Morocco: Then and Now

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(Editor’s Note: The photos posted in this blog are from 1995 and 2014. Can you tell the difference?)

Darold and I traveled to Morocco twenty years ago and found it a beautiful, exotic and friendly place. When we decided to take a side trip there to show Dante, we wondered how different it would seem two decades later. Twenty years ago we bought a car in Europe and traveled around for 6 months. We took our car on the ferry to Tanger, and drove to Casablanca and then Marrakech. This time we would make the same trip, picking up a rental car in Tanger. The first difference we saw was how huge Tanger had become. There was construction going on everywhere including new ports (military, commercial, passenger ferry and yacht) and countless apartment complexes. The man who rented us our car explained that the new king (who took over from his father 10 years prior) had been doing a lot of construction, modernization, liberalization, incenting foreign businesses to come into Morocco, and doing a lot to have a middle class emerge in Morocco. A number of Moroccans we talked to had a lot of praise for the king and what he was doing for their country.

The road from Tanger to Casablanca, which was a remarkably good two-lane highway 20 years ago, was now a 4-lane toll road complete with rest stops that had gas stations and restaurants. The two lane highway used to take you by the ocean and we saw caravans of camels along the beach. This trip we didn’t see a single camel.

During our first trip, the largest mosque in the world was being built in Casablanca. It was nearly complete, but still under construction. A white sandy beach surrounded the mosque and it seemed as it if were in the middle of nowhere. Today, it is encased in a plaza and surrounded by buildings. In fact, they are even working on restoring the outer tiles of the minaret because of the wear and tear they have received over the years since its completion.

Marrakech was also bigger and more crowded than 20 years ago. We made our way towards the media (ancient walled portion of the city) where we had booked our hotel. In our 20s, the view from our hotel consisted of a dirt roundabout with camels lying around. This time around, our hotel was in the heart of the medina.
The spirit of entrepreneurship is still alive and well in the media of Marrakech. A troop of young boys offered to lead us to our hotel. It was pretty clear they didn’t exactly know where they were going either but they kept saying, “Don’t worry! Five more minutes!” We got there 90 minutes later though iteration and help from others. We tipped them enough to buy about one dozen delicious fried bread patties from any street vendor. They pretended to be insulted with what we offered and acted like they thought it wasn’t enough (though it was more than fair) but they took the money and we parted with words of “salaam,” (peace). We told the story to the hotel manager, who got a good chuckle out of it and confirmed that our tip was more than generous; the boys just acted insulted to try and get more money. And can you blame them?
Later, we went to retrieve our car and saw two of the boys that had “helped” us. Lo and behold, they were eating at a street vendor. They pointed to us and laughed at us as if they got one over on us. So I went up to them and said to them – in my best impression of an Italian grandmother – told them what cute boys they were and how much of a help they gave us – all the while pinching their cheeks. Several of their friends across the alleyway pointed and laughed at them while the boys themselves looked mortified and the expression on their faces seemed to say, “I’ll give you your money back if you just please make it stop!” After that, we figured they’d stay as far away from us as possible.

We had dinner at our hotel and realized one thing hadn’t changed – the food was still delicious (albeit more expensive). We had couscous, chicken tangine, and harira soup with olive spread, bread, harissa and soda (it’s still hard to find a beer in Marrakech.)

Darold and I both have distinct memories of the famous square in Marrakech where the acrobats, soothsayers, snake charmers, food stalls, water sellers, orange juice vendors, belly dancers and music ensembles gather. We remember it as being very open and large, spotted with carpets where the entertainers sat under umbrellas. We took a lot of photos, had conversations with the vendors and gave tips when we took pictures together with them (such as when the snake charmer draped a snake – presumably non-venomous – around my neck.) When we approached the square for the first time this trip it was at night. We saw throngs of people backlit by lights and smoke rising from the food stalls. We heard the snake charmers’ flutes as well as the drums and guitars of the musicians. But mostly we heard the throng of people talking. We couldn’t believe it was the same place it was so crowded. Interestingly, it was mostly crowded with locals – further confirmation that there is an emerging middle class society. We found orange juice stand #33 – the same one we would visit every morning in 1995 – and bought ourselves a delicious glass of fresh squeezed orange juice for the equivalent of .50 cents. I think it was .25 cents 20 years earlier – not too bad. What was also different was the expectation of tips. Previously we could take photos of the whole scene, and as long as we didn’t pose with one of the entertainers, a tip wasn’t expected. We took pictures with the soothsayers, snake charmers and water distributors and negotiated tips in the past. This time around, everyone had “spotters” who would pick out the tourists with cameras and demand a tip pre-emptively. I guess over the years intimidation has worked with most tourists.

