Marrakesh, Morocco: Souks, Scarves, Spices and Snake Charmers
January 1, 1970
Morocco was the base for my first ever trip to Africa and post-adventure, all I can say is “daaayyyuuumm Africa!”
Bustling marketplaces, colourful fabrics, fiery dishes and soulful Arabic rhythms await you in one of the largest cities in the country, Marrakesh. It can be overwhelming, especially for a first time traveller or a Western-raised woman but if you can adjust to the major cultural shock, it can be the trip of a lifetime. Be both mindful and open-minded and Marrakech, like any part of the world, will be your playground.
Where to stay:
We arrived on our flight from Madrid around 11:00pm and settled into the vibrant Riad Dia, a hostel in the centre of the city where we would be staying for the duration of the trip. I cannot stress the importance of choosing the right accommodations in Morocco and the Dia was everything that I was looking for in a hostel and more. It ultimately guided our entire experience and through the help of their amazing staff, allowed us to explore the city more safely and confidently. But more on that: here.
What to Expect: Moroccan Culture
For me, Morocco was one of the most different cultural experiences I’ve ever had to date. As it is an Islamic state, I came to know many new nation-wide customs that I have otherwise only been introduced to through reading. For example, morning, mid-day and evening prayers are daily occurrences in Marrakech and it is not uncommon to see dozens of people come together on their knees in the market squares, united through the call-to-prayer which sounds over the mosque sound systems. It’s a beautiful and curious thing to see city-dwellers congregate in the city centre, heads bowed as prayers echo through the streets.
Another cultural practice that took a lot of reflection on my part prior to my trip was the idea of women covering themselves completely; more specifically, wearing headscarves. After reading up on the country from home and speaking to friends who had visited prior, I quickly understood that modesty is key in the Islamic state and that covering your arms, legs, chest and hair would make a huge difference in the way you would be treated. Hearing fear-laden stories of harassment from friends who had regretfully not covered their heads was enough for me to subscribe. I wanted to enjoy the trip and learn from the experience without spending the entire time fighting off exasperated locals.
I didn’t think I would have any feelings about the change in wardrobe. I’ve had to wear more conservative clothing in the past when visiting religious cities and it’s never bothered me at all. In fact, I’ve never thought anything of it. Before leaving Madrid, I picked up the cheapest, biggest scarf I could find (hoping it would cover both my head and shoulders) and set on my way. It was made of long, black fabric and to my delight, was only two euros at a shop down the street from my place!
Our first morning there, draping myself in the thick, dark scarf I had picked out, I panicked. Looking at myself in the mirror, coated in the black fabric, I felt suffocated. I never thought I would feel that way, especially because there are so many strong, funny, confident, intelligent women in my life who wear hijabs or headscarves. I know both in my heart and in my mind that the scarf is not a symbol of oppression. In that moment though, cloaking my body felt like veiling my independence and I felt powerless.
Luckily, my travel buddy had brought along some more colourful options and after trying them on, per her suggestion, I almost immediately felt relief. The shades of light blue, purple, orange and white felt soft and elegant. Having them frame my face felt like something of beauty rather than something of shame. A scarf doesn’t have to be dark! And, after spending some time in the city, I can tell you that it almost never is. I quickly realized that it had been the colour and the heaviness that had triggered my nerves and not the scarf at all. By the time we left the hostel, I was feeling much more comfortable and once we got out onto the streets and into the Medina, I was truly grateful to be covered. Every single Moroccan woman (with the exception of young girls) wore long pants, long shirts and a head scarf. Those not conforming were almost always foreigners and were often called out by locals for their immodesty. My advice for those who are weary about the headscarves: go with an open mind and find one that works for you. You might find, like me, that you adjust really quickly and that you actually prefer it. For a first time wearer, it can feel daunting but ultimately finding your groove might come from something as simple as a change of colour or fabric.
A Moroccan Must-See: The Souks
Once my fashion dilemma had been resolved, we were on to the souks! Marrakech has the largest traditional Berber market in Morocco, famed for the dizzying maze of scented stalls and boutiques that bubble over with clinking knickknacks, glittering gold lights, flashy jewelry and rich fabrics. In every direction, vendors shout at you, offering sales on items you didn’t even know you wanted in languages you didn’t even know you could understand. For a first time visitor, it’s both consuming and repelling at the same time.
We visited the medina and the souks about half a dozen times within two days. The first time was a hastened course, keeping a quick pace for fear of engaging the forever-persistent, abrasive vendors and walking only as far as we could without turning out of fear of losing ourselves in the boundless web. It was a somewhat tense visit that was followed by several, more confident trips during which we ventured deeper and deeper into the inexhaustible honeycomb.
Once we learned how to navigate the streets and interact with the vendors (read: ignore at all costs unless actually interested in an item,) it was truly a spectacular place. Everywhere you turn, there’s a new sight, a new smell. Gold and silver lamps glitter in a shop to your left, tables piled high with colourful spices, salts and scrubs beckon to your right, multicoloured tapestries flow high over the crowds through the middle. All the while, henna artists, snake charmers and Arabian dancers await outside the souks, positioned in the medina for your entertainment (and your dirham.)
Tips for the souks:
- Bargain, bargain, bargain: Start off with 1/4 of their asking price. One vendor tried to sell me a pair of earrings for 450 dirham. After a few minutes of bartering and some serious dedication to the craft I like to call not-getting-ripped-off, I ended up paying 20 dirham (aprox. 2 euros.)
- Breathe: People are going to yell things at you. It’s just going to happen.”Want a bag? A watch? A husband?” Get used to hearing: “Hello? Excuse me? Ms? Hello! Hello! Hey!” At first it might be nerve-wracking, it might feel uncomfortable, it might be frustrating. But, it’s going to happen. So, breathe. Let them do their thing. Fight every urge to smile politely (because this will only lead them to fight harder for your interest) and move on. Ignore. Look ahead. Walk. Breathe.
- Go later in the day: A fun little tip that I learned during my second day (and my 5th trip to the market) was
that after a certain point, the vendors get tired. Seriously. I mean, it makes sense right? They’re spending all day yelling at people, trying to make a sale and get the attention of anyone in their general vicinity. Dude, that’s exhausting. I went around 6:00pm and I had only one one-hundredth of the hassling that I had had that same morning. These are people like any other. At a certain point, everyone just wants to go home, change into sweats and call it a day. And that my friends, is the best time for deals. 😉
- Don’t be afraid to feel out of your element: This is kind of a general rule of thumb for travelling but I definitely needed the reminder during this trip. Luckily, I’m fluent in French so that helped a lot with adjusting but if you don’t speak the language, don’t get the customs, don’t like the food, it’s okay. I promise you’ll find at least one thing that you’ll love and it will make all of the craziness worth while.
If you are planning a trip to Morocco, be sure to check out my review of the Riad: here. Let me know how it goes!