Madness in Morocco

Part 1: Intimidation, Mint Tea, and Hammams

Vince is a mid-20s Aussie backpacker who recently spent some serious time in Morocco, a North African country home to the Western Sahara desert, Atlas Mountains, delicious spice infused meals, world class surf breaks, amazing people and various deadly animals. His wide-eyed travel tales make me want to travel again even as I deserve a well earned break at home, and moreso, travel to Africa, a continent I am yet to set foot on. Further, in this 2-part series he gives an African flavour to a website otherwise devoid of its charms (but not charm altogether, hopefully). So without further ado, I give you Vince! -RationalMatthew

I first entered Morocco as an escape from my expiring Schengen zone visa (basically the European Union), but soon decided to stay for 6 months to teach surfing just outside the city of Agadir, in a small fishing turned surfing village named Taghazout, in Morocco’s South. The place was just too good, too crazy for an “escape”. Whether you plan to travel to Morocco for a relaxed surf trip, or the hustle bustle culture shock of the Marrakesh marketplace, or perhaps just want to read some interesting experiences of a young traveller- have a read through the following short stories which represent a sample of my most unusual adventures during my stay.

Surf Camp Colleagues, Morocco

Vince (right) and his surf camp colleagues Hafid and Hamid.

Surf Instructor Intimidation

Morocco for the most part is a welcome experience- in fact Morocco was recently outed as one of the most welcoming places in the world. That said, Morocco can also be a source of unpleasant experiences. My most unpleasant experiences in Morocco were of intimidation, through threats and insults. Some were just jives that you can laugh off, such as in Marrakesh as you wander through the souk markets (although I did see about 12 men beating up one poor soul on the ground in an alley). At other times, I had threats such as “I’m not plastic, I will go to jail, I’m not afraid to kill you.” More than a handful of times heard “I’ll break your nose, and all your surfboards.” That first quote there I received from a street hustler, who were often trying to get money from the surf camps clients, and failing that, would come to me with accusations of me bad mouthing them, resulting in their lacking incomes.

“Why you say bad things about me to your clients?” I’d often hear such things whilst I was trying to have a coffee at the local café. This all boiled down to the name of the game; intimidation. If you succumb to their threats and appear weak those men would eat you alive. You learn this pretty quick living in Morocco, and luckily I had it down pat for my most unpleasant experience.

On a small day surf wise in Taghazout, all the surf camps would head north to a break called Tamri, which receives more swell than other spots which face further west. I pull up one such day with my class of say 10 surfers. I choose a gap in between the other camps so that we are all in a line, and I have a good 4 metres either side of our camp to the closest parasols of other camps. As I finish setting up my own umbrellas I instantly have a young Moroccan man stalk past, and say somewhat indiscernibly “You move your parasols right now, I don’t want to tell you again.”

Not exactly registering what he had said, I went about my business preparing my surfers for their lesson. About 3 minutes later though he has returned and says “Did you not hear me?! I said move your fucking camp.”
To which I replied “No, I didn’t hear you, all you did was blab some nonsense and walk off.”
So he then insists once more that I move my camp, among many swear words.
I get slightly more frustrated about the inconvenient situation and say “Why do I need to move, do you own this fucking beach do you?!”

Trouble under the sea in Morroco

Immad, a guy who lived on a shack on the beach and would mind our jetskis and gear overnight in return for food

Now until this point we had been relatively low key, but then he thought I was smiling at him, but it was in fact me grimacing as I faced the sun (whoops). He didn’t take kindly to this and his voice had risen enough to gain most of the beaches attention, including a work mate of his who then came to join his cause. Now there was Atif, as I later learned he was called, up in my grill. The original man named Yassine staunched off, apparently too infuriated to continue. He yelled “Don’t fucking talk to me.” Now I did have a little scoff at that considering that was what I wished from the start! I then had the usual broken-nose, broken-board threats from Atif until finally Yassine returned, and being aware of all the clients watching, they grabbed me by the forearms and tried to drag me into the sand dunes: “Come and talk over here.”

