- Steve & Jenn
Why We Left Morocco After 48 Hours
Disclaimer: This was our real experience in one area of one city in Morocco. We wanted to share the story not to disparage a location but as a cautionary tale for people to be prepared. Don’t only believe what you see in pictures on social media; dig deeper, do your research, and ask people who have been here. If we can help one person avoid what happened to us, that's the goal. If we would share one piece of advice that would have saved us...for god sake, get a guide!! Get a legitimate guide or tour for the medina!! Enjoy the story and see why below.
Lost in a North African Medina with the sun beginning to set, no phone service, and no one knows where you are. Jenn and I have been moving through a labyrinth of passageways, looking for a way out. Some turns lead to dead ends, others down streets so narrow we have to turn sideways to pass through, all lead us back to the same neighborhood. We are stuck in a scam, one that the entire area appears to be in on. In this maze of alleys, children show up at each turn, spotting us for a group of young men that have been harassing us for what seems like hours since we had refused to pay them as “unofficial guides.” We stop at the only shop around and ask the teenager behind the counter for directions. Just as he begins speaking, a man shows up behind us and shakes his head "no" at the boy. We realize at that moment; we are fucked!
So how did it come to this? It started a month earlier, sitting in Izmir, Turkey. We felt confident after just traveling through Ukraine, the Caucasus region, and Turkey, all independently. Jenn and I had just booked concert tickets for Deaf Havana in London, and we're looking for where to go after when we saw dirt cheap tickets to Fes Morocco. If you have seen photos of Morocco on social media, it's all touting the wonders of Morocco. People are posing for pictures in blue cities, riding camels in the desert, beautiful markets, and low cost. Unconcerned by what we now know were rose-colored stories on social media, we planned two weeks traveling through Morocco in December and into Spain for Christmas.
The flight left London late in the evening, around 10 pm, and started ominously enough. Once we had boarded the plane, passengers were arguing, refusing to take their seats. Moroccan male passengers asked people to switch seats while one stewardess tried to seat them, and another looked on with an annoyed look on her face. The men were upset as they did not want their wives, daughters, and mothers sitting next to other men. All the while, I thought, if it was such a big deal, why didn’t you pay the few extra dollars to pick your seats. After an hour delay, the plane was on the way to Morocco, and we landed after midnight at the Fes airport. We had arranged for a driver to pick us up, so while Jenn went to the ATM, I went outside to find him. People were lining both sides of the walkway, yelling offering rides but finding our driver did not take long. It had been about 15 minutes since I saw the taxi, and Jenn had not come outside. I began to get a bit worried as I did not have my passport or any money. I found out the machine had taken Jenn’s card and started making strange noises. When she attempted to cancel the transaction, she saw the machine had no English option on the screen. After a minute of making noise, it shot the card back out, and even without any money, we felt lucky to have it returned. A few minutes later, with our baggage loaded, the taxi was off to the medina.
It was dark, but I could see many tight alleys as our host led us through them to our Riad. Our accommodation was a traditional multi-story guest house, a narrow building that was once a merchant house. A man greeted us in the traditional Berber dress of a long robe at the door, with a hood and sandals. It was past midnight at this point, and while it was nice of him to offer us tea, we were much too tired to take in all the information besides where to get breakfast the following day. Tomorrow we will figure it out; I thought as we went to find our room. It was clean; it had high ceilings, a bed on the floor, some decorations on the wall, and a small bathroom attached to it. The room was damp, a trait common in the Moroccan medians to keep out the heat in the summers. What caught my eye was that we only had a slide lock on the door, and our room was on the bottom floor directly down the hall from the front door, which was left open as far as we could tell. The following day we climbed up the stairs of the riad to the roof for an excellent traditional Moroccan breakfast. Jenn and I looked out over the city; it seemed relatively quiet from above, dry, unlike the towns we have been to in other countries. The first order of business for us was to find an atm in the medina. We finished breakfast and then left to explore. The initial walk out into the medina wasn't too jarring; it had many young kids around trying to get money from visitors and some shops and people sitting around talking. As we approached the central medina, it became narrow with shops selling all kinds of leather products, ceramic goods, and preparing food. There were animals in cages next to large tables where they slaughtered them immediately adjacent to where they cooked them. I understand that we are separated from how food is prepared in Western society, but this was a bit much. The live animals watched the men slaughter the screaming animals and then placed them in pots to cook. I tried just to shake the experience as we walked as this is how it's done here, but the animal screams and cries stuck with me for a while. The men preparing the food seemed to have little care for cleanliness or the animals themselves. I had been looking forward to trying Moroccan food, but now I wondered if I’d be hugging the toilet with some food poisoning. Vegetarian for us, Jenn and I said to each other. As we continued through the market, the incessant bothering of the kids began to annoy me, but we continued to the blue gate.
