When our plane landed a half hour late in Casablanca, we curiously wondered if we’d make our connecting flight to Marrakech, which was due to leave in about 10 minutes. We’d been told in Frankfurt, that we’d need to check in again in Casablanca for the short trip to Marrakech. So we rushed out of the plane and into the arrival terminal, where we were the first to make our way through customs and get our passports stamped. But then because we weren’t following anyone, suddenly felt lost when we entered into the small and empty Casablanca main airport lobby, where we couldn’t find anything that seemed like a departure terminal or a check-in counter. Even when asking where it was, we were again and again steered in wrong directions, until one guy looked at us strangely and told us in very broken English, that we’d already missed our connecting flight.
Rob wasn’t very interested in taking the next flight to Marrakech hours later at 9:15pm, because he knew that Marrakech would not be an easy place to deal with showing up late at night. Yet with little choice, we were sent to the airline ticketing office to change our tickets for that exact flight. But the guys there also looked at us strangely, and after haggling over something in Arabic between themselves for a while, sent us to still another office. At that office, a man looked at us even more strangely than all of the others, and then frantically made a cell phone call during which he seemingly asked lots of questions. When he hung up, he motioned us to follow him with urgency, and we all began running through the airport to somewhere unknown to us.
It seemed that he’d found out that our connecting flight to Marrakech hadn’t left yet, and told us that it was indeed still on the tarmac, and waiting especially for us. But the security officers at the x-ray scanning machines were not about to allow us past them without boarding passes, even though the guy we were following got into a nearly violent shouting match with them explaining the circumstances. It turned out, that we never should have cleared customs and entered into the main terminal lobby, and simply missed the check-in desk we were suppose to go to just off the plane. But no one was there to direct us to it, we didn’t see anything that looked like a check-in desk, and signs in only French and Arabic didn’t help matters any.
Finally, our helpful savior was able to produce boarding passes for us, and pointed us to a waiting shuttle bus that dropped us off at the bottom step of a staircase leading up into the airplane. There were also other people still boarding and climbing up the stairway ahead of us, as a plane from Holland had been late too. Rob and I ended up getting individual seats many rows apart, as the plane had filled to capacity. But luckily, it was leaving an hour past its scheduled departure time. Poor Rob though, in the heat of the dizzying confusion, he’d slipped our passports into a spot in his carry-on bag different from where he always puts them. And moments before the plane began to taxi onto the runway, he had a meltdown attack when he did a possessions check and couldn’t find them. He stood up from his seat frantically searching his bag and pockets, and gave me a quite desperate look hoping I knew where they were. But then only seconds later, I witnessed outright relief cover his face, when he signaled me that he’d found them. And we then both sorta just sat back, and quietly contemplated our welcome to Morocco.
It was a 40-minute flight to Marrakech, and late afternoon when we landed there at the base of the Atlas Mountains. We of course didn’t have to go through passport control, since we’d already been there and done that, and we were first to the money exchange booth and then out on to the streets. Then, for the price of 25 Moroccan dirham apiece (about $2.50), we crammed 7 people into a 5-person taxi that stalled and backfired a few times before finally successfully turning over. We then sluggishly drove out onto roads towards town that had a special lane for donkey carts, mopeds, and bicycles, and offered all sorts of peculiar sights on our way to the walled, medieval city center of ancient Marrakech.
Rob said that he’d booked a hotel room over the phone from Germany weeks before our arrival in Marrakech, and we knew from our Lonely Planet guidebook, just about where it was suppose to be from where we got dropped off near Marrakech’s famed focal point, the Djemaa el-Fna. But we got lost immediately, and wandered down many shadowed and narrow alleyways, and past startling, never before seen sights trying to find our hotel. We tried hard to look inconspicuous and to not look like tourists, because we were trying to avoid guidebook warnings, that the locals will often attach themselves to you seeking payment for any service they will offer, like leading you to a hotel. And if you don’t pay them what they think they were worth, they’ll just mercifully follow you until you do. But we were soon spotted with our backpacks as obvious foreigners, and were suddenly being followed by a very spaced-out looking fellow that twice in succession warned us that the alleys we were going down were “closed”. And didn’t we feel stupid two times in a row, to learn that “closed” as he said, meant that the alleyways were dead ends. So we just had to turn right around and walk straight back to where the guy was waiting for us. Yes, it was very embarrassing, because each time we went down those dead end alleys, we were mostly just trying to get away from him. At that point, we would have been glad to pay him to show us to our hotel. But when he led us to it, he didn’t recognized it, and just kept walking right on by down the alley, while we ducked into the lobby and lost him.
