My Experience in Morocco + Female Travel Tips

From miles of glorious golden Sahara sand, vibrant medinas, thrilling markets, quaint ocean towns,  flavorful tagines, and gorgeous mountain landscapes – Morocco has something for everyone. However, it is important to note that what lies a short, one-hour ferry ride across the Strait of Gilbatrar is a completely different world from Spain and Europe.

Note: I’m writing about this because I want to share my experiences, but I in no way want to discourage someone from traveling to Morocco. While living in Morocco for 12 weeks, we had many good experiences, which I have written about previously, but also some bad.  I try to keep it real on my blog – to say everything about Morocco was wonderful would be very misleading.

My family of six and I have been full-time travelling the world for over a year. We have been trying to adapt to the cultural differences we encounter in places we travel to. For example, eating soup with chopsticks in Asian countries, learning how to behave in a Hindu or Buddhist ceremony, covering in conservative countries like Malaysia and Morocco. Because we are only visitors in these places, we try not to draw attention to ourselves as outsiders and at the same time want to show respect to customs that are not our own. Morocco is an amazing place I would love to explore again in the future, but below the rich culture and scenery is a level of oppression and sexism I’ve never experienced before. We were living like locals, had purpose teaching and working, and were doing our best to assimilate, yet still faced the following challenges.

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Street scene in El Jadida

We started our time in Morocco in Tangier, at an Airbnb near the ferry port, and after a few days, took the train to a town called Kenitra, outside of capital city, Rabat. Staying in Kenitra was not a good experience for us. We would have been much better off staying in Rabat, a larger city more used to tourism. Walking from the train station was an unsettling experience because of  the hostile staring. Being global travelers (and a family with 4 girls), we are seasoned to staring, but this felt different. People were staring in a way that showed actual distaste and aggression. A few days later, we were actually afraid to leave our Airbnb after getting rocks and glass thrown at us just outside a Mosque. Men and boys would walk up to us just to say “f*ck you.”

At this point we did not feel welcome in Morocco, and we were scoping out our options to leave, but then we received an email from the British Language Academy (an English school we had reached out to on Workaway,  a site that connects volunteers with hosts to work in exchange for housing, which is how we afford our travels), saying that we were welcome to come live at the academy and help with the classes. This sounded like a good escape from our current situation in Kenitra, and the next day we were on a train to Berrechid, a small city near Casablanca. Upon arriving, we were thrilled that people were actually saying things like “welcome,” instead of the profanities we had gotten acquainted with in our first weeks in Morocco. We thought that what happened in Kenitra was an isolated experience.

While things were looking up since arriving and working at the school, being a woman and a foreigner here is not easy. Women in Morocco, at least in smaller towns, have a curfew of seven p.m. Walking after dark labels you a prostitute, or easy – just like that. I was told this by a young female teacher at the school. And even before that hour, walking alone is not safe. In the daytime, I was harassed simply walking 500 meters to the grocery store – surrounded and grabbed by a group of men five to ten years older than me. I wasn’t hurt, but I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done if they hadn’t let go because of my pushing and yelling. 

Unfortunately, my experience wasn’t an isolated event. My sister was later harassed playing soccer in a group in broad daylight, and another friend was grabbed while on a run together with me. 

Why did these things happen? I can only guess. In my experience sharing these stories, the victim is the first to be blamed. I heard things like: ‘We were drawing too much attention to ourselves’, ‘we were not clothed enough’ , ‘we shouldn’t be out alone’. Victim blaming after the fact frustrated me more than the actual event. It showed me that the mentality is men are able to just get away with doing this. And yes, we were dressed conservatively, and obviously no one wanted to be harassed. There is nothing that says walking around isn’t allowed. It isn’t even about these things. We are women, foreigner women, and that makes us a target.

While living at the school in Berrechid, we went on trips to visit bigger cities like Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Fez. Here, the population of tourists is greater. The cities are bigger, more progressive, and women are able to be out after dark. There is still, of course, cat-calling, over-excited touts, and general staring, as well as a  general overlying feeling of uneasiness as men dominate, line the streets, and fill the cafes, but I never experienced physical harassment in these places. 

So my takeaway is that the problem could have been the small town mentality in a place unused to tourism. Does that make it ok? No, but at least it means that our experience does not have to be every woman’s experience in Morocco.

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The medina of Fez from above

I have talked to women and men alike who see these problems, and are no less appalled by them than I am, but also know that there are many women who think that this is how life is everywhere in the world. It is the only reality that they know. While it is easy to sugarcoat things, or overlook unpleasant realities in an effort to paint the perfect picture of a place (travel bloggers, myself included, get caught up in this more often than not), that just won’t do anything. I have pretty pictures from Morocco, and for an outsider looking at those, it would be impossible to see the realities.

The only way to begin to solve these problems is to bring awareness. Morocco has been making strides towards women’s rights and equality in the past few decades. Today, they have the largest percent of women in the parliament of any Arab country. This is an amazing achievements, and the mentality that needs to be shared with small town Morocco. The more we talk about harassment and sexism, the sooner it will be seen as a problem, instead of an unpleasant normality.

