I learned a good lesson on travelling solo and travelling safely when I visited Morocco some time ago. Morocco as a country, and in particular the many souks you find in any town or city, get a bad name for hassling people, tourists as a whole and women in particular. It’s not easy to visit foreign countries and not stand out and look like a tourist. The fact that you will never quite dress like the locals and most likely have the facial features of someone from an entirely different continent, doesn’t help. I was certainly aware of the warnings given when I planned my solo trip to Tetouan, a smaller town in the north of Morocco.
When I first arrived, I was intrigued to be in a country so different from my own for the first time. But I was very aware that I was travelling on my own, and I was adamant not to make my stay more daunting by moving around and actively looking like a curious tourist. That night, I made my way to my hotel and, even though I was taking in all the sights from the corner of my eyes, I kept my head down to make it look like I knew exactly where I was going, even if I had no clue whatsoever. People looked at me, the way they looked at anyone different from them, but no one hassled me. I had come to Morrocco to immerse myself into an Arabic speaking country, and I was following an Arabic language course for the week at a local language centre.
The first morning I exited the hotel I was staying at, which was deeply hidden inside the walled medina, the old town which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I thought I knew how to trace back my steps from the night before and find my way to the school. I resolutely walked through any alley I deemed familiar, which was just about all of them as they all looked exactly the same. I walked and walked and walked.
I saw nothing but strange faces and even though some people paid attention to me, I appeared to know where I was going and everyone let me get on with it, not even bothering to try and sell me a thing. After a long hasty walk, I found the exit to the walled medina, only to find it was an entirely different exit from the one I had entered through the night before. I had no idea where to go. By that time I was so desperate I asked someone for directions by speaking in bad classical Arabic and shoving a piece of paper with an address on it in front of them. They showed me a general direction and again, I was on my way. By now, I was late for class, the sun had risen and got significantly stronger and I was a lost, sweaty mess. I was so desolate I called the school, who told me I was nowhere near their part of town, but I could easily jump in a taxi and get there in no time. They were right.
The following days in Tetouan proved a great lesson for blending in. Not too many tourists were in town at that time of year, and all the men stared at me and any other foreign woman wherever I walked down the street. But I was in a certain element – I went to class and I belonged there, I had a purpose. I didn’t stop in the middle of a street to gape at a building, or behave like an inquisitive tourist when picking up an item at a market stall. I was looked at, but I felt entirely safe. I had my place. I knew where I was going and never dawdled. Locals must have thought I lived there, despite clearly being foreign. Little did they know I was so scared of walking into a cafe for food (imagine walking into a cafe when five men in front of it are staring at you walking past?) that it took me about three days to find a place where I could comfortably sit and eat food for the first time. I don’t think I have ever been more happy in my life than when I walked into that cafe and ordered two meals. But looking at me from the outside, no one would have known.
It wasn’t until the last day when I wandered through town to take some picture when I began to feel hassled. I was exploring the souk and the medina and was taking pictures, of the architecture, the trees, whatever caught my eye. For the first time, I looked like a tourist. People started to hassle me and follow me into alleyways. It didn’t exactly feel unsafe, but I definitely felt uncomfortable.
To me, it was a great lesson in how to behave in foreign countries. People will always react to you in a certain way, and it largely depends on how you hold yourself and the attitude you exude. If you walk around with a big camera and gape at every tote bag you see, I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone would try and see if they can make some extra money out of you. Personally, I prefer to keep my head down, and internalise my excitement a little more. Just to stay on the safe side and not get bothered. Travelling solo as a female is possibly more tricky than travelling solo as a male, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. You just have to be smart.