I paid $72 to take the 90-minute Ryanair flight from Sevilla to Marrakech (population 909,000). As usual, I read on Wikitravel how best to arrive at the riad I had booked. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses, with a square configuration and an inner courtyard. Many hotels and hostels have the word “riad” in their names.
I paid the equivalent of $5.68 for a round-trip bus ticket from the airport. The bus transfer was pleasantly spacious and first-world. I was expecting something much more stressful and crowded, but it was filled with only tourists. Every experience to follow was much more chaotic. . .
The bus’ primary destination was Jamaa el Fna, by far the most popular place and attraction in Marrakech. I arrived after sunset, so the sight before me eyes looked like this:
The square used to be the setting for public decapitations, but now it holds a couple hundred stalls and stores selling food, herbs, orange juice, counterfeit goods, and too many other items to list. I have gone without the benefit of a mobile phone reception since I have left the U.S., but my iPhone still receives a GPS signal, so I have been using that along with the Compass function to navigate.
I was immediately filled with a sense of wonder. I have visited 25 countries, and Morocco is the only one in which Arabic is an official language. There are 24 countries in the world in which Arabic is an official language. Descending upon Place Jamaa el Fna is one of the most different experiences I have ever had. My senses would be similar to someone seeing the ocean for the first time or a doe-eyed girl from rural Kansas visiting Manhattan one day.
Navigating this area is notoriously difficult, so much so that I have been accosted by a dozen touts offering their direction services, despite my tendency to walk at a brisk pace. The touts of Marrakech are the most aggressive and annoying I have ever encountered. They are a defining experience when visiting Marrakech. I like to think I am above-average in minimizing scams and avoiding hard sells.
My riad is only a few minutes’ walk from the busiest part of the entire country. Getting to your riad will likely involve winding through unlabeled alleys and dodging all manners of people. People tried to get my attention by using greetings in English, français, español, and even Japanese. Although I do not understand Japanese, I responded a few times by turning my head, largely because I was surprised by their arsenal of phrases.
I had a room reserved, but there were many kids telling me to go to a certain riad. Clearly, they received kickbacks for any referrals. The entire economy works on referrals and kickbacks. Salesmanship exists everywhere, but the kind practiced in Marrakech is of the crudest variety, with no allowance for subtlety.
I am traveling with an 8-kg backpack and a 20-kg wheeled bag, so when first arriving, I am quite the target for the locals. I ignored the vast majority of them, but many are quite forceful, walking alongside you for stretches that made me think they should give it up and start with a new prospect.
There are 5-year-old kids, both boys and girls, who literally tugged on my shirt for money. I have done much thinking about all these behaviors, and it is still not apparent to me that the people resorting to such seemingly desperate methods know that they are even poor. Relative to the United States, Morocco as a country is poor, ranking 115th out of 187 countries in purchasing power parity per capita, according to the International Monetary Fund. Although I cannot presume to know anyone’s situation other than my own, these touts did not act poor. I saw few homeless people. There seems to be something cultural and accepted about badgering every tourist into the country. By definition, every international traveler into Marrakech will be many times richer than your average Moroccan. For the United States, that ratio is more than 7x.
As I continued to hunt for my riad, I had to go through some unlit passages. Here, I encountered a few teenagers who were especially aggressive with me. I know from experience that traveling solo is extremely rare. I ignored these kids, but I admit I got a bit frazzled, when one of them said, “Fuck your country!” to me. I am almost certain that he thought my country was Asian and not the United States since I did not respond to his English communication. Eventually, I arrived at the correct door, but it sat in the middle of one of the darkest alleys in the entire country. I remember knocking and hoping someone would answer promptly. Being lithe and having black hair, I pressed up against the wall, hoping that my slim contour would not betray my whereabouts to the people who were following me. Eventually, I received admittance, suffering only verbal abuse and shirt-tugging.
I booked my riad through Airbnb, at a total cost of $69 for two nights. Negotiating directly with an employee, I booked further nights here at the rate of €22 per night, 20% off my original rate.