Two recent events inspired this post: A friend of mine is going to be in Essaouira for six weeks and while she is super excited to be in a new country, she also has lots of questions and anxieties about it. And while that is obviously normal, it seems that Morocco is still portrayed in a way that as a woman you should be more anxious than excited if you go there on your own. Following suit with this sentiment I just read a post about how to behave which to me seemed to more discouraging than anything. I’m not going to post the link, because I don’t want to seem like I’m bashing someone else’s opinion, but ultimately that’s what it was – one person’s opinion. With that said, I thought I would give you my own as I will tell it to my friend.
I think one needs to keep in mind that women will always (have to) travel differently than men. That’s just the way it is, personally I think that it can be an advantage too. I like to think that we simply get to see the world differently. Also, please keep in mind that I am not an expert; to be an expert in something you need to do it for 10,000 hours and I have only spent about 400 in Morocco. So yes, mine will also just be an opinion and if you end up getting overcharged for a pomegranate (which I totally did) after reading this, you cannot come crying to me.
But to get a bit of an expert’s expertise as well I chatted to Amanda from Marrakech Food Tours. She is in the unique position as she is an American woman, muslim, married to a Marrakchi, and has lived in Morocco for over ten years – it doesn’t get more expert than that in my view. So this will be our combined expertise and opinions on how to have the best time ever as a woman traveling in Morocco.
While you can get away with shorts and tank tops these days in big Moroccan cities and guys will whistle regardless of what you wear, I don’t recommend it. As Amanda rightfully says in this awesome post about women in Morocco, just because you can wear everything doesn’t mean you should.
I see it as a sign of respect to cover up more than I would at home and it seems to make interaction with other woman easier. There is no set dress code as in other muslim countries like Iran that you must obey, but I would always cover my knees and shoulders and not wear anything too tight. I always have a scarf with me in any case and it comes in handy when I realize that I might be dressed a little to sparse judged by the reactions of people. Obviously you need to be covered more when you visit a mosque, but that’s really the same as when you go into a church or as a friend of mine put it – You wouldn’t go to the mall in your swim trunks.
One time in August I was wearing a dress that came to my knees and seemed appropriate enough; that was until I got on my friend’s scooter. Again nothing happened, but I just really didn’t feel particularly great about baring most of my legs to the rest of traffic. So remember that for any country actually: mustn’t ride a scooter in a short dress.
Unless you are Parisian and you know what you are doing, don’t wear heels in the medina of any Moroccan town. The streets are hazardous. Medinas are not made for mere mortals in heels. I sort of knew that before my last trip so I should have just stuck to flats instead of packing three pairs of heels which I didn’t wear.
Don’t underestimate that it gets cold – at night, in the mountains, and in Essaouira even in summer. Take something cashmere (okay, that might just be me).
A medina to any foreigner is basically a maze. I found that smart phones are a bit useless as are most maps. Ask nicely at riad El-Fenn as they have the most awesome maps who show every little nook and cranny of the medina.
Don’t be scared to ask for directions. People are friendly and someone will usually just offer to show you the way or take you. If they do a tip is usually expected.
Learn a few French words: Ou est….?, a droite., a gauche. Have that and you will get far.
A bit lost on how to spend your money and how the whole haggling business works in the souks? If a vendor calls you a Berber, you have done well, but remember you don’t want to be that tourist; what makes little difference to you in price might mean a lot to the person selling. Also if a vendor won’t budge much with the price, you are usually onto something good.
If you rather have someone to help, I recommend you see one of my friends: Shane from Beyond Marrakech for customized shopping tours a la Sex and The City. And if you want to learn all about natural cosmetics, make your own, find the best argan oil, and smell nice visit Raschid from Terre d’eveil in his little workshop at the Place des Epices.
You will find that Moroccan women are not shy when you venture from a public space into the hammam. Obviously it is strictly separated by gender, but this is a place where everyone really seems to drop their covers quite literally.
As a foreigner be aware that a public hammam is not a spa and it probably will not be very fancy. For Moroccans it is a place of socializing and of course to clean. You must bring your own sabon beldi (black olive soap) and kess (scrubbing glove), which you can buy at every corner shop, in addition to your other shampoos and towel. You can pay to be scrubbed and honestly I think it is the best thing ever; I don’t think as a foreigner you can get the technique quite right to get truly clean by yourself.
Scrubbing may hurt a little and you may shed a lot of skin – don’t be scared, that’s all part of the process. The last lady who scrubbed me kept shouting spaghetti, spaghetti! pointing to black strings of skin she rubbed off me. While I was embarrassed to be so apparent dirty, she seemed delighted to have gotten me clean.
Don’t wear a bathingsuit, but keep your knickers on (though don’t be surprised if they come off now and then in the scrubbing process).
Don’t take other people’s water buckets – refilling can be tedious work so don’t steal other people’s full buckets and pretend you didn’t know better.
I remember that while I had a full bag of hand sanitizers, wipes, Imodium, and rehydration salts on my first Morocco trip, I took none on my last and was absolutely fine. As a general rule I wash my hands often, I check that chicken and eggs are cooked properly, and then I stuff EVERYTHING in my face what my greedy little fingers can grab.
I do drink only bottled water. While in the urban areas tap water is usually safe and most locals drink it, your stomach may just not be used to it. Most hotels will also provide it for tooth brushing, which I had forgotten to use by the second day. I don’t think it is a problem and just do it wine tasting style – spit, don’t swallow.*
*Actually that is a lie – I never spit when wine tasting.
Moroccans tend to eat local and seasonal so go with it. While Marrakech is not bordering the ocean, it is also only a few hours away, so I don’t think there is any need to avoid fish & seafood there. And if you are in Essaouira or any other costal region I actually think it is a must.
While a lot of people seem scared of salads and fruit, I cannot live without and the Moroccan fresh salads are actually really nice (unlike the overcooked vegetable most tajines come with). When in doubt eat fruit that can be peeled, eaten straight from a vendors cart, and drink as much fresh orange juice as possible for 4 dirham per glass.
While a lot of restaurants will serve alcohol the rule is to eat at the ones that don’t for truly great Moroccan food and to find a bar after. Or stay at the most awesome riad Chambres d’Amis and get the best of both worlds.
If you want an introduction to proper Moroccan street food, contact Youssef, Amanda’s husband, for a tour. He will show you hidden food treasures like tangia and hout quari, fish balls in a sandwich.
He will also advise you on what not to say to vendors ie. I really like your balls! I was of course talking about the fish balls I had just eaten, but I guess there are some things a woman should never tell a guy she has just met, in Morocco or anywhere else.
Any specific questions or concerns? Please comment and Amanda & I will answer.