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Morocco May 14, 2012

I Hate It, I Love It – How Morocco Makes Me Bipolar


Whenever someone asks me about my favorite countries I’ve visited, Morocco somehow always makes it up there on the list. Which is kind of funny considering that I left Morocco completely exhausted. Exhausted by the constant hassle, the rough intercity travels, and by its overall intensity.

But to me that pretty much sums up what Moroccos is all about. A country that evokes such a contrast in emotions. I went from loving it, to hating it almost on an hourly basis.

The Traveler in me

Hates Morocco

The constant hassle, the cheating taxi drivers – they leave us harried and exhausted at the end of the day as we escaped into the relative peace and quiet of our riyad.

Morocco’s famous touts might not deserve their past notoriety but they’re there, and for those not prepared it can get very overwhelming. I’d suggest layering up a good sense of humor and a thick skin when getting off the bus and walking around the souks. It might sound like you’re being rude, but responsing to every single ‘Hi, how are you?’ means you’ll never get to go anywhere.

Worst hassle encounter: Essaouira, Fes.

Loves Morocco

Morocco has everything! Beaches, mountains, deserts and it’s relatively easy to get around. The buses are not the best, but thankfully the small size of the country means less long distance bus trips you have to take.

Morocco is exciting, it’s exotic. The architecture is different, the people look different. The diversity of its people mean everyone speaks a little bit of everything: Spanish, Berber, Arabic, and French. The old town, the medinah of Morocco is compact, walkable, and to me the kind of towns I love: I can walk everywhere and there are things to see whereever you lay your eyes on.

Stepping into Morocco’s old towns does feel like stepping back in time.

Must visit Moroccan cities: Essaouira for its overal charm, Fes for its souks, Chefchaouen for its blue medina.

Chefchaouen medina in blue

The Animal Lover in me

Hates Morocco

There are so many stray cats in Morocco it’s heart breaking. I saw a black kitten covered in flies, its chest moving occasionally, erratically until it stopped altogether. That kitten died in front of our eyes in front of a busy mosque – and nobody else seemed to care. It still haunts me to this day. I had never felt completely, utterly helpless.

Worst cat problem: Rabat – too many skinny cats

Loves Morocco

Most of the street cats in Morocco look well-fed. Do you know the signs of well treated animals? They’re not afraid of humans and Moroccan cats are anything but shy. I can tell they’re used to being fed and petted, or at the very worst ignored.

Essaouira fisherman and one of the street cats

Essaouira fisherman and one of the street cats

Compared that to the scraggly stray cats of Jakarta who run away when approached.

Then I saw signs of random kindness towards animals:a makeshift cat shelter in Fes, fishermen feeding scraps of fish in Essaouira, a lady giving out milk to the cats in Rabat and I thought – there’s hope. There are those who care.

Best place in Morocco if you were a cat: Chellah in Rabat and Essaouira.

The Feminist in me

Hates Morocco

Jack describes the medinas of Morocco as ‘one big sausage fest’ – and I have to say it’s somehow apt. Men, men everywhere you see. They man (pun intended) the stores in the souks, they congregate in large numbers in coffee shops – which just killed my desire to do what I usually like to do: go to a coffeeshop and watch people. It was just too weird being the only woman in the place.

Now that I look back, except for the scary lady in the hammam in Marrakesh, we dealt only with men in hotels, restaurants, and shops.

Loves Morocco

I bumped into a group of Moroccan students in Chefchaoen. They belong to an organization that fights for equality for gays and women in Morocco. We became friends and still talk on Facebook occasionally. The organization is fighting a tough battle but it warms my heart knowing that yes, things are changing – slowly, but more importantly, these are changes the come from within Morocco itself.

The Photographer in me

Hates Morocco

I don’t think you can afford to NOT like Morocco if you’re a photographer.

Loves Morocco

Morocco is the most photogenic country I’ve ever been. I took more photos in Morocco than anywhere else I’ve been. Everything was fascinating: the hanging camel head in Fes market, the colors of Moroccan slippers, the people, the madrassas…

I was mesmerized by everything.

The detailed wooden and plaster carvings that cover the walls and ceilings of madrassas will blow your mind. As it did mine.

Details of Marrakech, Morocco

Details of Marrakech, Morocco

My favorite things to photograph in Morocco: the souks, the plaster carvings in madrassas, fountains, and the port in Essaouira. And Moroccan cats, of course.

Moroccan cats - Marrakesh

There has never been another country that made me feel this way.

Morocco was everything I imagined it to be but so much more. I was charmed and repulsed, I was loved and abused, I don’t want to go back but at the same time, I sort of do.

Did you ever feel the same way about a country?

