I swat flies as I type this. And I try to reconcile my long awaited dream to be here with the reality that spreads out around me. It’s not that difficult (except for maybe the flies). Welcome to North Africa.
Doug and I are sitting on the rooftop of Riad Laaroussa in the heart of the Fes medina. It’s a bit chilly, a mere 68F/20c up here this morning. But soon, the Moroccan sun will bake this dry earth rooftop to the point where we won’t be able to stand it.
We spent yesterday traveling with our driver Abdulraman all day, from Tangier, to Chef, finally arriving at the Batha gate of the medina where we sat for a while in the car, waiting for the arrival of the hotel porter (no cars allowed in the medina). I sat and watched a man, presumably from the country, sit on the side of the street and ladle fresh milk from a large pail into plastic bags for women doing the daily shopping. He had a stack of cheese wrapped in leaves for sale as well.
After about 10 minutes, we said our goodbyes to our driver and hello to our porter, a short man dressed in harem pants and a taqiyah on his head. He greeted us briskly and threw our luggage in a wooden, hand-held cart. From there, we followed him frantically through narrow, crowded streets, making sharp left-hand-turns and sharp rights. At one point, he ran over a young girl’s foot and seemed to say sorry, but also seemed to yell at her for being in the way. I was so harried at this point, I welcomed the pause to catch my breath. Shortly after, we arrived at our riad. Massive doors opened and welcomed us into a courtyard of orange and lemon trees, intricate Moroccan tile, medieval solid wood beams, a fountain at the center and lounge chairs and sofas throughout. We tipped our porter 20 dirhams (about $2 US) and off he went to haul more clueless tourists to wherever they needed to go. I have to say, Fes hit me hard. I was so overcome with awe, elation and emotion by the crowds, the smells, the voices, the zigzag directions, and the overall spirit of the medina that my brain could barely take it all in. My first order of business was to sit and decompress, and right at that point, one of the employees asked if I’d like a mint tea. Inshallah! Yes, please! And that’s exactly what we did. Sipped mint tea and zoned out under lemon trees.
On our first night in Fes, we stayed in the Yellow Room, located on the third floor, up precariously steep steps. If you’ve ever visited a medieval castle, you know what kind of steps I mean. Steep, uneven, built by hand. But a little hard to maneuver.
Here’s where I caution handicapped or low-mobility tourists. If you want to travel to Fes, a riad may not be your best choice. While the interiors of these old places are stunning, they are old! And, there are no elevators and no plans for elevators in our lifetime. That doesn’t mean you can’t completely wipe out the idea of staying in one of these amazing places. Our second night, we stayed in the Green Room, which was right on the courtyard level. No steps! And possibly the most luxurious place I have ever stayed in my life.
Our porter came back to fetch us around 8pm to take us to dinner at the restaurant in Riad Fez (Side note: this may sound a bit extravagant; but, the Fes medina is so complex, it’s common for porters to walk you to your location for a small tip. Always use the porter recommended by the hotel, otherwise, you could end up at a carpet shop buying pricey berber rugs, when all you wanted was dinner). Anyway, we dined, outside, in this amazing garden. A thunderstorm blew over, a low rumble in the distance and a welcomed balminess in an otherwise dry climate. We could see the sky flash through an abundant canopy of trees whose limbs hung low with fruit and moroccan lanterns and it made for one of those rare “travel moments” of pure beauty that you hope for. The food was amazing, and the atmosphere profoundly African. We made it back to our riad on our own through dark, narrow streets that glowed amber.
For our two days here we didn’t make many plans. I had just finished reading A House in Fez, by Suzanna Clarke and felt as though I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to see and do, which was basically walk through the streets and experience the vibe of the city. And so, one of the most important things we did was hire a guide to take us through the medina.
