I was looking forward to exploring Morocco; land of the Berbers and the Tuaregs with its Arabic, French and African roots. The Atlas Mountains and wild coastlines, tagines and couscous, mint tea and crazy, chaotic walled medinas were all calling me.
My plan was to volunteer with a work exchange – but sometimes the best plans fail – so I backpacked slowly staying in hostels and making some really wonderful new friends.
Why I found travelling in Morocco so difficult
Disclaimer: When you read this article, please bear in mind the following information about me and know that I always try to find the good in every situation.
I think that I’m a pretty savvy traveller. I’ve been travelling continuously for nearly six years and I’ve lived and volunteered in many different countries.
The best bits about travel for me are the people that I meet and the knowledge and experiences that we share and swap. I am open-minded, non-judgmental and I do my best not to discriminate, but in Morocco…..read on and find out more.
My Morocco travel itinerary.
I arrived in Fez with a Spanish friend and together we explored the narrow alleyways in the old city. We also got together with some other travellers from our hostel and hired a car and a driver for a day trip to Meknes and the Roman ruins at Volubilis. After five days my friend returned to her studies in Spain and I went north to the relative peace and quiet of the blue city of Chefchaoen.
Surrounded by green hills the weather turned damp and grey which sadly meant that the hikes that I had planned were not really an option – I wasn’t so dedicated that I wanted to walk in the drizzle – but I did enjoy wandering around the small cobbled streets.
On the next stage of my Morocco itinerary I took the seven hour train journey south to Marrakech where I spent several days exploring and taking photographs with Andre from Germany and also managed to meet up with a travel friend Jamillah who I had last seen in Malaysia.
Andre and I visited the impressive Badi Palace, the Photography Museum, the Yves St Laurent Garden and the new Museum of Cultural Confluences and I also made a new friend in Robbie from London.
Whilst I am very happy with my own company it’s always a bonus to meet lovely people that I instantly connect with…and this trip was constantly putting some very interesting people in my path.
But I still wasn’t ‘getting’ Morocco despite doing my best to connect with as many local people as possible so I decided to head to the coastal town of Essaouira where I met the fabulous Lara from Germany and I was also very happy to reconnect with Robbie who rolled into town following his trip to the desert.
An impromptu conversation over breakfast one morning found Robbie and me jumping on a bus for the three hour trip south to the surf village of Taghazout for a couple of nights. A day trip with Lara to Paradise Valley was great fun and the three of us had a wonderful time but I still was finding the magic of Morocco to be eluding me!
My Morocco backpacking route took me back to Essaouira for more long beach walks and fish suppers until my body succumbed to the bug that the surfers in Taghazout had kindly passed on to me. I was confined to bed for a couple of days before my final bus back to Marrakech and my flight out of the country.
Maybe I was simply trying too hard to connect with the rhythm of Morocco during a month when I needed to be kind to myself. I will explain more about this below but the country has a fascinating history, beautiful views and the intercity transport is efficient.
Ancient marketplaces rub shoulders with glitzy shopping centres and modern cars speed past donkeys pulling carts while shepherds herd their sheep and goats by the roadside.
Everybody has a mobile phone yet simple old-fashioned fairground style games keep people entertained in the streets.
Many of the traders are extremely aggressive but I had expected that and as I love to barter this wouldn’t normally be an issue or offend me so what on earth was unsettling me?
On my final evening in Marrakech I decided to give up searching for the answer….but of course the answer then found me…. waking me up at 3am like a lightning bolt and preventing me from returning to sleep.
The answer was subconscious emotional triggers!
Morocco was full of emotional triggers which, perhaps had I visited at any other time of the year would not have been a problem for me, but travelling in February they were flying at me like poison darts from every direction.
Let me add some context for you.
Dealing with emotional pain
February is the birth month of both my estranged (their choice) adult children and also my one time best friend. Every year since I left my marriage I have struggled in February, dealing with sadness, guilt and hurt until last year when I made a conscious effort to change my mindset and stop these negative and destructive thoughts.
That year I practised the shit out of Mindfulness, CBT and positivity along with meditation and self-belief strategies on the tropical island of Pangkor. I succeeded in turning the negatives into positives and I decided that in future February would be a month of celebration of the birthdays. Feeling sorry for myself was not going to be an option…and you know what? ….this really worked.
