Every now and then, when you are in a new country and out of your comfort zone, going with the flow to experience cities, cultures and people, you just say FUCK THIS ISN’T WHAT I EXPECTED. That’s how my experience in FES went. A long time ago, I heard Rory on Gilmore Girls speak of this city in Morocco with a Medina anyone would be lucky to explore, the biggest and oldest Medina in Morocco in fact, so once I was set on visiting Morocco I knew I’d see Fes. Many other travelers I met in the #summerofAriana also spoke highly of Fes, whose unique quality and feel excited and amazed travelers. I took all these reasons and my own intrigue as a sign that I was surely meant to visit this place. Thinking back on the quick 2 days we spent there, I cannot believe how many lessons this city had in store for me.
After our 3 nights in the extraordinary Medina of Chefchaouen we were off to the next on the earliest bus (8:30 am) traveling 200km to Fes. I had used google maps and asked the the locals to approximate that the journey would be a mere 4 hours. In Morocco, public buses will likely take longer than you are told; plan for this & try to be as patient as you can when you feel stuck on a never-ending ride through the country. Our bus to Fes took over 6 hours, but felt even longer.
The bus was at capacity because of the Moroccan holy holiday of Eid-al-Adha, and though people got off during the many stops they were quickly replaced by more bodies. . . bodies which created body heat for the duration of our ride. I needed to pee by hour 3 or 4 and I just kept thinking we had to be close to our destination by then, so I’d hold it a bit longer. But the extreme heat required us to hydrate (and early September is not even the hottest time of the year); it was a vicious cycle. During the stops, I was too afraid to get off the bus to use the toilets for fear that they’d leave me stranded there. In fact, there was never any clarity about how long a stop would be. I never heard them announce a time limit (or at least not in English) and the stops varied from 2-5min to a 10min maximum stop. My best advice is to distract yourself by people watching or looking out at the beautiful and natural landscapes Morocco offers. By hour 6, I knew we were pulling up to the bus station soon because I could hear fellow passengers rapidly speaking Arabic on their phones and a distinguishable “Fes” caught my ear.
So that’s just the beginning really; a lengthy and a bit uncomfortable bus ride. . . I was still super excited to explore this new city, founded back in the 8th Century. Can you imagine the history here? YALLA YALLA! We settled into our hostel after being escorted from the bus station by a nice local fellow from the hostel. He led us on foot. I’m no priss, but I was exhausted. It was also hot and there were hills and my bags were way too heavy for walking. I thought we would definitely take a taxi, but nope. He helped lighten the load by 1 bag each, but in hindsight I would TAXI IT ALL THE WAY (since it was at least a 20 minute walk). We lacked the energy and the will to go out and see the city right away, so we got cozy in the hostel for a few hours. They offered us the traditional Mint Tea. Yum! Later we were blessed to share a delicious meal from up high in the city (a rooftop restaurant) with incredible views of Fes. We relaxed and delighted in typical dishes like Chicken Tajin, Beef Tajin, and Moroccan Soup. The picturesque sunset that followed made Everything seem right in the world again.
Tour the Medina with us
Day 1 consisted of a quickie walk through the Medina. We mostly saw tons of shops with eager owners pushing their merchandise, proud of their leather goods, their agave silk blankets/fabrics and jewelry galore too. I stopped to have fresh squeezed pomegranate juice in one of the squares while my sister fed all the stray cats of Fes this time, handing out leftover meat from our lunch. Somehow the locals seem to notice you when you are clearly a Foreign Cat Whisperer. While walking home, we caught the most beautiful Full Moon. No superstitions here, the Moon is actually like home to me. When I see her in all her glory there is an internal discussion that occurs moving things inside of me, bringing things to the surface (emotions sometimes or ideas), releasing energies that don’t resonate with me anymore, releasing worries and expectations (from others and myself). Full Moon usually signifies an ending or resolution, but recognize that all endings are beginnings and all beginnings are endings.
I wasn’t exactly sure what was ending (or beginning) that particular night, but surely in the next days Morocco would show me.
On day 2, we booked a walking tour of the Medina. The cost was $20 USD (steep for Morocco prices) but we were willing to pay to be shown the best of the city. A local from Fes arrived and escorted us from our hostel to the important sights. He will now be referred to exclusively as: The Godfather of Fes (I’ll explain why). Any medina (or walled city) in Morocco can be a maze of sorts because there are streets with no signage and tiny side streets that lead you to other side streets deeper and deeper inside the labyrinth. . . surely to get you lost. The streets are also winding, strategic construction used to confuse enemies that attempted to invade during past centuries. The best way to get around is by carefully memorizing landmarks like a mosque or a market square. With the Godfather of Fes we didn’t worry about getting lost. While leading us down the most obscure streets he explained that it’s only because he’s lived inside the Medina of Fes his entire life that he knows it as well as he does.
