Of dirty bitches, fucking tourists and mint tea on the house. Or: why Morocco was a struggle.

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It’s hard to find the words and structure a balanced blog post about something that has influenced this travel as much as the following. To write about something so close to my heart. To properly explain the why’s and because’s. I don’t think I can. Yes, I’ve traveled through the country for longer than just a couple of days, but still, I’m aware that my experiences are a glimpse of the overall country. And yet, five minutes into a conversation with another female traveler the topic would inevitably fall on the one I’m going to try to talk about in this post: street harassment.

When I first came to Morocco I posted a quick note on my tumblr, saying how I was largely left alone. How everyone had been super friendly. That changed pretty much the second I hit the “post” button. After that I was almost constantly harassed on the streets. It didn’t matter if I was by myself or with another group of girls. The only time it slightly lessened was when I was walking with a guy (or more) next to me.

I’m not naive. Of course I was expecting a certain kind of attention on the streets. Before I left I was warned by many people. I got told what to do, what not to do, how to behave, what to wear. By strangers and by my family and close friends. Most of it was common sense to me. Sure, I wouldn’t be wearing hot pants. I’d cover up. Respect the country, the culture and the religion. It’s me, after all, who’s the visitor.
I’m the kind of traveler who loves nothing more than to walk through a city with her eyes wide open, a smile on her face and a friendly word quick on her lips. I want to greet and interact with locals and aimlessly roam the streets so I can discover hidden spots.

Morocco quickly taught me the exact opposite.

You might want to know how a country can do this? Let me explain by telling you a couple of stories.

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I started my trip in Tangier, where I lived in an apartment in a good part of the Ville Nouvelle for three weeks. In Tangier especially, it was almost impossible to walk down some streets or through the Medina without getting shouted at, without kissing noises being made as I walked past. Without “Oh hello beautiful!” or “Sexy lady!” or “Oooh, spice girls!” or “Hello pretty flower!”.
I’m not exaggerating. I kinda wish I was, but I could not make these things up, even if I tried.

For the most part I figured out that ignoring them altogether was the best tactic. To just keep on walking if possible and they’d soon leave me alone.

Sometimes though, you aren’t walking. Sometimes you cannot outrun them. Sometimes you’re just sitting on a wall in a small park, enjoying a cool breeze and talking to two other people. And then, when an older man comes up to you and starts talking, and you ignore him, you get shouted at.

“Dirty bitch! Dirty! Dirty bitch! You bring Ebola to us Moroccans! Dirty bitch! Go back home and leave us Moroccans alone!”

How ironic, right? To get told to leave them alone when that’s what you’ve been doing all along? Right when it happened I was just taken aback by the obvious aggression aimed my way. Later, when I thought more about the words he used, the way he looked at us and the way this entire incident made me feel, an odd sense of sadness overcame me.

But that’s not all.

Sometimes you’re just walking through a souk and a young guy comes up to you and asks you if you’re married. And if you ignore him he starts shouting. And if you don’t and say that you are, in fact married, he’ll attach himself to you and say “Doesn’t matter, I’ll be the second husband” and hassles you for way too long.

I soon arrived at a point where I’d just block out everything and I cannot even begin to tell you how sad this made me. It’s devastating because I love nothing more than to interact with locals. I love nothing more than to throw a quick smile at random strangers who pass me on the street. But in Morocco I felt like I couldn’t. In Morocco, if I smiled at someone they’d often see it as an invitation to ask more rude or inappropriate questions.

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One morning I was walking through the souk in Rabat. I was just thinking how different Rabat was to Tangier. People were friendlier, I got hassled less and found myself breathing easier, smiling more. I saw a small girl crying in front of one of the stands and smiled brightly at her, hoping she’d stop crying and smile back. Hoping to be a small distraction. In the same second I gave my attention to this child, a Moroccan teenager walked past me and patted my shoulders down to my wrist. I quickly pulled it away, completely taken aback by what just happened. Is me smiling at a small girl an invitation to be touched however they please? I threw him a dirty look but everything moved so fast and a second later he was gone and I was standing there with an odd feeling all over my body, my skin crawling, and a sour mood replacing all the positive thoughts I just had.
Two streets further I was still stewing about what just happened when a street vendor looked at me, whistled and said “Ooh, you are beautiful! Welcome to Morocco!” And I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t stop. I didn’t look at him. I just kept walking and before I could help myself I said “Shut up!”
I kept walking and only heard an outraged “What???” shouted back at me.

