The second we disembarked from the ferry in Tangier, we were immediately engulfed in a buzzing “cloud of mosquitos” – young men, one after another, insistently “offering” to “guide” us, or “help” us find someplace to eat or stay (for pay, of course)! The introduction to Morocco was molto intensivo!
In the interest of providing a balanced report, let me first talk about the “downside” of visiting a country that is a dizzying combination of first, second, and third world.
The medinas (ancient cities) and their souks (tangled mazes of equally ancient shopping alleys) are a third world experience. You will frequently smell urine, and sewer gas, and other odors, while out and about. The streets are not clean (though the bathrooms are!). There are no sidewalks. As you walk along, you will share the space with mopeds zipping by (in both directions), small, motorized vehicles of all shapes and iterations, donkeys, horses, carts, and even cars and trucks. You will see beggars sitting in doorways and in front of mosques. You will probably see thousands of stray cats (though not many stray dogs). You will be confronted with the heads of animals hanging outside butcher shops to “advertise” the types of meats available. If you express any curiosity or interest in an item you see in a shop in a souk, you are going to get a sales pitch (and, probably, a glass of mint tea). The pace of life is loud and frenetic, a bit frenzied for those who are accustomed to a more sedate, modulated existence.
And then, there is the constant, incessant, presence of those aforementioned “mosquitos”. While the port area of Tangier was, by far, our most “in-your-face” experience with them, we ran into more benign variations of the species on a daily basis, throughout the country. To be clear, none of these people appeared dangerous or frightening. Irritatingly persistent is the most apt term I can think of. They were all very friendly, and respectful, in their own pushy way. Eventually, most gave up and said goodbye, and headed off to find another “victim” when they were finally convinced we were not going to take advantage of their services. They are a fact of life for tourists in the medinas.
That’s the downside.
On the other hand, the transportation system is first-rate. Morocco is investing heavily (thanks to China, most likely) in high speed rail. We saw TGV trains parked at stations, awaiting the completion of the new tracks that will accommodate them. Construction of those tracks was busily taking place along the routes we traveled. Beginning sometime next year, the trains will come into service, cutting travel time significantly between major cities. The current train cars are a bit dated, but they are clean, well maintained, and comfortable. Personnel in train stations and aboard trains spoke English wherever we went, so there was no language issue. It was a real pleasure to sit back and watch the countryside glide smoothly by.
Buses make connections to locations trains do not service. Again – the equipment is clean and comfortable. Again – personnel at the stations spoke English. Many buses even have wi-fi available! Seating is assigned, so if you have a preference for the sunny or shady side, figure out which is which and ask for seats on the driver’s side or opposite. The rest stop we visited on the way to and from Essaouira was comparable to the Autogrill or other similar type of establishments along the autostradas of Italy and Germany.
Taxis are kind of hit and miss. They’re supposed to be metered, but most are not. You can (and should!) bargain for the price. Taxis right outside train and bus stations (and, probably airports but we didn’t come in that way) are most expensive at first glance, but most will bargain down to between half and two thirds the original price. Also, if you walk a block or two away from the station and hail a cab, the starting price will be less expensive. The exception to this, at least in Marrakech, is taxis to the airport (a 10-minute – 2 mile – ride from the medina). All the taxis we saw had official-looking stickers on the windshields indicating a standard charge for the airport, and the drivers held firm. Our most expensive fare, which was to the airport, was the equivalent of $5. The others ranged between $2 and $4, which made taxis a great “bargain”.
Of course, there are wonderful architectural and cultural sites to visit, and shopping, if you are into shopping, is a marvelous adventure! Morocco is a place where hand-made craftsmanship is still highly valued, and, even if you’re not in the market to buy, you can see the people who make the goods at work in shops and stalls and squares throughout the medinas. Everyone is happy to explain their particular expertise, and proud to show their wares.
Moroccans as a people are very welcoming and friendly! Almost everyone speaks some English, and many are quite fluent in our language. Morocco was the very first nation to recognize the US, while we were still fighting our revolution, and Moroccans are very proud to point out that fact to American visitors. “We are your oldest friend!” was almost always among the first words spoken upon learning we were visiting from the US. Also almost always, there was some expression of uncertainty about whether or not the US would continue to be friends with Morocco, but that’s another tale. Expect this topic to come up in conversation, though, because it will. Moroccans are very curious people! They are proud of their country, their King, their history and culture, and eager to share and to learn. We found them to be gracious and open hosts!
Whew! Two posts in and I still haven’t gotten to describing the places we visited in any detail!
NEXT: Tangier, Fez, Rabat, Marrakech, and Essaouira!