At first glance it was much different than Chefchaouen’s Medina, for its sheer size and its unique tone. The colors that stained this Medina’s walls came in varying shades of beige and tan; complimenting doors usually were of natural wood with ornate designs. This city is OLD, ancient even, and I could feel it. Who walked these same streets long before? Who were these artisans that carefully carved loving adornments around and inside the mosques? Who painted the brilliant wooden ceilings to such geometric perfection? How was daily life in this Medina different back then? There were parts of the Medina where you couldn’t see any light either because passageways had ceilings, making some streets feel like tunnels. In one of the hottest cities in Morocco (with record temperatures of 116F/46C or average highs of 95+ Fahrenheit/ 35+Celsius) this design was purposeful to keep out the heat. It was a comfortable temperature walking the Medina, an astounding difference from walking in the exposed sun. GENIUS INNOVATION! Walking at my own pace I eventually got separated from the Godfather of Fes and my sister, but I didn’t mind it. I was transported to another period, walking the medina alone perhaps on my way to purchase goods in a local market or walking to the bakery to have them bake my dough into bread, or returning home after prayer hour in the neighborhood mosque. And then I hurried a bit, turned a corner and returned to the very present where the two were waiting for me to catch up.
Now, the Godfather was well known and well connected in Fes because we began to notice that people on the streets would greet him and kiss his hand with his many rings, or his shoulder even(???). Everyone seemed to know him; maybe he had once done them a favor. He was the guy that tells you what you want to hear, not the truth. He kept saying “you are my guests” and was supposedly haggling for us by telling shopkeepers “they are just students”. Turns out though that they had us pegged as TOURISTS. When traveling in Morocco you will likely be a tourist to them, not a visitor or a traveler. There is a Difference. A visitor is a guest somewhere. A traveler is someone passing through. A TOURIST is someone with Spending Capacity/Money/DollarsEurosDirham, and I couldn’t believe they had associated me with them. You know those tourists that stand out with their name brand everything, who lack interest in true interaction with the locals but don’t mind recording video and photographing these people like they would an animal in a zoo. Tourists care more about selfies for instagram than respect and common courtesy in a place they don’t belong to. They don’t try to learn the customs or speak the language of the places they go. They often collect things from places they have visited just to be able to brag to others of where they’ve been. They use words like “strange” or “interesting” to describe anything that is different than what they are used to from their home-city or home-country. For the past few years I have watched videos, read blogs and scoured the internet for information and pictures of PLACES IN THE WORLD that I hope to visit one day, finding inspiration and furthering my passion for travel.
I love traveling and expanding my mind.
I love exchanging language and stories even if just for a moment.
I love spending time reflecting on the pasts and presents of the people in any place I visit, but I love even more being informed and educated about their life directly from them as locals.
I AM NOT THAT TYPICAL TOURIST and I felt sad and angry when I realized here in Fes they only saw me as such.
The Godfather of Fes took us to our first real stop, the famous Tanneries, where we learned about all things related to the process of tanning leather and wool. Here is where we met Mohammed, now the infamous Mohammed. Our first impression of him was that he was knowledgable and kind to share the history of the tanneries with us. We got to ask questions about the dyes and process and had another spectacular view of Fes from the rooftop before entering a massive 4-story shop with wall to wall and ceiling to floor products. First he took us to the floor of MAGIC CARPETS, rugs and blankets. And it was here that Mohammed treated us very warm and called us his guests. We joked and laughed just like old friends do and he gave us Moroccan names, FATIMA (my sister) and AIESHA (me). He had traditional Mint tea prepared for us as well. Our favorite part of the experience was practicing Arabic with him. He taught us and patiently practiced with us some of the most basic things you’d need to know for traveling in Morocco.
SHUKRAN / THANK YOU! (pronounced shu-kran)
LA / NO
NAM / YES (pronounced na-am)
INSHA’ALLAH / GOD WILLING (pronounced in-sha-la)
BESSEHA/ IN GOOD HEALTH (pronounced beh-suh-ha)
BESSEHA W RAHA / IN GOOD HEALTH AND GOOD RELAX
METŠERRFĪN / NICE TO MEET YOU (pronounced as best as I can convey: met-shar-feen)
MEZZIAN / GOOD
WAKHA / OKAY (pronounced wa-ha)
Time seemed to pass differently here. We didn’t leave the room of carpets for quite some time and therefore wondered where the Godfather of Fes was and if our tour was going to continue out in the Medina. Mohammed assured us we had more to see in the shop though. So we went to the other floors to see the goods. All the leather you could imagine, in every color fathomable. Adorned bags, shoes, pillows, seats, belts, etc etc etc . . . an endless sea of merchandise. Some items were just so beautiful that you had to touch them or hold them in your hands to confirm they were real. There was just so much stuff here. . . I was attracted to two leather bags, beautifully hand-made and very special. I also picked out a pair of Aladdin-style shoes that were a great fit and screamed ‘Morocco’! My sister took a walk around and picked out some things she liked too. When we tried to ask how much something cost, Mohammed told us that we would talk business later as friends.
