Losing myself in the Old Medina of Fes
I spent my last evening in Tangier browsing the web looking at places to visit in Morocco. It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon moroccobackpacking.com – a blog about just that. In one of his posts there was talk of a village just outside of Tangier called Chefchaouen. From looking at pictures it looked beautiful – small rows of houses painted a light blue, all at the base of a small mountain which stands high above the village. Then there was talk of Fes – the old capital of Morocco, with its old medina – the biggest in the world, and its Jewish quarters which surround the Royal Palace, both seemed equally appealing. To reach Chefchaouen, the cheapest way is to take the bus. According to somebody on the web the bus station is next to the train station so I made a decision that if the bus station was there I would take the bus to Chefchaouen, and if not, I would take the train to Fes. So there I stood early morning, as the police officer whom I asked where the bus station was shrugged his shoulders, the choice had been made and I bordered the train to Fes.
On the train I met a guy just a bit younger than me, his name was Mohammed – the first Mohammed I will meet of many I’m sure. I talked with his mum about religion in French – maybe not the best of topics for somebody beginning French. They were on their way to Ifrane – Little Switzerland as it’s commonly known – to spend some time in and around the incredible town which sits in contrast to Morocco in so many ways. I made note of the place as I’m sure I will be seeking refuge out of the city real soon. The train was great, for some reason I expected the worse but it was just like a train in Europe, if not better – maybe I got lucky.
Upon arriving in Fes I went through the same routine of finding some cheap accommodation, it didn’t take long until I found a room in a hotel beside a café for eighty Moroccan Dirhams (mdh) per night. I was staying in the new medina which is where the people with money live, I’m rich now apparently!
That day I took a long walk to the old medina to get my bearings. As I made my way down the first street I stopped and admired some nice local art, the guy working the stall naturally invited me into the gallery. Normally I would decline such invitation but this time I thought “What the hell? Why not?! “. After he had shown me around the gallery, he played me a song on his home-made guitar. I was surprised at his level of creativity – something I’m always very fond of. He then invited me to lunch with his friend and father. I politely accepted, but couldn’t help but think how much the guy was expecting in return – I’ve learnt that everything comes with a price in Morocco. We all sat down and shared a delicious fish dish with bread as I made another mess of eating with my hands. After lunch he introduced me to his younger brother who he said wanted to show me around the old medina. I paid him twenty mdh for lunch and took the walk with his brother. What the walk turned out to be was sales pitch upon sales pitch as vendors tried to sell me anything from hand-made rugs to antiques. Although the items were very nice and would be definitely something I would buy if I was decorating my house in Morocco, I was Backpacking seeking merely friendship and adventure, and therefore it was a waste of both my time and theirs. Don’t get me wrong, it was interesting being in the old medina – its one hell of a maze! But I guess I felt trapped, and therefore very vulnerable. After the barrage of intense sales pitches, I was glad to be out.
After the walk it all turned a bit sour with him wanting a lot more than I was willing to pay. I don’t mind paying for a good service but the tour was rubbish – he literally rushed me through the medina telling me when to take photos, and most of the time he sat outside whilst I faced yet another intense sales pitch. From reading other reviews about tours of the old medina, it seems common to be given a poor tour then charged ridiculous prices. I paid him all I had left on me which wasn’t much – he then had the cheek to propose going back to my hotel for more money which I obviously refused. I left the old medina disappointed it had ended as such but I took away from it a valuable lesson. Before you accept any form of generosity you need to find out how much it’s going to cost, and then choose whether to accept it or not. Backpacker’s Tip: Don’t leave it up to the person offering the service to decide on a price afterwards as it will usually be significantly higher than if you had asked pre-service – you are also not in a position to haggle after the service has been taken.
After that unfortunate experience, I explored the Jewish quarters which I found a breath of fresh air compared to the old medina. Its markets run just outside the walls of the Royal Palace – it’s a great place to take a hassle free walk, and taste some traditional market food. Standing outside the Royal Palace doors at night is a spectacular sight of beauty, and architecture – It would be interesting to play knock and run to see if the guns them guards hold so delicately actually work or not. I enjoyed my time around the new medina, sitting by the coloured fountain eating ice cream, and munching my way through the variety of street food on offer. Hanging around the new medina, the Royal Palace, and the Jewish Quarters felt safe at night so that’s where I passed a lot of my time.
