One of my favorite maxims was written by Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So it was with Morocco: I may forget some of the details but I will never, ever forget how it made me feel. I like things to be clear and I like to be in control, but things were anything but clear and I definitely wasn’t in control in Fes. I constantly felt the sands shifting beneath my feet as we encountered cultural differences I simply wasn’t ready for.
Removed from the foreignness of Northern Africa and in the refuge of our brightly lit Italian airport hotel, I had a compelling need to chew over our Moroccan adventure and my intense emotional reaction to it. In order to release the experience and get beyond it, I had to rewind the tape, delve into the specifics and the feelings they exposed, and attempt to put it all into some kind of perspective. So there I sat there with Joe, always my obliging sounding board, recounting and reconsidering our five days in Fes...
Our all-day journey from Algeciras, Spain to Fes, Morocco included a 5:30am taxi from our hotel to the bus in Algeciras, the bus to the ferry in Tangier, another taxi to the Tangier train station and then the five-hour train ride to Fes. By the time we got into the final taxi that would take us to the Fes medina, a rusty, beat-up, beige Mercedes sedan -- ubiquitous in Morocco -- we were very nearly drained. With each additional kilometer that passed, our faces glued to the windows as we made our way along the traffic-jammed broad boulevards of the Ville Nouvelle (built à la Haussmann during the French occupation) towards the medina gate, we spent every iota of energy we had left watching the scenes of Fes pass by. The multitude of detritus and colorful parade of djellebas reinforced the fact that Fes was not a western city. “But it’s just like Paris,” Joe observed, pausing for a moment, “had the Germans decided to bomb it.” As our cab slowly circled Batha Square near our drop-off point outside the medina, a young man approached, grabbed onto the cab’s door and ran along beside us until we stopped. He asked the driver where we were going, and as we paid our fare and unloaded our bags, started pressing us about using him as a guide. We firmly said “non,” and “la shukran,” but he was adamant and continued his in-our-faces pitch on the multi-block bag-drag all the way to our hotel. He insisted we would get lost without his help, but I managed to follow the tiny royal blue tiles on the walls that pointed the way to our hotel. Dragging our luggage behind us through the narrow twisting medina maze, we were conscious of the scene: the two of us looking, without a doubt, about as American as apple pie while a twenty-something Moroccan kid attached himself like a remora until we turned into a final alley and reached our destination. He then insisted that we pay him for his services, which at that point amounted to being a persistent pest and an annoying distraction. We rang the hotel bell announcing our arrival and he continued to demand money as the door closed behind us. We involuntarily let out audible sighs of relief to have arrived in the peace and quiet of tranquil Riad Fes.
When planning our trip to Morocco, security was paramount since everything we’d heard and read warned of pickpockets, hustlers, swindlers and scoundrels. Thus, we booked five nights at a riad hotel (a property that was formerly a traditional home or palace with an interior garden and fountains) and chose one inside the ancient walls of the medina. Yes, we were concerned about personal safety but we also wanted to be close to “the real Morocco.” Riad Fes, a splurge hotel extraordinaire fit the bill perfectly (compared to prices on the Continent, even luxury accommodations were affordable in Morocco). What we didn’t anticipate, however, was that we would become virtual prisoners of a sort inside our lovely riad oasis. Squaring the serene beauty of our hotel with the disarray outside its protective walls was an ever-present challenge. The Alhambra-like atmosphere of the riad, with murmuring fountains, open-air courtyards, colorful mosaics, delicately carved wooden archways, low plush sofas, embroidered pillows and bottomless pots of sugary mint tea was warm and welcoming. In sharp contrast was the medina, a never-ending cacophonous hustle housing a colorful menagerie pecking and sniffing its way around the grimy pathways underfoot. The real Morocco was indeed knocking at our doors but were we going to be brave enough to leave the sanctuary of our riad and explore it?
The first time we ventured out alone, we made our way through the several block maze to the gate through which we’d entered and up the street to the ATM on Batha Square. The mundane act of withdrawing cash became a singularly stressful pursuit as we were keenly aware of being observed. Stress sweat running down our backs, we decided to be brave and sit for a short time to people-watch on a concrete bench in the square. I feigned calm, taking in the decrepit billboards in Arabic and French and the crowds passing by, but within minutes, a very drunk Moroccan started cursing at Joe, waving his arms and threatening bodily harm. So much for heroics. We hastily retreated to Riad Fes to nurse our wounds with some comforting mint tea.
Frommer’s Morocco, our hotel and the travel blogs we consulted all advised exploring the Fes medina with a guide – an official guide trained, badged and sanctioned by the Tourist Office. As the largest car-free (although not always motorbike-free) urban district in the world, old-town Fes is an almost-intact medieval city -- a confusing, congested labyrinth of narrow, twisting lanes (some only two feet wide) and even map-loving explorers with a good sense of direction like me can find themselves hopelessly lost after a few tortuous blocks. Towering, stone walls penetrated by just a few ancient city gates encircle the entire medina so once you’re inside, it’s tough to escape. When we first arrived at the riad, we mentioned to one of the hotel managers, a lovely gentle man named Radouan (pronounced “Red One”), that we had met a man on the train who put us in contact with a guide...and we stopped there once we saw the look on his face. “Well,” he said, shaking his head as he presented us with hot scented towels to wipe away the grime of our long trip and served us sugared mint tea and biscuits. “It was a scam,” he informed us. “That man probably gets on the train at the same stop several times a day, finds a first-time visitor, chats him or her up an then calls his accomplice, an unofficial guide who would not have given you the tour or the service you wanted. And your contact would have gotten a cut of the faux guide’s fee.” I was very disappointed to find that the friend we’d made on the train to Fes was actually a con artist and it left me sad. He was so nice, seemed so very genuine and I’d wanted to believe him. And while I generally don’t consider myself naive, well, perhaps I actually am. It was one of our first encounters with the unique economy of Morocco: nothing was ever quite what it seemed.
So, heeding the counsel of all our advisors, we arranged for three official guides, one for each of the next three days. At 300 dirhams apiece (about $35), our personal tour guides seemed a bargain. First we would explore the medina, next we would circle the ramparts and visit spots of interest and panoramic view points outside the city walls and finally, we would take a drive into the countryside, stopping at two Berber villages and two national parks. We were ready for some Moroccan adventure outside Fort Apache, Riad Fes, but this time we would venture out with seasoned, experienced, official escorts.
Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com