Thursday, November 20, 2014

Eight things no one tells you about Morocco

Travel Advice for Americans and Other Anglophones


1. Pack ALL the contact solution

The most foolish thing I did this trip was discard extra bottles of contact solution in the airport to make luggage weight, thinking it was easily replaceable. Contact lenses are evidently less common here. Solution is not available in supermarkets or even pharmacies… and forget the concept of the 24 hr Walgreens/CVS. Contact solution is only available from opticians during their extremely limited hours, it costs 4x what it does in the states, and it is a behind-the-counter thing you have to request verbally, in Arabic or French.  (“Contacts” in French is “lentilles,” btw.) There is only name-brand multipurpose solution for disposable soft lenses. If you have hard lenses or prefer a hydrogen peroxide solution like ClearCare... opticians have never even heard of those things. I tried painstakingly writing out what I wanted in French, and showed them the bottle and special cases. They understand what hydrogen peroxide is, but find it very alarming that I would put it on my lentilles.

I discovered while googling for options that the Peace Corps website suggests its volunteers in Morocco pack a two-year supply of contact solution. If there was only one piece of travel advice I wish someone had given me about Morocco, it would have been that contact solution is absolutely worth the price in jet fuel to pack along in checked luggage.

You put that in your EYES?!


2. Don’t drink the water – but do drink plenty of water

Tap water in Morocco is technically sanitary, but has a high mineral content which may upset stomachs. As our Moroccan roommate says, “It will make you… turista.” Most locals elect to drink bottled water themselves—which is cheap and widely available in 1.5 litre bottles—for the same reason.

That being said, tap water won’t give you dysentery, and if it’s a hot day with no better option, just drink it. People who are not from warm climates often underestimate the seriousness of dehydration and heat stroke. In such dry air, your sweat evaporates so quickly you barely notice yourself drying out until you’re flushed, dizzy, and have a pounding headache. If you never need to pee, it’s a sign what little water you drank is baking out of you before it even makes it all the way through. Drink enough water to pee at least four times a day, including tap water if you have no other choice.

It’s worth noting that no restaurant automatically offers glasses of water like they do in America. Water-on-request is common enough in Europe, but unlike Europe, it is not a faux pas at all to bring in your own bottle from the corner store. Most people carry their own bottles constantly, and cheap, casual lunch stands may not even have water to sell. (On a similar note, it’s also not a faux pas to buy pastries at a patisserie and carry them into a café, as most cafés do not sell pastries and most patisseries do not sell coffee.)

Also note: restaurants rarely sell alcahol, although high-end bars may sell food.

3. Bring all your own over-the-counter-drugs

They are also drastically expensive, and only available in 12-count blister packs. For some reason, like contact solution, no amount of googling "travel tips Morocco" tells you this ahead of time. Those giant Costco bottles of ibuprofen are apparently a hot commodity expats ask visiting friends to pack along. By happy accident, when moving out of my American apartment, I decided it would probably be sensible to bring along the assorted cold medications I’d accumulated by condensing half-empty bottles into plastic bags (of the tiny square variety, available at crafting stores for sorting beads, or on Amazon as a “frequently bought together” suggestion when you search for a digital kitchen scale.) It seemed like a minor afterthought at the time: if I happened to get a cold over the winter, why waste the odd five bucks on a new 50-pill bottle when the 35 I had left in this one could be made so compact?

This was apparently the smartest thing I did this whole trip. Not only have I saved us a lot of money when the inevitable cold hit, expat and Moroccan friends alike act like they’ve been rescued by Medicine Sans Frontiers when they have minor ailments and we hand out over-the-counter remedies that are so inexpensive in the states we nearly threw them out before leaving.

Shockingly, TSA did not consider this sketchy at all.


4. Say you’re married, even if you’re not

Remember, this is an Islamic country. Even though they’re fairly liberal and relaxed, especially in urban areas, it’s still expressly illegal for an unmarried man and woman to share a hotel room. It is classified as prostitution. Usually, this is less of a problem for tourists (two Moroccans or one Moroccan and one foreigner may get police called on them) but even if you can both furnish foreign passports, they DO have the right to refuse service to you on account of not wanting to ruin their establishment’s reputation.

This is obviously even worse for homosexuals, polyamorists, transgendered and other LGBTQ spectrum situations.

To save yourself the hassle of having your reservation abruptly cancelled, be at least as discreet about your non-Islamic sexual arrangements as you would be about buying marijuana.

But... we were just on a plane for twelve hours. We just want to sleep...


