I hadn’t thought a place could change this much.
Nearly 30 years ago I visited Marrakech and I remember a pushy, leering place, with men almost grabbing at me to get me into their shops. The only two times I’d ever been tricked in travel happened there.
I spotted a handbag I liked and negotiated the price, as one does in Marrakech. I took it away, proud of my purchase and my clearly superior bargaining skills. It was made of soft Moroccan leather, with a flap over the front, a bit like a saddlebag. But when I lifted the flap, the section underneath was far darker than the rest. This particular item had been sitting in the sun for weeks, months perhaps, and the exposed section had naturally faded. This incident was self-inflicted; I should have opened the bag before buying it. But it left me with a sour taste about being cheated.
That sour feeling was reinforced when I bought a small sheepskin, gleaming white and soft as cashmere. The salesman kindly wrapped it for transport but when I opened it at home, instead of my creamy sheepskin I found a mottled brown and beige thing, of sheared hair, pieced together with leftovers. Another lesson learned: never let a purchase out of my sight after I’ve paid.
I also remember Moroccan salesmen (they are inevitably men, since most women are still at home) as being far pushier. Men would try to drag me physically into shops, often locking their fingers around my arm for emphasis. The verbal assault was constant, a din of come hithers, of look only, of cheap cheap cheap. For someone who likes her own company and shuns crowds, I felt under constant pressure. The experience was not a good one.
Recently I returned to the scene of these dastardly crimes, mentally armed to ward off the hard-sell and primed to check each purchase with minute precision.
The economic crisis in Europe hit Morocco hard and business has not been good, so I expected things to be even worse. Yes, I was still approached by every stall-owner, but gently, asking me if I’d have a look, and most surprisingly, allowing me to leave with a smile when I said No. No snickers, no pulling, no howling. Just a smile and a thank you (of course being nearly 30 years older probably had something to do with it).
Nor did I experience any of the scamming I had been so geared to expect. I wasn’t shortchanged in the three weeks I spent in the country, and found people to be generally honest, even in the face of my own mistakes with unfamiliar currency. I met hope and goodwill, artistry and history, huge pride and an unwillingness to be considered second-class in any way. The country is admittedly poor and many people live near the poverty line, but to most Moroccans I spoke to, that was a temporary situation.
So what happened? There are still scammers, as there are in any country, and men still lust after foreign women, especially those who appear vastly different than the local women they know, because they are blonde or dress differently. But the come-ons were lighter and more polite.
That doesn’t mean women don’t get hassled – they do. But some of the edge is off.
I’m told that strong economic growth has helped. So has a concentration of tourist police, both in uniform or less visible, dressed as beggars or tourists. Urban Morocco has significantly modernized, and television has brought other cultures into everyone’s home.
Morocco evolved – but I had not, bringing with me old attitudes and expecting things to be as they were in 1987. I failed to arrive with an open mind, and instead dragged my prejudices with me across decades.
Places do change.
But sometimes, the hardest thing to pack is an open mind.
This post is part of the #Indie30 challenge – 30 Days of Indie Travel, by Bootsnall.