Unsure of whether they would try to beat me up, but not taking the chance regardless, I yanked my arms away and was pretty furious by this stage myself so my voice had risen considerably when I growled “You got something to say, you can say it in front of everyone. What? You afraid of embarrassing yourself in front of all the clients? Getting your business a bad rep?!” This was enough aggression for them to back down and Atif relented “You know me now, don’t try this again.”

Surf Camp, Morocco

“Now when I give the signal, you spring to your feet like a cat.” What kind of cat? A leopard? “Look it doesn’t matter ok? Just spring to your feet.”                                                       

Now anyone who knows me, can definitely attest to me not being a confrontational person at all. Thus when something like this does happen, I’m on edge the rest of the day. Once I realised they worked for the same camp as Youssef, a large man who had confronted me about working without a visa before, and who I had seen punching another man in the head one surf at Anchor point, I called my friend Hafid, in case tempers flared once more. Luckily the rest of the day at the beach was uneventful, although Hamid and Hafid had decided we would all go to their camp that afternoon to nut things out.

An Angry Meeting over Mint Tea

The three of us arrive at the door to their camp that afternoon only for it to be immediately answered by the three aggressors Youssef, Yassine and Atif. The following dialogue then ensued:

Youssef: “You don’t listen, I told you not to fucking work here again.”
Me: “NO, you don’t fucking listen, I told YOU that I volunteer here, I don’t get paid.”
Youssef: “See this sign? It’s our camp. We have to pay 20% tax on what we earn.”
Me: “Well tell me Youssef, what’s 20% of zero?! Last time I checked it was zero!”

We are up in each other’s faces, so before he can reply, Hamid, who has a certain knack for these situations, jumps in and blows up at Youssef in Arabic. It’s something along the lines of “Don’t you talk to Vince. Not on the beach, not EVER. You have a problem then you let me know.” Even though Hamid is nowhere near as big as Youssef, he holds himself with such ferocity that Youssef immediately backed down. So there we were, 6 of us on the main road, outside their surf camp, and the tension tightening as the silence lengthens while I wait for someone to make a move.

Vince Surfing, Morroco

Vince ripping the wave a new one

Youssef had finally calmed down a little and said “Come inside.” There are a few breathless moments as we walk inside- I’m wondering if anything is going to go down out of sight of the road. Then my breath was truly taken away by how exquisite the inside of this camp was! Dark oak tables, marble floors and pillars, and cooks running around with trays of mint tea and cookies. To my surprise, Youssef then has us seated and treated to these same teas and cookies. For the next 15 minutes I sit and try to interpret what Hamid and Hafid are discussing with the other camp, with maybe once or twice me having to confirm that I don’t in fact get paid. Sometimes it gets a little heated again and other times it’s jokes all around but I only breathe properly again once they are all laughing and introducing themselves to me saying “Tomorrow you set your umbrellas up right next to ours. You are part of the brotherhood now!” Atif even said, “You know what? The first time I saw you on the beach I knew we would become friends!”

Needless to say, I left their camp that afternoon not knowing exactly what to think but from then on I didn’t receive any more grief from them and it was just the street hustlers I had to avoid.

Surf Camp Roadtrip, cruising the coast looking for waves, Morocco

Cruising the coast of Morocco on the hunt for waves

The Hammams of Morocco

I went to the Hammam a number of times on my stay in Morocco. A Hammam in simple terms is a Muslim bath house where you enter gender separated spas and receive a cleansing and exfoliation followed by a not-so-traditional massage.

My first experience of a Hammam was nothing of the sort! Being in the tourist capital of Marrakesh with both male and female friends we didn’t have a problem finding a spa which accommodated our request to remain in swimmers and in our crew. In hindsight really our 50 euro ‘Hammam’ wasn’t a Hammam at all! It was a western spa, feet in buckets of rose petals, pretty young girls washing down the males, nice dark wood sauna and avocado face masks followed by a standard back massage. Naturally, after this experience, I jumped at the chance to have another Hammam once I was settled in Taghazout. Cue the crazy experience.

I arrived at a decrepit building in the dodge part of town, but apparently it was the locals choice. Perhaps for the 5 euro price tag rather than 50 euros. I entered the plain, tiled change room with an old cashier. I’m with Hamid and we both strip down to our undies in the strictly male only section. The first thing I noticed was the yellowed tiles, whilst surely originally white, some had even turned brown. Disconcerting enough, although not as bad as the first noise I hear; screams from within the next room!

