After two days spent in the stunning village of Imlil in the Atlas Mountains, I began the journey back to Marrakech, walking down the dirt road through the town center, past the kind salesmen who helped me with directions two days prior, past the fruit stands where I had purchased cherries the day before. Before I arrived at the end of the road where the taxis wait for passengers, a white utility-style van slowed down as it drove by. “Marrakech?” a man yelled out of a rolled-down window. “Yes, is that where you are going? Is this a public bus?” I responded. Impatiently, the van started to pull away – I yelled, "Wait!" and as they started to drive away, jumped in the vehicle and found a seat behind the driver...
The van was filled with Moroccan men, and a moment after sitting down I heard the word “Russia” spoken several times. I had heard from several people that in some Arab and North African countries, Russian girls are often associated with prostitutes (don't ask me why, it's just something I've heard). With my light blonde hair I had been mistaken for a Russian many times, and assumed that this was another. The only difference was that this time, I was being mistaken for a Russian [prostitute?] in a questionable white van surrounded by young and middle-aged Moroccan men. After a few minutes of worrying and imagining escape scenarios, a teenage boy asked for my bus fare (which was an absurd amount that I miraculously haggled down to only slightly more than the locals were paying) and I tried to chat with him a little in Arabic to show that I was not a typical tourist, and that I could understand at least some of the local language. We continued in the van for another thirty minutes, speeding along rugged gravel roads through the outskirts of the Atlas Mountains.
The van pulled to a stop in another small town where there was a large group of people waiting next to a small yellow bus. We were told to leave the van and to transfer to the bus. In this vehicle there were women and children as well as men of all ages. I was lucky and found a single seat by a window in the back, but those who came after me had to share two-person rows with three or more people, and many people were left crammed in the aisle in between the rows of seats. I counted around 26 seats on the bus, yet there were over 45 people.
A group of young men (eight or so) were squished in the aisle next to me. They immediately struck up a conversation, excited to practice their English, and even more enthused when I responded in bits of broken Arabic. We talked for the remaining 45 minutes of the ride, discussing their shared love of running (one of the men had recently won a well-known Moroccan marathon), their English studies, and their views on American politics and the American media’s sentiment towards Islam. They asked about my opinions on why terrorism exists, reassured me that it has nothing to do with religion – they even cited the recent bombing near a mosque in Saudi I believe, saying that if terrorists were actually Muslims they would never do such a thing – and that they are saddened that so many Westerners equate Islam with radicalism and terrorism. Somewhere in the conversation some of the men were trying to get their shy friend to say something in English; he knew very little, and was nervous to speak, especially to me. After a moment he said, “you’re pretty” and the other men began laughing hysterically. Unsure of how to react, and not wanting things to get weird or uncomfortable, I smiled politely and turned to look out the window, unresponsive to the comment. The men noticed, and those who spoke more English immediately assured me that the man was only joking, and not to worry about it at all, and that they were sorry if it made me uncomfortable. It was a thoughtful response, and I told them not to worry, and that I knew he meant well (at least then I knew). I left the bus as we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.
People often ask me what it was like travelling solo in Morocco, and how I was treated by men. While in cities it can be expected to hear cat-calls regularly, the men and boys that I actually interacted with on a personal level were nothing but kind, welcoming and respectful. I cannot count how many times Moroccan men and women gave me directions, assisted with translating, and provided me with insider travel advice without asking for anything in return - and sometimes even refusing to accept a token of gratitude. Needless to say, many tourists may have an occasional negative experience being harassed by men on the street, but in those moments and afterwards it is important to remember that the vast majority of Moroccans hold admirable moral values and will go to great lengths to make you feel safe, comfortable and welcomed as a visitor to their country.