As a woman traveler, I experience things differently than my male counterparts. I don’t typically travel to the places that are going to be on CNN’s “Top 10 vacation destinations for your spring break” or where this year’s favorite Insta influencer recently took a heavily filtered bikini pic.
In fact, I actively avoid all of that.
The type of travel I do has many upsides, such as lower air fare, food and activities being cheaper in general, and less crowds. But, inevitably, it has its cons and requires more indepth research than just your average surface-level google search. A country that taught me that more than any other was Morocco.
When I first started traveling I was drawn to the mysticism and vibrant colors of Morocco. The picture in my mind showed large ornate Hookahs, the local women wearing jeweled shoes while comfortably sprawled out on large luxurious pillows during the heat of the day, dutifully sipping hot tea and being fanned by a large palm leaf. This was not the reality I encountered. Truthfully, I can’t recall what type of footwear the women wore, maybe a few pillows were lying about and I definitely had a lot of tea, but I was entirely focused on myself and overly conscious of my own body to notice anything going on around me.
During my month stay in Granada, Spain I often strolled through the market dedicated to their southern neighbors with their bright spices, beautiful lamps, and leather bound books only adding to the romanticized version of the country I always pictured in my head. I was so happy to finally book my 10-day trip to the country that I had longed to see since I was a child. I could only travel to Tangier but it was ten days in the old city, surrounded by the history of the medina and the local bazaar. I was excited.
My plane ride was one of the shortest I had ever traveled, barely reaching the 45 minute mark. We landed in the late afternoon arriving at the hotel as the sun was setting. My eyes were alive out the window of our taxi with Sunni Muslim women dressed head to toe in black with nothing showing but their eyes and their robes flowing behind them. As we were driving, the evening’s call to prayer started playing over the speakers situated in the city for everyone to hear and I saw people on the sidewalk and plazas cease what they were doing and kneel down to pray.
Upon arriving at the hotel, I was very happy to crawl into my big wood-carved bed with soft pillows and go to sleep dreaming about what tomorrow would bring me.
The morning prayer woke me up at sunrise and, too excited to sleep in, I decided to start my day and head to breakfast provided by the hotel. There was no water in the hotel this morning, therefore coffee was not available to me (but tea was?!). That was ok. The sea air from the Strait of Gibraltar made me feel light and breezy, and the breakfast consisted of many types of carbs, runny eggs, olives, and fresh vegetables.
I then went to the room and donned my linen pants and scarf to cover my head. I wanted to blend in as much as possible and so I made sure to only wear clothes that adhered to their traditional dress as much as possible.
This did not work. Not even a little bit.
The overwhelming feeling of being watched hit me as soon as I stepped foot outside the hotel. All eyes were on me and I immediately felt them assessing, judging and fingering me as a foreigner. A disabled man came up to me asking for charity, multiple shop owners came out grabbing my arm attempting to usher me inside their little stores, restaurant owners collectively shouting about their food specials and how they are the best, and if you weren’t part of the former you were most likely a tour guide, wanting to take us around the confusing and small alleys that Google Maps was useless in. This wasn’t a normal run of the mill, Asian market of haggling. They were aggressive, they were hungry, and they wouldn’t stop.
No one was taking no for an answer. I must have denied someone 50 times in a 5 minute period, trying to be gracious and putting on my polite smile. I was getting agitated and overloaded with demands from the locals to BUY! BUY! BUY! I attributed my lack of coffee for the anxiety I felt. I snuck into a little convenient store with snacks and refreshments to grasp some calmness and get a cool drink. The calm I sought was instantly taken when I tried to pay for the water. My partner grabbed my arm and put it down at my side, took the water bottle from me and paid with the correct hand. I was mortified and overwhelmed to the point of tears. I had rehearsed over and over again to not use my left hand. I made a mental note to be more mindful and ALWAYS keep my left arm glued to my side and proceeded back into the thirsty mob.
My day continued like this until I wanted to scream, which was around lunch time. Even stopping at a lookout point to admire the sea view proved to be too much of a target as we were swarmed with people selling and advertising. I just wanted to walk the markets and stroll through the merchandise but the local shop owners made this impossible. Instead of me seeing what they had, I avoided looking in their general direction, my eyes cast down at my feet. I never dare take out my camera. I kept thinking if I kept my head down and they didn’t see my face, they would glance over my head scarf as someone who belonged to them. It didn’t happen.
We walked back to the hotel only to realize that we needed to find someplace to eat later that day. I just wanted to hide. I didn’t want to go back into the medina with what I had experienced before but I had to. I couldn’t keep holed up in my hotel room for the next 9 days (or could I?!). Where was the beautiful Morocco I had heard about?
The next week and a half proved to be an endurance test of mindfulness. I paid close attention to everything I was doing, any skin that might accidentally show, and even eating with my proper hand at dinner invited stares as if I was rudely yelling and acting a fool. It was a reminder of a woman’s place in their society as well. Women were wholly ignored and I ended up giving any and all cash I had to my partner who decidedly always got the change back whether I paid or not. It went beyond women being “meant to be seen and not heard” because in my experience there, they wanted them barely seen as well.
In addition to all of this the women had no comradery. They didn’t ban together for support, they actively ignored anyone of the “lesser sex” as well. At one point on the plane a flight attendant had to physically stand in front of a seat where the lady repeatedly refused to listen to stay seated. The flight attendant was not a man therefore, why should she listen? As a woman, it was heartbreaking to see.
These instances, although minor, added up to an uncomfortable week of not being able to be myself. It’s the only place in the world where I felt like I had to change who I was in order to be accepted. I hid my hair, hid my skin and body under layers of clothes, I wore no makeup and tried to be as small as possible. I spent the remainder of my trip acting as a shadow to my partner and never making eye contact with anyone. I believe that Morocco has a lot to offer but I was not able to experience any of it due to the pushy behavior and aggressive selling tactics. At the end of the trip we were happy to leave.
After stepping out of the oppressive atmosphere the airplane held, I remember the bus dropping me off in downtown Barcelona and the immediate relief I felt. It wasn’t until this moment with my senses alive that I noticed the laughing and the music. I had not heard laughing or music in Morocco. For all intents and purposes, I was home again.
Amber is a contributor to R&V, offering a woman's perspective while traveling the globe since 2020.