Friends, Morocco, mountain travel

I like to think that these experiences are a learning process, and now I will have a much tougher skin for tackling the next drama. In some ways, I can’t stand Morocco, but then I think of the Atlas Mountains, places like the Sahara, the sea breeze in Essaouria, and the kind and welcoming people we have befriended here who, despite it all, make Morocco one of my favorite countries.

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If you are a female traveler and considering visiting Morocco, here are my best tips:

Stay in busy areas or touristy cities. Morocco just isn’t a place you can just hop off a train spontaneously and explore everywhere.

Go in groups. It’s not always possible, but if you can find someone to travel with your experience will be much easier.  

Travel Morocco experiences and tips

Friends on the bus on our way to the Sahara

Learn a little bit of the language. Knowing a few words of Darija Arabic or French can be invaluable. (In Arabic, “safi” can be used to mean “enough!”,  “hashouma” means “shame on you,” and “La, Choukran” means “no, thank you.”)

Act like a local. You may not look like one, but dress modestly, avoid eye contact with local men, don’t respond to the inevitable catcalls, and walk with purpose, not confusion. Looking lost 10/10 times will attract someone to come over and ask if you need help.

Find a local Guide. The locals know the good spots, they can speak Arabic, and they can get rid of any aggressive touts.

Morocco travel and experiences, travel tips

Having my scarf tied Berber style before the desert by Mr. Hareem

Stay at a Berber homestay, or do a workaway. With a workaway, having purpose made our stay worthwhile and gave us a safe place to recuperate and talk with other people after hard days. Berber homestays are a similar environment, and provide cultural immersion into the local way of life.

Darija Arabic Phrases to Use in Morocco

With the help of my friends in Morocco, I learned a good amount of phrases to use during the three months we lived there. These are the Darija Arabic phrases that have been most useful in Morocco, all tested and approved.

Note: Many of the phonetic spellings that are written here are not the official spellings, but the ones  that I feel are easiest to understand and say.

Hello. People in Morocco greet each other by saying Salam Alaykom. In friendly situations this is followed by a kiss on both cheeks. This literally translates to peace be with you, and the correct response is Wa-Alaikum Salaa. You can also shorten this phrase and just say Salam.

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Boat ride in El Jadida

If god wills it. Inshallah is one of the most commonly used phrases. You can say inshallah pretty much whenever you like. “I’ll see you later, inshallah. ” “I’ll come on the trip, inshallah”. I’ve also discovered that this can be used to get out of awkward marriage proposals and third dinner invites.

Thank god. Where as Inshallah is used for things that might happen in the future Al hamdullah is used to express happiness or gratitude for something that has just happened. It literally translates to “with thanks to god.” similarly, Mashallah, is an expression to show the same feeling of thankfulness at something that someone else shares.

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Kathryn and I in traditional Moroccan dresses

Sorry/Excuse me. Another very important word that can get you out of many situations is smeh-lia.

How are you? Labess? Means “how are you?” The correct response is Labess, wenti(wentu for a man). This translates to “good, and you?”

Beautiful. Zwina.

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Seen in the Atlas Mountains

Delicious. Bnine. You will definitely be using this word often because food in Morocco is always delicious.

A little bit. ShwiyaThis word technically means “a little bit” but I’ve heard it in so many different contexts that I think it has a multitude of meanings. You can use it for asking for bread at the bakery “Shwiya khobz, afaak”, when someone asks how you are, if someone asks if you speak Arabic, and ect. 

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Dates for sale in Fez

Please. Afaak

Thank you. Choukran (“No, thank you” is La, Choukran)

Colors and Culture of the Moroccan Medinas

Shoes for sale in Essaouira

Ok, enough, ect. The word Safi is constantly being used in many different situations. It can mean anything from “ok” at a cashier, “enough” at the bakery, or if said in a harsher tone, “leave me alone”.

How much? Bshhal. (say Bzeff if the price is to high)

Morocco travel and markets

A market in Berrechid

Numbers 1-10. One, wahed. Two, jooj .Three, tleta. Four, arba. Five, hamsa. Six, sita. Seven, saba. Eight, tmenia . Nine, tisa. Ten, ashra.

Simple foods. Chicken, djej. Vegetables, khodra. Bread, khobz.

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Moroccan Breakfast

The Sahara Desert

People in the Dunes of the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Our experience in Morocco for the last three months would never have been the same without Mr. Harim and the British Language Academy. For the majority of our stay in this country we have been living in the basement dorm of the English school and volunteering as workawayers and guest speakers. Everyday in the evenings we talk with the students in groups about everything from food, to Moroccan culture, to Islam, to women’s rights. Hearing a young Moroccan perspective on these topics has been interesting, educational, and eye-opening.

Mr. Harim is the founder of the British Language Academy schools in Casablanca, Berrechid, Fez, and soon El Jadida, Morocco. He is one of the most generous and kind people I’ve met, and his dream for the schools is inspiring. If you are ever in Morocco, volunteering at this school is a life changing experience I would highly recommend.