Fes, Morocco January 11, 2012

Moroccan Souks – Crazy and Beautiful (Plus Sanity Tips)


One of things I was most looking forward to on our visit to Morocco was exploring its famous souks. I’ve seen pictures and they always seemed so exotic. So foreign! People in strange dresses and stores selling strange things. I knew right away I’d love them. I’m glad to say that Moroccan souks managed to live up to a pretty high expectation.

A souk is the part of the medina (old town) of an Arab city where most of the stores congregate. A market if you will. It’s often informally divided into sections based on what’s being sold: leather goods, Berber traditional medicines, so on and so forth.

They’re almost always crowded, almost always run by men, and they’re always fun to explore. Each souk has its own personality and I got along with some of them better than the others. The funnest souk I went to in Morocco was in Fes. Followed by Marrakech, than Essaouira.

Marrakech souk feels more ‘airy’ – it has wider alleys and more tourists clogging them. It feels less threatening. The merchants ignore you more in Marrakech which makes window shopping in Marrakech a less-stressful affair. Relatively speaking.

The entrance to the Moroccan souk.

The entrance to the Moroccan souk

While Marrakech’s is deservedly popular, my heart belongs to crazy Fes. Fes and its maze of alleys, so narrow that at any given time the buildings around them cast a shadow over the cobbled lanes.

Fes medina


I love Fes because it’s everything I imagined Morocco to be: chaotic and overwhelming. Bright colors, weird smells, and foreign sounds. Skinned goat carcasses and camel heads. Donkey poo and urine stench.

Fes is mysterious. Fes is dark. It was the first time I felt out of the element, it was the first time I felt I was truly in a ‘foreign’ place, and it was the first time I felt that I had had inadvertently stepped back in time – however cliche it sounds.

Maybe it’s not so much I like Fes better, but Fes being the more memorable of any other souks we visited. It surely gave a whopping punch of first impression.

Djemaa Al Fna, Marrakech, Morocco

Djemaa Al Fna, Marrakech, Morocco

My favorite type of store to oggle and photograph in a souk is the leather slipper (or babouches) stores (by the way, don’t miss out on the tannery in Fes!). Arrays of brightly dyed sandals glimmer and sparkle under a dim lightbulb. Some can be quite detailed in its designs. I didn’t get any and I’m kind of regretting it right now. They’d make great souvenirs.

Not to mention they’re so purrrty!

Leather shoes at the souk in Fes, Morocco

Leather shoes at the souk in Fes, Morocco

Shopping in a Moroccan souk

Shopping wise, going shopping in Morocco can be an amusing experience. How can one not be amused when an opening price of 100 Dirham ended up in a final price of 12? All in about 30 seconds of haggling?

Haggling is an extreme sports for these Moroccan merchants. At least that’s what it seemed like. They like to start with as ridiculous of a price as they can get away with. Whatever else you do, just laugh at whatever price they first tell you and aim for 1/4 to 1/5 of that. The shock on their face is a well-practiced reaction.

Shopping in Morocco is not for the faint of heart, I’m telling you.

Tip on haggling in Morocco

One tip is take note if other stores sell the same item you’re interested in (most likely they will), and use the first store to get a gauge at how low they’re willing to go. All you have to do is walk away and they’ll quickly shout back a lower and lower price.

Trinkets sold at Moroccan souks

Trinkets sold at Moroccan souks

Horror stories

I’ve heard stories about people being overwhelmed and frustrated when navigating Moroccan souks (to the point they just pack up and leave the very same day). I can so totally see that happening. People call out to you all the time and they often don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Not the first ‘no’, nor the second or third.

But don’t let these stories scare you. I was terrified to step foot past the main gate of Fes only to feel mildly disappointed that nobody paid us any attention. No carpet sellers tried (too hard) to get us to buy their carpets. No mint tea offered. Wth?

Having said that, we still found Morocco to be an exhausting country to travel. We were told that Moroccan touts have calmed down a bit in the past years. We find it hard to imagine what it must’ve been like years ago.

A Berber pharmacy, Morocco

A Berber pharmacy, Morocco

Tips on Enjoying Your Moroccan Souk Experience

Ease yourself to it. The souk in Rabat and Essaouira are relatively laid back compared to Marrakech and Fes. So start there. While between Marrakech and Fes, the latter definitely has the higher ‘crazy’ factor.

Ask before taking pictures of displayed merchandise. Surprisingly about 1 in 4 people would actually NOT allow you to take pictures – either of themselves or of their goods. So, always ask and if they say ‘no’, smile and walk away.

If you get lost, ask someone who has a ‘job’ – someone working in a restaurant, a store owner, or a woman (not to be sexist, but Moroccan women always seem so busy they probably won’t have time to try to mislead you).