I immediately felt bad. I immediately regretted it. This is not who I am. This is not who I want to be. This is not who I want to allow the men in this country to turn me into. And yet, the frustration boiled over.
Dear street vendor, if you really only wanted to welcome me to your country, I’m sorry. But please also know that this is not how you make us feel welcome. This is how you objectify us. This is how you make us more uncomfortable than you could possible know.

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On my way to find my hostel in Essaouira I was approached by a young man who offered me a hostel to stay in. I told him no thanks and that I already had a hostel. He goes on “It’s a very nice hostel, I can show you, follow me!” To which I replied “No thanks, I’ve already booked a hostel.” Then he flipped. “Racist!” “Excuse me?” “You’re a big racist!” I should have stopped and ignored him then, but sometimes I just can’t. So I asked him how already having a hostel makes me a racist. He obviously couldn’t explain it to me so he just declared one more time “You’re a big racist!”

A day or two later I was walking through the souks and stopped to look at a little bag. I picked it up, turned it over and the vendor approached me. “I make you a good price!” I told him that it was alright, I was just having a look. He went on and asked me how much I want to pay, we could haggle about it. I said it was quite alright, I was only looking and wasn’t even sure if I wanted it to begin with. Again, friendliness turned into aggression so quickly it made my head spin, and the vendor shouted at me “If you don’t want it, don’t touch it!”

It’s sad, you know. Sad and kind of stupid. Because even if I would go home later that night and decide that I did want that bag after all, I would definitely not come back and buy it from him. All the stalls in the souks basically sell the same things anyways and I understand that competition between them is brutal, but this is definitely not how you make a sale. I’ve never been annoyed by people trying to ask me to check out their shops. This is how they make their living, after all. And even though it can be exhausting to be constantly asked to look at this, or go into that store, it’s all fine by me. It’s the quick and sudden aggression that sometimes followed I have issues with.

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In Taghazout I was around when a british girl, who worked in my hostel, opened the door to welcome a group of guys who’d booked a stay there. They didn’t find the hostel right away so a local showed them the way. The girl said thank you to the local, the guys walked in and before she closed the door behind them she turned around and asked if the locals had, by any chance, seen a little dog. It was the hostel dog that had gone missing that day and everyone was worried. The local turned around and said “Fuck you, bitch!”
Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps he thought she should pay him for bringing her new customers, but since they had already booked this hostel anyways, what’s the point? If he wanted money for showing them the way, he should have said something to the guys, but it’s easier to lash out on women, right?

I also stopped asking people for the way. I knew that most of the time they’d expect money from me in return. If it’s a tour I agreed on, that’s fine. But if you only ask if you should turn left or right, and then are expected to pay over 10€ for that little piece of advice, then no, I won’t ask.
Locals would also attach themselves to us as unwanted, unasked for tour guides. Just telling them that it was unnecessary usually didn’t deter them so I took on to being super frank. I’d tell them right away that it was lovely of them to want to tell us a little bit about their city but that I have a travel guide and that I don’t have the money to pay them. They usually left even before completely finished that sentence.
I had a map on my phone and knew where to walk, and yet, people would tell me where to go, where not to go and then get frustrated and angry when I wouldn’t take their advice.

In Marrakech I was right around the corner of a palace I wanted to see when I was approached by a young Moroccan who told me that the palace was right around the corner. I said thank you, and that I know. Then he touched my arm. I quickly yanked it away and told him in no uncertain terms to not touch me. I kept walking and heard him scream behind me “Fuck you, tourists! I hate tourists! Fuck you! Fucking tourists!”

How bizarre? If you hate tourists so much, why do you care in the first place? The only explanation I have for that is that he could have wanted money from us, for pointing out the obvious, yes, but it’s not like that never happened before.

Then there’s the issue of men “owning” the sidewalk. I’ve noticed quite quickly that men will often not even try to make room for me on the sidewalks. For some reason this made me incredibly angry. I’m a feminist. And I firmly believe in the fact that I not only have the same right as men do, but I also deserve a space on the sidewalk. Especially when it’s clearly big enough for the both of us. I’ll try to make space for you if I see and feel you doing the same. Until that happens I will continue to not go out of the way. The couple of bruises on my shoulders and arms are worth this. I will not make myself small for you.

