, especially touristic souqs.

Each city has a different atmosphere that you should take into consideration when planning your trip. Do you want a relaxed, unhurried vacation? Go to places like El Jadida, Essouira, Assilah, and Safi (all beach towns). If you want places with more excitement and bustle, try Marrakesh, Agadir, Fes, Casablanca, and Rabat.

Different areas have different specialties in terms of shopping. Fes, of course, is famous for its tanneries, and there you will find the best prices and quality on leather goods, as well as fair prices for Berber carpets. Safi is known internationally for its beautiful pottery. Marrakesh has an extensive spice trade, you can buy anything from Ďunnamed fish rubí to saffron and more exotic spices. Saffron, by the way, can be bought for around 80 dirham for 100 grams, if you bargain hard enough. Essouira has a history in woodworking. Assilah has some pretty amazing art for sale. Tangierís silver jewelry selection is pretty vast. I hear Meknes has some wonderful metalworking.

Every souq (market) you go to will have all these items, but the price and the quality may suffer. And of course, nearly all souqs will have items such as Ďtraditionalí daggers, poofs, traditional clothing like jelabas and kaftans, colorful scarves, painted cups, pointed berber slippers, lanterns, mirrors etc.

The dates for several important Islamic holidays change based on moon patterns, so do be aware of the time of year that you visit. There are several important Islamic holidays throughout the year, during which whole cities essentially shut down. Ramadan, the month of fasting, is the most important for Muslims. Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, sees everything shut down for a week. Both are wonderful experiences in my opinion, but you must decide whether or not they are for you. Research the rules for Islamic holidays and know what to expect and how to act before jumping headfirst into it.

Moroccans are in general accepting of other religions (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc), but atheism tends to set them on edge. It is up to the atheist in question if they want to be truthful and risk pushing the Moroccans away, or to lie and say they are religious. Some Moroccans will love to talk to foreigners about Islam, and it is almost always in a friendly way.

I have not yet traveled all of Morocco, but I have visited a fair amount of it. Things I enjoyed doing:
-The Portuguese Cistern in El Jadida
-The souq in any city you visit
-Jemaa el-Fna, Palais Bahia, and Menara in Marrakesh
-Desert trips from Merzouga
-Caves of Hercules and Cafť Hafa in Tangier
-Madrasa Bou Inania and the tanneries in Fes
-Volubilis (Roman ruins near Fes)
-Chellah, the Hassan Tower, and Oudaias in Rabat

If you have any questions, corrections, or comments, I would love to hear them! You can of course post here.
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post Nov 28 2010, 03:45 PM
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I thought this was a fantastic overview about Morocco, hits a lot of the things you need to know!
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