Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday five: trying to connect in Morocco.

Not gonna lie... Morocco has been challenging. There's a longer summary coming about exactly why it's been challenging, but a lot of it has to do with making connections. Actually, not connecting.

After 320 days even the most beautiful sights - beaches, mountains, mosques, orchard fields, herds of sheep, sand dunes - become a little mundane.


And the unusual becomes a little mundane too. Wednesday in the Fes medina we saw several donkeys loaded up with propane tanks walking through the narrow streets... We didn't really blink an eye.

just propane, no propane accessories

Our interactions with people have never been mundane though. Until now they have been genuine, mostly positive, and often amusing at the moment or upon later reflection. Language barriers have caused some mutual frustration here and there, but nothing a smile - or pen and paper - couldn't overcome, and the "man nod" (as Patrick calls it) goes a long way on the street. Cultural norms can be tricky too, but we always do what we know to do, and it's appreciated. And we aren't those tourists that snap photos of locals everywhere we go. I've always found that awkward and odd.

But we haven't really connected with people in Morocco. Time constraints on our stay meant we couldn't do a Help Exchange to live in a local community so we've had to stick to the tourist routes. People in Rabat and Casablanca were nice in a distant sort of way, but our next experience in Marrakech left us wary of trusting anyone. That, followed by a short stay in touristy Essaouira, left us with a very fake feeling. It's been really hard to shake that.

Regardless of where we are in a city (tourist area or not), we are usually greeted in French and our automatic response is always "bonjour". Remembering to use Arabic requires attention - but it always pays off with a smile or a friendly Arabic reply when we do speak Arabic instead of French.

Otherwise there hasn't seemed to be a way to engage with people - without paying them to guide you around or have tea with you, anyway. Such a change from other countries like Romania and Turkey where locals are genuinely curious about where you are from and why you are visiting their country...

All this said, we have had memorable encounters over the past few weeks. Here are five in no particular order:
  • One day we were wandering near the Adgal neighborhood of Rabat. We passed a university-aged couple and the girl looked at me, smiled, and said "hi!". It wasn't the word she used ("salaam alaikum" or "bonjour" would've had the same effect). It was how she said it, the welcoming tone in her voice. It would be one of the few times I would hear that exact tone during our three-week stay.
  • We sat in second class on the train from Rabat to Marrakech. Second class means four passengers facing the other four passengers in a smallish train compartment, shoulders and knees touching. A chubby elderly woman dressed in a traditional robe and headscarf sat across from Patrick. When the train arrived at her stop she planted her hand firmly on Patrick's knee and pushed herself up. She didn't look his way, she didn't excuse herself - he was just furniture to her. I guess old age has its privileges no matter where you live?
  • The kids almost everywhere have been genuine. Like when we were walking through the Fes medina and we passed a group of young boys, maybe 10 years old. One of them patted me on the shoulder, then patted Patrick on the shoulder, and said something about love in French and then in Spanish. And then he giggled and went back to his group of friends. Awesomely random.
  • In Essaouira I ran into a guy we met in Slovakia while I was looking for dinner (Patrick was laid up with a stomach thing). The guy had been in Essaouira for months but hadn't learned much Arabic. We stopped in a few shops he frequented as we walked and one of the shop owners mentioned that he should say "salaam", not "hello", when he visits. As we left I nodded to the man and said "b'salama" ("goodbye"), and he gave me a big grin and repeated the word.
  • After being overcharged for almost everything everywhere we went, Patrick had a refreshing moment in Meknes when he purchased a delicious custard treat and overpaid the pastry shop owner by one dirham (one and two dirham coins are very similar). As Patrick turned to leave, the shop owner got his attention and returned a dirham with a friendly smile and a hearty "shukran!"  We had similar experiences elsewhere in Meknes too.
It's hard to write all of this and not feel like naïve Westerners (or more realistically, like whiny jerks). We know Morocco is most certainly not Romania or Turkey, and these mental comparisons and expectations are unfair. We're just two American tourists in an Arabic country where thousands of westerners flock every month for an inexpensive holiday. We get the lack of connection. It's just frustrating because we're not that kind of tourist.

So we wanted to love Morocco - we really thought we would love it. It's definitely had its moments, it's probably good prep for the next stage of our trip, and two days before our exit, we are glad we came.

More on our other challenges, and more on what we actually did in Morocco, coming soon...

(hint - it involves pastries)


  1. Replies
    1. I'm curious to see if the same would be true in other Arabic countries. But that's not going to happen on this trip. Maybe next time...