5. Carry your own toilet paper

Most public restrooms will not have it, outside of very upscale hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists. In train stations, bus depots, and hostels, never. The latter places will also almost certainly have a squat toilet (read: hole in the ground with a textured plastic voer on which to brace your feet without slipping) with a filthy, wet floor and no hooks for bags or coats.

Have a friend hold anything that might drape to the ground, and prepare whatever toilet paper/baby wipes/feminine hygiene products in such a way–like in a messenger bag hiked tightly up against your chest, the breast pocket of your shirt or down the front of your bra—that you will not have to set them down in the muck and you can access them one-handed, as the other hand will certainly be braced on the wall to prevent you from falling into the toilet.

If you came unprepared, no worries. You weren’t the first one, and street peddlers exclusively selling travel-sized packets of Kleenex are everywhere.

This is a stock photo, and far cleaner and drier than typical.
I will trust your imagination and spare you an accurate representation.

6. Use hijab as a social signal

First things first: as Islamic countries go, Morocco is fairly liberal and westernized. Women are not obliged to wear hijab (headscarf) although many do for religious reasons.  As a female tourist, you are not expected to cover your head, but it may be worthwhile to consider the merits of doing so as a social signal. Hijab is an ordinary, non-political part of daily dress here. Clothing always has a situational implication. An American would look askance at someone wearing a business suit to the beach or a bikini in the financial district, even though there are no religious or legal restrictions on when you can wear each.

A scarf on your head is a fashion accessory just as much as a scarf on your neck. Burburry, for instance, is very popular. As a clothing style, it suggests conservatism and respect, just as one might follow any other number of ettiquette conventions when dressing for a job interview or a funeral. If you are going to a bar or nightclub—which do exist, alcohol is not illegal—dress just as you would to in the states. If you are visiting a mosque, meeting a Moroccan friend’s elderly relatives, or simply don’t want to be flirted with while out and about, covering your head is simply an extension of the clothing vocabulary you would use to indicate respect at home.

Google "how to tie a hijab." There are COUNTLESS ways.



7. Locations – and hours – vary widely

Unregulated street vending is a way of life in Morocco. Every parking lot is a car boot sale, and every sidewalk is lined with fold-out picnic tables. Farmer’s wives drive donkeys in from the country with a wagon-load of produce and sell where they can park. Some people just spread out their sheets and arrange their products on any piece of trafficked ground they can claim.

Full-time merchants are the ones who own a small storage locker, and will roll up the metal door and expand for business onto the street out front. They rarely have external signs, and whole streets fall into anonymity when shops are closed. Hours are completely nonstandard, and businesses you didn’t know were there may appear suddenly if you walk down the street at a different time of day. Liquor stores are particularly discreet: the alcohol itself may not be visible from the street and they are legally required to close before 7:30pm.

In general, most shops—and certainly all grocery vendors and white-collar service providers such as pharmacies, opticians, and dentists—are open right before lunch, from about 10am to 1pm. Things shutter in the afternoon, then everything (aside from a few “office hours” locations like banks, and the farm wives, who will have gone home for the night) is open in the evening from about 5pm-9pm. Luxury and recreational shopping, such as jewellery stores and ice cream counters, only open during this window, and hot food carts and tea vendors materialise out of the rift. It is nearly impossible to pass through the streets at any speed in the evenings, when the entire population of Morocco turns out to enjoy themselves.

Corner stores—which are actually small holes in the wall every ten or so feet—vending water, junk food, cigarettes, toilet paper, and other emergency necessities (which for Moroccans includes fresh bread, baked that morning and stacked in unsliced loaves without wrapping of any kind on a bare counter, and fresh eggs, also delivered daily, sold individually and placed directly into a plastic bag without carton, complete with bits of feather and chicken poop) are open continuously from early morning until late night, and sometimes overnight.

Produce couldn't be fresher.


8. Research your prices ahead of time, carry cash, and tip

In complete contrast with finding locations on foot, it’s usually a good idea to find out the average local price for an item ahead of time. While corner stores and food sellers will charge a standard, non-inflated price, almost all other shopping—shoes, housewares, books, clothing, electronics—is open to debate. Depending on the touristy nature of the town (Marrakech and Fez are particularly bad, Casablanca and Rabat are not) you may be asked an outrageous price, or a totally fair one. It’s insulting to lowball a merchant; they will simply roll their eyes and refuse to talk to you. However, knowing the fair price of an item and asking for it is reasonable. A pair of sunglasses, for example, can be found in almost any city for 30 dihrams, which is about four USD or three EU. If a merchant insists 60 is a good price, a local would simply say “It’s 30 everywhere else,” and walk away. The merchant will either relent, knowing your statement is true, or you will find another one who is not trying to gouge you.

