October 19, 2012
Since I gave such an exhaustive account of our journey to Fes, I am going to let Eric lead the narration of our first full day in Morocco. I will be interjecting throughout his synopsis with my own thoughts and comments.
Sam detailed for you our enjoyable experience of getting to the hostel, so I am going to start with the first true day one of our visit in Fez.
We woke up in the morning to go downstairs and enjoy the free breakfast from the hostel. Like most places I assumed it was a continental breakfast consisting of toast, cereal, fruit, yogurt, coffee, orange juice, etc. Lo and behold, breakfast is not considered an important meal over here. Moroccan breakfast consists of some sort of bread, maybe some butter, and/or honey. The bread is not your normal toast bread you may be thinking of, but it consists of items such as biscuits, croissants, etc. (Sam’s comment: The best of the bread options was a thin sponge-y crepe/pancake that you can load up with jam, roll up, and eat, or the Moroccan-style flat bread baked in a wood-fired oven.) Some of you may be thinking that this sounds great, but after about three days of this you will be begging for anything else to eat. Morocco hostels do not have kitchens for you to use, so you are pretty much at the mercy of what the hostel wants to provide for breakfast. Especially when you are looking to save a few bucks and take advantage of the free breakfast. Breakfast also consisted of mediocre coffee and “Moroccan whiskey”. Moroccan whiskey is mint tea, which Moroccans drink non-stop. You may associate tea drinking with the British, but let me tell you, they can’t hold a candle to Moroccans in this department. Everywhere you go, you are offered mint tea or Moroccan whiskey. Many Moroccan people are devout Muslims, especially in Fez, so they do not drink at all. I think they really refer to it as Moroccan whiskey so that all the tourists get a good chuckle. (Sam’s comment: The Mint Tea phenomenon was seriously all over Morocco, everyone drinks it from little glass cups that you have to hold at the rim to not burn yourself. The tea is made from Chinese gunpowder tea (not sure what that is but that’s how the guidebook explained it) with fresh mint and plenty of sugar. I loved this stuff!)
While hanging out downstairs we met a guy from Australia. He was pretty funny and gave us some recommendations on where we should live in Sydney. The best part was when we told him we were from the Boston area he mentioned that he didn’t know a lot about Boston. (Sam’s comment: But the Aussie did seem surprised when Eric told him he was from Boston, he said “Weird, I haven’t heard you say ‘wicked’ once!”) He said that everything he knew about Boston was from Jack Donaghy, who is Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock. He also credited Family Guy with everything he knew about Rhode Island. Much to my surprise, someone knew about Rhode Island, and didn’t have anything bad to say about it. I am just kidding Carl. (Sam’s comment: He’s not kidding Carl.)
(Sam’s comment: During breakfast time guess who we saw down in the common room/courtyard… the Finnish Blondies from the Lisbon to Algeciras bus ride! Coincidentally they ended up in the same hostel as us.)
Our hostel was promoting a walking tour, which we signed up for in the morning. Due to the fact that we did not sign up until the morning time, they had to scramble to put together a walking tour for us. I don’t know where they pulled our tour guide from, but he ended up being fantastic. (Sam’s comment: During our time in Morocco we would start to realize that just about everyone has a cell phone and seems to be on it. I would imagine it took a phone call to someone who knew someone who was able to just come by and give a tour on an hour’s notice.) It also worked out where Sam and I had a private tour, but we only had to pay the group price.