I was worried. But Hamid paid the cashier and we stowed our bags into a locker behind the counter. I soon found the source of the scream as soon as we entered the Hammam room. I was immediately faced by a 50 year-old nude guy, while a younger 6 foot 6″ man with a moustache was standing on the back of this man’s legs, right behind his knees, and was using his hands to pull back on the clients arms one at a time while holding his shoulder down. Very plainly, he looked perilously close to popping the man’s shoulder out. I shot a  concerned glance at Hamid and he told me “That’s the massage bro, you’ll get it after the scrub.” Now I was sweating, and not just from the 40 degree heat in this joint.

The first stage of a Hammam is to be soaped down, which I had performed by an obese man of at least 60 with very thinned out, white underwear. I couldn’t decide what was grosser though, this image, or the fact that I was laying down on those dirtied tiles, cheek pressed right wear someone else had just been scrubbed free of however many days of built up filth! I’m all for experiencing others’ cultures though, embraced it- taking solace in knowing I would return to my unit for a nice shower.

Next was the exfoliating scrub. My main advice is not to go to a Hammam with sunburn. I kid you not it made my scrub in Marrakesh feel like they were using baby wipes. This felt like they were using sandpaper: I literally checked myself to see if blood had been drawn! Nothing too long, but they soap and scrub you everywhere. Everywhere.

Westernised Hammam in Marrakesh, Morocco

Don’t let this idyllic scene fool you- this is a westernised Hammam in Marrakesh, for tourists. The real thing is a far more masochistic experience.

Finally we got to the massage which I had been dreading. I made Hamid go first so I could get a rough idea of the different positions. For the next 7 minutes or so we made the Hammam sound like a torture chamber. I watched Hamid bent into several, incredibly unnatural positions. My turn came around much too quick and before I knew it, I was being set up into the first position. I was laid face down on the tiles once more with the masseur sitting on my bum and whilst my hands were on the back of my head he looped his arms through mine and pulls my upper body back so I felt like I was doing a ‘cobra’ style position, where my upper body was bent at 90 degrees at my lower back! I couldn’t scream though- I had the reverse effect, the wind being knocked out of me. This was followed by another 7 or 8 UFC style wrestling moves, which is honestly not too far from the truth considering the masseuse required that I “tap out” which indicates your submission. I literally had to slap the floor or whatever body part of this mans that I could reach to let him know he was millimetres from breaking my bones.

The best part- oh no actually the worst- was that once I tapped he would make these kissing noises which Hamid explained was the indicator that you should exhale your last breath so he can stretch you out just that tad more.

I have no idea of the benefits of this massage, if any at all. Though I walked away feeling very much like jelly. An incredible experience which you must try in a Muslim country and one that I repeated often during my stay in Morocco. One of these days I’ll have to GoPro it, and post it on Confiscated Toothpaste.

Yikes! Tune in again next week, where Vince will wax lyrical in Part 2: Road trips, Moroccan Marriage, Corrupt Officials, Crazy Camels and Sure-Footed Donkeys.

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Comments

3 Thoughts on “Madness in Morocco Part 1: Intimidation, Mint Tea, and Hammams” :: Leave yours →

  1. The Guy on April 3, 2014 at 12:05 pm said:

    Nice to meet you Vince. That type of massage is pretty extreme but not something I haven’t seen before.

    Overall though all this level of intimidation is giving me a very bad impression of Morocco. I’m glad that I declined an opportunity to apply for a posting out there when a recruitment agent was keen to place me there.

    • Vince on April 4, 2014 at 1:04 am said:

      G’day.

      When I first started writing this article I was worried that this is how it would be received. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression of Morocco. It is a beautiful country and I met some friends that I hope to be in contact with forever. This is one incident in 6 months, and it did revolve around me working in a place where others can struggle to find even a very low paying job in an already struggling economy. If you ever get another opportunity I strongly suggest you check it out! Good luck!

  2. Pingback: Madness in Morocco Part 2: Road trips, Moroccan Marriage, Corrupt Officials, Crazy Camels and Sure-Footed Donkeys | Confiscated Toothpaste

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