The price of a smile in Marrakech

Marrakech is at its best early in the morning and at sunset.  The blocky red buildings glow against the half-light in the sky.  The palm trees and open boulevards give the city a graceful colonial feel.

In the heat of the day, Marrakech is a cacophony of noise, smell and sweaty humanity.  A bewildering array of vehicles — cars, bicycles, donkeys pulling carts, and ubiquitous mopeds — weaves through the surging crowds of pedestrians.  A gentle ‘peep’ is the only warning you get that one is on your tail before you feel the rush of air as it squeezes past.

I had been worried that men would hassle me for not dressing like a Muslim woman.  I’ve actually done a pretty good job of looking dowdy.

Who’s that woman on the dromedary?

In Marrakech, only one man called out “baby” as I passed, and given that I’d shrouded myself in a bulky scarf doing duty as a shawl, I think he would have hooted regardless.

Sexual harassment really isn’t an issue in Marrakech or anywhere else we’ve travelled so far in Morocco.

But poverty is.  The poverty rate in North Africa is more than 40%, compared with 10% globally and less than 2% in Western countries.  Although Morocco is relatively affluent, 17% of its people are considered vulnerable.  Twenty percent live on less than $4USD a day.

The poverty is palpable.  You see it in the old woman, bent in half with osteoporosis, using a folding garden chair as an improvised walker.  You see it in the young woman begging with her two small children, one scratching designs into cardboard to amuse himself.

With poverty comes resentment.  Everyone has their hand out, and if they’re unhappy with the coins you drop into it, their demeanour changes instantly from smiling warmth to tight-lipped hostility.

Marrakech is a tourist hub. It has a modern airport with soaring ceilings, and a new network of roads that lead elsewhere in the country.  What Marrakech doesn’t have is much for tourists to do. There’s the palace built in the 19th century by a prime minister for his four wives:

The window in the school for the PM’s 20+ children

And a very busy 3-acre garden planted by Yves St-Laurent:

Once you’ve fought through the crowds at these attractions, you’re funnelled into the souk or market place where hundreds of stalls and a warren of tiny shops sell stuff made mostly in Thailand and China.

For our first morning in Marrakech, a local travel company, Complete Tours, provided a “Historical Sites and Souks Walking Tour” with an amiable man named Abdul.

The tour starts well.  He takes us to the palace where he makes a polygamy joke and uses my hand to illustrate the spelling of ‘Allah.’ Suitably charmed, we let him rush us through the palace, expecting a long itinerary of sights.  We stop across a busy street from Koutoubia, the central mosque, where non-Muslims aren’t permitted to enter.  He instructs us to take a photograph and we comply.

The Central Mosque, Marrakech

Then we’re hustled over to the souk where our first stop is a cosmetic store/herbalist.

Abdul abandons us to a lecture by a man in a tatty white jacket, which quickly morphs into a sales pitch for argon oil. It will make me look 10 years younger while flushing the plaque from Julian’s arteries.

Next up, the carpet shop.  The oily proprietor assures us that he is a “good man,” explaining that “bad men” are the product of improper parenting.  Naively, we accept his offer of mint tea.

Dozens of carpets unfurl, his fingers snapping commands as his harried assistants pile one onto the next for our perusal.  Conceding defeat, we ask the price of a 4 x 6 Berber in oranges and blues.  $5000, he announces proudly. When we tell him that we’ve bought bigger ones for less money in Canada, there is a “misunderstanding” and the price plummets to $1200.  Even as we back out the door, he implores Julian to name his best price.

Amiable Abdul turns into Angry Abdul.  He marches through the rest of the souk ten paces ahead of us.  When I try to engage him with a question about the culture, he coldly lies to me.  Later we learn that guides earn a 15% commission on sales to tourists; 15% on $5K buys a lot of tagine.

Many years ago, we vacationed in St. Lucia.  We were the proud owners of a 2-year old son and a new mortgage.  My salary was frozen by Bob Rae and Julian was a year away from finishing his doctorate.  We didn’t have enough money to stay in the kind of hotel we liked, so we booked into an all-inclusive that featured an all-you-can-drink pina colada machine and a lot of drunk Brits.

One day we splurged on a rental car, and escaped to see the countryside.  The highlight of our trip was having a drink at a resort high in the mountains that overlooked the Pitons.  Wistfully, we wondered if we ever would be able to afford to stay there (we still can’t).

The low point followed immediately.  In the nearby village, a man with a child approached Julian to demand that we buy the boy juice.

Here we are again, in an impoverished country.  Still sympathetic, but aware that all the coins in our pockets won’t do much to change the essential plight of its citizens.

How do we travel responsibly to such places?  Do we avoid the country and the discomfort it creates?  Do we tip extravagantly?  Or do we smile politely and say “no thanks” to the offer of cheap, Chinese-made crap?

Updated October 15, 2018:

If anything, the problem is worse in the countryside than it is in the cities because people are poorer in the countryside.  Moroccans hassled us for money constantly.  On one occasion, I put up my hand to stop a man shoving a necklace in my face, and he told me I was “rude” and that “everyone deserves to make a living.”  We met few tourists who bought anything because of the intense pressure.

We also met people who were bullied because the size of the tip they gave was deemed insufficient.  One young woman who stopped to pet a newborn goat was bullied into giving 50 dirham, which is the equivalent of 5 euros; a meal in a restaurant in Marrakech goes for about 100 dirham.

We also met a young couple who were charged 700 euros for a 2-night trip to the desert.  That’s about a third of what our 17-day trip cost per person.

Julian approached the problem with humour.  He has a fabulous cowboy hat that merchants asked to photograph so they could reproduce it.  This was a ruse to get him into their shops.  By the end of the trip, he asked 50 dirham for the privilege.  To their credit, the Moroccans usually laughed.

Sadly, the so-called “tipping culture” dominates tourists’ interactions with locals.  If being hassled, bullied and/or ripped off bothers you, you will not like Morocco.


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