All of these things make it hard and tiring to travel through Morocco as a woman. It’s the constant vigilance, that’s exhausting. The fact that I won’t have experiences as rich as they could have been, which sadden me beyond words.

Every time I meet other female travelers it’s one of the first topics being discussed. The guys can’t really understand it.
But when you get asked how much you cost for the second time, I think you have every right to flip out. To shout. To make a scene. To tell them in no uncertain terms that this is NOT okay. That it’s derogatory and disgraceful. How can this not be the main topic of discussion?

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Let me make one more thing very clear. I have also met the nicest, friendliest and most helpful men here. I have seen fathers lovingly dote on their daughters, I’ve seen young men help elderly women down the stairs or give them their seats. I’ve been treated with kindness. I’ve been offered free tea in a restaurant, and high fives when I came back to my regular dinner spot for the 3rd time in a row. I got joked with and smiled at.
And this makes this entire situation even sadder to me. Because of the actions of some people, I often don’t even notice anymore when others are nice to me. When they warn me to not walk down this alley because it’s a dead-end. When they give me back money because I handed them too much or when they genuinely just try to show me the way and I’m immediately wary and think “How much money will he want for this?”.

But still, it’s tough. Some days are harder than others. Sometimes, the frustration level is high. Some cities are more relaxed than others, sometimes it’s better being in a group, sometimes it’s worse. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I embraced it as part of this experience, but sometimes it was almost unbearable. Sometimes I was so disgusted I could barely take it. Have I ever felt really unsafe? No. Have I been beyond annoyed to the point where I’d loved to scream and cry? Yes.

There are many possible explanations on why Moroccan men see and treat western women the way they do. We could blame it on the media, the pop music, or the poor command of the English language. I truly believe that sometimes people didn’t understand just how grave it can be if you call a young girl a “bitch” on the street. Is that an excuse though? No, I don’t think so.

I know that this post can be seen as a collection of negative examples. Of the single experience of a young girl who couldn’t deal out there in the big world. You are right, to a certain extent. These are my experiences. These are the stories that happened to me, but every single girl I’ve met along the way had stories just like mine. And yes, I am frustrated and saddened, but this trip has made me stronger in many regards. Trust me when I say that it’s not culture shock. It’s not the feelings of a scared little girl who’ve barely traveled before. It is not. I’ve been to many countries and I’ve seen people of many cultures get angry and frustrated but never have I felt this kind of aggression. Towards me and others. Never have I felt so unwelcome in a country.

Again, let me say one more time that you can, as a girl, travel to Morocco. You can walk through the souk by yourself, you can go have dinner by yourself, you can do it all. You don’t need someone with you. In fact, I urge you to. Just expect a certain level of harassment, but don’t let them get to you. Kill with kindness and you’ll emerge as a stronger, wiser, and better person in the end.

So please, travel to Morocco. The culture, the history, the architecture and the majority of the people are amazing.

Do it solo, do it as a girl. But be aware that it might be tiring.

_____

* pictures taken by Krystin Ross.

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Zanzibar

In an earlier post, I already hinted at how perfect my weekend trip to Zanzibar was. I still have trouble believing that weekend really happened and, to me, it still seems like it was a beautiful dream, too good to be true.

After spending a little over a month in Dar es Salaam, I was well used to life in Africa. I was used to how buildings looked, how food tasted and what people were like.

Or so I thought.

This all changed drastically when I disembarked from the boat that took me to Stone Town. It was like I was in a totally different country, if not continent. The buildings had an Oriental touch. The rundown facades mixed with the lush plants and gorgeous architecture immediately took my breath away. I could not tear my eyes from the buildings, the doors, the intricate details on fences – I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of Stone Town.

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However, there’s more. The majority of the population is Muslim so there’s an entirely different atmosphere to the island. While the coastal regions of Tanzania are also more muslim than the north, for example, there’s still a very large percentage of Christians. In Stone Town, as we were told, there are about 49 mosques and only two churches. Plus, if you keep your eyes open, you can find a Hindu temple every so often.
This mix of cultures, even though it’s still so very shaped by the Islamic culture, makes for a very unique atmosphere.

