To my friends and I, going to Morocco seemed to be a no-brainer. Here we are at the bottom of the Iberian Peninsula, a centimeter away from the African coast on a world map. Almost every study abroad student in our program took the leap over to Morocco to see what Africa had to offer. They all came back safe, raving about the blue city of Chefchaouen and how they had rode camels by the beach. It sounded like something out of a brochure (and in fact, that was exactly how the brochure portrayed the journey).
However, if you choose to go to Morocco, it is important to keep some things in mind. Morocco can be captivating and beautiful, but also jarring and dangerous. I’ll start out by giving you the fair warnings before I tempt you with the positives.
Be Prepared: Some of the Downfalls of Morocco
It’s important to keep in mind that Morocco seems like a very foreign land, because it is. Therefore, it is also obvious to others that you are foreign, and this is usually not a good thing. Keep the following things in mind when traveling.
Get a Guide
If you want to feel secure 90% of the time I highly recommend seeing the country through a guided tour program. At times, you may feel restricted and left without time to explore, but the benefits outweigh the burdens. Guides are excellent because 1) they know the language 2) they know the sights and 3) they have been guiding travelers safely for years (hopefully).
I was in Morocco with a third party tour that guided our group. The guides lined up all of our transportation, meals, tours and security. While this sounds like a miracle to some and a headache to others, I assure you it was for the best. If I had to travel alone I would have surely ended up lost, pick-pocketed and with diarrhea. We had one native speaker on the trip with us and he was our intermediary and bodyguard throughout the journey.
Learn Basic Phrases
In Morocco the main language is Arabic, followed by French, and with a high population in the North also speaking Spanish. In cities like Tangier, which was once simultaneously occupied by several European territories, you may find people who speak English and Italian as well. Still, the majority of the country is going to default to Arabic, so it may be helpful to learn some key phrases.
1.Na’am–Yes 2.La–No 3. Waha–OK 4.Afak–Please
5.Salam – Hello 6.Salam walaykoom – Hello (formal when addressing a group)
7.Shukran (bezzef) – Thank you (very much) 8.La shukran – No, thank you
9.Labas? – How are you? 10.M’a ssalama – Goodbye
11.La ilaha illa Allah– There is only one God, Allah (My Islamic culture teacher told us that this is the most important phrase if you are in a sticky situation)
Be Weary of the Food
Like any undeveloped nation or island country, be weary of the water. That being said, remember that this also carries over to the food that is washed with it. When in Morocco always follow these rules:
1. Drink bottled water. Look out for ice cubes in your drinks—they are made of water as well!
2. Never eat street food if you do not want to get sick. You may have watched them cook it on a hot plate in front of your eyes and sworn to your friends that you have not gotten sick in years, but if you eat it you are putting yourself at a risk. No one wants to be stuck traveling with a puker (and surely you do not want to be that person either).
3. Don’t eat fresh produce. You never really know how well that lettuce was cleaned or if your pear was even washed in the first place. If it’s cooked you have a better chance of being safe.
4. If you absolutely need a fresh meal, look at TripAdvisor and other reviews of restaurants before eating there. I was surprised to find that TripAdvisor also exists in Morocco, and all the places we ate at had rating stickers on their doors. Knowing that many people had survived the salads before us, we were all able to eat fresher veggies with hot bread. Fancier hotels and resorts are usually okay as well.
Keep an Eye Out
As in many places, you MUST keep an eye out for pickpockets: especially young children. Being in Morocco was the first time I ever felt threatened by an eight year old. Given not all the children are scary of course (Some are actually quite cute. The little girls would yell “Hola” to us repeatedly with goofy smiles on their faces).
The kids you have to look out for are the ones who are seen on the street without any parents in sight. Usually they will come up close and try to sell you bracelets and knick-knacks, but other times they will just run near you and stand close. Luckily, no one in our group was pick-pocketed, but we did have several boys climb into the motor of our tour bus. The kids know that a Spanish tour bus in Morocco must return to Spain. All of them are adept at sneaking under the bus and crawling up into the motor, often while disconnecting cords and wires. Our driver stood guard with a shovel yelling at the swarm of young boys outside and threatening the ones already inside. It was all very chaotic, sad and frustrating. A part of you is annoyed that these boys are so persistent while you wait for the bus to leave for lunch. Another part of you is worried that they will somehow make it onto the bus and steal every belonging you have with you. Then there is your conscience, which quietly reminds you how selfish you are being.
Nearly all of the boys are orphans who continually try to cross the border. It is their only source of hope for a better life and, also, a sort of game for them. From what I saw, the boys ranged from 5-16 and all remained together in packs. At such a young age with little else to do, I can see how it turns into an exciting adventure to try and do something so dangerous. My younger brother and cousins would always seek adrenaline rushes as kids. They would spend hours hooking up dangerous rope swings in our backyard to try and swing across like James Bond. Every time we went swimming the boys had to show off their high dives and flips. Of course, this is a generalization, but there is no doubting groupthink. Any group of young boys will find their own adventure, and if they live in a poor country without parents, that adventure will be more dangerous.
Unfortunately, the guides informed us that any boy who remained on the bus was going to be removed at customs and beaten. As we neared the port, more boys ran out to try and climb in one last time. Some even rode bikes and held onto the bus as it rolled into the station. The police ran at them and beat them off as we pulled into the harbor. Being the sheltered American girl that I am, it was the first time I had ever seen such a thing. My vacation had turned into a lesson on poverty and reminded me to appreciate the U.S. passport I had in my hand.
Expect to be in Awe: The Quirks and Beauties of Morocco
I never imagined that Africa could be so green and mountainous. Even in February the mountains of the inlands were misty and covered in trees, plants and grasses. On our bus ride to Chefchaouen there were spectacular misty mountain views at some points and others when the sun light up the emerald hillsides.
I did not swim at the beach on my stay here (it was still only 60 degrees or so in February), but the ocean views I saw were gorgeous. The water was a dark cerulean color and appeared to have great waves for surfers as well. I have not been, but our guide told us that the west coast of Morocco has some excellent beaches and resort areas.
The cities of Morocco are truly unique places with eclectic mixes of architecture and culture. The white clay homes of Chefchaouen were originally painted blue to make mosquitoes visible. Now, instead of being swarmed by mosquitoes, the city is full of tourists eager to walk the streets of this “blue city.”
Tangier’s European neighborhoods contrast the clay houses that haphazardly stack upon each other. I have not been to the following places, but many Spaniards also talk highly of Fez, Marrakesh and Casablanca.
Of additional interest is being able to see the striking cultural differences within each city. During one of the day’s several calls to prayer you will witness the city grow calm as practicing Muslims go off to their mosque or homes to worship. Walk the streets and you will see some women wearing colorful headscarves and some men wearing traditional one of the several types of traditional dress. Go to see a typical Moroccan show to watch belly dancers shake their jingle skirts. Morocco has a distinct culture from our own, and it should not be overlooked.
The BEST Food
If you can find a safe restaurant, you will be able to thoroughly enjoy Morocco’s unique cuisine. Think couscous. Couscous is a small, circular grain (it’s just a bit smaller than quinoa) that Moroccans eat in plentiful amounts. On our last day we received a platter with a huge mound of this essential grain. It was spiced with cinnamon, curry, turmeric and more before being adorned with roasted chicken, vegetables, raisins and chickpeas. Morocco is also known for its pastries. You will find an assortment of little cream puffs, flaky creations embellished with candied nuts, and little fruit tarts. Moroccans even use their pastries to savor. Chicken pastillas are also featured on most menus: a fried puff pastry stuffed with cinnamon chicken and vegetables.