The blue gate is one of the sites they tell you to see in Fez, and it was okay nothing that grande just a large decorated arch, but we wanted to get bus tickets and needed to go this way anyway. Outside of the medina, you walk a few minutes to cross a road to a bus station. We navigated this, bought tickets, and then also got a sim card for the cell phone. The bus ticket stand told us to make sure to come back to him, and he would walk us to the right bus. He told us the touts outside try to confuse tourists and get them on the wrong buses and overcharge. At the time, I thought little of this, but it was a microcosm of what Fez was in our experience. Some friendly, honest people, but many are looking to manipulate you to get money. Figuring out who is being honest and who is out to get you is the tricky part. In later travels, in Slovenia, a cab driver said that it doesn't matter if you have money; they assume anyone who appears European is rich. I'm not sure if I agree with this, but I can't deny walking around the medina and interacting with people. I felt this as well.
Stay on the main road of the medina, do not venture off no matter how good you are with directions. On the way back through, we walked into a guy in his late 20’s carrying bread. He spoke to us and seemed pleasant enough but few words with him while walking and before we knew it we were lost. He had led off the main street and wanted us to pay him. Why not just pay him? Jenn had hit the atm earlier, and the machine gave us only large bills. Concerned, we looked at each other, knowing that if Jenn opened her purse and the man saw so much money, he would demand it all. At the moment, we turned to get away from him and walked in the opposite direction toward what we hoped would lead us back to the main area. Walking quickly down the street, it started getting narrower and narrower to the point where we turned sideways to fit through, hoping not to get stuck between the walls. The medina is designed to get you lost, so everything looks similar, but at the same time, your mind plays tricks on you, and you think the next turn is the right one. The streets are more like alleyways flanked by high mud walls that make it difficult for sunlight to enter, causing you to get turned around and disoriented like the labyrinth in Greek mythology. Down one passageway after another, we go passing the same group of young kids. Each time we passed, they became more aggressive, calling out to us first, then showing up around street corners, spotting us for young men. Eventually, even appearing at both ends of an alley and walking toward us creepily saying things like “nice smile” and ``nice eyes”, all with the same look and haircuts. The more we walked, the more we got lost and kept ending up in the same small square where the young men were waiting. There were few moments of any peace, not enough time for me to calm myself for sure, as in these situations, your body pumps adrenaline giving you that “fight or flight” response. The issue with this is that it's harder to think clearly, which I am trying desperately to do. Around a turn, I see an opening, finally, relief as it opens to a wide street.
There are no tourists, the people all look rougher to me here than in the medina, and I doubt we will find any help from them. We should walk around the outside walls to try and get back, I say to Jenn, but it is much too far when we look on the map. I want to sit down and get my thoughts together, but many people are looking at us suspiciously. I may be imagining threats that aren't there in my current state, but I know for sure the crowds are all locals. There are a few cars, could they be unmarked cabs, I'm unable to tell, but I did hear not to take them. The driver could rip us off and take us anywhere people have said. It's hot, no shade; I’m exhausted and feeling anxious by the real or imagined looks I see people giving us standing there. We turn and re-enter the medina. It was a poor choice before I knew it, and we were lost again.
