Marrakech- Farewell to Morocco

Trip Start May 05, 2008
Trip End May 09, 2009

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Fez had not been overly kind to us. The night before leaving, we both had scorching cases of Fez belly and an additional conundrum: at least one of us could not wear earplugs to bed. The room was very hot, but opening the windows would greatly increase the sound pollution coming from the outside. For whatever reason, someone had decided they had to do some construction work between 1:30 and 4:30am, resulting in a lot of banging, yelling and occasionally throwing construction materials around, and interrupting on occasion to do what sounded like fighting to us. We would have understood if they had worked very early in the morning on account of the heat, but between 4:30 and 8am it was both very quiet and cool. So the night was a combination of stifling heat alternating with loud noises and punctuated with the hourly trip across the hall to relieve our aching stomachs in a bathroom that had seen its better days.
We then took an 8 hour train ride across the plains and the desert to Marrakech, which fortunately seemed like a different world. It is much cleaner and paradoxically for a city on the edge of the desert, greener than Fez. It has grand avenues and modern buildings. Very little seems to have remained of the ancient grand city where caravans laden with the gold of Ghana, Mali and Songhay in the heart of Western Africa would arrive. Nowadays, its main drawcards are the famous Djemaa el-Fnaa square and a few mosques and palaces which can be seen from the outside (unfortunately not much can be actually visited). Djemaa el-Fnaa is a dizzying place, especially in the evening, with snake charmers, monkey handlers, musicians, acrobats and belly dancers all competing for attention. To see them, you have to squeeze past the hundreds of stalls selling steaming snails, sheep's head, freshly-squeezed orange juice, overpriced dates, pastries and other foodstuffs; not to mention women painting henna, beggars and people somehow trying to drive their motorbikes in the middle of all this. Everyone's shouting at you, in several languages, trying to get your attention and squeeze some more dirhams out of you. You could of course try to get out the square, but chances are you would end up in one of the souqs surrounding the square, where traditional Morrocan crafts are displayed alongside Chinese Gucci and Chanel knockoffs, and where you get more people trying to get your attention. So in the end, we ended up spending much of our time recuperating in our fairly nice hotel room, or on a very decent terrace restaurant, where we could eat something other than tagine or couscous for the first time in a week and a half.
We were initially planning to spend two to two and a half weeks in Morocco, but after only about 9 days, we have decided that we have had about enough. The country itself has tourist potential indeed and the tourism industry is their third largest source of income, but currently Morocco is not a country overly friendly to tourists. What should be the main sources of attraction here are the environment, the culture and some of the architecture, in particular the mosques. However, Moroccans display a shocking lack of respect for the environment, both inside and outside the cities. Along the train tracks and the roads in Morocco, we routinely saw piles of garbage scattered every few meters, which really spoils the interesting landscape; in the cities, particularly in Fez, people throw their garbage out in the street, so overall the environment is nowhere near as much of a drawcard as it could be. Most mosques in the country, with the exception of one modern mosque in Casablanca, are off-limits to non-muslims, when combined with the fact that most other older buildings are unattractive on the outside and one is unlikely to see the inside, means that one can appreciate very few beautiful buildings.While we did see one interesting medersa in Fez, we cannot say that overall the architecture is a big reason for people visiting Morocco. So this leaves the culture as a drawcard, and what could be Morocco's biggest strength is for the average tourist its biggest problem. While in rural areas, we have heard that people are very nice and Moroccan hospitality is legendary, in areas where tourists are likely to go; the nice hospitable people seem outnumbered by a different brand of men. In between the shop owners, restaurant workers, faux guides, beggars, street performers and drug dealers, one gets hassled literally hundreds of times a day. You get the feeling that everyone's out to screw you in one way or another. After a few bad experiences, one gets to learn to say no in a hurry, and becomes very defensive and negative, which greatly spoils the enjoyment of the place. This turns the average tourist, no matter how well-meaning one starts out upon arriving into the country, into someone which Moroccans probably perceive as a rich jerk. The cultural gap really feels immense, and for the independent traveller, becomes very difficult to surmount. The only way to enjoy Morocco is likely to dish out some money and hire an experienced guide for the duration, who can make the necessary arrangements and act as a buffer with the locals.
We are thus cutting our journey short and taking the night train back to Tangier, and we should be in Malaga, Spain in about 24 hours.
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