How can you be bored with Morocco? I hear you say. It’s got ancient medinas pulsing with a myriad of sights, sounds and smells; mountain peaks and precipitous canyons; sweeping desert dunes and sun drenched surf; ancient history and modern nightlife; you can even get a beer if you really want one.
Many people would quite justifiably demand far less of an ideal holiday destination, but I am not really an ideal holiday destination kind of guy, as regular readers will almost certainly have figured out by now. What really counts for me are people and how you interact with them. Now don’t get me wrong I am not slagging off the Moroccans, they are far more prepared to say hello to a stranger in the street than the average Englishman, admittedly that might be a low baseline for comparison in judging friendliness but you could do a lot worse than the average Moroccan. The problem is that encounters, as charming as they were, rarely went beyond the initial pleasantries before they fizzled out into a, “er…. well it was nice to meet you”, kind of evaporation. The contrast to the previous weeks in West Africa was far too bold to ignore. There, you can engage with just about any randomly chosen stranger, should you so choose, just by wishing them a good day, with little problem in finding subject matter for discussion. Moroccans virtually always responded cheerfully and politely to a, “bonjour” or “salaam alay kum” but showed little inclination to go much beyond that. Indeed, I hardly received any positive response for using Arabic rather than French, unlike, say Sudan, where many were simply overjoyed that I had made a bit of effort to learn the language. My Arabic may be basic but I can speak French well, so for most people there was no issue of communication problems. In places such as Iran even this is no barrier where people will often gladly use hand waving, drawing, acting or whatever to communicate with a visitor when no mutually comprehensible language is available.
Sometimes this could be seen as a product of having a successful tourist industry, where us foreigners simply aren’t enough of a novelty to generate much interest but I went to enough unremarkable, tourist free towns only to find very little difference, although the Western Sahara region in the South was noticeably more welcoming. Egypt is not a million miles away or culturally vastly different and until recently probably had the most established tourist industry on the continent, but I lost count of the number of fabulous encounters I had there. See Making Friends in Fayoum. A fellow travel blogger I met up with who had been living there for several months found that even this familiarity with locals didn’t lead to any more in-depth discussions.
Virtually the only times outside of chats with hostel staff where anyone went beyond the basics were when it transpired they were only trying to get me to look at their crappy gift shop. Other seemingly friendly operatives such as waiters would be all smiley and chatty as they mercilessly ripped you off, feigning surprise at the notion they could possibly be inventing the grossly inflated price. On one such occasion in Fez, after finishing a questionably expensive meal I noticed an Arabic menu on the adjacent table, where I discovered that the prices were half of that of the English Menu. Needless to say the waiter was not expecting a lowly tourist to be able to read an arabic menu or hurl a tirade of multi lingual abuse at him for shamelessly ripping of guests in his country. Both myself and another traveller I had told the story to had encounters with Moroccans who couldn’t even see the injustice of charging some customers twice as much as others. These kind of rip offs and petty hassles, that are the classic symptoms of a well established tourist industry anywhere in the world, just started to grind me down after a while, such that the prospect of visiting the famous blue town of Chefchouen just filled me with a gloomy foreboding and I bought a flight to Tunisia instead.
I don’t want to appear that I am overly picking on Moroccans, as you could make similar claims about many countries, particularly my own, England, this is more about me than it is them. As a solo, long-term traveler who has seen more of the world than the average punter you start to want different things from a trip than probably the majority of tourists – I include myself in the category of tourist, just because I travel in a different way doesn’t make me any more worthy than the package holidayer who wants a well deserved break from work, not six months of being dragged around dodgy dictatorships in breakdown prone public transport, which is my idea of fun.
I usually find that by about two weeks in a country and cheerfully saying hello to anyone I make eye contact with and asking shopkeepers and taxi drivers how things are, I start to get at least an inkling of opinions on issues of interest that I can then expand by asking more specific questions of people I meet. Some of these offer glimpses into the character of a people, others important political or social issues but in Morocco, zilch! It’s not that there aren’t fascinating themes to explore, for me at least, the rest of you only have to keep your eyelids open til the end of this paragraph if you sense some boring political stuff coming on . After skillfully defusing protests at the time of the Arab Spring by nudging the country towards greater democracy with a new constitution, King Mohammed VI has juggled the almost totally incompatible interests of ardent secularists and Islamic conservatives, without the country descending into chaos. He has some subjects who view him as a dictator, others who adore him and others who look to him as the guardian of Islamic values with a lineage traced back to the prophet. Surely there must be a mother lode of public opinion for me to mine here but all I heard were the usual grumbles over lack of employment prospects that you can hear across the entire continent. I would have loved to heard more about the ongoing dispute over the Western Sahara (no yawning, this is important) – while I was there the country had its annual celebration of its flagrantly colonial theft of the nation to its south, to subvert a UN referendum that would have determined what its people actually wanted, but even this raised no conversation. Should any of you want to know more here is a link to get you started.
Due to this lack of communication I learnt virtually nothing about Morocco, its culture and people that I couldn’t have read in a superficial guidebook. Too many travel blogs may be content to chuck together a few rehashed Google searches to describe a country to you but I want to at least gain some personal insight into life somewhere before I think about rehashing some Google searches for you. So, after five weeks in the country, this crummy effort of a blog post is all I have to offer you dear readers and I humbly beg your forgiveness.