I was still in touch with Mohammed who I met on the train, and was planning to meet up with him in Ifrane to do some exploring until I unfortunately came down with the Flu. The following days I suffered extreme fatigue and some of the worst migraines of my life. Most of the time I stayed in my hotel room in a miserable ball of depression and negativity – a horrible experience. Whilst I was recovering I decided to check Couchsurfing. I was feeling down and lonely, and in need of a friendly face. I sent a few messages out to some people and was fortunate to receive a quick reply from a guy called Loukman who said it would be okay to stay with him for a while. After many phone calls and texts I finally managed to meet up with him outside the old medina – he worked in computer repairs and maintenance and was setting up his new shop which he had just re-located nearby.
We spent two days either hanging around the old medina visiting a cool café called The Café Clock; playing a few games of Pro Evolution Soccer – it’s all the rage here; eating some of his favourite food at a small food stall which he regularly visits, or hanging around his friend’s house watching television, playing pool, and being introduced to many different Moroccan food and drinks. On the third day we took an evening coach to Azrou as his sister was going away for a while to see family. On the journey we passed through the Moroccan countryside – including the small town of Ifrane – which from a long gaze out of the bus window lived up to its hype of being a truly spectacular sight. Over the four days we spent together it quickly became apparent Loukman had no money. By the fourth day I was paying for everything, which didn’t bother me as much as the lack of gratitude – it was not in the CouchSurfing spirit. Not only this but I felt totally dependent on him as I had all my things in his house which meant I had to follow him and his brother around all day which just wasn’t my style. It all ended on the fourth night as I sat in his friend’s house whilst they all sat smoking and speaking Arabic. I felt invisible, trapped, and stressed. I was utterly desperate to leave so I got up, said goodbye and made a quick exit onto the street.
It was early evening and my plan was to get a taxi into the new medina to try and get a night in my previous accommodation, if not I would stay in one of the many other hotels nearby. As I stood by the side of the road awaiting a taxi someone called over to me from a shop. He asked me if I needed any help, and I explained to him that I was looking for accommodation. He leapt to his feet to offer his help as he continued to tell me how he had two brothers living in America, “here we go again” I thought. He tried to get me cheap accommodation in a nearby hotel which failed, and then shortly afterwards he offered me accommodation for the night at his family home, obviously fully aware that he had only known me for five minutes – he was taking a risk. I arrived at his house, greeted his family, and then took a hot shower – first one in two weeks! After I had cleaned myself up, I made a cup of tea and sat down on his laptop to speak to his brother in America over Skype – we talked about computer science which was his field of study, it’s funny how environments change so quickly when on the road, yet I’m finding it increasingly easy to adapt myself and feel comfortable in almost any situation. I was invited to dinner where a delicious cous cous with vegetables had been prepared, we spent dinner and the remaining hours of the evening talking about the philosophy around travelling, and the fundamentals of the Islamic religion – this time in English, not French thankfully.
I slept soundly that night, and left early morning as he took me to the train station in a taxi – he worked in a school close by as an English teacher. That act of generousity will stay with me forever, and restored my faith in Moroccan hospitality. He asked me to pray for him as he was having troubles in his life, something I will carry out when I find a quiet space. I had made the decision to leave Fes that morning and so I stood in the ticket queue at the train station deciding between Casablanca and Marrakech. In Casablanca I would have to search for accommodation again, and I just couldn’t face even that small of a task. I followed my gut instinct and bought a first class ticket to Marrakech. The price difference between first and second class wasn’t much so I decided to treat myself considering it was a seven hour journey – I’m sure I will appreciate the air conditioned cabin. I had been offered accommodation in Michael and Michel’s apartment in Marrakech – some guys I met at the guest house by Malaga – so I was heading towards a safe place to stay accompanied by more than welcome company.
I’ve been drawing faces in my notebook which express my emotions. Yesterday was a sad face with steam coming out of my head. Today I lost the steam but added little lines under my eyes – it’s been a tough week for me both mentally and physically. Let’s hope things improve in Marrakech.
Peace and love, Jonathan x