Petite taxis in non-touristic cities will use the meter; don’t haggle. In touristic cities, especially if you have luggage and are going to/from an airport or train station, they will offer a price verbally; do haggle. Grand taxis are six-person shuttles between cities and charge a union-standardized flat rate per person, don't haggle.

Practically no place accepts your credit card, even big chains like Carrefour (the French equivalent of Wal-mart) with visa and master card logos plastered over every register. Street vendors and local businesses certainly don’t. Withdraw cash from an ATM ahead of time.

Tipping is expected. Follow American tipping standards. Other Anglophone readers who currently do not tip, such as Brits: for God’s sake, please realise that service industry workers are not paid in Morocco OR America, for that matter. Restaurant employees receive negative paychecks estimating how much we will owe in taxes. That’s why the food is so much cheaper than in Europe: the cost of service is not amortised into the price. So guides, bellhops, taxi drivers, café waiters, hairdressers, etc, all deserve five-ten dihrams, which is equivalent to a US dollar or two, and waiters in full-service restaurants deserve 15-20% of the bill.

Banque Populaire is one of the most common. Look for orange lettering and a horse.

Conclusion:

For the most part, Morocco is a very safe, largely modernised country. (Although the lack of recycling and seatbelt usage makes me feel a bit like we're back in the 1980s.) 

You're exactly the same amount likely to be mugged, pickpocketed, or scammed in a major city in Morocco as you are in any major city or small tourist town anywhere in the world: that is, not very likely, if you have the slightest bit of self-awareness, confident bearing, and urban sense. If anyone tries to warn you about Islamic millitants in Syria or Ebola in Liberia, give them a geography textbook for their next birthday. 

Between Moroco and Syria is all of southern Europe. You'd be closer in Italy.
Between Morocco and Ebola there is a little thing called the Sahara Desert, 
a place notably hospitable to viruses and other forms of life.

We'd go so far as to say you can expect the opposite: people will welcome you into their homes and family with open arms and never ask you to leave. That's where this blog gets its name - the universal thing we have been told by pretty much everyone in Morocco has been "Okay, welcome." 

Us to a prospective roommate: We need a room for at least a week, but possibly up to a month or even three months if it works out.
Roommate: Okay, welcome.
Us: Great, how much notice do you need?
Roommate: You say when you know. You are welcome. Have you eaten? I cook now, we eat together.

Us to a couchsurfing host: We wanted to stay a night and see if the city suits us. The exact night is flexible. 
Host: Okay, welcome. I pick you at train station. 
Us: Thank you very much. Which day do you prefer?
Host: You are welcome.

Us to a prospective employer: Here are our qualifications and availability. We'd be grateful for the opportunity to work for your bed and breakfast.
Employer: Okay, welcome. You will like town experience beauty of desert become part of family share culture exchange. You are welcome
Us: Thank you. When should we arrive?
Employer: Okay, welcome.
Us: Also, what is your address?
Employer: You are welcome.

We're starting to think it's kind of a national motto.

Okay, welcome.

7 comments:

  1. What a great adventure you are having. I love all your suggestions. I'll certainly bring along contact solution and toilet paper anywhere I go. So, the airport won't confiscate my ClearCare?

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    1. In the normal liquids-in-your-checked-bag way, no. I actually did bring about four bottles (it was the same "eh, why throw it out?" not-realising-how-important-this-actually-is logic as the cold medication) sucessfully from America to Ireland, on the first leg, probably because transatlantic flights on major carriers automatically have generous checked baggage allowances. It was on the second leg, a much shorter jump from Ireland to France on a discount carrier, that had really strict weight restrictions and told me my checked bag was overweight. They were going to charge me 10 euros per kilo it was over if I didn't throw something out. Full bottles of clearcare are about a kilo, and I decided they weren't worth 10 euros each... but actually, they totally are.

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  2. I hope you managed to get some contact lens stuff organised in the end? Otherwise we could sort out shipping something if you like?

    Sounds like you're having a great time though, and learning a lot about how other cultures actually work. I envy you in a "I actually quite like my quiet life" sort of way :P xx

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    1. We are just using non-clearcare stuff. There is something. And perhaps you can advise, once we do get back to the UK (which will be in February, most likely) - is clearcare available there? And is it a optometrist only thing, a pharmacy thing, or a with-the-toothpaste-and-deoderant at Tesco thing?

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  3. Great info. Thanks!! I know a lot of travelers. These tips would help

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  4. What a great article! That contact lens solution thing and medications - I'll remember that!

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