The first stop out of our hostel was the “market” section of the medina, which was only a 3-5 minute walk. Fez is broken up into three parts: Fes el-Bali (Old Fes),Fez el-Djedid (New Fes) and Ville Nouvelle (New City). To give you some context, the “New Fes” area is about 800 years old, so it is not really new at all. Our hostel and the majority of our tour took place in the Old City. (Sam’s comment: The “Old Fes” is a medina, which is like an ancient walled compact city with tons of small twisting cobble-stone or dirt lanes and alley-ways, many of which are barely wide enough for two people to pass, that snake through the entire town, with doors leading to private homes, shops, schools, mosques, etc. Most of the alleys are un-named (as far as we could tell), and there is no apparent logic or structure to their direction. Being inside the medina is truly like being in a life-sized labyrinth. Add on top of that the fact that most “shops” and “restaurants” are really a rough temporary set-up in the lanes, competing for the already small space of the roads.) Lonely Planet says it best:
“For visitors, the medina of Fes el-Bali (Old Fes) is the city’s great drawcard. It’s an assault on the senses, a warren of narrow lanes and covered bazaars fit to bursting with aromatic food stands, craft workshops, mosques and an endless parade of people. Old and new constantly collide- the main driving the donkeys and mules that remain the main form of transport is likely to be chatting on his mobile phone, while the ancient skyline is punctuated equally with satellite dishes and minarets.”
The market we started off in was in the old city, which was very interesting. We would have not found our way around this place at all, mainly due to the fact that there are no street signs at all. I have a feeling that Google Maps hasn’t really capture Fez at all. The market was a little slow because it was a Friday, which is considered a holy day. The market consisted of fruit stands, meat stands, cell phone stands, etc. It was similar to many markets that I have been to, but also very different. For example, you would be at a food stand, the guy behind the food stand would yell at someone from another stand to go run and get them bread, make change for them, etc. Everyone was very hospitable, which is something that I appreciated. Also, Moroccans love to eat Liver. After our disaster of a cooking experience in Iceland with the mystery meat which we think turned out to be Liver, the smell of it makes me want to hurl. Walking through this market presented a challenge, but I manned up and made it through. (Sam’s comment: Eric doesn’t do well in small places with lots of people.. let’s just say that he gets cage-y when he’s in a US-sizes grocery store aisle with two other people… but he did well pushing through these narrow lanes without too much outward anxiety.)
After my lack of a breakfast, I was in the mood for some additional food. We brought this up with our tour guide, who hadn’t eaten much breakfast either, and he took us to a specific food stand. (Sam’s comment: as you can see by the picture, this was more of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant (literally) than a typical food stand you would see back home. It was the typical Moroccan family-style seating on benches or cheap plastic stools, saddled up beside whoever else decided to sit down. Understandably in this environment there is a different standard of “personal space”.) Our guide then ordered fava bean soup, which was delicious. Turns out this is a common meal for Moroccans, especially those who work in manual labor jobs, as it is full of nutrients and protein. It wouldn’t be a true Moroccan meal without some bread and mint tea being thrown in there, so we enjoyed those as well. Our tour guide, being the stand-up guy that he was, paid for the bill. I am sure he did that because he could get the local price as opposed to the, “Dumb white American tourist price.”
From there we walked around more of the Old City, which consisted of narrow streets, and winding alleys. It seemed like every street contained a Mosque, as well as a Hammam. (Sam’s comment: Which are essentially public bathing houses, specific ones for men and women.) I will provide more context to the Hammams later, but the Muslims receive calls five times a day to pray, which start as early as 5:00 AM, with the last one being around 7:00 PM. This is the same, regardless of what city you are visiting in Morocco. The call could consist of a bell, chanting, etc. (Sam’s comment: A lot of the time these calls, made from by the muezzin from the minaret, or tall tower attached to the mosque built specifically to be able to make this announcement to a wide audience, are in Arabic and sound (to us) like a long wail, or even sometimes like a siren.) The 5:00 AM call woke me up on more than one occasion in Morocco. At these times you would see people flock to the Mosque to pray. While we weren’t allowed in, you could see people praying, which would consist of hundreds of people per Mosque. It was an interesting sight to see.
While walking down the streets Sam and I noticed that people were pulling around or transporting sheep. Our guide pointed this out, as well as the many stands selling bushels of hay or mounds of charcoal. Apparently this was all in preparation of a huge Muslim holiday. (We were in town a little early, as the holiday was the next Friday, the day we would return to Madrid.) On this day, people kill sheep, then feast for three straight days- Friday through Sunday. It felt like Thanksgiving in that everyone was stocking up on their supplies before the holiday took place. Most families would buy their sheep up to a week ahead of time, load up on hay to feed their sheep in order to fatten them up for the holiday, and make sure to have plenty of charcoal on hand to keep the BBQ going. Our tour guide, and others along the way, invited us to participate in the feast with their families if we were around. Supposedly, it gets pretty wild with every family butchering their sheep, blood running through the streets, and everyone all hopped up on Moroccan whiskey.
Before I make my next point, I want to point out that our tour guide was an extremely nice guy. It just so happens that with most things you do in Morocco, there always seems to be a catch. Just because you sign up for a tour, doesn’t mean that you won’t be hustled along the way. A country like Morocco relies a great deal on tourist money, so it seems like everyone knows everyone. While on a tour, you will be taken to this food place, this shop, etc. This is very similar to what you may experience in other countries, but it seems like it was a lot more in our face in Morocco. For example, our tour guide took us to the leather district, where you can see where they make leather. It is a very interesting experience, but the smell is borderline unbearable. (Sam’s comment: Eric is talking about our trip to the Tanneries, within the leather district of the medina. It’s a large open-air area, completely surrounded by buildings making it like a confined courtyard, which has different stations for leather soaking, stretching, drying and dying. You are not allowed into the pit area, but can view it from the terraces of the surrounding buildings. Not surprisingly, most of these buildings that provide a vantage point are leather shops, who lead you up the stairs to the balcony, give you mint sprigs to block out the smell of animal hides, take your tip money for doing so, then lay on a THICK sales pitch as you walk through all the leather merchandise on the way back down.) When you walk up to these areas in the back of stores to see how it is done, they provide you with mint plants to put under your nose to mask the smell. After you see the leather being made, you are expected to tip the person who walked you up the stairs, the person who gave you the mint, and even expected to buy something on the way down. I can appreciate people hustling to make a buck as much as they can, but at certain times it gets a little annoying. For example, when leaving the leather store, we had to walk down 2-3 flights of stairs. Along the way, the owner of the store is asking us about this purse, these shoes, this chair, etc. He is trying to win over Sam, thinking if she likes, I will pay for it. Little does this guy know that I don’t wear the pants in this relationship, so he was really wasting his time. Sam didn’t take too kindly to these guys considering her as a second-class citizen, so this didn’t fly. Plus, at this point I was being very stingy, which soon changed.
Sam’s take on the rug situation: I am slightly hesitant to share this next part. Telling you we bought a carpet implies that we have plenty of money to buy expensive things. Keep in mind that this is not the case. Now, as Eric mentioned before, our guide may or may not have been on the payroll of this carpet company, though he seemed pretty impartial to our whole carpet experience, and even went and took a nap in the corner while we were there, so I think probably more than likely this place was just part of the standard Fes tour. But anyway, he brought us to a carpet “co-op” (in parenthesis because it’s hard to really believe much of anything from a salesman, especially a Moroccan one selling you carpets), but he gave us tea and was telling us about different types of carpets- different styles (traditional, modern, Berber patterns, etc), different types of material and their qualities (wool from a live sheep versus wool from a dead one, etc), and the different methods of weaving the carpets. At first the visit started off being very informative and educational. Eric and I were both braced for the sales pitch though, but for now we were enjoying this guy’s friendly nature and found what he was saying and pretty interesting. He then started bringing out carpets and laying them out for us, demonstrating the different qualities and techniques he had been talking about, and we nodded politely and oh’ed and ah’ed at all the different colors and styles. After a while of this he gradually started into his sales pitch directed to me of “which one do you prefer?” I wasn’t going to bite and play his game so I just shrugged and tried