Relieved, we told the receptionist that we had a reservation and gave him our names, although he understood only a little English. But the reservation book turned out to be a dog-eared pocket-sized spiral notebook that looked as old and beat up as the city itself, and it definitely did NOT have our names written anywhere in it. And the hotel was full. I guess we looked a little in shock with the prospect of having to walk out into the alleys again to find another hotel, and the clerk was nice enough to lead us across the alley to another hole in the wall hotel. This one was also full, but we were offered a spot on the roof to sleep if we wanted. We declined the offer fearing for our valuables, and went back to seek help again from the clerk at the first hotel, who brought us not more than 10 feet down the same alley to another hotel. This one did have a room available, but was only as wide as the double bed in it and only twice as long. The mosaic-covered walls literally touched both sides and the head of the bed, and the room was lit by a hanging light bulb, but at least astonishingly clean. The bathroom and shower were across the hall. Cold showers were free, and hot showers cost 5 dirhams. The room itself cost 150 dirham ($15) a night, and we were told that we could move to another upstairs room for our second night for 100 dirhams. No thought required, … done deal. And it was convenient that the receptionist knew some English and was quite good at Spanish. And she was interesting to chat with, because she always dressed in a long sheer gown and shawl covering her head. We ended up having lots of fun with her, and she made us feel at home in a place very far from home.
So we dumped our packs, grabbed the camera, took a deep breath, and then ventured our way back out through the alley system to Djemaa el-Fna. On the way, we were nearly run over several times by donkey pulled carts and speeding mopeds that seemed to just hope that you’d get out of their way. Tiny, cracker box sized shops sold all sorts of eye-catching crafts and strange foods, and seated here and there all along the way in slumped piles of themselves, were the poor accepting any handouts, and those just hanging out.
We immerged into the huge main square of Djemaa el-Fna, where we were first struck by many rows of lights atop open-air food stalls that were heavily smoking the falling dusk sky with mouth-watering barbeque aromas. Stand after stand of fresh squeezed orange juice vendors also all vied for our attention as we approached, and we gladly quenched our thirst with a tall glass of sweet nectar for 3 dirhams, before following our noses to the food. After much sniffing and inspection of what was for dinner, we concluded that there were two main types of food stands; kebabs and exotic foods. The exotic food stands seemed to offer platters of either cow tongue or steaming goat brain. And the kebab stands a grand selection of meats, fish, vegetables, and fruits. Activity all amidst all the savory smells was beehive like, with plenty of people sitting jammed side by side at counters, or on either side of long narrow tables. The food and servers were almost in flight trying to keep up with all the action, and the entire atmosphere was not only delicious, but buzzing with liveliness. A few very personable waiters at a kebab stand invited us to enjoy some of their selection of dishes, and suddenly we were laughing with a couple from Spain next to us, and eating and dipping loaves of Moroccan round bread in spicy sauces, an exotic variety of marinated olives, a cold vegetable salad, and plenty of piping hot skewed lamb and vegetable shish kebabs. Our grand feast fit for two sultans came out to 90 dirhams, and we had a glass of succulent orange juice for dessert.
In the large unlit area of the Djemaa el-Fna away from the food stalls, a sea of people wandered in the relative darkness like walking shadows to find whatever they may. Crowds would gather around burning kerosene lanterns to watch and listen to street musicians, animated storytellers, jugglers, chanters, and benign lunatics doing strange things we didn’t understand. It all seemed like amateur night at a talent show, with some acts quite impressive and entertaining, and others pretty darn bad. Either way, I noticed very quickly, that everyone was male, except for a few other female tourists, and that women didn’t seem to be part of this nighttime scene at all. I didn’t feel in danger out there amongst the male masses, and probably was often mistaken for a boy anyway. But it was the only time I felt uncomfortable during my entire visit to Morocco.