Here’s my second strong recommendation. Until you get your bearings in this city, you will need a guide. Fes is an old, old, old city. In fact, it’s reported to be one of the oldest viable cities in the world. It is also the spiritual center of Morocco, home to possibly the oldest (still-operating) university in the world, the Kairaouine Mosque. When you take all that into account it’s significant. It means centuries of humans have built building upon building, street upon street. It’s chaotic and labyrinthian and a thrilling sensory overload. There are an estimated 9,000 streets in a very small space. And, quite easily the most effortless place to get lost. Really lost. Besides, if you are trying to find specific points on a map, a landmark, for example, or a restaurant, some of these routes run directly through other shops that for eons have become part of the street itself. It’s almost impossible to know how to get somewhere, unless, of course, you’re either familiar with the lay of the land or your exceedingly brave.
Our guide Majid was quite a character. Possibly the most well-educated and historically detailed of all our guides, he was also the most pretentious, eventually claiming, after a point of feeling quite comfortable with us, that he was a direct descendant of Mohammed. When I mentioned this to another Moroccan we happened to meet later in the week, he laughed and said the equivalent of Mm-kay. Direct descendant or not, he was well-supplied with info. He took us down at least 50 of the 9000 streets in the medina, introduced us to a tea salesman, invited us for cookies at Nejarine, one of the best restaurants in Fes, and let me alone (not Doug) take a tour of an authentic hammam [Side note: hammams in Morocco are a tradition. If you ask any Moroccan over the age of 30 they will tell you they were taken to the hammams, usually by their mother, at least once a week. Women have access during the day, and men in the morning and late afternoon. A basement with a concrete slab and concrete walls, and access to warm water, naked woman sit on the floor with their own bucket and simply wash themselves off. Period. No spa, no massages, no scented oils. Just a lot of scrubbing, laughing and conversation, with a bucket and a bar of black soap.] We toured the madrasa, the old university student building, saw the tannery, and got a good feel for the vibe of the medina. One of his most endearing qualities was that he is clearly a man with deep concerns for the education of Moroccans. The country was ranked 120th out of 137 countries for quality of education system, which is dire. It means that Moroccan students have great difficult meeting the demands of the labor market. His concern was abundant. It is no wonder so many Moroccan men go into business as a way to survive. Ironically, almost all Moroccans speak 3-5 languages.
At the end of the day we calculated that we walked about 10 miles. And what was my biggest take away? Smell. I cannot tell you how often I previously read about the “offensive smells” of [insert city here] in Morocco. I think westerners have burned out their nostrils with too much Glade. What smells exist here are robust and earthy–sweat, bodies, mint, animals, nuts, smoke, bread, meat, cumin… The occasional trash smell? Sure, it exists. But it’s by no means the predominant smell. Oh yes, and people. I cannot say enough about the kindness and authenticity of Moroccan people. Sure, there are bad people in the world. Every where. But, the fear that was instilled in me by books and articles I’d read didn’t coincide with what is actually happening here. People are simply living their lives, which caused in me a true sense of cognitive dissonance. It knocked me off balance and exhilarated me. And while I recognize the extremely narrow view a tourist has, I can also say, without hesitation, that humans are capable of sensing danger just as well as security and goodness. And this place makes me feel safe.
Today is the Moroccan “Sunday” (it’s Friday), which means at 4 a.m. I awoke to the mu’azzin calling an extended prayer. At this point we’re in the Green Room, on the main floor, with windows only facing toward the courtyard. Yet, there was a gentle breeze that blew in all night. Islamic architecture is pure genius. We laid in bed for a while, then went to the pool. In the afternoon, we went out into the médina by ourselves for the first time. I was scared to death. Again, I can’t tell you how often I read that the “unwanted attention” and “pesky beggars” and “scam artists” are incessant. But, I wanted to know if it would be as bad as people say. Would we be harassed to no end? And while I can pass for Moroccan, Doug obviously cannot. So, off we went into the wild (by the way, I felt the same sense of fear of the unknown the first time I walked through midtown Manhattan). No sooner had we stepped foot outside our riad, a young man no older than 20 wanted to show us to some tourist spot. Hello? Bonjour? Hola? You speak English? Where you from? The madrasa is closed today; I can take you to tanneries…
In the USA the goal is to completely ignore people like that. People who do this on a NYC city street are socially unacceptable. They’re pesky. Here, it’s different. This persistence is a way of life. It’s a fight for business. It’s an urgency to sell a product or service. It’s a need to set yourself apart from a gazillion other shop owners or tour guides or restauranteurs selling the same dish of couscous. The same leather bag. The same djellaba. And so, what you need to do is talk to people here. You need to leave your ingrained western cultural ideals at the port and think a little differently. What’s more, you need to communicate.
