Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps


7/13/09 Miscellany: CASH / Money in Morocco

More than one traveler to my adopted country has tripped up on the question of money.




Especially Americans. America is rapidly moving towards a cashless society. Before I joined Peace Corps, I almost never carried cash. I paid for everything from a $1.85 Borders' Cafe Chocolate Bundt Cake (wow, I miss those) to a $100 shopping spree with a credit card. And even if I had a bundle of cash in my pocket, I'd never have attempted to register at a hotel, or rent a car, or ... any other of a host of transactions ... with anything but a credit card.

Morocco is different.

I won't say that you can't use a credit card anywhere - because the biggest, fanciest, most tourist-friendly hotels, restaurants, and stores will probably accept them, and I know Marjane does, too - but I will say that I have used a credit card exactly once in Morocco. And I've lived here for almost 17 months now.

So expect to pay for *everything* in cash. Hotel stays. Restaurants. Transportation (petit taxis, grand taxis, buses, and probably trains, though they might take plastic).

Fortunately, cash is easy to come by here.

The Moroccan Dirham (Dh or dh, formally MAD but nobody uses that) is not internationally traded, which means that it's virtually impossible to acquire them outside Morocco.

It also means that it has avoided the currency fluctuations that have been sweeping much of the world this past year.

Every major Moroccan city has Currency Exchange places where you can swap your dollars (or Euros, or whatever) for dirhams. Exchange rates vary from spot to spot; to my surprise, the exchange counter in Casablanca's Mohammed V airport gave us one of the best rates we found anywhere. (That was 7.98:1 Dh:$. Other times we changed money, we found 7.95:1, 8.1:1, 7.8:1, and a deeply depressing 7.5:1 - this last at a bank that didn't have its change rates posted. Grr.)

It's also incredibly easy to find ATMs here. My little village doesn't have an ATM (though we just got Western Union! Woo-hoo! Um...does anybody use Western Union anymore?), but my souqtown does, as does every other town (though not village) I've visited in Morocco.

So just walk up to the machine, stick in your good old American (or German, or Australian, or whatever) ATM card, and extract as many dirhams as you want. OK, I should qualify that statement. As many as you want up to your daily withdrawal limit. My Moroccan bank (BMCI) won't let me pull more than 2000dh a day (about 250 bucks) - but then, I've never wanted to. I could probably change my limit if I tried. But you might want to double check with your bank before you leave. You should also ask your bank what their fee is for international withdrawals. It's probably 2-3%, but some banks are mean about this kind of thing. Plus, the ATM itself will charge a fee - standard is 7dh (about a buck).

And how much should you expect to spend? It depends entirely on your lifestyle. As a Volunteer, my monthly stipend is 2000dh, plus rent. 2000dh covers everything I eat, drink, buy, travel to, etc, with enough left over every month that after a year, I had a ginormous surplus hanging out in my account... But when I was traveling with my family, living like a Stinkin' Rich American, we burned through that much in a week. Sometimes less, depending on the souvenir shopping.

The hotels I stay in when traveling are usually 30-50dh/night/person. That gets me a bed in a dorm-style room. (Often, I get the whole room to myself - Morocco is a popular tourist destination, but I avoid the cities and therefore spend most of my hotel-nights in mostly-empty-hotels.) No towels, no en suite bathrooms - there's usually a squat toilet somewhere on the hallway - and shared showers whose hot water is never trustworthy.

But I'm a Volunteer. I signed up for this. (And for the record, just getting *access* to a potentially-hot shower makes hotel stays feel pretty luxurious. At home, I have water for two hours a day - which still puts me ahead of a lot of PCVs who don't have running water at all - and if I want it hot, it involves butane gas, a stove, a kettle, and five minutes.) And while 50dh makes a decent chunk of *my* monthly salary, it's only 6 bucks to an American. For 20 bucks a night (per person - and that's another oddity of Moroccan hotels, they nearly always charge per person, not per room), you can get four-star accomodation. So it's all in what you want to spend.

Same for restaurants. When I travel, if I'm not in a PCV's home, I invariably get egg-and-cheese-and-veggie sandwiches for lunch, and either lentils or chicken for dinner. Because that's what's available at the cheapo places I frequent. I can get a filling sandwich for 7dh (it'd be 12 if I ot it with meat) or a plate of lentils for 7dh or a quarter of a chicken (remind me to post more about this later) for 15dh.

If I'm in a biggish city, I'll look for shawarma or pizza. Those are going to cost 20-40dh/serving, but I accept it for the splurge it is.

