Swindlers? Sunburn? It's the worst bits about travel that make it so memorable

Anthony Luzio
·7-min read
'I thought they were going to attack me, so insulted were they by my offer of payment for a four-minute tour' - Getty
'I thought they were going to attack me, so insulted were they by my offer of payment for a four-minute tour' - Getty

It is said fending off local chancers and haggling with street hawkers flogging you their overpriced wares is all part of the Marrakech experience, but for someone who is “careful with his money”, it didn’t sound like my idea of fun.

Fortunately, after listening to the experiences of my friends, I felt confident during my visit that I was ready for whatever the city had to throw at me. I was wrong. In the taxi from the airport, the driver took pride in telling me about Marrakech, its history and culture, and taught me a couple of key phrases. His cheerful demeanour was at odds with the warnings numerous people had given me about the “mercenary” nature of Marrakech’s residents and I decided they must have spent their holiday in a tourist bubble.

However, it later dawned on me that my driver’s sprightly mood may have had less to do with my ability to get under the skin of the city and more to do with my agreeing to pay him three times the standard fare.

The streets of the medina were too narrow to drive down, so I had to walk the rest of the journey. Entering its walls is a disorientating experience – like going back to the Middle Ages, with mud-brick buildings overshadowing narrow streets made entirely out of dust. I quickly realised my map was useless, so I was grateful when a friendly local offered to guide me through the maze of streets, even when I said I didn’t have any money to give him. 

After a few minutes dodging through half-finished archways and brightly coloured souks, we arrived at the hotel, outside of which sat a weary-looking security guard. Thanking my guide, I turned to enter the hotel, at which point he inquired if I had “a little present for him”.

I smiled at the misunderstanding, pointing out I told him before we set off that I didn’t have any money, and again turned to go inside. This was when he went for me.

The security guard was up in a flash, pushing away the “friendly local” now throwing himself at me while screaming demands for the money I owed him. I told him I would change some cash and darted into the hotel, but by the time I got back, the pushing and shouting was threatening to erupt into a full-blown fist fight until I offered the tour guide 20 dirhams (£1.70). Snatching it and letting off a final stream of abuse, he vanished into the medina.

Stepping into the street, I narrowly avoided being run over by a motorcycle that whizzed by. “Stay on the right if you don’t want to get hit,” shouted a young football-shirted chap on a moped, who then recommended that I check out a leather festival in the next street.

I said I wasn’t going to give him any money, but he waved me away, saying “shukraan” (thank you) would be enough.  I was exhausted and wary of getting ripped off, but he seemed genuinely enthusiastic rather than out to make a quick buck. As we started walking, he told me he was from the Atlas Mountains. “We are now friends,” he informed me, shaking my hand. “Next time you come to Marrakech, you can stay with my family for free.” 

The Atlas Mountains - Getty
The Atlas Mountains - Getty

While I couldn’t help but find this endearing, I noticed he hadn’t been entirely honest about the location of this festival – we’d been walking for 10 minutes and it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I made a few half-hearted attempts to turn back, but each time he implored “come, come”, and I was so groggy with the heat and lack of sleep – not to mention hopelessly lost – that I thought it would be easier to do what he said.

Eventually we arrived at the leather festival, where he passed me to a large Berber in traditional headdress and grey robes. The leather festival turned out not to be a festival as we know it, but a primitive leather-tanning process, where workers used ammonia from its traditional source of guano to treat cow hides in grave-sized holes in the earth. 

“You’re lucky,” said the Berber, “because today is the festival’s last day.” As I stared up at – and smelt – the eagle nest-sized basket of guano (also known by its anglicised name of “bird s---”) suspended from a wall, I have to admit “lucky” wasn’t the first adjective that sprung to mind. 

The Berber took me to a leather shop selling everything from cushion covers to wallets and passed me to the owner. I told him I didn’t want to buy anything, and despite his protestations, made my excuses and left. 

Outside, the Berber and Football Shirt accosted me, insisting I pay them for showing me around, saying they would accept “something small”. Yet when I handed the Berber £1, I thought they were going to attack me, so insulted were they by my offer of payment for what amounted to a four-minute tour that consisted mostly of sweaty blokes flinging bird faeces at animal carcasses in 35C heat. 

I handed them a couple more quid, then Football Shirt hid the money and pretended that I hadn’t paid him. Realising I’d been had, I turned back in the direction of the hotel, his abuse ringing in my ears. I didn’t have a clue where I was and even Google Maps was of limited use, with its perception of the street layout bearing little resemblance to what I was seeing on the ground: half the medina appeared to be a building site, and I got the impression that entire streets were popping up and disappearing again with the same regularity as football-shirted swindlers. 

I forget exactly how many wrong turnings I took that day, but what I do remember is that I had yet to buy some sun cream. When I eventually collapsed into my bed more than an hour later, I was so burnt I resembled one of those crumbs you shake out of the bottom of your toaster every couple of months or so. 

That evening, I went looking for Djemaa El-Fna, Marrakech’s famous main square. I got lost again, so it wasn’t until the next day that I chanced upon Djemaa El-Fna, which means “assembly of the dead” due to its use as a venue for public executions in the 11th century.

Standing with a mob to cheer on a hanging or beheading seemed to be just about the only medieval form of entertainment that has fallen out of favour in the square, as snake charmers and fortune tellers fight for space with Berbers carrying chained monkeys and birds of prey. 

The highlight of that first night came when I turned away from a local and he shouted, “Hey! F--- you and f--- your country!”

It meant he had given up on trying to swindle me out of any more money and I had learned how to deal with Marrakech. 

'Realising I’d been had, I turned back – his abuse ringing in my ears' - Getty
'Realising I’d been had, I turned back – his abuse ringing in my ears' - Getty
How to avoid being ripped off on holiday

1. Be alert on arrival

You’re most vulnerable when you arrive so try to keep a sense of perspective. Ask your travelling partner if they think it sounds like a reasonable price.

2. The tiger’s smile

Touts are easily spotted, but even guides and tour escorts may not always have your best financial interests at heart. 

3. Resist time pressure

Don’t be pressured into signing something that may end up costing you extra. Forget the queue and take time to check what you are agreeing to. 

4. Do your research

Researching in advance what things should cost will minimise risk. If you can’t find reliable guidance online, try the hotel concierge.

5. Drive a hard bargain

That taxi driver knows that you will be lost without him. But in a shop, the owner knows that if they don’t make a sale, it’s likely you won’t come back, so be firm when haggling.  

Words: Nick Trend 

What novelties do you miss about travelling? Let us know in the comments section below.