It’s May and my year abroad is soon coming to a close. The reality is hitting me, but I’m still soaking up all I can before I leave in early June. My list of “to-do’s” is made and all I need to do is cross it all off.
One part of that list was my trip to Morocco, a trip I had planned back in January to ensure cheap prices. I needed something more different than some country in Europe. Something dépaysant, as the French say (exotic, worldly, foreign, etc). The notorious Arab ethnic enclaves I had witnessed in Nancy, Paris and Marseille sparked my curiosity to witness this diverse set of cultures in their place of origin: Northern Africa. I enjoyed the Quartier Arabe in Nancy for it’s cheap prices on honey-covered pastries, it’s corner convenience stores open at all hours, and its bustling streets on Sundays (while the rest of France is either still sleeping or at Church).
My best friend, Sabrina, was on her way to France to study in Paris when I contacted her in January about joining me. “YES” is all she said. She sat at her sketchy hotel’s computer during an extended layover in Reykjavik, booking her plane tickets with me using Facebook to chat about the flight details and hostel reservations.
Last week, the time finally came for us to go on our May Moroccan adventure. Two and a half hours of airline travel later, we arrived in Fez. It’s hard to believe things can change so much within such a short distance. As an American, I guess it’s hard to perceive the potential change in culture at such distances since a two hour flight doesn’t mean much besides a different climate. In the US, the language is the same, the road signs are similar, and the daily behavior of people is not shockingly different region to region. But boy, was Morocco different, and that’s exactly what my friend and I were looking for.
I can’t decide what was most bothersome the first day of the trip. Either it was the constant bickering of taxi drivers trying to get us into their taxis when all we wanted to do is take the cheap bus into town, or perhaps it was the fact that I was so incredibly fatigued from lack of sleep (our flight was at 6 am, requiring us to wake up at 3 am). In any case, we survived the quick trip from the airport, through the New Town (Ville Nouvelle) of Fez, and all the way to the ryad (also spelled riyadh or riad) we had rented for five nights on AirBnB (basically an entire traditional Moroccan home for dirt cheap– 6 bedrooms, two living rooms, a courtyard, a kitchen, a hammam, and awesome roof access). Take a look:
Founded in AD 859, Fez’s medina (pictured above) is a UNESCO world heritage sight, renowned as one of the world’s oldest cities still functioning today. Unlike other medieval cities that have fallen to ruin or experienced considerable modernization, the Fez old town (Ville Vieille or Fez al Bali) has maintained a lifestyle that has existed for centuries. Small streets, accessible only on foot or by donkey, wind through a labyrinth of highways and offshoots where one can find all types of hidden gems. Small fountains with tiled mosaics, courtyards with large trees, ,market streets, and rooftop terraces are among the exciting things you’ll find when “getting lost” in the city. Five times per day (depending on factors I could not decipher) beginning at around 4:00 am, the Adhan (Call to Prayer) sounds from every mosque’ s tower of the city. It begins with a long, siren-sounding call from the speaker in each mosque (beginning low and ending high). The chant is almost sung as the prayers are carried out. The first words are Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest). Sabrina and I made it our priority to run to the roof every time we heard the call to prayer sounding at the mosques nearby. The valley where Fez al Bali is situated allows each mosque’s individual call to prayer to echo back and fourth in a beautiful set of dissonant tones that sometimes create unintentional harmonies. Although the prayers are not exactly sung, the tones and pitches of the speakers can sometimes seem melodic.
We took advantage of the cheap shopping and bought ourselves some interesting souvenirs that interested us. We enjoyed the shopping, mainly because it involves a close experience with the vendor during the transaction , who is incredibly motivated to sell the wares of the small shops. He (usually a man) tries his best to find the product and the price you want within reason. In one case, when we realized we hadn’t enough money, a vendor let us return to pay the rest of the cost we owed the following day. Throughout the rest of the trip, we would wave to him when passing his shop. Maybe he was just so nice since we bought something off of him, but he seemed so genuine and his bright smile made us feel welcome. It’s what one might call marketing in it’s most personal form! Moroccan leather was a specialty in Fez, which quickly became one of our priorities. Sabrina went all out by purchasing three Djellabas, a dagger, a leather bag, jewelry, and a lantern. I bought two lanterns for a set and a leather bag as well. The souks (markets) were by far the most interesting part of Fez in my mind because the Medina’s streets (out of Disney’s Aladin it seemed at times) were filled with people bartering, buying, eating, transporting goods on donkeys, and much more. The smells of mint, herbs, dried cat pee, rotten meat, and tanned goat hides were among the odors we were forced to become accustomed to very quickly.
The donkeys and mules were one of my favorite parts of street life. It’s important to keep your eyes and ears open as walking through the busy streets in case of a donkey’s approach from the front or from the rear, led by a worker transporting his goods. Avoiding them isn’t hard, but sometimes it required you to hop up onto a nearby stoop or ledge. They’re darn cute, but they don’t always slow down for you. My friend and I had a few close encounters.
Although it often required an open mind to be able to stomach, the food was delicious and surprisingly creative. Goat-face sandwiches were not really our thing, so we stuck to tagines, bread, and sheep spleen sandwiches. The pastries were obviously our favorite part. For a few days, we made it our afternoon activity of having mint tea with a collection of pastries, the majority of which involved some amount of honey or dates. The markets of Fez are something to see! In France, the old covered markets are slowly dying due to their high prices and lack of convenience, but in Fez’s old town, the market streets are the main source of food where locals buy their meat, fish, bread, snails, vegetables, fruits, and herbs. In America, it is well known that most people are ignorant of what actually happens in the slaughterhouses. Most people don’t often see on their daily commute a disembodied cow head or a dead goat hanging from the rafters of the local butchery. In Europe, this could be a more likely sight. However, in Fez, the market place is the slaughterhouse for many animals. We witnessed a great number of chickens slaughtered during our daily adventure through the markets. The butcher simply tears the head right off! Squawks of the chicken’s last calls quickly turn to gurgles as the blood fills its lungs and the animal soon falls limp for preparation. Yes, it’s gruesome, but still something to witness when visiting Fez.
The tanneries are a huge attraction of the old medina of Fez. It’s found by the river where water is plentiful. Following your nose, the stench of the hides will lead you right into the part of town where one can find leather shops offering rooftop terraces overlooking the dying pools. The vendors offered mint leaves to give some relief from the stench. We held them close to our noses the whole time, but eventually got used to the smell.
When the weather improved, we had the chance to see a courtyard within the grounds of an old mosque before going on a little hike through the beautiful hills surrounding the medina. The northern part of the country is quite fertile! I’ve included a plethora of images on what we saw during our days:
Afterwards, we visited Tangiers in the North. We traveled by train five hours and made it to the northern coast where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. What a sight to see! Across the straight, you can spot Portugal, Spain, and Gibraltar! We even got to see Yves Saint Laurent’s house!
And of course, we enjoyed the people. 🙂