Getting directions in Marrakech’s Medina
I finally turn to the boys for help. I have been resisting it for at least half an hour now… I know it’s just going to mean trouble. Ultimately I think the trouble will be worth it to get me off the streets.
Basically, I’m lost.
Not the kind of lost where you know you’re going in the right direction but are not sure where you’re supposed to turn. And not the kind of lost where if you ask someone on the street they’ll point you the right way.
Oh no, I am trapped in a labyrinth of tiny winding streets that make even less sense than a picture by Escher. I can’t tell if I’ve been going around in circles or whether everything just looks the same.
I had hoped if I kept walking I would eventually find my way but it’s actually like trying to untangle a fishing line that just creates more knots.
This is my introduction to Morocco – lost and confused in the medina of Marrakech, lugging my bag and wondering why I didn’t pay more attention to the directions my accommodation had sent through.
And this is where the boys come in. They have also been a part of my introduction to Morocco. Not these ones in particular, to whom I turn, but dozens of different ones through the maze I’ve been trudging.
“Where you go? I help you.”
“I take you. Come with me.”
“Hello, sir. Are you lost?”
Each of these offers in isolation is just what I need. They are, at the purest form, a solution to my problem. But I know they will create another kind of problem.
The offers are not the acts of good Samaritans. This is not simply the kindness of strangers. These boys and their offers are part of an industry that has formed in the Marrakech medina that has unpredictable outcomes.
Not only does this old part of Marrakech have no logical urban planning but there is little (if any) signage for the businesses within it. To find many of the traditional riad-style accommodations, you have to delve even deeper into the maze and turn off the labyrinthine streets into small, dark and crooked alleyways.
And so the boys propose their services to lost tourists, offering to show them the way to their hotels or whichever restaurant or site they’re trying to reach. Every corner seems to have someone willing to walk you to your destination. Plus there seem to be prowlers who wander around looking for confused foreigners.
I call them ‘boys’ because that seems to be an accurate description of pretty much all of them. They range in ages from probably about 13 to 20, but there are no females and nobody older than that.
t’s as though this industry has its own little union that prevents outsiders from plying the trade. Or, more likely, it’s a part time job for kids who are studying or working somewhere else the rest of the time.
It’s a pretty easy money-maker, if you can get a client. There are no goods needed and no skills required other than knowing your neighbourhood.
Eventually, fatigued and desperate, I stop to talk to one who has approached me. Oh, he was just going for a walk, he says. But he would be happy to show me the way to my accommodation. Of course he would.
So we set off before I even realise we have and immediately I ask him how much money he will want for the directions. Oh, don’t worry, he says… as I feared he would. I’m too exasperated to really follow up my negotiations so I choose to just delay the inevitable.
Through the streets we go, winding through alleyways, passing through souks, retracing some steps I’m sure I made.
Once I point out a mosque I know I had walked past, perhaps trying to prove to the boy that I didn’t need his services as much as he thought, but he just smiles politely and makes some small talk about where I come from. Not down in the last shower, I want to reply, but it wouldn’t be true in this case.
As we go, we seem to collect more boys. My main guy shouts out to others who come and join and chat. They ask me questions and act like we’re new best friends. I’m wary… and for good reason.
We eventually get to my accommodation. It was actually quite far and we’ve probably been walking for 20 minutes. A few times my guides had to stop and ask someone else for directions… it seems we have ventured outside their own neighbourhood and even they got confused.
But now, standing at the door, comes the moment I had been dreading.
I reach into my pockets and pull out some money and hand it to the first boy who had approached me. He is about 16, speaks decent English and was friendly to chat to as we walked. Now, though, stormclouds begin to form on his face.
He’s not happy with the amount I’ve given him and also demands money for his friends who have helped as well.
It’s not going to be easy explaining why I don’t think his friends deserve anything and why I think the money I’ve given him is quite reasonable. I also get the impression that they would act angry regardless of what I give them – that’s part of the scheme.
So I decide just to bail out. I ring the doorbell of the accommodation, find a bit more money in my pockets and hand it over. Then when the door opens, I scurry inside and wave a goodbye and a thanks.
Some expletives are thrown my way but the door closes on them. I’m a little bit shaken because I am confused about who ripped who off.
I think I had probably handed over the equivalent of about 4 or 5 euros in total. Not a huge amount for a tourist like me, but a fairly decent amount for Morocco – and especially for a boy who’s only done about 30 minutes’ work for it.
But, regardless, I probably would have paid triple just to get me to my room and out of that maze.
If you would like a professional to show you around Marrakech, you might like one of these tours:
I will have to tackle it again soon but this time I’ll go prepared. I refuse to let my first impressions of Morocco and Marrakech be tainted.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN MARRAKECH
The most authentic style of accommodation is a riad in the medina – but they come in all shapes and sizes!
For a cool and safe hostel in a riad, have a look at Rodamón Marrakech.
A nice riad that is affordable and welcoming is Riad Dar Nadwa.
For a stunning boutique option, I think 72 Riad Living is one of the best in the city.
And Riad L’Hôtel Marrakech is an absolutely stunning hotel, if you feel like splurging!