The medina (maze of streets adjacent to the square) was exactly as I remembered. A winding maze of narrow, dirt paths crammed with vendors selling tea glasses, Aladdin shoes, tunics, scarves, wooden boxes, ceramic bowls, bronze tea pots, incense, paintings, argon oil, burkas, produce, meat, fish, moped parts, knives, walking sticks, fabrics, notions, hookas, rugs, carpets, pillows and probably other things too (had we only asked).

In 1995 a Berber man befriended us and invited us to his house for mint tea while we were walking around the medina. He said he had a carpet factory. We explained we had absolutely no money to buy a carpet, and he said no problem. He wanted to make friends and practice English. We visited his home, had a tour, and he served us tea. He took us to his roof to show us the city from a view and pointed out the minaret’s from the men’s mosques and the women’s mosques. We heard the call to prayer as we took in the view. He couldn’t pronounce Darold’s name so he called him Muhammad and called me Fatima. He then clapped his hands twice and a young boy came in carrying several crude carpets. We admired them and politely said no. He then proceeded to have the boy bring in a series of carpets, each one more beautiful than the last. We kept on admiring them, confident in our knowledge that we had no cash in our pockets to buy such a treasure. We politely declined a purchase but the man, confident in his wares, said, “Do you not see anything you like?” Darold said, “They are beautiful but you do not have the carpet I am looking for.” The man said, “I have every carpet you could possibly want! What are you looking for?” Darold said, “I am looking for a magic carpet.” Undaunted, the man then clapped his hands twice and the boy appeared with two beautiful silk and wool rugs. We thought one was particularly beautiful and would have actually liked to buy it, but again we said to the man that we had no cash, we only had a credit card. “No problem, my friend,” he said, smiling wide. “I take visa.” We laughed the haggling pursued. Before we knew it, he was swiping our card. I said to Darold, “What happened?” and Darold replied, “I think we just bought a rug.” 10 minutes later we were walking out of his home with a magic carpet wrapped up in brown paper looking at each other and saying, “Well, the tea was good!” Upon reflection, Darold (a salesman himself) couldn’t help but admire his technique.

Today, negotiation is still in full force at most stalls. There were a few vendors that had “fixed prices” but since that took all the fun out of it, we didn’t buy anything from them. It was fun to be told that you would get a “friend price, no tourist price” and then proceed to haggle them down to a price where everyone was happy. Win win.

This time around (unlike 1995) we had learned a few words in Arabic. We would greet everyone with a “saba al jer” (good morning) or “masa al jer” (good afternoon) and say a polite “la shokran” (no, thank you) if someone wanted to sell us something but we were uninterested. It was funny to see the reactions of the Moroccans when we would speak Arabic. They would inevitably laugh in a pleased way and greet us back. But it never failed that they would laugh. I guess most tourists don’t speak Arabic!

While we didn’t see any camels on this trip, what we did see is a number of women in full burkas – with socks, gloves and sometimes sunglasses included. This is something we didn’t see back in 1995. However, Morocco is a very liberal country in that you see women wearing a variety of clothes. Many wear a head scarf, but quite a few don’t. It was explained to us that it’s up to the individual. You would even see women in a full burka walking arm-in-arm with a woman in western clothes.

Overall we spent 5 days traveling in Morocco and were glad that we gave Dante the experience of stepping onto the continent of Africa, traveling through an Islamic country and experiencing the medina of Marrakech. I wonder what it will be like in another 20 years!

To see our pictures (scanned in) from Morocco in 1995 go here:
To see pictures of Morocco from 2014 go here:

3 Responses to Morocco: Then and Now

  1. Anonymous

    This is just amazing… baci,
    Nilla and family

    • Andy&Vicki Biser

      I love looking at your website ever since my brother-in-law Ron Rathbun shared it with me over a year ago when you stopped in San Diego. I find your journey so interesting and educational that I cannot wait to read the next journal entry. Keep up the good work and be safe. Andy Biser

      • Darold Massaro

        We love getting comments like yours – it keeps us motivated to write the blog posts!

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