So once we were ready to talk prices, we engaged in a first round of haggling on paper. . . He wrote the prices of the items I was interested in and then a total, and I wrote another amount because his prices were high. Turns out, I had no idea how high they were because he was writing in Euros all along, not even Dirham. 3+ hours ago we had arrived to the tannery, and we were still in that same room of carpets and feeling a bit trapped. My sister cracked first and had a mini-breakdown. Overwhelmed and pressured, she started crying in the store. While I, was seriously regretting that I had already agreed to pay a ridiculous price for 3 items and had been tricked into tipping Mohammed 50 EURO (for negotiating down the price for me). I mean, he made me swear on his family that I wouldn’t say a word about the side deal which gave Mohammed his cut from me on this sale. It was all at an UNCOMFORTABLE LEVEL AT THIS POINT, so I got into protective sister mode and told them that my sister needed to go rest so we were leaving (mind you they were already swiping my credit card downstairs). Well Fuck! This is what I mean when I say Fes isn’t what I had expected: lots of tears (Sister was all overwhelmed and she didn’t even buy anything) and my buyer’s remorse. . . How had this happened? We don’t even fit the profile of tourists with Money. . . The Godfather took us to a second shop right after, this one of fabrics made of agave silk, and it seemed again all they really really wanted was for us to buy stuff. There was no way I was buying anything here having just spent more that half my monthly salary in Spain on 3 MATERIAL ITEMS. I was upset, and a little bummed that the day had taken such a turn. . . but the more I sat with those feelings in me, including reliving the memory now (as I write this), sitting with feelings about that day, I am trying to bring perspective to the situation. This is what I have come up with.
As much as I’d like to consider myself a conscious traveler, someone who gets much more out of experiences than by spending money or looking like I have money, in Morocco and probably in future places that I will travel to, compared to an average local I am privileged to have the ability and financial means to travel. I may not consider myself a TOURIST or a TYPICAL TOURIST, but that doesn’t mean they don’t look at me as someone who can contribute to their financial security if I only spend my money in their shop/restaurant/stall. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but the bottom line is these individuals didn’t do anything with MALICIOUS INTENT; they hustled because that’s what life in Fes or Morocco requires of them to live their life with their basic securities and needs met. Mohammed, or The Godfather of Fes, or any number of people in Morocco are no different than you or me in that sense. They were doing their hustle and in the end I pulled out my credit card and bought things of my own will. Whether I was just another tourist to them isn’t even the point. The reason I was so upset with myself and the situation afterwards is because I acted a little like those people I don’t want to be; the people that use MATERIAL THINGS to show how happy they are. MATERIAL THINGS don’t last. MATERIAL THINGS don’t make us who we are. MATERIAL THINGS are just STUFF. STUFF is just STUFF. “There is just SO MUCH STUFF here” crossed my mind while in that shop and it was a voice from inside of me that was trying to remind me that I didn’t need more stuff. I have come so far in recent years with letting go of the Capitalist ideal of always wanting more, buy buy buy, newer bigger better. . .
So this day in Fes was a serious challenge for me, one that showed me days and weeks later that I have more work to do in my own personal life journey. I can’t blame our hostel for sending us off with that guide The Godfather of Fes, and I can’t blame The Godfather of Fes himself who was slicker than slick. . . or Mohammed or even myself. I don’t have to. I have all these instances, these lessons that will stick with me, these moments that together make up my rich life experience. That is one rich I don’t mind being, RICH IN EXPERIENCE. Sister and I were given a gift from the Full Moon in Fes. She gave us the chance to realize that a chapter had ended for us, the Chapter of Want. With every ending so too is there a beginning. . . What had begun there in Fes was the Chapter of I have Enough.
Morocco was everything it was supposed to be. Fes was new & exciting; full of flavors and sights, and sounds that I wasn’t used to. The prayers heard several times a day, the tans & beige buildings and the green roofs of the holy buildings, the sweets, fresh juices, the textiles, the lessons, the lessons, the Release and the OM. Shukran Fes.
Sister in Moroccan Arabic is UKHT (pronounced as best as I can convey: oo-hhht). . . Thank you my UKHT for sharing in this experience with me, with all love from the Universe. MA SALAMA / GOODBYE my friends!