In many international cities, around tourist attractions and popular sites, local guides will solicit you to employ them. Some guides are licensed and official, some are just locals trying to make a buck. Some are extremely knowledgeable and helpful, and some are cheats and liars. Although it’s probably safest to avoid unlicensed guides and only deal with the official ones, we’ve had some great experiences with local guides who approached us on the streets.
In Marrakesh Morocco at the amazing Djemaa Al Fna square we met a wonderful local man named Ahmed. We already knew we wanted to hit all the tourist spots in the Medina, or old city, and he assured us he could take us there. Marrakesh is filled with guides, most are unlicensed and unofficial. It’s also a maze of alleys and streets and you will have difficultly getting around without help. The shopkeepers here are also notoriously aggressive and even physical, a guide in your employ can help defend you from these hustlers. Ahmed spoke fairly good English and seemed knowledgeable about history. His main language was French, but he spoke Spanish too, so between the three languages we managed to get by and understand each other.
He took us everywhere we wanted to go and a few places we didn’t know about. He took us to all the major tourist spots we wanted to see, helped us get in quickly, he was always next to us to speak with the guard or gatekeeper. He took us to some amazing private homes and businesses, amazing ancient buildings, you would never read about in a guide book. We only got to experience it by being with him. Yes, he took us to his friend’s shops, where he would get a commission if we bought anything, but the pressure to buy wasn’t overwhelming. He also had an uncanny way of appearing exactly at the exit of whatever monument or museum he took us to, at the precise moment we were done, whether it took us 30 minutes or 2 hours, and no matter which way we took. We were also able to talk at length about life in Morocco, politics, how he and his family lived, what they did and ate, and his thoughts on the US and the rest of the world, this was as interesting as the tourist sites, and why we travel, to learn about others.
Here are some general tips if you decide you use a guide.
1. Set a price in advance, know what you are getting. Confirm how long they will spend with you, where they will go with you, so you both know what to expect.
2. Never take them back to your hotel or even let them know where you are staying. Always think safety.
3. Do not go to unknown places with them or venture off too far, where you could not return on your own. Careful what you eat or drink with them, tourists have been drugged and robbed.
4. Do not reveal how much money you have or other details about your trip or itinerary. Do not discuss too many personal details. This is someone you met off the street, not a friend. You can get to know them and have friendly conversation, without revealing personal details about you or your stay or trip.
These suggestions and can change depending on the the traveler. A couple of single guys who can certainly defend themselves may handle things a lot differently than a single woman traveling alone. Also use common sense. Would you go home with a strange person you just met in a bar here in the USA?
With that said, many long term friendships can and have developed that started as a guide solicitation. Especially with email and skype, its now possible and easy to stay in touch, even across vast distances.
We are reminded of one of our fondest travel memories, also in Beijing China. We were traveling with some other people, whose flights were delayed coming from the USA. We arrived a full day before the rest of our group and set out to explore the city. After a great walk around the Forbidden City, we exited through the gate and were met with a sea of rickshaw drivers, eager for tourists. These are bicycle rickshaws.
One of the guys just looked like fun, so we decided to give him a try. He said he would take us to old Beijing, the hutong neighborhoods, where houses were still intact from the 1600’s. Sadly, these neighborhoods were mostly destroyed during the cleanup and preparation for the Beijing Olympics. We spent the next 20 minutes trying to explain a bad joke to him as he pedaled through the streets of Beijing. The joke was what if there was a man named Rick Shaw. Mr. Rick Shaw and wouldn’t that be funny. I’m not sure he ever got the joke.
He took us up and down ancient streets, while explaining what we were seeing. It was truly amazing. The historic sites as well as seeing the ordinary citizens just living their life. The lanes are tiny, barely any cars, all animals, carts, scooters, etc. People had tables set up and were eating their evening meal, or reading or playing cards. Not another tourist in sight. It was one of our favorite experiences ever while traveling, all thanks to a guide who approached us.