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And then there’s the food. Let’s not forget about the food. Sadly, I only stayed for two nights so the possibilities to check out and try more food were limited. However, I don’t think travelers will have any troubles finding something they enjoy. Due to the various influences and the rich history of the island, it’s vastly different from the “usual” African food.

All in all, I cannot recommend a trip to Zanzibar enough. Maybe it was because I only spent such a short time filled with so many brilliant memories. Maybe it’s because I’m absolutely obsessed with interesting architecture, history, and food. Maybe it’s because I find only little more fascinating than the mix of different cultures. Maybe all of this together, but in the end, I don’t think it matters much. I had a gorgeous time I will never, ever forget.

Thank you, Isabel, for joining me on this trip and thank you, GK, for taking us. It was an incredible experience.

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Tips for when you go to Zanzibar

  • Take your passport.

Kind of a no-brainer, I suppose, but super important none the less as Zanzibar does have an immigration desk where you even have to fill out a form. Yes, it’s been part of Tanzania since the 60s but they still have a lot of autonomy. I’ve heard stories about people having trouble getting to Zanzibar due to what kind of visa they had. If you have an ordinary tourist visa and are there for touristic purposes you should have no problems, but still make sure that your visa is in order.

  • Take a reliable ferry.

If you’re going to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam, for example, there’s the Asam Fast Ferry. It’s a bit on the pricier side (for African standards at least) but it’s quite fast and safe. I don’t think it’s necessary to tell you to not take a dhow. I guess it’s pretty self-explanatory why going by one of the traditional sailing boats is not a good idea. When you’re near the ferry/speed boat station, people will harass you to no end, offering you the cheapest ticket to go to Zanzibar. If you want to avoid this, do your research before going there so you know where to go and what to buy. This way you can walk with determination and people might back off and leave you alone.

  • Book tours and guides only from sources/offices that seem trustworthy.

There are a bunch of people on the street that offer to take you to a spice tour and whatever else. Please do your research and only book these things with companies that seem trustworthy. These don’t necessarily have to be the big companies, as I’m also all for supporting small agencies, but keep your eyes open and ask a lot of questions before booking to get a feeling of how trustworthy they are. Otherwise you’re just going to be disappointed.

  • Keep your eyes open.

You might feel safer in Zanzibar because there are more tourists. For me, every time I saw other people with similar skin colour I instantly felt a lot safer. Stupid, I know. I tended to let my guard down and, let me tell you, that is not the smartest thing to do.
Yes, there are more tourists in Zanzibar than, let’s say, in Dar es Salaam, but locals know this as well. Take care and keep an eye on your belongings. Don’t take unnecessary risks. In short: don’t let the feeling of familiarity lull you into a false sense of security.

On a slightly different note: take care when eating seafood. I had more than one person fall sick because they ate seafood that wasn’t good anymore. It’s tempting, yes, but have a good look at the place you want to get food from. I usually go by this rule that if you find a lot of locals in a restaurant, bar or food stand, then the food is great. This is, as you should know, my own personal opinion and not at all applicable to every situation.

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[Five things to do in Zanzibar. Posts about my time in Tanzania can be found here.]

Please note the general disclaimer of my travel stories:

All opinions and recommendations on this blog, but especially concerning these travel stories, are solely based upon my own experiences and in no way imply that anyone else will have a similar experience. All travelers are encouraged to use good sense and to keep their eyes open whenever venturing forth into a new place. Please use your common sense and listen to your own instincts.  Each traveling experience is unique to the person having it and I hope you have many!

Travel Stories: Thailand presentation!

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[Thailand 2004]

This is a friendly reminder that tomorrow (Thursday May 9th) I’ll hold a presentation on how to travel safely and smoothly through Thailand.
Please join us if you’re interested! More info here (you have to give prior notice).

Also, the presentation will be held in German. I thought maybe I should mention that ;)

The presentation will not substitute a travel guide but is more about giving background information about the country, mentality, religion. It tells our own travel stories, things we did that you probably shouldn’t do (like crash a funeral), stories to make you learn from our mistakes, stories about how to have fun but still be conscious about a different country and culture.

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[Thailand 2010]