A Moroccan Souk Escape
You never think you will be the person who they show on the news that evening when a naïve young traveler goes missing in a foreign country. Thankfully I was not a news headline that day, but it felt very close until my intuition took over and I found an escape route.
In January, my friend and I took a short trip to Morocco. I had found an incredibly amazing flight deal through Ryanair and I decided to spend 4 nights in Marrakech, finally crossing Africa off my list of continents visited. Before we left, I researched all I could of this country and its customs. I was aware of its treatment towards women so I prepared myself by looking up what was appropriate to wear. I read that the Moroccan souk merchants would try to grab you and pull you into their shops to buy something, which meant I should try to avoid eye-contact. I basically found a lot of information on how to breeze through the city in an incognito way.
I read that the Moroccan souk merchants would try to grab you and pull you into their shops to buy something, which meant I should try to avoid eye-contact.
My friend and I seemed to flow through our first few days successfully. We had a full adventure in the country, which included walking around Marrakech, and bonding with the people in our hostel over cookies, sweet mint tea and cherry-flavored hookah. A last-minute excursion took us to Ait Ben Haddou, a beautiful ancient city on the threshold of the Sahara Desert. Our windy road trip through the Atlas Mountains was breathtaking and nauseating as I struggled to push through my aching head to see the sun set over the hills.
On our last day in the city we decided to walk to the farthest reaches of town to view the Royal Palace, which we thought was accessible to tourists. Upon walking around the entire campus twice, we realized this was an impossible dream so we wandered out into unknown territory to try and return to somewhere familiar.
Marrakech is a maze of homes and businesses all encrusted with reds, pinks, yellows, oranges and browns. As a photographer I was not one to shirk away from capturing the ornate doors and attention-grabbing colors that covered the city. A turn down a side street to view something that caught my eye led to a young man approaching us and asking if my friend and I were lost. We said no and continued on our way back to the center of town.
We turned another corner and again this same man appeared.
“You won’t get where you’re going if you go this way. I know a shortcut, follow me,” he said as I suspiciously tried to walk the opposite way.
My friend however thought he may be right and suggested we follow him. This obviously sounds like the beginning of a scary news story, but I didn’t want to leave her alone, so we followed.
He told us his English name was “Tony” and then bequeathed to us our own Berber names. I got “Aisha” and smiled to myself as he started to describe what life was like as a local in Marrakech. After trailing behind him for 10 minutes, he started to take us to what he said was the “old city neighborhood” and since I saw potential photographic opportunities, I let him lead us on as I shot some frames.
After a while my suspicious nature started to come back. But I was really trying to be open to this man from another culture and see if we could actually trust him, rather than be the cynical Americans we’re taught to be. He led us next to what he said was his brother-in-law’s shop. By now I didn’t know where we were, but I knew this was a trap of sorts.
He introduced us to his kin and then sat us down and gave us tea. I did not take a sip as I learned from the past few days that nothing is free in this country. Every “gift” comes with a price. His sister’s husband then started to show us all the items in his shop and let us smell all the oils and spices. I was absolutely broke on this trip, so I had made a pact not to buy anything I didn’t need. After having too many different scents shoved under my nose, I was ready to get up and run out of there.
I was really trying to be open to this man from another culture and see if we could actually trust him, rather than be the cynical Americans we’re taught to be.
Before I could though he handed us a bushnika, which is a stiff plant that Moroccans use as toothpicks, and said we could have it for free. This was when I knew for sure that this was not just a quaint little side stop on our way back to tourist town, but a sales pitch. I told my friend we needed to leave and we got up to go. This is when kind “Tony” got angry and started to yell at us. He told us “How dare we waste his time,” and started to speak to us in the Berber language. I got nervous as he started to walk towards us.
Thankfully there were lots of people around in this cramped neighborhood so I figured that they wouldn’t be violent to us if there were people watching. I bravely stepped away, said “Goodbye” and grabbed my friend before booking it out of there like a bold-faced woman with a mission. I was not going to be the 6 o’clock news story that night of two young women getting beaten to death in Marrakech and have all of my parents’ worst nightmares come true.
After being screamed at as we waltzed down the street, I finally felt that we were safe and slowed down my pace. We were back in an area with very obvious tourists milling about so I figured we could sit down and recount what just happened. While it wasn’t the scariest thing in the world, I know that I didn’t want to be in that situation again so we planned out the rest of our day to make sure we stayed abduction-free.
Someday I may be on the news for something terrible that happened to me while traveling. But until then, my goal is to be a savvy wanderer and not falling victim by trusting too easily. While being suspicious isn’t the best way to see the world, it’s always good to be educated on the culture of the location you’re going, as well as ways to keep yourself as safe as possible.