For twenty days, I travelled through Morocco, a country that travel guides have labeled ‘incredibly patriarchal.’ They say that travelling alone as a woman inevitably attracts ‘unwanted attention’ and generates ‘worrisome’ behaviours. These travel guides are not entirely wrong. However, a country with 35 million people cannot be reduced to the word ‘patriarchal.’
But I am getting ahead of myself. You enjoy listening to a travel story told well. You see, the story really began in St Andrews. As a student who theorized about people in postcolonial countries all day long, I was eager to encounter and live among them. I knew, even then, that in Morocco, the word ‘the other’ would finally change its subject, from ‘they’ to ‘I.’ It is my hope that this article serves not only as a helpful Morocco travel budget guide but also as an invitation to new ways of experiencing ‘the other.’
Arriving in Marrakech was a humbling experience. It was not only the hijab or the djellaba, the call to prayer five times a day, or the vibrant colors of the city that were foreign to me, but an unchanging facial expression of tiredness that threw me off guard. The men and women I encountered on the streets of Marrakech reminded me of an old Chinese man I saw in a painting long ago. His deep wrinkles narrate a story of suffering and the resilience from enduring it that, to this day, still moves me to tears.
When the taxi driver charged me 350 dirhams (roughly 25-30 pounds) for a six-kilometer trip, I frowned in pain. However, the Marrakech Medina was a maze to me at the time and as a solo female traveller, I did not dare to get involved in an argument in a language I did not speak.
Tip #1 – It is ideal to have your hotel or hostel arrange an airport pick-up service for you, especially if you are not good at saying no to people. Depending on your departure city, it is usually cheaper to fly into Morocco through Marrakech or Casablanca.
Tip #2 – Always agree on the price before stepping into a taxi. By law, all ‘petit taxis’ in Morocco are required to have meters but drivers usually ‘forget’ to use them with tourists. It is also a shared knowledge among the drivers that charging tourists for higher fees is acceptable.
‘But you are earning much more than they do. Why don’t you share your money?’ The girl I met on the train from Casablanca to Fes asked me, her eyelids lowered as she defended the somewhat ‘unprofessional’ taxi drivers. ‘I don’t earn money. I am a student myself,’ I said.
Tip #3 – Most museums and art galleries in Morocco have reduced student fare. Do bring your St Andrews student ID.
‘Is that why you travel second-class instead of first-class? Most tourists travel first-class on trains,’ she smiled. ‘Yes,’ I lied. The truth is, the taxi driver who drove me to the train station insisted on stopping halfway to get gas. As a result, when I got to the train station three minutes before departure, first-class tickets were already sold out.
Tip #4 – Trains in Morocco are reliable and perhaps the best way to travel between major cities (information available on ONCF.com). Many tourists say that the difference in levels of comfort between first and second class makes the fare difference between the two marginal (about 50 dirhams difference for a four-hour trip or about 20 dirhams for a one-hour trip). However, in second class, you definitely get to have a more authentic Moroccan experience.
‘Which hostel are you staying in?’ she asked me. I told her the name of the hostel. ‘That’s a good one,’ she said. ‘They have heating in the common room.’ ‘They do not have heating in bedrooms?’ I asked in alarm. That night, as I slept under three layers of wool blankets with my thickest jumper on, I imagined the midday sun shining on my skin. Never before had I been so hopeful about the day to come, and that hopefulness blessed me with a simple yet fulfilling joy that I remembered experiencing only as a kid.
Tip #5 – In the winter, although it is warm during the day (20 degrees), the nights can be cold (5 degrees). Most riad-style hostels do not have heating in the room. If you are sensitive to cold, book a hotel instead or confirm with your hostel that it has working heaters.
There is an old man always sitting in front of my hostel in Fes. Every morning I gave him some coins that I saved from the day before. One morning, I did not have change and gave him a smile instead. As I was walking away, I heard him cursing underneath his breath, in English – ‘Racist!’ I could not help but turned back to look at him, but I failed to smile this time. ‘Do not let his curse hurt you,’ I thought to myself. ‘He probably doesn’t mean it.’ For the entire morning, I intentionally chose the most touristy parts of the city to visit, trying to persuade myself that as a tourist, I had no obligation to get involved in the poverty of another country. Yet, I failed to take the old man’s accusation lightly, for he did look at me with a serious resentment that I had not been confronted with for years. For the first time, it required effort to believe that all human beings are beautiful.
However, Morocco again offered help. ‘You go to Chefchaouen tomorrow? Have you got the CTM bus ticket?’ Ahmed, the hostel owner at Fes asked me as I was packing. ‘I am going to buy it at the bus stop tomorrow,’ I said confidently. ‘Too late my friend. It is a busy season. They are probably already sold out.’
Tip #6 – Chefchaouen (‘the blue city’) is a must-visit place for many tourists. There is no train that goes there. Typically, tourists get there via buses or grand taxis. Tourist buses, e.g. Supratours and CTM, cost about 75 dirhams one-way; local buses, e.g. Nejme Chamal, are roughly half of the price of tourist’s buses; a grand taxi sits four people and costs 450-500 dirhams per taxi. Tourist buses do not make stops along the way and are thus faster than local ones. Tourist buses have schedules posted on bus companies’ websites. For schedules of local buses, you usually have to physically go to the bus stations to check (or ask your hostel hosts. They are a great source of information).
Tip #7 – Most bus tickets can only be bought physically at the station unless you have a Moroccan credit card (in which case you can purchase tickets online). Tourist bus tickets sell out fast, especially for popular routes during busy seasons (summer and winter). Make sure you buy them at least a day before your planned journey.
‘Oh no, should I run to the station now and try my luck?’ ‘Don’t worry, my father can go get the tickets for you. He knows the person at the office.’ Just like that, Ahmed’s 70-year-old father called the ticket office, found out that there was only one ticket left, jumped on his motorcycle, rushed to the ticket office, and got the No. 48 ticket for me. I watched the black smoke emitting from the back of his motorcycle as it disappeared into the narrow lanes of the Medina. When I thanked him afterward in broken Arabic, he said something back with a forgiving smile that a father gave to his daughter at her wedding. ‘He said that you are welcome. This is your second land,’ Ahmed translated for me. Gazing at the old man’s wrinkled face, I found a new definition of the English word ‘belonging’ in an Arabic sentence.
Tip #8 – When buying souvenirs, always bargain. The shop owners expect it.
The Berber man who drew most of the drawings sold in Chefchaouen insisted on having mint tea with me in the back room of his store. ‘Just the two of us,’ he said, his yellow teeth brimming with joy. While his invitation sounded strangely risky, I agreed. ‘A man who is so gifted at capturing the beauty of his own city must have a beautiful soul as well,’ I thought. After a traditional Berber greeting (kisses on both cheeks), I listened, with wide eyes, about his trip to America and how he managed to sell his drawings to a dealer in Brooklyn. Walking out of his store, I came to the sudden realization that perhaps the earth was made round so that seeing the whole world would bring oneself back to the starting point. ‘So, will you buy some of my drawings?’ ‘200 dirhams each, but for you, special price, 120 dirhams.’ ‘No, let’s make it 80.’
On the flight back to Edinburgh from Casablanca, once again I let the colors of Morocco overwhelm me. During the trip, I tried my best to encounter Morocco not as a country full of souks and mosques that nobody cared to correctly pronounce the names of, but as a land in which real men and women live. The faith in the humanity of each person you encounter on the way, I hope, guides you better through Morocco than the eight budgeting tips.