With his help we have visited other places in Morocco such as El Jadida, Casablanca, The Atlas Mountains, Fez, Essaouira, and most recently: the Sahara Desert.

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All our Workaway friends in the desert


The Sahara Desert

We arrived at desert camp after a two-hour bumpy camel ride through the golden dunes of the Sahara.

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Friendly camels

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Our tiny oasis, tents at the base of a giant sand dune

Sunset in the Sahara

We stopped half-way on our camel ride to watch the sun set.

As in Moroccan culture, we were greeted upon arrival with sweet mint tea and nuts. Desert life is very laid back. We explored the nearby dunes, gazed at the stars, talked, sang, and laughed for hours. For dinner we ate a savory vegetable tajine together. Later, we danced to the beat of the Berber drums and the light of a crackling fire, as a million stars shined brightly above our heads.

Berber musicians in the Sahara desert

Berber musicians

Night in the desert is very cold, so around eleven we feel asleep under four blankets apeice in the tent. The next moring, we woke early and climbed to the top of a multi-hundred foot dune to watch the sunrise. The treck was exhuasting to say the least, as climbing up a mountain of sand is not easy, but the veiw of hundreds of miles of dunes surrounding us illuminated by the early morning sun made the climb worth it. Finally, we sprinted and jumped down the cool, orange sand back to camp, and rode our camels back to base camp on the edge of the desert.

Sahara Desert, Morocco, Turban

Lauren and her Berber style turban

People in the Dunes of the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Friends in the Dunes

The desert trip was the culminating event of our stay in Morocco, and one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in my life. Now we have about a week left on our visa, and are preparing to head back to Spain on the 24th. I’m so thankful for our time here and all the experiences and people who have made it so memorable.

Thanks for reading and happy travels 🙂 xx -Iz

Colors and Culture of the Moroccan Medinas

Colors and Culture of the Moroccan Medinas

 

Here is an excerpt of my photography passion project for Wanderingeducators.com on the beautiful and unique Moroccan medinas. To read the full article click here.


Colors and Culture of the Moroccan Medinas

The best part of travel photography, for me, is capturing images of culture. There is nothing I love more than being completely immersed in a place with culture vibrant and new to me. While living in Morocco for three months, I have been photographing the life and culture of the medinas.

A medina is the historical old town of a city in Morocco and other northern African countries. They are full of tight alleyways, high walls, colorful storefronts, warm street food, and people. They are also free of cars, which make them an easy place to spend the day wandering around and photographing.

To read the rest on wanderingeducators.com click here 🙂

Colors and Culture of the Moroccan Medinas

Shoes for sale in Essaouira

 

1/20/17 – Morocco: The Atlas Mountains

Morocco, mountain travel

I felt the chilly mountain air brush against my face as I stepped off the bus. It was two a.m. and we had just arrived at a Berber homestay in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. I looked over my shoulder only to find myself staring into a snowy mountain range illuminated with the glowing light of sky filled with stars. I’ve never felt so awake at two a.m. in my entire life.

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Staying warm with friends

I heard the others laughing and breaking into excited conversation as they too saw the gorgeous scene.

We walked into the house and I chatted with my friends Salma and Shaema for some time. Then,  the Berber family that hosted us for the night carried into the room a delicious dinner of cous cous. We ate around a gigantic shared clay dish, and then ran to the roof to see the stars and mountains again.

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Dinner!

The view was impossible to be captured on camera. Sparking snowy peaks, the glow of the moon, and a million stars over our heads. Words can’t describe it. Soon after, I was asleep sandwiched between all three of my sisters on a bed inside the house at around four am.

The next morning we woke up early, quickly bundled up in all the layers we had and ate a Moroccan breakfast of msamen, which is a type of fried pancake, and bread with cheese, honey, olive oil, and sweet tea.

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my Moroccan breakfast

After breakfast we traveled for another few hours through the Atlas mountains to a ski resort called Oukaimeden. Bus travel with Moroccans is no ordinary experience. Five hours through the mountains we clenched our teeth and gripped our seats as the bus raced around sharp turns. Meanwhile Arabic pop music played in the background at full volume. Surprisingly none of the Moroccans actually seemed to notice the crazy driving. There was dancing in the aisles, singing, and a lot of laughter of course.

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the ski hill

The skiing ended up not being what we anticipated, but more of a giant ice-covered sledding hill. My family separated from the group to go on a hike. The view from the top of the mountain was unreal. Miles of steep, blue mountain slopes spread out before our eyes, and jagged, snow-cloaked peak lined the horizon. I stood motionless, entranced by the dramatic beauty of a scene unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

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It was soon time to go, we hiked back down the mountain to find our friends and shortly after drove to Marrakesh to experience the Jamaa El Fena square and medina at night. The square was a cultural experience, but also loud and chaotic so we explored the back alleys of the medina and found a quite Hammam spa, with a restaurant upstairs. We spent three hours sipping wine, which is pretty much a forbidden luxury in Muslim Morocco, and eating a nice tajine dinner.

On the way home I gazed at the twinkling stars that blanketed the sky outside my window, a stunning finale to an amazing trip.