The walls are high here, and it seemed like it was getting darker with the sun being now below them; I began to feel some panic creeping in but tried to remain calm. A sigh of relief, around a turn, there is a shop with their window open. The shops here are more like if you opened a window of your house and sold things. The patrons just come to the window and order. At the shop, a teenage boy was working the window, and Jenn and I held out our phone frantically to show him our accommodation on the map, asking how we get back to it. Just as the boy began talking to us, I felt a person appear behind us in line. When I turned, I saw him shake his head no, and the boy stopped helping us and left. I could feel my heart in my throat; this was a bad situation, no one was going to help, and we were tired, mentally exhausted, and lost. There was nothing to do but keep walking, and when we turned the next corner, we walked right into the same square and the man with his friends who started this whole fiasco. They were always standing in the same spot in the corner of the square standing on these steps. This time we walked towards the stairs, the men surrounded us, yelling in our faces. I could feel them getting in between me and jenn and when I looked away from the man in front of me. I could see that they had now surrounded both me and Jenn separately. In a moment of clarity, I stepped back and reached for her, pulling as hard as I could away from the group. One of the men acted like he was blowing smoke in my face, saying, you want “hashish”. Should we force our way through them and possibly fight back to get up the stairs and past the men? The thought crossed my mind, but we were outnumbered eight to two. The odds were not in our favor, and just then, the man, the same one that got us lost with the bread, looked me in the eye and said, “So you're staying at”, and named our Riad, then he moved aside and laughed. When looking for help, we had shown the boy working the store our map, marked with our riad and now they all knew. Our hearts were in our throats, but with the men distracted laughing, we made for the stairs.
As I started up the stairs, everything became focused like being in a tunnel, no sound, except for my heart pumping, my legs felt fresh, and I pushed as hard as I could up the stone steps. Jenn called out to me; I turned and realized I had walked so fast that there was now some distance between us; turning back, I returned to her, thankful that I had not stepped out of sight in my panic. At the top of the stairs, the roof opened up to the medina. A moment to catch our breath, looking down on the tanneries, touts, carpet sellers, and merchants who were pulling donkeys all safely below us. Up had been the way out all along. The men were standing there to prevent us from taking that route. I later found out the neighborhood is known for scamming people.
Back in our place, we attempted to calm ourselves and come to grips with what had just happened. All this, and it was the first full day of the trip, maybe it was just a one-off incident, but I knew better in my heart. In a quick search of Google, I found people having similar experiences in other Moroccan cities. A few shots from the bottle of vodka that we had brought with us from the duty-free in London helped bring me down. After returning to something resembling calm, I realized we had not eaten since breakfast and walked outside to find dinner. No sooner than we were outside the door of our Riad, a local kid appeared at the end of our street, saw us, and immediately began trying to get us to go the wrong way. “Medina closed go this way” “Marhaba, Marhaba closed, closed.” The kids continued this way even as we waved them off; enough was enough. The closest place was a pizza shop where we grabbed a slice of pizza and sat down pondering what now? We had Morocco booked for two more weeks, but this has been horrible so far. Even the moments not being harassed weren’t enjoyable. We should have got a guide, done a package tour, and maybe the next city will be better. Do we even want to stay? Are we just being stubborn about losing money? Why spend a dollar more here being miserable? All these thoughts crossed our mind as we sat outside the Pizza shop, watching people on tours walk by mostly unmolested but other independent tourists being badgered. Overconfidence had gotten the best of us, and we learned a hard lesson to take a guide in places like this.
In the end, the way we were treated was just too much to get over; a search of flights online showed a 5:30 am $30 flight to Munich, Germany. Jenn and I looked at each other, feeling somewhat defeated but also relieved to be leaving. That night I sat awake in our damp room with the tiny slide lock down the hall from that open the door to the medina. Those men from today knew where we were staying. Would they show up in the middle of the night? It was more than likely both our riad and these guys knew each other. One of the men from our riad was driving us to the airport, what if he didn’t show up in time or at all? These thoughts kept me up most of the night. Still pitch dark at 430am, Jenn and I were standing at the door; we woke up a man sleeping on the riad couch, and he called our driver. Once we arrived at the airport, a weight was lifted as the plane took off from the runway. After landing in Munich over currywurst and huge beer, we looked back on the trip and decided that we made the right decision. We wanted to share our experience and hope no one else makes the mistakes we did. One day we may go back and do Morrocco differently, and it may change our opinion, but for now, this is our cautionary tale.