That first year February flew by and I even found that I was attracting new coaching clients who were inspired my personal journey that I was posting daily on social media. This year I decided to replicate the inner-work that I had done on Pangkor and I decided to travel to a different culture and explore Morocco. Normally immersing myself in a very different culture takes my mind off any problems.
I did achieve my personal goals despite the difficulties in Morocco because since becoming a Mindfulness Practitioner I find it relatively easy to focus on the positive and I can dispel any self doubts. I had an absolute blast with my new friends and I enjoyed exploring the Moroccan cities and the countryside BUT until 3am on that final night I was unable to put my finger on what the missing link was.
Managing difficult emotions
There was no missing link in Morocco. The triggers were the issue and they were unbalancing me and unsettling me at a time when my emotions were heightened.
The traders who would change faces so quickly from Mr Nice to Mr Nasty when I didn’t want to browse in their shops, the guys who would hiss as I passed them in the alleyways, the fake smiles as they asked where I was from as I walked past and then the snide comments as I kept walking – each of these I could deal with but I was finding it difficult to cope with the sheer number of sarcastic comments and the disrespect.
And this was because the put-downs were reminding me too much of what I had lost – basically my children – and in February this was especially raw. I had left an unhappy marriage and a life time of sarcastic comments and jibes yet here were total strangers disrespecting me and doing their best to make me feel insignificant – or at least, that’s how I was interpreting things.
Why was travel in Morocco so difficult for me?
I had been told for years that I should do everything a different way (my husband’s way) and that my way was never good enough. I had been led to believe that I was insincere and not committed enough to anything but nobody knows how hard I tried to improve myself and to make a difference.
Undermining somebody’s self-belief by instilling self doubt is a classic technique employed by someone with a manipulative personality but I eventually came to see it for what it was and I had subsequently rebuilt my self esteem back up – yet here I was being bombarded by more of the same – but by strangers in the street.
I guess ordinarily I would have laughed at the guy who tried to turn around a potential sale of a backgammon set into a chess set. The shop keeper didn’t have the particular board that I wanted and he only wanted a sale as he continued to talk over my requests, louder and louder. He insisted that I look at his excellent craftsmanship and wanted to know why I wouldn’t buy his chess set; refusing to listen to my protests that it was a different game entirely.
The trigger was feeling that once again my opinion was worthless and I was disappointed that he only saw me as a walking wallet rather than a customer to serve. He seemed to think that I had no mind of my own and that if he was persistent enough I would believe him that a chess board was the same as a backgammon set.
At my first hostel in Marrakech a guy with two faces made some basic customer service errors. For two days this member of staff was charm personified – friendly, warm and welcoming. As is my normal practice I had only reserved one night (just in case the hostel was a total dump) but it was fine and at breakfast on my first morning I asked to extend my stay by an additional 3 nights.
I was informed that they would confirm later that day but there shouldn’t be a problem. Returning later I was indeed checked back in – but was told that due to problems with double-booking they couldn’t confirm my further extension but would tell me on a day to day basis.
I have managed hostels in the past so I reminded them that they could simply turn off the bed availability on the websites… but again I was assured that there would be no problem. Returning at 4pm the next day I was informed that the hostel was full and I would have to move to their sister hostel which was a 25 minute walk away on the outskirts of the medina.
As I didn’t want to walk any distance at night on my own I simply booked a new hostel for myself just 5 minutes walk away and I asked to check out.
Then the guy who had been so friendly handed me his tablet and insisted that I place my review there and then for them on the booking website. I refused and said that I would do it later, upon which he proceeded to alternately beg, wheedle and threaten me before he could allow me to leave.
When he saw that I wouldn’t budge (I NEVER write reviews before I leave) his face turned cold and he dismissed me, refusing to acknowledge me leaving – like his behaviour was going to improve my review!
This was yet another trigger for me. I appreciate that different countries have different understandings of what constitutes good customer service and I understand the cultural behaviour of ‘saving face’ but again, this dismissal, this feeling of not being of any value or importance and the cold glares cut me to the quick. I had come a LONG way in building myself up and I was not about to let a virtual stranger undermine me.
Then there was the man who approached us and tried to insist on taking me and Andre to the leather tanneries in Marrakech. He was first obstructive, telling us that the way that we were walking was closed to tourists. Then, when he was joined by his friend and after Andre had politely told him that we were simply wandering around and enjoying his city he turned very nasty and the pair of them started screaming abuse at us. Accusing us of being like all the other tourists who hated Moroccans and of spoiling their city they finally departed with what had to be the best insult of all my trip – ‘Fuck you, fuck you you fucking tourists; in fact, five thousand fucks to you!!!’
And people sometimes wonder why many tourists are wary of strangers approaching them!
The snake charmers and the men with the monkeys on chains, tried to grab my arm and were insistent that I have my photo taken with their animals. Sadly the only way to deal with the monkey owners was to snarl at them and tell them in no uncertain terms the fate that their monkeys would face if they dared to jump on my shoulder (I do not like monkeys) and to rapidly walk the other way before a snake could be draped around my neck.
I would have loved to have stopped and chatted to the ladies in the square who tried to persuade me to have a henna tattoo but I saw too many instances of a henna design rapidly drawn on someone who hesitated or smiled and then the extortionate fee of thirty euros demanded. I know that they were all only trying to earn a living but this was not trying to earn money – it was obtaining money by threat and I saw several people pay up because they were scared.
I am always the first person to smile and stop and chat to local people on the street but here I had to take a different approach, not because of the minority but sadly because of the majority.
Is Morocco dangerous?
Men would sidle up asking where I was going in what would be a no-win situation. If I told them where I was going they would tell me that I was walking the wrong way and they would try to take my arm and steer me in a different direction.
If I told them that I was simply walking and enjoying the town they would insist that the streets ahead were closed to me….but in either case if I continued to walk on I would usually get a mouthful of abuse accusing me of being too proud to talk to a Moroccan, However I knew, from first-hand experience that had I allowed them to accompany me they would then insist on a large fee (ten euros or more) for taking me to my hostel or to a particular cafe.
During my five weeks in this country I had to really struggle to remain polite in the face of a lack of respect and often hostility, whilst memories of years of struggling and refusing to be emotionally beaten down flooded back. I miss my children and I began to again question whether I had done the right thing leaving my marriage when I did.
Maybe had I left ten years previously when things had hit a sour patch (I was later told that during this time my husband apparently had something going on with someone else) I may not be without my children in my life now. Who knows how things may have turned out had we split up earlier but Morocco was certainly churning up a lot of emotions for me.
Even the downtrodden and often beaten donkeys seemed to be representative of my marriage with a carefully aimed boot indicative of a hurled insult (although I must clarify here that my ex never physically assaulted me).
I was fed up with getting comments spat at me by some of the traders about choosing to prefer to frequent the shops of the ‘no-good Arabs’ or the ‘lazy Berbers’ (their words not mine) when all I wanted to do was to browse and take my time.
I got sick of people telling me what I wanted to eat when I was trying to read through a menu – ‘you want hamburger, you want tagine, you want couscous…..’like I was incapable of making a decision for myself.
Yes, Morocco was proving difficult for me in February although I never felt in any danger at all.
By the way, if you would like to experience Morocco but you aren’t feeling confident enough to brave it alone, my friend Jamillah offers tours and is fast becoming an expert on everything Morocco.
Would I return to Morocco?
Yes I would return to Morocco but I would travel in a different way. I would organise a Workaway exchange and really get involved in a small local community or business. I had planned to do some volunteer work on this trip but I was let down at the last minute by a host and subsequently didn’t have enough time available to set something else up.
I plan to write up details of my route in a separate blog article where I will give you more detailed information about the places that I visited so that you can replicate my journey. I can’t emphasise enough that I never felt unsafe and Morocco is a beautiful country with friendly people and an interesting culture so do visit if you have some time spare.
I would head inland to some of the desert towns. Maybe away from the cities and the tourist hotspots people are more genuine and trustworthy. Our day trip to Meknes had in fact been a different experience with people in the evening market being far more polite and respectful to us than in other places.
I had also had a lot of online work planned with my coaching clients this month so I also hadn’t wanted to stray too far off the beaten path and risk poor wifi connections. I also find it harder to meditate and to remain focused when so much of each day is taken up with travelling or finding new hostels or places to eat and my goal this February was to remain emotionally strong.
Reasons to visit Morocco
Many Moroccan people were genuine and open and helpful and luckily they offset those who were rude. I met some adorable Moroccans in the hostels and on the train and the buses, on the streets, in the shops and in the parks.
