12 August 2014

Fes, Morocco 2005

A visit to the Mahgreb ‒ North Africa ‒ was a last-minute decision into a rather whirlwind tour of Morocco, including the four royal cities of Fes, Meknes, Marrakesh, and Rabat. Starting in gorgeous Benalmadena near Malaga on Spain's Costa del Sol, we drove to the ferry that took us across the Strait of Gibraltar to passport control at Ceuta in Morocco. I've already mentioned my surprise companions, the wild tribe of loudmouth extroverted Brazilians.
Wikipedia Commons, by High Contrast
Destination Fes (not FeZ we are told); we ascend the picturesque, rolling mid-Atlas mountains. A few “comfort stops” along the way help to acclimatize, enhanced by offerings of customary mint tea in glasses. French is supposedly the country’s second language but Spanish seems more endemic. There's a distinction between north and south parts of the country because the north is arable and has many urban centres; the south is desert and the High Atlas mountains. In the passing rural fields, what first looks to me like many field crops of exotic, basketball-size blooming plants morphs into the sad spectacle of scores of abandoned white plastic bags littered by the wind.
No-one visits Fes without seeing the medina, the old walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the cultural heart of the country. Here was the most fascinating locale of the entire trip. Originally built for fortification, the sights, sounds, and smells have changed little in its thousand-year-old existence. We arrived at the gate early morning; few shop owners and residents were about. It was Ramadan, and people sleep late to help the daylight go by. When they eat in the evenings, they stay up late. As we progressed through the morning, the streets became more and more congested.

Tour leader Alami handed off to local guide Raschid for our smallish English-speaking group, being some Aussies and me. Raschid is an uncommon but proud mixture of “the best of Morocco” as he tells us right off the bat: Arab, Berber and Jew. He shows us the palace courtyard and several mosques; we trail long, pausing to study the intricate design details. The architecture is fascinating, some of it stunning, to western eyes. Probably the best part was simply strolling the hilly, twisting warren of streets — streets? actually, incredibly narrow alleys — gazing at everything with delight and enjoying our history lessons. By noon or so, people were crowding into the various mosques, all but hidden in the narrow dark doorways. Some of them did not appreciate tourists gawking and inadvertently impeding their entrance to worship.

Then the not-so-subtle shopping agenda kicked in, expected by some of us. Let's see, there was the Brass Merchant, the Carpet Merchant, the Leather Merchant, the Embroidery Merchant, and the Pharmacy Merchant selling soaps and precious oils. Initially the prices were quite outrageous. Here was my introduction to the skills of market bargaining, or haggling. No seller expects a customer to pay the first asking price. Raschid was as helpful as possible with negotiating.

Of course the carpets were beautiful but I heard muttering from the merchant after no-one stepped up to buy ... their carefully unrolled displays apparently for naught. Nor were we particularly intrigued by the leather products, another reason not much buying was going on amongst us. However it was interesting to see and hear about the traditional tanning industry. Leather is Morocco's biggest export and it's still very much a hands-on process. The dyeing vats, viewed from the height of a scary, narrow, dizzying staircase, are a famous sight here.
Dye vats; photo by Derek White of 5¢ense
Our agenda was becoming a rush from one sales pitch to another. If we didn’t keep up in between the designated shops we’d be sunk. You’d never find your way out of the medina maze. A few low grumbles around the group: do they think we are all wealthy and only here to spend money? Irony — many of the goods we saw are available all over North America (right in my neighbourhood at home) and often cost less.

About 1:15 pm we arrived at the Caftan Merchant and then Raschid disappeared. For a full hour we languished without Raschid outside the clothing shop, waiting as instructed, clueless and hungry. Whenever a loaded donkey approached (the only way to transport goods up and down the medina streets), often with little warning because of the congestion, we learned to instantly flatten ourselves against the wall. I bought a caftan perhaps out of sheer boredom, practicing my new basic skills ... followed by intermediate skills of turning your back and walking away when you don't like his latest price. That's a tough one when you really want that certain something!
Most of them were trotting quickly despite the heavy burdens you didn't want to be crushed by!
Things picked up when the ubiquitous trinket/souvenir sellers found us as a captive audience; lots of cheerful banter in a mixture of languages and satisfactory purchases. Brenda also graciously declined a friendly youngish man’s invitation to enter his home across the street for refreshment and accept him as my Moroccan husband. Good thing the Brazilians weren't here; they'd smother the guy with attention. Meanwhile, all of us musing whether Raschid had gone to mid-day prayers or outright defected. Our empty stomachs were righteously complaining and not a cafe or bakery in sight! 

Later we learned that a husband and wife in our group had retroactively decided to purchase a carpet and needed his assistance in the (extensive) negotiating. That’s personal service, alright, but a few pissed-off Aussies held back at tipping time because we'd been more or less abandoned.

Despite the bit of downside, the day's experience was enthralling. There was a moment with a street musician. A moment in a small poultry market where live birds were offered, butchered on the spot if you wish. I spotted my favourite clementines at a grocer’s and bought a few. So sweet and fresh!! Not long off the tree, I'm sure, and infinitely superior to those that arrive at my supermarket. Ah, sometimes the little things make such a difference.

Before we left Fes, we had one of those lavish dinner shows in a very lovely venue. The entrance to the place was hidden in one of the dark medina alley ways. Inside, mile high ceilings and Moorish columns, belly dancers and lots of musicians. Who care if it's touristy? Delicious food and much fun with audience participation; the Brazilians shine tonight. Another of those little things: traditional marinated lemon chunks in the tagine ― many restaurants at home seem to omit them; instant seduction, forcing me to learn later how to do it.

Since then, I have been into a number of old Arab medinas, but Fes is still special, more than fulfilling a long time wish to see North Africa.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

No comments: