Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nine Things You Should Know Before Visiting Morocco

jemaa el-fnaa square in marakech

Morocco is an Islamic Country

The West loves Morocco for being contemporary and progressive almost as much as Morocco loves to market itself as forward-thinking and modern, but while those things might be true, it is still an Islamic nation and a far cry from visiting a Western country. The CIA World Factbook says that 99% of Moroccans are muslim, and even for non-religious residents, or those just visiting, the cultural resonance is unavoidable. From prayer calls at 5am to the absence of pork on the menu, your daily life will be affected. This is a good thing, because experiencing different cultures is one of the great reasons to travel, but it's also a good idea to prepare for a new state of mind, and pack appropriately.

Don't Walk Around in your Pajamas

Morocco is indeed very progressive; there are no explicit rules about clothing nor are you likely to get into a jam because of what you're wearing, but you're also not going to see any locals walking around in shorts and a T-shirt, no matter the season. To Moroccans, this type of clothing is only worn for sleeping, or by tourists. If you're travelling in the summer months, pack some lightweight tops or beachy pants, or exercise your haggling muscles to buy some when you get there!

The Mosques Are Beautiful, from the Outside

Corollary number one to Morocco being an Islamic nation is that mosques are everywhere. They're beautiful, and some of the more famous ones like Hassan II in Cassablanca or the Kairaouine Mosque in Fes are probably high on your list of sights to see. Unfortunately, unless you are Muslim, you will only be able to admire them from the outside. Don't be disappointed, though! The view from the outside is worthwhile, and you might even be able to sneak a peak from the doorway--or have a local snap you some photos for a few dinar.

Friday is the New Sunday

The second corollary of Morocco being an Islamic nation is that in Islam, Friday is the day of rest, peace and mercy; comparable to Sunday in Christianity or Saturday in Judaism. In religious practice, it means that good muslims should visit the mosque to pray, and in everyday practice, it means that all of the stores will be closed. On the plus side, it's also couscous day! So be sure to keep Friday in mind as you plan your trip, and make sure it isn't the day you had your heart set on looting the souks of Marrakech.

There is no "Lowest Price"

In the era of Ebay, Amazon, and post-Christmas sales, saying that there is no bottom price in the Western world is like trying to explain to Neo that there is no spoon. But, when you visit Morocco, the sooner you face it, the better: There is no "lowest price." I almost never buy anything without triple checking the price on the internet and shopping around for deals, because every penny over the lowest possible price is a penny wasted. And while that's one way to do things, the truth is that you know what you would pay for something, the crucial number on the line between a price you can live with and an item you can't live without. If you don't know this number, maybe it's worth thinking about. Morocco's bartering system can be a tough adjustment, but there is a ring of fairness to that final handshake when you and the vendor have reached an acceptable number range.

Unfortunately my admiration for the bartering system does not translate to any level of skill: Nearly everything I bought in Morocco came with a consolation "gift", which is not a good sign, so be sure to check out some haggling guides online before you leave!

You Should Never Feel Trapped in a Purchase

If you find yourself in a haggling nightmare and just want out, don't feel obligated to make a purchase. The absolute worst thing that could happen is that some unkind words are directed your way, which you might even have the good fortune to not understand. Try sincerely placing your hand over your heart as you decline, or offer to pay for the mint tea you've surely been offered to release yourself from any obligations.

Your Guide is not Your Friend

Every guidebook will warn you to avoid using the "official guides" that approach you on the street. Instead, you can ask at your hotel or contact the tourism office to connect with someone accredited by the Morocco National Tourism Board. While this seems to be the best way to go, it's still important to understand that even a legitimate guide is not your "friend." Our guide's answers often felt stilted, and while that experience may be luck of the draw; tourists, travelers, and guidebooks agree that your guide will never help you haggle. Guides get a standard 10%-15% cut of your purchase, so enjoy your experience and try to learn everything you can, but be wary when shopping.

And alternately, don't forget that couchsurfing or other traveler's organizations are also unique and affordable options to learn more about the local scene.

No Photo!

Nowhere have I seen such a divide between tourists and locals as in Morocco, where khaki-wearing, camera-toting, non-natives stick out like a sore thumb. While the men in djellabas and women in hijabs going about their business, and selling their wares, don't mind what you wear and are probably happy to see you entering their store, what they might not appreciate is having their photo taken. Aside from a little pick-pocketing, Morocco is a relatively safe country and you needn't worry about having your camera stolen, but you should be aware that you are not the first person who wanted to capture the "essence" of Morocco, and consider that it might be tiring to have your culture and your life objectified through a lens. Many people are obliging, and often enthusiastic, but they prefer to be asked. Others may want a dirham or two in exchange for your photographic moment.

That Homeless Person Makes More Money Than You Do

Maybe they don't make more money than you do, but it turns out that many of Morocco's beggars actually aren't too bad off. After days of being hassled, poked, and stalked, the question begged some research: Should we be helping or not? Our accredited guide always seemed to have some spare change on hand to distribute, we observed, but other people we spoke with indicated that beggars often make more money than people who work, and choose not to work as a result. A little googling supported the latter theory, painting Morocco's rampant panhandling like a business, and sometimes a lucrative one: Many beggars even have bank accounts and real estate as fruits of their begging, and sometimes children are hired to increase revenue. After seeing many people of all ages hard at work making the leather jackets, rugs, and metalwork sold in the souks, it's less than inspiring to pay someone for doing nothing, particularly someone quite agressive and downright annoying.

Of course, this does not apply to everyone and you should exercise your own judgement. One suggestion that I liked is to bring small gifts like pens or candies to give to the children.

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