The title of this post is misleading, we definitely were kind of swindled in Morocco. Despite being warned several times. Oh, yea, and then I also had my wallet stolen in Paris. So I’m officially 0 : 2 in my last two trips. There are some tricky people around, folks! So here is a post after learning from a few experiences.
As I’ve written before, the journey to and through Morocco was our craziest trip yet. Our four days there were filled with anxiety and astonishment. It closely rivaled my solo two-week trip to Ecuador where I ran out of cash and the only ATM was out of bills so I had to depend on strangers for a ride, meal, and an IOU on my hostel (pretend you didn’t read that, Dad!). That story is for another time, but to me it also proves that there are good people out there, too.
Contrary to some beliefs, developing countries are full of kind, welcoming people. Also, probably more helpful and appreciative people than those who live around you now. After traveling to Honduras and Ecuador on my own and to Morocco with Jay, I think my best piece of advice would just be to understand how tourism in these countries works. This is what I have observed and I will be as straight-forward as possible.
1. As a tourist to the country, you have enough money to make the trip, therefore you are rich. It doesn’t matter if you are a poor student, a tight-budgeted auxiliar, or whatever else, people will try to rip you off. Always, in Morocco, you must bargain. Try not to get offended when someone blatantly ups the price… it’s how their system works, unfortunately. People may look at you just like another dollar bill, but there are still some who care. We were told that in larger cities, such as Marrakesh, they know that tourism is a guaranteed thing. That means there are few people who go out of their way for tourists to be polite and helpful. But in smaller areas of Morocco, people want you to leave happy and encourage you to tell others that you had a great time so that maybe they will come visit.
2. If you are a white tourist, you are rich. Controversial topic, I know, but this is what I have witnessed. I was eating at a typical KFC in Tegucigalpa, Honduras surrounded by (non-white) people, yet the manager of the restaurant sought me out to ask if I was completely satisfied with my meal. Now, why is that? Maybe sometime soon I’ll collect all of my thoughts and write a post about this idea.
3. There is essentially no middle-class, and the industry works in a pyramid. After talking with our guide, and fellow travelers we met, it became clear that tourism in Morocco is set up this way. There are many, many shops, for example, selling items in the market. When you are bargaining with these shop-owners, they will say they need you to pay this amount “because they need to feed their family”. This is most likely true, because in reality, the person who owns their shop and supplies their items, will be taking up to 90% of the profit. You will see poverty in these countries that is difficult to walk by. It’s sad that even if you tried to offer monetary help it would probably pass over those who need it and up to the top of the pyramid.
4. People try to keep business “in the family.” I mentioned that Jay and I were sort of “swindled.” Here’s what happened. For our last night in Fez, we booked a hostel online before we left Spain. When we arrived, the hostel was completely empty except for three workers just watching T.V. Instead of showing us to our room immediately, we were sat down in the common room and offered tea, then just kind of sat… for 20 minutes.
Finally, I asked about our room. We were then very nervously explained that they had a “big, big problem, I swear to Allah.” They said that through the hostel website they overbooked their hostel by 12 (!!!) rooms. But “don’t worry, we find you nice place to stay with our family.” They kept swearing up and down that they were being honest, even though we weren’t questioning their character. We decided it felt weird and we would just call the hostel we had stayed at two nights ago, no problem. I told them this and they said they would call for me… later, they said it was full, so I tried to call myself from their public phone with no answer… it was just really weird. We weighed the options. If we left the hostel we’d be outside lost in the maze that is the Fez Medina. With no phone service. Hm, okay.
We ended up going with an Italian couple to “another hostel” that was really just a family’s house. We had our own room, but the bathroom was filled with the family’s toiletries and when I asked if I could use a computer to confirm our boarding passes for the next day I was led into a teenager’s room. We paid the same amount that we would have at the other place, so I guess we weren’t technically “swindled.” But it was an uncomfortable situation. We’ve decided that maybe it was an accident, or maybe they always pull this on travelers, but they refused to lose our potential money by letting us check-in somewhere else.
If you are using guided tours, you feel as if you are being passed off from person to person. We went from our first hostel, to our desert tour driver, to the desert guides, to another driver, to our next hostel, to our Medina guide. Some people will care about you, others won’t.