Basically, I live on a dollars-to-dirhams budget. That is, here I make 2000 dirhams a month, excluding rent and tax-free (because we're well below federal poverty standards!). I made something like 2000 dollars a month in America, after rent and after taxes. So what I can spend in dirhams is just about what I could spend in dollars. 5dh for a cup of cocoa in a cafe? Yup, I've dropped $5 at Starbucks more mornings than I should admit. 25dh for a ride into my souq town? That's comparable to Zipcar prices. Buying clothes, staying in hotels, eating out...if I could have afforded it in dollars in America, I can afford it in dirhams here. The PCVs who get into trouble are the ones who keep translating things back into dollars, and thinking Wow, this is so cheap!

Example: Taxis in Marrakesh. Taxis are supposed to be metered. But about 2/3 of taxi drivers claim that their meters are broken (or they break them themselves!) and then charge you whatever they want for the ride. The first time I took a taxi from the bus station to the J'ma al-Fna (Marrakesh's version of Times Square *and* Central Park)... Well, I'd been warned not to pay more than 10dh. So I walked up to the first petit taxi I saw and asked if they'd take me there. "Of course! Get in!" How much? "30 dirhams." I laughed and started to walk away. But in dollars, it's about 4 bucks. Which a New Yorker would find a bargain for a taxi ride across town. Which is why the taxi drivers can get away with asking for it. Not wanting to lose the fare, the driver called after me, "What do you want to pay?" 10 dirhams. Then he laughed. I turned to walk away again. He called, "OK, 25." 10. "20." 10. "OK, get in." 10? "Yeah, yeah, yeah..." And it only worked because I literally burst out laughing and turned to walk away each time. I was perfectly willing to find another taxi - even if it meant walking out to the street to find a cab willing to use its meter - and he knew it. [[Side note: I also carried little enough luggage - a medium-sized backpack and a slung-over-the-shoulder purse - that I could have walked downtown, if I'd had a mind to. Travelers who show up with more luggage than they can carry are at a massive disadvantage here.]] The one and only time I've had a driver use a meter between the bus station and the J'ma al-Fna, the ride cost 6dh. I gave the guy 10 just out of gratitude for his honesty.

So that's my take on Money In Morocco.

Bring cash to convert or just bring your ATM card.

Leave your travelers' checks at home (nobody but NOBODY accepts them).

Don't expect to be able to use your credit card. (You might be happily surprised once or twice, but if you show up expecting to be able to use'll encounter frustration.)

If you want to benefit from just how cheap this country can be, stop converting everything to dollars (or Euros, or Canadian dollars) in your head, and be willing to share a bathroom.

Oh, and don't be afraid to sass the taxi drivers. Haggling: it's not just for souq day anymore.

PS: Srf. Srf is the word for change, as in "Here's your change!" and also for any small currency. Moroccan currency consists of tiny brass coins, which are tiny fractions of a dirham, and then 1/2 dh, 1dh, 2dh, 5dh, 10dh (all silver or silver-and-brass coins) and then 20dh, 50dh, 100dh, and 200dh bills. Srf is your friend. Keep some on hand at all times. For one thing, cheap little sandwich shops probably can't make change from a 200dh bill. (Imagine trying to buy a cup of coffee with a $100, in the US. Even though 200dh is only 25 bucks, it *feels* like a 100dh bill, and causes as many awkward cash-register moments.) Also, you'll spend srf all the time - 5dh for every piece of luggage on a bus, 5dh for a cup of coffee, 2dh for a packet of cookies (travel food!), 2dh for a packet of tissues (since toilet paper isn't always provided, either) - and you'll have a much smoother, more harmonious experience if you're not asking people to make horrific amounts of change all the time.

Also, waving big bills is an invitation to the unscrupulous. Even the smallest bill - a 20dh note - can get you into trouble. Example: My friend "Ali" put his bag on a bus and got hit up for the usual 5dh. (Technically, it's a tip for the jumper, and therefore you don't technically have to pay it ... but **everybody** does, and if you try to fight it, you will end up with an actual fight on your hands.) He pulled out a 20dh, expecting change - and the jumper immediately said, "Oh, of course, for 20dh we'll keep this baggage compartment just for you - nobody else's bags will be near yours, and nobody will have a chance to steal your things!" and pocketed the 20dh. Ali tried to explain that he really didn't want to rent out the baggage compartment...but the jumper suddenly lost all ability to understand Ali's (excellent) accent. Le sigh.

So keep some srf in your pocket at all times. Good places to break the big bills - and most ATMs will dispense either a mix of 100s and 200s or else all 200s, so you're going to have to deal with this, just like I do - are teleboutiques and large stores. If they balk at making change - although most will happily help you, if you ask with a polite Srf, afak? (Change, please?) - just buy something cheap. I've discovered some yummy 2dh cookie options when trying to break a 100dh bill. :)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps