Saturday 5th June, Meknes, Morocco.
DAY TRIP TO FES
My Spanish roomate Raoul took off to Chefchaouen this morning, but has invited me to come and stay with him in Florence when I make it up that way. *Um, yes, I know Florence isn't in Spain.* The English family flew back to Manchester today as well. If it wasn't for Matt and Joe, my two new roomates, I'd have the hostel to myself. Matt is from Windsor, Ontario where I had that rather unpleasant experience trying to re-enter the US, and Joe is from Minnessota, one of only a handful of states that I haven't visited. They've just made their way up from southern Morocco, across the High Atlas mountains. A few days ago, when I was basting like a Thanksgiving turkey here in Meknes, Matt and Joe were hunkered down in a cabin in the mountains in the middle of a snowstorm. Hard to believe that just a few hundred kilometres away, they were wearing their gloves and woollen hats inside their down sleeping bags, and were still cold. Matt's had a bit of an upset stomach like I had in Asilah, and wants you all to know that- even in an emergency- Moroccan bus tickets are no substitute for toilet paper. A bit of useful travel advice for all of us!
Matt and Joe had the same idea as me to take Fes as a day trip. They too have had more than enough of the hassling from touts and guides. Matt's patience has been wearing thin, and he's been finding himself getting more and more aggressive with the hustlers. Joe just finds the whole scene, particularly Matt's frustration, hilarious. We all agreed that a day trip would be the most pleasant way to experience Fes. While we waited for the train, we had a bit of a walk around Meknes. I didn't want to go back to the textile area of the medina, since I'd quite upset a shopkeeper there the previous evening. Not deliberately, but I was out shopping for an outfit, and while most of the interactions with shopkeepers were more than pleasant, I did make a mistake with Abdul. He showed me a two piece outfit, which was perfect, except the pantalons didn't have any pockets. Instead of being honest with him, and telling him it wasn't exactly what I wanted, I somehow entered the whole haggling process. When I walked away, Abdul was still dropping the price, and wasn't very impressed with me, let's just say. That was my mistake, I should've known better. I was dragged into a carpet shop, where two guys sat me down and gave me an education about the different types of Berbers carpets. They were happy, even when I left without making a purchase. Oh, but I did end up buying a Moroccan outfit. I'd been agonizing between two outfits, one machine sewn and ninety-five dirham, the other one hand made and much better quality but twice the price. A ten dollar paypal contribution from a reader swung me towards the better quality outfit, but you'll have to wait and see!
Matt, Joe and I caught the train across to Fes before lunch. We didn't quite know what to expect from Fes. The main point of interest for us was the tanneries, but the whole Medina of Fes is said to be quite something. The Lonely Planet guide says that "entering the medina of Fes-el-Bali is like stepping into a time warp back to the Middle Ages... Within the walls is an incredible maze of approximately 9400 twisting alleys, blind corners and souqs (markets).... Listen out for the mule drivers' cry of 'balek!' (look out) or you might be knocked off your feet by some urgent load... The worst place is around Bab Bou Jeloud... where you run the gauntlet of 'faux guides' and touts... young boys will also shadow you around the medina (and are a godsend if you get lost)." Well, the three of us started at Bab Bou Jeloud and yes, it was quite a bombardment. Over the first half an hour or so, we tried everything we could to rid ourselves of the pests. We tried totally ignoring them, or speaking to them in Japanese or Chinese. This only half worked, since Matt, in accordance with Candian law under that country's Patriot Act, had a Canadian flag prominently displayed on his daypack. Joe even started responding to the hustlers by asking if they wanted us to guide them, or if they wanted to buy some hash off him. That seemed to confuse them sufficiently. Finally we managed to get rid of most of them. We then proceeded to walk up and down each and every one of the 9400 alleys at least twice. We were constantly the target of attention from the thousands of shopkeepers, and as we walked we were frequently jostled by donkeys loaded up with leather to go to the tannery, or with stock for the countless little market stalls. Trying to appear as though we weren't lost was becoming increasingly difficult, especially when we passed the same mosque, the same carpet shop, the same cafe for the third time! Eventually we gave up and sought help from a young boy who had been just standing back watching us. He promptly guided us to the tanneries, which although quite nearby, we all agreed later we would never have found without his help.
Our tiny guide walked so quickly that we had a tough time keeping up with him in the narrow maze of lanes. I'd already paid him three dirham and was concerned that he was trying to lose us. Then we reached a corner, and he said that we would have to proceed without him because of 'police', but he would meet us further along. Well, okay. So we walked down the twisting and turning lane the way he'd indicated, now convinced the brat had tricked us, and sent us down a lane towards his brother's spice store or his cousin's carpet shop...or worse! Then suddenly from a narrow doorway beside us came a "Psst". The boy had circled around and was waiting for us in the stairwell of a leather shop that overlooks the tanneries. We gave the kid another dirham and tipped the leather man ten dirhams each for the use of his patio to get our photos. Ten dirham was probably a little much, but since none of us wanted to buy any leather goods off him, we felt it was the least we could do.
Fes was quite an experience, and I hope you realize I just can't do it justice here, with my words or even my photos. Once we left the tanneries, it took us a good hour to find our way out of the medina, and that was with the help of our guide books, directions from helpful shopkeepers, and the scattering of overhead direction signs (which I'm convinced the local 'guides' have shifted around in order to send you around in a hopeless spiral!). But we made it out of the cauldron that is Fes-el-Bali and caught the train back to Meknes, but not before being ripped off by the woman at the train station cafe. She tried to charge us eighty-one dirham for a couple of rounds of tea, and a few tiny pastries. I argued the bill down to sixty-one, still at least twenty dirham more than it should have been. When we got back to Meknes, I introduced the boys to my favourite watering hole, a dark, dingy, seedy little joint that is undoubtedly a front for a budget priced brothel. According to the guidebook, most of these local bars are. The first time I walked into this little place, the old woman behind the bar treated me with disdain and charged me eighteen dirham for a tiny beer. Since then, she greets me with a handshake and a dozens questions about how my day has been, and charges me thirteen dirham for a beer.
Tomorrow the boys are off to see Volubilis, and I'm heading a couple of hours further southeast to Azrou, from all accounts a peaceful, hassle free little Berber town. From Azrou, I'll be off on a hike to see the Barbary apes.