Stay in a riad. Many of these old palaces with inner gardes or courtyards have been converted into boutique hotels. It was such a nice feeling to end a hectic day in a private and quiet comfort of a beautiful courtyard.

If pressured to offer a price for something you innocently pick up but not necessarily want – screaming “Name your price! What’s your budget?! TELL ME!!” while blocking the entrance – as happened to me in Marrakech, just name something ridiculously low. So low that he’ll most likely get offended and shoo you away from the store. Offer him something close to reasonable, and you’ll most likely walk out with an item you don’t really want.

But more importantly, don’t feel pressured to like the experience. When it gets too much, go back to your hotel to take a breather, hang out at a restaurant to people watch, or go check out the local hammam. Morocco is so much more than the souks of Marrakech and Fes.

I love markets and I make a point of visiting the main market in every city, but there’s nothing that can prepare you for these Moroccan souks. I think it’s the closest thing to a true adventure in an urban setting.

Arm yourself with a healthy sense of humor and resilience, and be prepared to be charmed and exhausted at the end of the day.

Tell us:

How do you think you’ll like a Moroccan souk? Threatening or intriguing?

(Mis)adventure, Merzouga, Morocco December 5, 2011

Camel Trekking – Welcome to the Desert!

Merzouga, Morocco

We emerged from the night bus bleary eyed in the early dawn – rubbing our eyes from what little sleep we had and trying to fight off the desert cold. The bus soon left us in a deserted road of what we think is Merzouga.

Jack making a makeshift thermal using my scarf on the freezing night bus to Merzouga

Jack making a makeshift thermal using my scarf on the freezing night bus to Merzouga - one of these days he'll forgive me for showing his leg to the world.

What we could see in the dawn light was mud buildings on a dusty street. ‘Cafe’ was crudely painted on one of them. Everything was closed. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but after the cramped alleys of Fez, the open desert horizon was disconcerting.

The touts started making their way towards us,

– Excuse me? Where’s your hotel?
– Excuse me, sir? Mam? English?

The camel guide who’s supposed to pick us up wasn’t there. We tried to call him only to find out that the only public phone there takes a special phone card and not coins (what’s up with that?)

In the meantime

– Excuse me? I help?
– Mam? What’s your hotel? You need camels?
– Sir? Mam? Let me help? Hotels? Camel trekking?

was buzzing non-stop around us: to our left, to our right, on our face. Jack was kind of enough to take the brunt of this, chatting all of them up, which gave me time to think of what to do next.

The only other tourists that morning – 2 German girls – were getting into the only car on the street. They asked, ‘We’re going to our hotel, do you guys want to come?’

The only other option was to wait for our guy, Mohammed, to come. Assuming he was coming.

But that would mean being alone with these touts, in a strange deserted city, with no transports to take us away if we want to. So we hurriedly got in the car with them. As we were driving away, I asked the girls how much the fare was. ‘We didn’t ask.’ ‘Seriously?’ They shrugged. ‘It’s not that we have other option.’

Good point.

The driver ended up wanting 15 Dirhams from each of us. 60 Dirham for what should’ve been a 10-15 Dirham ride km ride was a rip off, even for the desert. Thinking ‘Well, it could’ve been worse,’ and too sleepy and tired to argue we decided to pay without making a fuss.

Turned out he wanted 50 Dirham. Each. Which would make the 10 min ride a $25 fare. We balked, ‘No way!’

At one time I believe I actually said, ‘200 Dirham?! Right. Just take us back then!’ – which goes to show how little sleep can addle one’s brain.

He ran in into the hotel to grab the owner – I’m guessing to demand his commission as well as to talk some sense into us. Fortunately, the front door was left open and all four of us ran in with our bags. Securely ensconced inside we felt braver. The German girls delegated the task of bargaining to us – they themselves became spectators of the ensuing back and forth.

We offered him 60 Dirham. Jack was waving our money in front of his face. He refused to take it. Some shouting back and forth ensued in a medley of English, Berber, and Spanish. He seemed to realize that now that we’re at the hotel, there wasn’t much he could do. The hotel owner translated ‘Ok, ok. He said he’d take 100 for all of you.’

‘60 Dirham or none at all’ – the hotel owner barked something in Berber waving our money that the driver finally and reluctantly took. Not without some grumbling and spitting on the ground.

Now Jack and I with the German girls are in the common room with the owner, we told him we don’t have a reservation and would like to see a room.

‘Wait!’ He walked to the kitchen. ‘We should have tea first.’

15 minutes later all four of us were falling asleep with tea cups in our hand – the adrenaline from the altercation with the taxi driver was ebbing away – sipping the tea bit by bit in silence. We were antsy to see the room, bargain for it, and go to bed, but he kept pouring more and more tea!

How much tea can that little pot hold?

Moroccan tea pot - holds more tea than you'd imagine

Moroccan tea pot - holds more tea than you'd imagine

We thought of the sleepless night bus from Fes. It was an experience we don’t wish to repeat anytime soon. Buses in South America seem like a luxury in comparison. Yup, that even includes the buses in Colombia.

Finally after what seemed like ages, the owner got up,
‘Let me show you to your room!’

Our bed in Merzouga, Morocco

Sweet, sweet bed

We tried to get him to talk about prices of a camel trek. The thing is, it would be considered inconceivable that we’d stay there without booking the camel trek from them. It’s how they make money, see? But all he kept saying was, ‘You rest first. Later after you wake up, we talk!’

I hate not knowing what I got myself into. But the bed looks mighty inviting. All we wanted to do was lie down – dusty clothes and all.

Well, I guess the desert will wait. The camels will still be there. The negotiation can wait, doubtlessly accompanied by copious amount of sweet tea.

But first, sleep.

‘Welcome to the desert!’ he shook our hands seconds before we crash into bed.

To be continued…

Traveling to Merzouga to do some camel trekking? Here are some tips for you:
– If you’re coming from Fes by CTM bus, they’ll drop you off at Rissani – a 20 min drive away. Do NOT get into any 4×4 car. Take a grand taxi, which is usually an old Mercedes Benz, and pay the 12 Dirham fee.
– If you’re coming from Fes by Supratours, you can go directly to Merzouga. Be warned that you’ll arrive at 6:30 in the morning. Do not expect any petit-taxis around.
– A better bet is to make a reservation and have your hotel/auberge to pick you up. All of them offer this service.
Chefchaouen, Morocco November 29, 2011

Photogenic Chefchaouen in Colors

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Seriously, Chefchaouen is the most photogenic city we’ve ever been in. And I’m not saying that only because the houses in Chefchaouen happens to be painted in shades of powder blue which happens to be our favorite color.

Well, maybe I am.

(Random fact: Do you know that blue is the most universally liked color?)

I don’t think there’s a better way to show this city other than in pictures.

Sometimes walking around the medina feels like walking inside an iceberg.

Chefchaouen blue

Most of the people in the medina are shy about being photographed. Considering the amount of tourists that come through here taking pictures of their city and its inhabitants, that’s quite understandable. Even the kids would go, ‘La, la’ (‘No, no’) when asked for a pictures.

This girl, however, was not shy about having her picture taken. She was posing for me when her friend came running by to talk to her and here she seemed to be saying, ‘Wait a second, she’s taking my picture!’ Most of the girls are dressed in pink – making a nice contrast with the blue of the surrounding.

Girls in Chefchaouen, Morocco

A basket of bread and a bowl of olives are commonly served as free appetizers in Morocco. We tried soo hard to like olives, but they’re just not our thing.
Olives, Morocco

The best thing to do in Chefchaouen is to wander around and get lost in its winding blue alleys, passing women gossiping on the doorways, kids playing soccer in the narrow alley, and wondering why there are so many young (and not-so-yong) Moroccan males hanging around and doing nothing on the street.

Every new turn seems to bring yet another photo op. Of course, ‘blue’ is always the theme.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

There are some aspects of this country that have begun to rub us the wrong way, but one thing we can’t deny:

Morocco might be one of the most photogenic countries out there – as long as you ignore the litter on the ground that is.

For more pics from Chefchaouen:

11-24 Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen Info

Where to stay in Chefchaouen: Hotel Guernika – a little hard to find, but it has wifi and really hot showers. Double room w/ showers: 250 Dirham
Where to eat: any of the restaurants in the main plaza (Uta El-Hammam)

Morocco, Rabat November 27, 2011

Ruins of Chellah – Where Cats and Storks Roam Free

The first thing we noticed about the ruins of Chellah in Rabat is not the ruins itself, but the friendly community of resident cats who greeted us on the path towards the ruins.

To greet and cuddle every single one of these cats, as one can imagine, makes for a very slow going. But as animal lovers (who miss having cats terribly), how could we not do it? Unless some of the cats in the medina, these ones look like they’re well taken care of. That fact alone makes us feel like our 10 Dirham entrance fee is worth it.

Morocco, Rabat November 25, 2011

Easing in into the Madness in Rabat, Morocco

When I think of Morocco, I used to think of the madness and chaous of the souks of Marrakesh and the hassling touts in Fez.

Well, Rabat is nothing like that. We surely didn’t expect to walk out of the train station to find wide boulevards with palm trees, lined with imposing white buildings. Smartly dressed diplomats (it is Morocco’s capital after all) in suites mingle with traditionally clothed men and women on the wide sidewalks.