5. Some people try to sneak past the rules. The awkward situations only continued into our next day. We asked for a quick tour of the medina before we had to go to the train station and were assured someone “from the family” could take us (hint: don’t do that). I asked if we could see the tanneries and the city walls, and he agreed. And so it began… we started at a leather shop above the tanneries. I enjoyed it because the worker told us a bit about the history, such as that they have been making leather in the same way since the 12th century, and that all the leather is first soaked in pigeon poop to soften through the ammonia. They use all natural dyes, poppy flower for red, saffron for yellow, indigo for blue, and wood chips for brown. But after the pleasantries, we were followed around the shop by the worker, our guide, and a man who we’ll call “Pop.” Pop was a short, unfriendly grandpa who was clearly the leader of the operation. He came with us on our “tour,” but never spoke to us. He only talked with the worker of each place we left, confirming if we had bought anything and at what price.
In the leather shop, I was in love with this beautiful, chestnut brown bag. At first, the worker told me an outrageous price. I had bargained before and knew this is the norm, so I low balled him and he refused. Moving on. We were taken to room after room, even those we weren’t interested in (leather jackets, for example), and the worker carried the bag I asked about along with us. All of a sudden, when we were away from Pop and the other workers, he turned to us and started whispering frantically. Basically he said that he would give us the bag for the amount I offered him, if we agreed to give him money in cash on the side. He insisted that we absolutely could not tell Pop. We looked around all shifty-eyed and suspicious, but agreed. We gave him cash, bought the purse with a card, and left. Have you had enough of the uncomfortable situations, yet? I definitely had, but it wasn’t over yet.
6. Always agree on the amount you will pay beforehand. We continued to be led from shop to shop, even long after we had ran out of money. We told them we had no money, no one cared. We even passed our Italian friends in the Medina and it appeared that the same thing was happening to them, poor things! I asked our guide how much we should pay him so that I could keep that amount free, and he only said “as you want” (red flag! red flag!). We ran out of time, even though we didn’t go to the city wall as I requested. If you’re following along here, they only bring you to the shops that they make profit from on your “tour.”
Our guide shook our hands and Jay took out his wallet to pay him. He gave him 200 dirham, which is more than enough for a few hours of being led around. Then, Pop held out his hand. Not to shake our hands, but for more money. Even though he didn’t speak to us, didn’t help us, did nothing. When Jay said he didn’t have any more money, Pop got really upset. Jay looked in his wallet and had a 200 dirham bill and and 50 dirham bill. Pop snatched the 200 bill and sped off!! Jay was shocked and I was furious. Our guide was still standing there and we started to get angry. Pop came back repeating “Berber, Berber” over and over with a hand-feeding motion, acting like he was poor (see #1 and #2). Our guide finally gave us back his 200 dirham, which is so sad because he was actually the one to help us and he received nothing (see #3).
Whew! So there you have it. I want people to read this so that they will be aware, as we could have been if we were more prepared. First of all, as I’ve already said, try to understand the system. Know how you will react if you are in any of these situations. You can hypothetically think it through. I thought I was a seasoned-enough traveler, bargainer, planner to get through the trip without doing a lot of extra research. We are completely fine, we enjoyed ourselves and had more incredible experiences than shady, but there are many little things we could have avoided to be more comfortable and less anxious.
Advice for Fez, Morocco:
When booking accomodation, keep in mind that Morocco should be very cheap! But, you definitely have to pay for luxury. A riad is a bigger family guest house, and a dar is a smaller house, with only 1-3 rooms. Check reviews of these places (even though our awkward experience was at a place with good reviews).
Don’t take a tour from 1. a small boy offering to give you a “tour of the Medina.” They’re actually not allowed to do it. What you should do (and what we should have done when we were told) is to take a government sponsored tour guide through the city. You pay 200 dirham for most of the day, then afterwards you review your tour guide. Based on your review, their pay is decided. People don’t want you to take these “family” tours because of the same experience we had, you leave and have a negative experience and don’t want to come back.
I do want to go back. When we do go back, I want to Couchsurf so you can get away from the “passing down” from one person to the next but still have some guidance. Genuine people is what makes the difference for me. Morocco is a beautiful, diverse country and I want to see more of it. I just want to write about these experiences so that other travelers will be aware. Live and learn. If travel was incredibly easy, everyone would do it.
Do you have any advice for traveling in Morocco? Have you ever had an uncomfortable experience through tourism?