Perhaps it was my fragile state on emerging from the desert, but Morocco really got to me for a couple of days after Merzouga. I've been in quite a few countries where I've been struck down by nasty stomach bugs – it's part and parcel of travelling in the developing world, and however careful you are, you can't really avoid being ill at some stage – and although it's possible that my tolerance of the hassles of some places has been undermined by ill health, I've been incredibly ill in places which I've adored unconditionally (such as India), and I've been incredibly ill in places I haven't warmed to as much (such as Indonesia). Morocco falls into the latter category.
Hassle is par for the course when you are an obviously rich westerner travelling in a relatively poor country, and that's no surprise. After all, you probably have more money in your money belt than the locals earn in a year, and that's going to cause some problems. However each country has a different type of hassle factor, and I found Morocco to be one of the most unnecessarily unpleasant.
Touts will hassle you until the ends of the earth, but if touting is taken too far then it's self-defeating: the world is a big place, and if tourists can't stand the hassle, there are plenty of other countries where travelling can be more pleasant. In India, for example, I found the hassle to be legendary, but it was done with such a feeling of fun about it that it was more like a daily game than a chore. Sure, some places like Agra and Fatehpur Sikri have tipped over the edge and are irritating beyond belief, but as a rule I found the hassle in India to be totally acceptable, and a part of the spirit of the place. Indonesia, on the other hand, was different. Away from the tourist areas the people were wonderfully friendly, if a little over-invasive of one's privacy, but in the tourist spots of Java and Sumatra the touts were often unpleasant, and I found the same flavour of unpleasantness in southern Morocco.
The difference lies in respect for each other as human beings. I'd be a fool to harp on about respect when the West has effectively stomped all over developing countries for most of modern history, but the worst touts in Morocco and Indonesia obviously have absolutely no respect for tourists at all – they seem to view westerners as walking wallets, and nothing more. I can sympathise with this view, as no doubt plenty of tourists act like walking wallets, but it does make the whole exercise of exploring the country a chore, and this can't be good for the long-term tourist industry.
Take Tinerhir, for example. Tinerhir is on the main east-west highway from Marrakech to the desert, and is the stopping-off point for exploring Todra Gorge, a huge gash in the High Atlas that's a not unpleasant stop for the night. Tinerhir, though, is nothing special, and given the locals' approach to tourism, I doubt that will change.
We stopped at Tinerhir for a drink and to try to track down some pharmaceutical help for my worsening intestinal problems, and as soon as we were out of the car, the touts descended. We politely told them we weren't interested in having a guided tour and that we only wanted a drink, but shaking off Moroccan touts takes a lot more than a polite no. It takes almost forcible 'no's, to the point of distraction.
We did manage to get to a café, though, and sat down at a small table, hoping for peace so we could plan our next move, as the pharmacy was firmly shut, unlike my little problem. And, of course, that's when the next tout showed up, starting off with the usual small talk.
«Bonjour, vous êtes Français?» he tried.
«Non, Angliases» we said, refusing to be drawn into too much French in the hope that he wouldn't have much English.
«Je ne parle pas Anglais» he said, shrugging
'What a pity', we lied. 'Ah well.'
«Il fait chaud» he chimed, trying for the Achilles heel of English people everywhere: the weather.
'Um,' we nodded unconvincingly, trying to fake it that we didn't understand. This didn't stop him pulling up a chair and plonking himself down at our table.
'Is possible to make guide kasbah,' he suggested, suddenly overcoming his lack of English. 'Today market especial, then palmeraies, then special for eating in Hôtel Kashbah, c'est mon restaurant, yes?'
'No thanks, we're not interested in a guided tour,' we repeated. 'All we want it a drink, and then we are going up to Todra Gorge to find a hotel and to have a shower. We have been driving for five hours, you know.'
'Oui,' he continued, 'but is possible to make guide to kasbah, palmeraies, market, eating, yes?'
We repeated our explanation in French, in the hope that five hours' driving in the heat would elicit some sympathy.
'But this hotel also has douche,' he said, as if that would make a difference.
'I don't care if it has a shower,' I said in French, 'because I am ill and I am tired, and all I want is a rest.' I even smiled in a slightly self-pitying way, desperately trying to appeal to the man's human nature.
'Yes, but is possible to make guide kasbah,' he said, sticking to his guns. 'I guide.'
«Non, merci» we said. «L'addition, s'il vous plaît.»
'I order whisky Berber,' he said, referring to the custom of drinking mint tea, during which it is impolite to drink fewer than three glasses.
'No, thank you,' we said, pre-empting a disaster. «C'est combien?»
And we paid the waiter to the sound of the man's mantra, 'Is possible to make guide to kasbah, palmeraies, market, eating, yes?'
Unfortunately it's practically impossible to get away from this sort of conversation, which is depressingly familiar in southern Morocco (I have no idea if it is as common elsewhere, but I sincerely hope not). There are plenty of lovely people behind the touts' tenacious approaches, but you have to go out of your way to find them; on our way north from the desert we stopped at a natural rock pool, Le Source Bleue de Meski, where a bunch of young boys started splashing us, much to the consternation of their mothers on the touchline. We didn't mind, of course, and the women were so relieved and impressed that Peta had reacted so pleasantly to their children's antics, that they waved her over and chatted away in basic French. They were lovely, and no doubt far more typical of Moroccans that the idiots who approach you whenever you arrive anywhere.
On the other hand, another little boy at the pool made some camels out of grass and insisted on giving them to us (despite my refusal three times), and on the way out he flagged down our car and demanded a present (so he got an old chocolate bar that had melted in the sun). Perhaps there's a culture in some parts of Moroccan society that sees bleeding tourists of money as a solution to the country's financial woes, but this attitude is totally destructive. I doubt I'll bother to return to Morocco, because the hassle is so irritating, and it's not because of the hassle, just the way it's done.
Try as I might, I just ended up disliking most of the Moroccans I met, because they almost all end up trying to sell you something, even those who are apparently chatting to you because they want to chat. If the hard sell isn't in your face within two seconds of the locals springing into your way, it'll crop up soon enough: five minutes into your conversation you'll find out that your host has a carpet shop, or runs a restaurant, or is a tour guide, or has something else that you didn't know you wanted but won't be able to refuse... and when you refuse, the reaction is designed to make you feel guilty. It's hard going, and it can't help but turn you into a cynic.
It's counterproductive, frequently unpleasant, and gives the rest of the country a bad name... and when tourism counts for a significant amount of your country's income, it's pretty stupid. Perhaps this is why the authorities in Marrakech have put a lot of effort into tackling the problem of faux guides in the city centre, and the result is a refreshingly hassle-free environment, one in which one feels one can spend time and money enjoying oneself, rather than side-stepping the touts. I can only hope that this lesson extends to the rest of the country, because while Moroccan hassle might be legendary, it's not the sort of legend that makes visitors want to come back.
And if people don't keep coming back, then the touts have only got themselves to blame. A recent government study showed that 94 per cent of people who visit Marrakech do not return for a second time, which was what prompted the cleaning up of the city's touts. Let's just hope they manage to sort out the rest of the country too.