That is the question!
The issue of guided tours is an interesting one. Some people can’t imagine ever doing it, some people can’t imagine traveling any other way. Every type of traveling has its purpose and its advantages and drawbacks. It really depends on what your goal is for your trip: what do you want to see, accomplish, experience.
Guided tours are a very particular way to travel. I fall in the middle of the scale on them, I don’t eschew them (obviously, since I have just finished one and have another coming up in a few months) but I also couldn’t stand only traveling by tours. In the case of Morocco I was only really comfortable going there alone, to my first Muslim country and especially as a single female traveler, with a guided tour. It was the right choice for me in this case.
We were definitely on the main tour route, every hotel and rest stop was filled with tourist buses and we saw a lot of the same people from day to day. That’s the trap with tours. My first day in Casablanca I actually met and talked with a few locals. I felt like I went a bit off the beaten path, I spoke only french, got a bit lost, I really felt like I was in a foreign country. On the tour there were definitely moments of that, but many more moments of feeling like I was being shepherded around from tourist sight to tourist sight. The positive part of it is I learned a lot more about Morocco’s history, and saw a lot more of Morocco than I probably would have if I had been traveling on my own. So it’s a compromise, for sure, but not that much of one thanks to our guide, Aziz.
Aziz gave us more than just a factual tour with interesting tidbits. He talked to us about life in Morocco, about his family history, about coming from a Berber background. Of growing up learning in a mosque, the traditional marriage and modern relationships. He combined facts and history with his own personal stories and experiences. Any question we wanted to ask, Aziz would answer. His philosophy of life was such a cool mix of traditional and modern, his openness was unexpected and appreciated, and he was just a really cool guy to chat with. Or to walk down the busy streets of Marrakech at night singing “Listen to Your Heart” at the top of your lungs with. You know, as you do.
It also helped that our tour group was filled with really cool people. We had this weird sort of Noah’s Ark of twosomes going on: two Canadians, two Americans, two Aussies, two South Africans…and one really lovely lady from Japan whom I bunked with. We had two guys (although 7 ladies), two mother-daughter pairs…two was kind of the magic number.
One of the other huge bonuses of touring in a group is finding kindred spirits. People who love to travel as much as you do, who want to explore the world, who are interested in the same things you are. Everyone in our group was like that and I loved the chance to get to know each amazing person.
Completely unexpectedly, one of those cool people turned out to be my American twin! Amanda from Seattle, who has studied yoga, is into sustainable living, spiritual practices, folk music festivals, loves to travel, and those are just the surface similarities. It meant there were some very cool conversations about everything from the food we eat to the meaning of life. Everyone out there has a twin? Well I found mine, she just doesn’t look like me.
Having the mother-daughter groups really was wonderful, because it made me think about my mom alot. I could really feel her along with me, I even heard her voice when Aziz was talking about the position of women in Morocco…or maybe that was my voice? Not for nothing have people called me a mini-Pam. So many times I thought how much Mom was going to love hearing about this thing or that thing. How I couldn’t wait to tell her a story or show her a picture, or how much she would have loved a particular view. It’s funny that someone can be so huge a part of your life, you forget in certain moments that they died. Because in reality they never really do. That cheesy old saw about how if you love someone they’re never really gone is surprisingly true. Mom lived again with me on this trip, as I am sure she will continue to. I know that had she been alive, she would have come with me to Morocco in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m pretty sure she did.
Final verdict: to tour or not to tour? It doesn’t matter, as long as you are getting out of your bubble and seeing the world.