In NYC, if you engage with persistent strangers on the street you’re taking a serious risk. In Morocco, you’re simply negotiating your way through the street, through a way of life. And so, you want to speak up. You want to engage. “No thanks, we already saw the tanneries” is a great first start.
If that doesn’t work and you meet with someone more persistent, don’t grumble and lose faith. Here’s what you do next…
Stranger: “Ok so, I’ll take you to a good restaurant?”
Me: “What is your name?” (avoid the question and ask his name instead).
He proudly smiles. It’s Yusuf.
Abdulrahman, Hassan, Tarik, Rashad, Karim, Samir, Saïd. Whatever the name, repeat it! Pay homage to this person by saying his name.
Me: “Nice to meet you, Yusef. I am Tracy.”
Yes! Give him your name back. Sharing information like this is personal. It lets the other person know you are not just a tourist, and that you believe he is not just someone bothering you in the street (his street, by the way). And then, the brilliant finale… the next time he asks if he can take you somewhere or show you something just say: “Tomorrow, ok?” Or the French, demain; or in Arabic, ghadaan.
And poof! Just like that, Yusef tells me, “Ok. Tomorrow.” And we shake hands and go our own way. They don’t think I’m a miserable westerner and I don’t think they are a pest. We connected. We’ve negotiated a way out. And in Morocco, you negotiate. And the only way to start a negotiation is through kindness.
I know this simplified dumbed down example of “how to communicate” may seem insulting to some. But the truth is, too many tourists take for granted that they/we are outsiders and that it is our responsibility to respect and even understand a people’s way of doing things when we visit their country.
I was approached nearly 100 times and out of 100 my desire to communicate on a deeper level paid off 99 times. I was only truly harassed once–by a woman. She grabbed my hand trying to sell me on the idea of getting henna. I said no thanks, kindly and smiled at her. She grabbed my hand more forcefully and pulled me toward her. And just like poor Pope Frances, I pulled away and nearly swatted her. I stared her in the eyes and said, “La!” in Arabic, which means “No!” She reminded me of the gypsy women who try to give you a sprig of rosemary all throughout Spain. Some of these women can be aggressive. At any rate, those 99 people probably left me alone because they thought I was nuts. Who knows! What I know is a warm experience is better than a cold one.
After a very long day, once again overstimulate, we retired to the room a bit, then had an early dinner up on the roof. Lamb tagine and a beautiful sunset. Doug is having a bit of stomach issues (trust me, don’t drink the water and make sure you pack stomach meds and antibiotics). I’m definitely hanging on by a thread, trying to be extremely careful to stay away from lettuces, veggies, fruits washed in water, ice, shower water, teeth brushing etc. (tea and coffee is boiled and thus, OK). Tomorrow, we have an eight-hour train ride to Marrakech. I feel full, but ready to dive into the next adventure.
⦿Lodging: Riad Laaroussa: highly recommend! Ask for Fred or Rajae or Badia. If you can, book the Green Room.
⦿Restaurant: Riad Fes, for restaurant or lodging, this is equally glamorous and exotic.
⦿Tip: Definitely get a guide for this city. A good guide is about 50 euro per person; and if you wish, they can even take you outside the medina to the french district, Moulay Idriss Zerhoune, or Volubilis, the site of roman ruins. Always arrange a guide through your hotel.