to not get too engaged. He was good though, and by the time he had a huge pile of carpets laid out on the floor in front of us he took the approach of “Don’t worry, there is no pressure to buy, I am only teaching you about Moroccan carpets so that you will appreciate them and maybe one day you’ll come back to me and buy. How about if there is a carpet you don’t care for you just say ‘no’ and we will put it away.” So in this way he got me engaged in giving opinions about each carpet. Eric and I played his game for a while, but we were insistent that we were on a budget, didn’t have much money, didn’t even have a home to put the carpet into. Honestly, we were politely refusing as much as possible. But he kept going with the “which one do you like?” routine, and before long Eric and I had singled one out that we both liked (see picture). Plus the guy was saying things like “In Moroccan culture a carpet is the most important purchase for the home, because the entire home is built around the carpet.” And “A young couple like you needs a nice carpet to start your home together. You will have it forever and pass it down to your children.” And reminding us how a carpet’s value increases with age and use, and because Morocco does not export it’s rugs a Moroccan rug is especially valuable and in fact many customers buy multiple rugs so that they can flip them for huge profits at art auctions. (There seems to be some truth to this as our google-ing would tell us later.) All of which were slowly eating away at our will to stay firmly resistant to any form of carpet purchase. Then the guy goes in for the money talk. He had showed us from the start how the country regulates the metric price of carpets depending on it’s quality. He uses this as a starting point. Eric and I shake our heads sadly and say that it’s way over our budget (the starting price for the particular rug we had “picked” was over $2,000). He insisted that we make an offer, any offer at all. Eric and I said that we couldn’t that anything we could afford was way below the original “regulated price” and we didn’t want to insult him. But he insisted and so Eric told him that there’s no way we could buy anything for more than $650. (I would have said $500, but Eric being the man was the one the carpet guy was interested in talking to, and besides, our starting price was pretty close without having to strategize about it beforehand.) Anyway, after Eric’s offer this guy’s face fell and he whispered “oh no, I can’t possibly do that, it won’t even cover my costs”, to which we replied “we know, that’s why we didn’t want to make an offer… it’s too low to even be considered, sorry…” Note that this is NOT us trying to negotiate. This is us trying to END the negotiations before it started and leave. But each time we thought it was over and we were shaking hands and walking away he comes back with “just one more offer, just make it above $1,300 and maybe I can accept”, but we would shake our heads no and say we couldn’t do it. He was also pushing the fact that the women who make the carpets (as part of the “co-op” aspect of the place) shared in the profits, and with the Feast of the Sheep coming up the women needed money for their families. Unfortunately (maybe fortunately for us?) since today was Friday, it was the carpet-makers’ day off so we were not able to meet them and see them hard at work there in the factory. So we’re basically on our way out, our guide has re-joined us from his nap and you can tell is getting impatient to get on back to our tour. Before we go our carpet salesman insists that it’s the “Berber way” in negotiations to make two offers, and if they are both refused that that’s the end of it. Mind you all of the sales pitch for the rug has been directed at me this whole time, but all talk of money has been strictly man-to-man. Eric has been great keeping steadfast in not buying and still being friendly. So to end the negotiations once and for all Eric says that his last offer is only $750. The carpet guy is bummed that we didn’t come up to his threshold, so he reluctantly lets us leave. After we left we were relieved to be out of that situation, though maybe just a touch sad that we didn’t to leave with a new carpet after all. Our guide continues to show us around the medina, and about 30 minutes later we see our carpet guy greeting Eric (somehow we ended up walking back past this carpet shop… which may or may not have been a coincidence as our guide, as well as every other Fes resident we seemed to pass, had been on and off his cell phone all afternoon.) The carpet man is all smiles and tell Eric that he had a change of heart and he would accept our offer after all! It’s because it’s the last day of business before the Feast of the Sheep! He wants to give the beautiful newlyweds (remember we’re married in Morocco) a wedding present! It is good luck to make sale in honor of the Feast, so it’s our lucky day! Eric and I stare dumbfounded at each other and as Eric is getting ushered back into the shop to do the paperwork I smiled at him and said “looks like we bought a rug!” All things said and done, between the shipping and conversion rate our final price came to be a bit higher than our final bid, though as part of the deal we had to promise this carpet guy that we would not tell anyone how much we got it for, and had to promise to write good reviews for him and tell our family and friends about him. So there it is. You don’t get the actual price, and you get our story. Now I’m sure that all of you reading this are shaking your heads and thinking we are suckers. Let me tell you, it seems obvious that we totally fell for the whole carpet sales game (Moroccan carpet sellers are renown for being masters of their game, in fact some guidebooks suggest that if you don’t want to buy it may be better to not even go in the shop at all!), but I guarantee that 80% of all you readers (all 3 of you) who walked into this place with absolutely no intention of buying a carpet would walk out an hour later as a slightly dazed new carpet. Now, not to make it sound like we don’t want our carpet. We are in fact very excited for it and would love to eventually fill our house with valuable pieces from far-away lands. We just certainly weren’t prepared for it, but hey, like our carpet salesman says, it’s the first piece of (real adult) furniture we bought for our home together. To that I’d say we got a pretty good deal. Now for what you’ve been dying to see, please meet our new carpet:
The tour was going to end, and we were planning on heading back to our hostel to catch the next afternoon tour they offered, which would cover part of the new city. When we mentioned this to our guide, he said that he could just extend our current tour for us instead. He agreed to drive us around and show us other places to eat. With our stomachs involved in this decision as much as our brains were, we decided to take him up on his offer.
Sam’s comment: Before we move out of the medina, a few more observations:
- There are stray cats everywhere. Our guide told us that this is because dogs are considered dirty by Muslims so are not kept as pets, but cats are considered harmless, so are not necessarily kept as pets, but are fed scraps
- One of the things that I appreciated most about the medina was how old dusty winding alleys would suddenly open up to large colorful beautiful schools or mosques. The contrast of the color and detail of these “hidden” places to the typical dirty and disheveled environment of the public areas of the media only added to the wonder of coming across them. We would have never been able to find half these hidden treasures without a guide.
We went around the Ville Nouvelle, but the true highlight for me during this part was when he took us to get a “sandwich”. (Sam’s comment: Before we decided to extend our tour with him we asked him if he had recommendations for places where we could get good authentic Moroccan food, but he didn’t seem to be excited about anywhere in particular. Once we agreed to the tour extension he was like “Look, I know you want a real Moroccan meal, but I was just going to have a sandwich for lunch, is that ok with you guys?” At first we disappointed because it was our first real day in Morocco, and we were really looking forward to Moroccan food, and here we had a great knowledgeable guide who could totally hook us up with good food insight, and we were going to just have a sandwich somewhere?) He took us to a place where he knew the owner, (Sam’s comment: Not that this is special, everyone in Fes seems to know everyone.) and after he ordered for us we found out that by “sandwich” he meant kabobs. We had chicken and steak kabobs, along with bread, hot chili sauce for dipping the bread, and Diet Coke. This meal was delicious and we were stuffed after this. (Sam’s comment: For the record we were psyched by this meal, as it was somewhere we would never think to go, and things we would never know how to order. The lunch ended up being exactly what we wanted in a Moroccan lunch- somewhere the locals regularly ate. And so cheap too!) We ate so much here we ended up not even eating dinner. When I went to pay for all three of our meals, the owner of the shop insisted that I eat other food items that he had. He offered more bread with a variety of different dipping sauces, some of which I have never seen before. I wanted to stop eating, but he insisted that I eat even more. Moroccans will make sure that you have eaten to your heart’s content, so that is something I really appreciate. For the most part they are very nice, hospitable people, so please don’t mistake any previous statements for not liking them.
(Sam’s comment: Eric didn’t mention the best part of our “lunch”, which was afterwards we (of course) stopped somewhere for mint tea, and across the street from us was a cart filled with all kinds of new and exotic sweets. So I got our guide to help me pick some out, but he turned out to be no help because he just described them all as having flour, sugar and almond. But at least he helped me communicate my order to the cart guy, and so we had a sampler plate of Moroccan sweets with our tea. My favorite was the long “giraffe’s tongue” that (like most of them), was a sweet, almost doughy cookie cake with plenty of almond and honey favor.)
During our visit to Ville Nouvelle we went up to Borj Nord, a viewpoint north of the medina. From this vantage point we could see down to the medina, the new city, as well as the sprawling “suburbs” of Fes that extended literally as far as we could see. We also saw the Dar el-Makhzen, or Royal Palace. The grounds were not open to the public but the outside gates and brass doors were very impressive. (Another Sam side note: I try to read at least one book that pertains to the country I plan to visit. Whether it’s about a current event, by a popular local author, or historical in nature, it helps to provide a context of the setting and culture. One of the books I had just finished was called “Stolen Lives” written by Malika
Oufkir about her upbringing in the royal palace under King Mohammad V, then the subsequent political imprisonment of her family under King Hassan II. This all took place in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, so is pretty telling of the recent political evolution of Morocco. Having read this I cautiously asked our guide questions about the Moroccan people’s thoughts on the current King. In the recent past Moroccans were not allowed to speak out against their King for fear of repercussions. King Mohammad VI has received stellar reviews by the international media, and is significantly helping Moroccan become more open and modern. Our guide tells us that the current king actually waited for his father (King Hassan II) to die before marrying his girlfriend, a “commoner” he met while making a token visit to a local technology company. He is the first king to marry a commoner, and the people of Morocco ate it up. In fact, during the king’s wedding he invited other “common” engaged couples to share in the wedding and get married in royal style with him. Needless to say the Moroccan people are enthusiastically in favor of their king. I mentioned to him that I just finished a book about the Oufkirs’ political imprisonment, to which he immediately perked up and shared his thoughts and insight into that situation and asked if I had the book with me. When I said I did he offered to buy it off me, which of course I told him I would just give it to him as I needed to unload it anyway and am eager to pass it on to someone who will appreciate it.)
Now, Moroccan men are known for being very open with their feelings towards women. They will pretty much say what is on their mind, and think that grunting at women is a way to pick them up. From reading in travel guides as well, it is known that Moroccan men consider themselves superior to other men, especially white men. Our tour guide, while he certainly wasn’t being aggressive at all, did start to make offers on what he would give me for Sam in a trade. I thought it was pretty funny so I played along, I think my final offer was up to 1,000 camels and 20 horses. He kept on going on with how he liked Sam, so it started to get a little weird. Luckily, our tour was ending at this point.
We thanked him for his time then went back to our hostel to chill out for the rest of the night. We ate so much food at our sandwich stop that neither of us wanted to eat anything else. We decided to hang out for the evening at the hostel, drink some Moroccan whiskey, smoke some shisha, then go to sleep. While hanging out we met several nice people, including several Americans. A couple of guys were from San Diego State University who were studying abroad in Hungary, while the other two guys were both from the Houston area. One of the Houston guys was from Duke, so Sam instantly hated him. We all talked about traveling, traded recommendations, talked American food, and of course American sports. Get a group of guys together, and some sort of sports conversation will come from that. After discussing our love for American cheeseburgers, along with my hated for all things Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, it was time for Sam to go to bed. I think the sports conversation chased her away. I hung out for a little while longer, until we all were kicked out of the lounge and told to go to bed. It had been quite some time since I was told to go to my room, so I chuckled a bit then went to sleep. I think our one day in Fes was very eye opening, but was also a lot of fun. If the rest of Morocco can live up to Fes, then we are doing okay.
Our Overall Fes Experience (scale 1 to 10): 9
Fes was amazing and completely unlike anything we’ve seen before. We lucked out with a personal guide who showed us places and foods that we would have otherwise missed out on. The food was fantastic, mint tea obsession was welcomed, and hostel experience was great. The culture shock (and shock of buying something so expensive) and constant stares were perhaps the only parts of the day that we had to complain about.
Check out our full Fes picture album in Picasso.