Trip to Morocco, May 2006
comments and photos by Dimos
  Before I start any trip, I always buy the guide book from the series "The Rough Guides". I use it to design my itinerary. Sometimes however, I only understand after the trip the significance of certain sentences in the book. For example, it says "Marrakesh is not a place of great monuments. Its beauty and attraction lie in the general atmosphere...". How true! If you have visited Alhambra in Granada, Spain, you will not be impressed by the monuments in Marrakesh. As far as the general atmosphere goes, I estimate that some 95% of the shops sell souvenirs. Hence, Marrakesh is really a huge souvenir market.  
  That may sound great if shopping for souvenirs is what you love doing. In fact "bargaining" rather than "shopping". I visited Marrakesh having returned from a trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In these countries the initial prices of the souvenirs are ridiculously low (eg a female scarf starts at $5 and you can easily bring it down to $2.5), and are sold by the ever smiley Asian women. I found the same scarf starting price $25 (yes, twenty-five) in Marrakesh. The dark looking shop owner was not interested in selling it for less than $20. By the way, the same scarf is sold in Paris for $10.  

In other words, the shopping experience is one of dealing with non-smiling dark looking males who start from a high price hoping to catch someone naive.

  I went for a day to Fes. It takes 7 hours by train to go from Marrakesh and 7 to come back. The train had small compartments for 8 people each. A corridor runs on the side of the vagon. In a similar train in Greece, the corridor will be full of people mingling and talking to each other. In the train in Morocco everyone was sitting in their compartment and I was the only person going up and down the corridor...  
  The guide-book says that prices in Fes are lower than in Marrakesh.True. Also the people in Fes are much more friendly than in Marrakesh. I interacted with about 10 people during my one day stay in Fes. Each one of them treated me friendlier than anyone I met in Marrakesh. There are two cities in Fes. The old one with the souks and the new one. While in Marrakesh 95% of the shops in the souks sell souvenirs, in Fes some 50% sell souvenirs. In other words, Old-Fes is a normal city. Marrakesh is a touristy place...  
  I expected to find many travel agencies offering tours to Sahara Desert. But it appears that most tourists book a package holiday from home that includes the Desert. I found only one agency, Sahara Expeditions. Best way to find it is to go to the reception of Hotel Ali (everyone around Djemaa el Fna, the central squre, can point you to Hotel Ali) and ask for tours to Sahara. They will happily escort you to the Sahara Expeditions and they do not get any commission.  
  The highlight of the trip was the excursion to Sahara Desert. I did the 3 day tour. You get to see a lot of Atlas Mountains, you ride for about 2 hours on a camel, you sleep in the middle of the desert... Well, we did not really sleep. Once the moon goes away, the sky is so amazing with the stars... The experience is similar to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, but it is much colder in Bolivia as the salar is at 4000meters above sea level...and it is better to step on the sand than on rocky salt...  
  Oh if you are not extra super careful, you will inevitably get sand into your digital camera. Luckily, there is a shop, WREDE at 142 Av Mohamed V that cleans a few cameras a day for a cost of around 60euro. It takes them 2 hours, which is much less that it would take you to get it clean in your country...  
  Rugs or Kellims or Carpets In every carpet shop I went to, as soon as I told them that I was Greek, they told me that some Greek women were at that shop a couple of weeks ago and they all bought carpets! Morocco must be the number one destination of Greek travelers! NOT! They tell you that they can ship them anywhere and they present to you the "Delivery Book", a note-book with addresses in various countries where their carpets were delivered (there is really no confirmation of delivery--simply an address). They say that every carpet is hand-made and the woman (all women are called "Fatima") brainstorms her own design. But if you ask for a specific design on a bigger size, they have it! Not to mention that you can find the same designs in most shops. Lastly, with so many many many carpets for sale, it is hard to believe that all these are hand made... I bought a rug from the Ensemble Artisanal complex (on Avenue Mohammed V, midway between the Koutoubia and the ramparts of Bab Nkob, Marrakesh). The price was fixed at 650 dirham (around 65euro). The starting price for the same rug in the private shops was 4000 dirham (around 400 euro). May be if I had bargained for it in the souks I could have paid 50 euro. But the Ensemble Artisanal is an enclosed shop so the rugs get less dust and dirt compared to the ones in the souks. Also, some carpet stores will claim that they are "co-operatives" of many many artists. Few second latter you will discover that they use the same sales technique that the all other shops use: "you do not want to buy a carpet, get out of the shop"...  
  Also note that in Fes they sell heavy carpets whereas in Marrakesh they sell mostly rugs and kellims  
  Of course if you tell someone at a store that you found the same item cheaper somewhere else, he will tell you that his quality is the best. Just reply "I do not care about quality. I want the least expensive possible" and you left him confused...  
  By the way I bought one of those wooden tables for 20 euro. Other stores were asking for 100 euro. Maybe I could have bought it for 10euro...who knows...  
  And a glass of orange juice costs 30 cents. Get drunk! Also a kilo of olives cost 1.8 euro. Compare that with 6 to 9 euro in Europe...  
  This was my first time in an Arab, Muslim, African country. I do not know if the "customs" I observed are related to any of these ethnic, religious or geographical characteristics. The observations:  
  - Only men sit at cafes. Women sit at parks. This is not very differerent from Cambodia or Vietnam you seldomly find women at bars. But in these countries you find couples on the parks.  
  - Men walking in pairs may be holding hands. I observed the same thing in Cambodia and Vietnam.  
  - I would say that significantly more women are covered in Marrakesh than in the Atlas Mountains  
  - Any group of young men walking at night is ready to pick on a any group of women. Reminded me a bit of the way men in France pick up on women.  
  - Men are relatively tall and thin.  
  - Women are medium height and..not thin. Part of it is their bone structure. Part is the fact that they stay at home. Eating bread with the delicious tajines does not help on the silhouette..  
  - Most women are still covered. That helps cover the weight. The women who are not covered still eat a lot of tajines. Unfortunately, skirts are not common and you can either see the same size woman covered or with tight jeans.  
  - Moroccan women are experts on make-up. In fact the one thing missing from the Marrakesh experience is training classes for tourist women on how to do such amazing make-up.  
  - Daily life starts late (shops open after 9) and finishes early (by 10 pm even central streets are empty).  
  - You eat the best tea is at the local cafes. Do not even bother ordering tea anywhere else  
  Overall, if you want to decorate your house in Moroccan style, definitely, go, bargain, bargain, bargain, and bring up all the goodies. But I would think Egypt can provide a similar shopping experience plus the pyramids--something to see!