Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Day 170: Surviving Morocco (Fes)

It was dark when my bus arrived in Fes. I left the bus station looking for a place to stay. After getting goaded in Tangier and Chefchaouen, I was determined to find a place without the help of a local. Unfortunately I had no clue where I was or any accommodations reserved, so I went on a wild goose chase. "Hotel 50 durham," a tall young man said to me. I had just found the hotel I was looking for and it was full, so reluctantly I accepted. As we got in the taxi headed towards the old town, "Here we go again," I thought. Another town, another guide, but for the first time we would become friends.

Chillin' in my room.

The hotel was a large building nestled in the old town with an open courtyard and homily tiled walls. My new guide Nabil showed me to my room, a habitation where it seemed a troll had been the last inhabitant. "I've slept in worse" I thought, and for €6, who could complain? The staff shared their dinner with me. They were eating a huge plate of peas with small pieces of bread. "Tagine" one of them said. Indeed, this was my first taste of the infamous Moroccan tagine – it was delicious. Nabil and I talked a little before I went to bed. He said that tomorrow he would show me the 'Berber Factory' along with the old town. I went to sleep inside my tent wondering what a 'Berber Factory' was.

The main room of the hotel.

Nabil came back to the hotel and woke me up at 12. Following a quick visit to the squatting toilet, we headed to the Berber factory. Such an epic name should require a trek but it was right around the corner. We sat down and while enjoying some tea and hookah and a guy tried to sell me a trip to the Sahara and hand made blankets.

Nabil hanging out with the hookah.
I like how a lot of the buildings have courtyards.
They had some sheep.
I asked if they ate the turtles.

Listening to him talk about the blankets was fascinating. In Morocco there are two main types of textiles, known as "women's work" and "men's work." Women's work deals with intricate weaving with embroidery. They produce thick luxurious carpets with symbolic designs. One piece can take six months to make. On the other hand, men work with the loom to make beautiful blankets from sheep wool, camel wool, or cactus silk. Cactus silk is most expensive, then camel wool because camels are only sheared once every three years, then sheep wool. The colors all come from natural dyes, yellow comes from saffron and red comes from poppy, they have every color. I felt compelled to buy something because he spent so much time showing me all of these things. Following a bout of haggling, I ended up buying a camel wool and cactus silk blanket for €30. I had fun learning about the production process and saying goodbye to a man who made the blanket I just bought was a unique experience.

The looooooooooooooom.
So many pieces to choose from.
Before writing, women weaved stories into the blankets.
Cactus silk is fireproof but my finger got totally hot.
I think he was really happy that I bought something.

After lunch Nabil showed me the Jewish quarter. I'm curious why everywhere I've gone there's been a Jewish quarter. Why no Spanish or French quarter? The Jews and Moroccans lived side by side largely without conflict. Nabil pointed out the star of David on a few of the houses along with dates from 1531. 500 years isn't so old, considering Fes was built over 1000 years ago. We didn't walk around for too long because lunch was heavy and siesta was necessary.

One of the main streets in the old town.
 Getting some tasty treats filled with almond paste.
Too much food for lunch.
Our surplus made the cat happy.
Then he fell asleep ^_^

The next day Nabil was waiting for me when I woke up. After spending all of yesterday with him I was feeling comfortable. I was warned not to get too friendly with any of the locals but I enjoyed Nabil's company. Today we were going to check out the medina. Since Fes is known for its industry, it has a huge medina. Fes has the largest medina in Morocco. It's an absurd tangle of small streets so having a guide is necessary. Unfortunately, Nabil wouldn't take me because only official guides are allowed in the medina and he didn't want to pay a fine. He took me to a restaurant with an amazing panoramic view of the medina while he brought me an official guide. I was excited to have an official guide because I thought that he would know everything about the medina and the different trades, boy was I wrong.

The brass doors of the palace.
Cemetery in the Jewish quarter.
A Jewish house with a balcony, just like in Brooklyn.
The date is at the bottom of the building, 1531.
I'm not obsessed with the stray cats.
Pika pika.
I was trying to take a photo of these doors...
...but these kids had other ideas.
That night we went to a bar. Nabil said he once drank 80 beers.

Nabil returned to the restaurant with this old guy who smelled like hash and who's teeth I could count on one hand. He took me through the medina all right but he only brought me to stores. We stopped in a leather tannery, a textile store, jewelry store, copper store, and a Berber pharmacy. While I was learning about the goods each store sold, he went and smoked with the owners. I learned a lot from the stores but I felt like a walking dollar, being lead from place to place. I also seem to have lost a great deal of my photos from the tour. When the tour was over I was so happy to be back with Nabil. Screw the official tour guide. We had more interesting things to do.

Outside of the medina.
The local metalworker living the simple life.
Get spicy.

Later that night Nabil took me to the new town to meet his family. They were having a party for one of his brothers and the house was packed. There was a band playing traditional music, people dancing, and a lot of food. I felt an odd mixture of completely out of place and right at home. Thankfully his mother's chicken and lamb tagine kept me from thinking too hard and I enjoyed myself. One of his sisters lived in England and her daughter was cute and shy like all little girls should be. She spoke English but was too nervous to have a conversation but flitted around me giggling. After soaking up the atmosphere it was time to leave. I needed to sleep because my train was at 6 AM. Nabil took me back to his apartment where more of his family was. I passed out.

The gimungus medina of Fes.
Mosques all have towers like this.
Escargot anyone?
After riding a camel this photo makes me really sad.
Beef or hand?
Asleep on the job.
Donkey with a headache.
Two for one.
So much stuff, all over.
Every district had a different specialty. This was the copper district.

Up in time for my train, for once, I woke up Nabil and we headed off to the station. We were on time, I bought a ticket, everything went smoothly. Although I came to Fes determined not to have any help from the locals, I had a great time with Nabil. When in Morocco you can resist everyone's offers and you will save a lot of money. But the locals have a lot to show you and they can make your life way easy. It's sort of like CouchSurfing with a fee. Without Nabil I wouldn't have seen as much around Fes and the opportunity to experience his family's party was priceless. For me, that was totally worth the $50 I gave to him for his three days of help. Best of all, as I said goodbye to get on the bus it felt like two friends parting instead of a local profiting from a tourist.

I had a great time in Fes and I did a lot in my two days. I saw the old town, medina, learned about textiles, medicines, foods, and culture. I got accepted into the family of a local and got a glimpse of how people here really live. I met a stranger on the street and hung out with him for three days, breaking the barrier between tourist and friend. I am excited to return to Fes when I have more money because I would like to buy more carpets, stuffs, and a teapot. Fes is an incredibly rich city, from the sights to the culture, there is a lot to absorb here. I definitely recommend a trip to Fes, and think about saying yes to someone trying to help you.


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