In Autumn 2009, we had just opened our first hostel. Conveniently, at the same time, Sex and the City 2 was being filmed about 1 minute away in the Jewish quarter of 'The Mellah'. At 6am every morning, we did the breakfast run on our rickety motorbike. Precariously carrying croissants, OJ and daily groceries on our heads, we would pass the set and its sumptuous wardrobe placed in the middle of the street surrounded by gun wielding military. We made sure that we shouted 'ACTION; BREAKFAST' as loudly as possible at the set but SJP never emerged in her Manolos and the grimacing soldiers were not quite sure what to make of it.
Being gender specific when travelling is counter intuitive. But it is a response to perceptions and pre-conceptions of travel in Arab and Muslim countries (or both). It is a response based upon media representation of these countries; a response to the many Trip Advisor borne virus' which pervade our fear zone and influence women to be nervous or unsure of travelling in these countries. From wild exaggeration to flagrant and preposterous lies, we would like to set this straight and make it clear that Morocco is an amazing place for the solo-traveller, male and female. Being safe is often a question of personal responsibility and evaluation of risk-taking.
DRESS CODE - TO COVER OR NOT TO COVER...
Dress code in Marrakech is in line with the weather. It's very simple. If it is hot, dress for the hot weather; if it is cold, wear a coat. Be culturally mindful though. A long or knee length, shoulder-showing sun dress is absolutely appropriate when it is boiling; A pair of hot-pants and bikini top or sarong covering your swimmers will garner attention. It may sound obvious, but let's state it anyway - It will garner attention, because it is unusual to be dressed for the beach in the middle of a medina with no beach.
From friendly on-street banter to deeply unpleasant hissing., all exist as ways of attempting to 'connect'. But we are not talking about bloated, entitled, power-wielding perverts; more like ridiculous opportunism. It can feel more pronounced perhaps in somewhere like Marrakech or Fes. There is no need to respond or engage.
Hassle is on a continuum and that continuum is subjective. Whereas one person may feel positively violated when a stranger stays 'hello', another may consider this harmless street-talk. However, outright insult, harrassment and physical contact is fairly rare but not unheard of. A good Arabic word to know in this instance is 'Ha-shouma' - which means 'shame' or 'sin' and said loudly in hearing distance of others (which in the medina you will be) should allow you to move on freely.
Morocco has a superb bus and coach network. Booking online can challenge the most patient souls however, even if you open 10 other tabs to pass the time, or check out what your acquaintances artfully ate for dinner on Facebook. It is best to wait until you are here. Air conditioned and spacious, you will be fine booking a CTM or Supratours bus. If you fancy saving on a night's accommodation by booking an overnight train - DO spend more for a 'couchette' - a very small, lockable room with bunkbeds. It will give you privacy, security, and you may even do some proper sleeping.
FREE-SPIRIT TRAVEL VIRUS
Online forums, and click-bait articles dearly love conflict. It is their oxygen. Conflict is interesting, fighting is awesome and harassment of the female is often described in uncomfortably, voyeuristic detail. Particularly in an Arab Country where male stereotypes are cemented through subliminal repetition. 'I was fine' is boring frankly - we want the juicy details.
Solo-female travellers do not need to join an organised 15 day whistle-stop tour any more than anyone else. The common sense you use in any part of the world that you are not fully familiar with is totally sufficient. If you put up a 'cynical wall', you will not experience the country; but if you aren't sensible in your approach to complete strangers, you may find trouble.
Once, a guest of ours in her late teens met a young man on the street who invited her to a bar at ten o'clock in the morning. These bars do exist. They are not pleasant places for anyone, let alone a young, tipsy female. Women are blatantly objectified in these places, and no amount of postulating and condemning and shouting 'sexism' is going to change that overnight. She was fine - apart from unwittingly buying drinks for everyone in the bar, but the question is: Would you go to a random bar in a part of town you don't know with a lot of strangers who you can't fully communicate with? Anywhere? The young man told this guest that he 'didn't have to be at work until later?' - This gentleman didn't work. This gentleman wanted someone to buy him and his friends drinks for a mid-morning session. And thankfully, that was all he wanted. An 'exotic stranger' is no different to any stranger and doesn't demonstrate your 'free-spirited travel wildness' unless you curate it perfectly, as many do, on facebook. In which case, it must be true.
The moral of this story is: Don't trust so wholly and completely for that (very) distant glow of adventure. Happy and safe adventures happen naturally and not through silly risk-taking.
Very few travel blogs highlight the incredible tenacity of the henna ladies in Place D'Jeema el Fna in the centre of the medina. They mainly follow the age old formula of how to deal with unscrupulous MEN (see previous paragraph)
In all our experience of tea drinking and hostel managing since 2009, the most problems female travellers have endured have been with these incredibly strong and often ludicrously forceful women who make beautiful (and sometimes slightly poisonous) henna tattoos. They are amazing - they will beckon you in Literally Any Language and are adept at working out your nationality. They will ALWAYS tell you that the henna is free, a gift, a blessing to have healthy babies.They are not free. EVER. And no, you won't be an exception because you have beautiful hair or a magical aura.
We have had guests frog-marched to ATMs to withdraw more money than they paid for THEIR FLIGHT, to settle the henna bill. One actually walked to the airport as she had no money left to get the bus. Her henna was however, fabulous. A full sleeve.
Moral to the story: Agree the price beforehand, do not deviate from it, do not succumb to the fake outrage that may come with paying the amount you thought had been agreed, and most importantly - do not get carried away with your beautiful hair and the babies that you will have with your beautiful husband... fickle egos are expensive.
Comfort, open-mindedness without losing sight of personal safety, genuine enjoyment over social media crafted adventures and cultural mindfulness are all key to solo travel anywhere in the world. Morocco is no different.