There were genuine traders (often older gentlemen) who were confident with their prices and products, sat with me over mint tea and showed me photos of their families; allowing me to leave without complaint and were genuinely happy to see me when I later returned to purchase.
The kindness of everybody around me when I got sick, offering to go to the pharmacy for me, making me sage and honey tea and generally checking up on me made a huge difference. I spent a couple of days in bed too nervous to venture far from a bathroom.
Avocado and orange shakes became a firm addiction for me and have continued to be on my menu since my return to Spain. I also loved the vegetable tagines – the tastiest one was the cheapest one in a small cafe in Taghazout.
Paradise Valley was a great morning out from Taghazout and was enjoyed by many Moroccan families as well as tourists. Even waiting in the hot sun for an hour for the shared van back to town was fun as Robbie, Lara and I chatted with people in the queue.
Chefchaouen was overall the friendliest town that I visited – and a special mention here has to go out to twelve year old Abdul who took me and John on a tour; ending up at a tea hut in the hills high above the town where an impromptu jamming session was happening with a group of men.
The cleanliness of the towns and countryside compared to many other places in the world was refreshing as were the colourful fabrics everywhere and the painted houses.
I experienced a hammam – not the posh one for tourists – but one where ordinary Moroccans go. Women and men bathe at separate times at what is an important social event which is not just for washing. Women of all ages sit around in the steam chatting and laughing and also arguing because somebody used someone else’s bucket.
They take their time washing bodies and hair, scrubbing each other and massaging limbs. Teenagers sat together trying to look cool while toddlers tried to escape, their little wet bodies squirming to escape the many hands reaching out for a cuddle.
The Roman ruins at Volubilis were quite incredible and yet peaceful. Floor mosaics in very good condition were dotted around in the long grass and people strolled quietly around getting a feel for how the old city must have appeared centuries ago.
I didn’t go into the desert but I didn’t meet a single traveller for whom it wasn’t a special experience. Maybe I missed out but I had been in deserts in Jordan and Egypt so had I gone, it would have had to be a local experience and I was not confident of finding that on this trip.
Is Morocco safe to visit?
Go to Morocco and make your own mind up about it. I never actually felt unsafe, even when walking back to my hostel along the narrow alleyways after dark. It simply triggered me and while I worked around it using the techniques that I know work for me, I found it too emotionally draining to connect too deeply with the country.
I’m an inspirational coach and I know how important it is to continue to push our personal boundaries. February on Pangkor Island was the perfect recipe but it would have been lazy to replicate the same. I needed to see how I would cope under pressure.
I’m pleased to report that I DID cope and I didn’t allow the negative emotions of guilt and regret to come back. Mindfulness does work and it can help you deal with the most traumatic events – you just need to have faith in yourself and your abilities.
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And like all personal challenges, some good came out of the bad times. I acknowledge how privileged I am to have lived the majority of my life in a country where free speech is allowed and equality is improving year on year, and where I don’t face open hostility on the streets.
I was able to take a step back and see how when people are not confident in themselves or their own abilities and skills, they become angry, aggressive and need to verbally attack in order to boost their own self-esteem. Bullies the world over are all the same.
I know that these triggers were solely my own responsibility to deal with. Nobody can make anybody else feel a particular emotion: we respond according to our belief system and our memories.
I teach this stuff – it forms the basis of mindfulness and NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) so this was a perfectly executed lesson to highlight this in all its glorious action….so bingo – a difficult month but yet another giant leap forward for me.
If you have problems with a bully or your self-belief has been knocked out of you because of one, drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or send me a message via Facebook to find out how I managed to move on and become strong once again.
And do visit Morocco. Just keep your wits about you, a smile on your face and don’t be scared.
An absolutely superb piece of writing! 🙂 So honest, so insightful ….I have tears in my eyes Jane!!! ♥
Thank you Jackie – but I hope that I also demonstrated the strength that I have found out of adversity
Not sad tears Jane 🙂 Tears of good emotions!!
Thank you xx
♥ ♥ ♥ xxx
Wonderful article Jane. You nailed it. For similar reasons I too felt triggered in Morocco, but it was reading your article that made me realize it, not a 3 in the morning wakeup call. Looking forward to discussing this in person!
In the majority of cases we blame the place or the people around us, when often it is the memories that we carry that are the cause. I am glad that I worked it out (and now you) because now I won’t remember Morocco badly because of some of the encounters that I had