It had always been one of our concerns before going, to try and fit in somehow amidst the Moroccan people and not always be a target for continual harassment by salesmen and beggars or cultural bias. As guidebook author Rick Steves says, “Being a tourist in Morocco is like being a clown at a funereal.” So, since we didn’t have any proper Arabic clothing, we dressed instead in baggy shirts and long loose pants instead of tight synthetic t-shirts and multi-pocketed shorts like we usually wear. And we didn’t carry around daypacks or fanny packs, or guidebooks and camera bags in our hands, nor point at things and take too much obvious notice in anything. Simply taking pictures is also not only a dead giveaway for being a foreigner, but is generally disapproved by everyone in the culture, except of course if you pay to take it or ask permission. So taking pictures of all the action on the Djemaa el-Fna was a challenge, and where Rob first began perfecting his strategy for indiscreetly capturing images.
Back at our alley hotel afterwards, perfectly peaceful slumber followed a short and exhausted attempt to believe where we actually were. But our deep-coma status abruptly came to an eerie end at about 4am, when sonorous Muslim calls to prayer began echoing loudly through the alleys and directly into our tiny tiled room. And then after about 15 minutes, the chants ended as mysteriously as they began, and silence followed again as if nothing ever happened. With morning, and the light of a new day, we returned to Djemaa el-Fna, and were startled to find that the crowds, lights, food stands, entertainment, and enticing smells had all disappeared. The square was entirely empty, even the trash picked up and carried off on donkey carts. The only thing remaining, were the orange juice vendors, who were still quite willing to sell us always tasty glasses of liquid sunshine. But one of the tricks the vendors use to make a bit more money then they should for their service, is to give you only a fraction of the change you should get back from them if you’re due some, unless you notice that they’ve done that, and then nonchalantly reach for more change to give you as if they were planning to do so all along.
Our goal after our take-out pancake type things and orange juice breakfast, was to get lost inside the famed Marrakech souqs (markets). Armed with only our small digital camera and a vague idea of the direction we should walk, we set off. And then as we figured might happen often, our fascination of what lures us and leads us down whichever street somehow displaced us outside the city walls of the medina. We knew the souqs were on the inside of the wall, but had a heck of a time finding another entrance back in. The strange detour we made for ourselves though, led us to remote corners of the souqs we probably otherwise would have never found. And it was in these hidden micro-existences that we saw things that we never imagined existed.
All types of high-quality crafts and merchandise were more or less separated into sections in the souks, where we were dazzled by hundreds of hanging lamps in one area, and then again by rows and rows of colorful pointy leather shoes in another. Tucked deep away in the blacksmith’s souq, people lived in dark cubbyholes amongst twisted heaps of metal that they welded, pounded, shaped, and polished. And in the bronze and silver souq, a virtual maze of glistening closet shops proved simply hypnotic. There were very few tourists to be seen in these secluded environs, and at one point, we pushed our way through a frenzied throng of gowned men with pointed hoods selling (and buying) piles of cured sheep hides, only to find out that the narrow alley was a dead end and we had to go right back through it all. Another alley brought us to the chicken market, where every breath we took was almost suffocating with the thick smell of manure. And not only various types of fowl meeting their fate there, but hundreds of bunny rabbits getting their throats slit as well. And there was yet another great section filled with mounds of colorful spices, dried fruits, nuts of all kinds, herbs, and a never-ending selection of olives.
It was in the textile/dyeing souq where we were pulled aside by a friendly vendor, who showed us the properties of the raw rock material used for dyeing. He amazed us by turning a piece of paper pink, after wetting and wiping it across a rock that looked green. Then did the same, and produced a vivid purple color from a golden stone. Then as part of his selling strategy, he pulled a dyed scarf off the wall and started wrapping it around my head to make me a turban. Rob had wandered off for a moment to study drying silks when this happened, and when he returned, he didn’t even recognize me! My head and face were completely covered, leaving only my eyes exposed, and its tail draped elegantly down over my chest. I looked at myself in a mirror, and instantly fell in love with the idea of having a veil of my own. But first we’d have to have our first haggling experience in a land where bargaining is a way of life and the bargainers are masters at it. But we were able to talk him down from 100 dirham to 60. I walked around the rest of the day dressed like an Arab, at least from the neck up. And it felt really nice on my head, and was surprisingly light and somehow cooling, even in the hot sun. And even though no one else was dressed like me, half gringo and half Berber, it was very fun to wear. Many women wore scarves over their heads, so I sorta fit in even better amidst our environment, even though I did get a few strange looks from peering eyes behind veiled faces passing by.
We stopped at a literal hole in the wall to watch a friendly old man cook donuts in a metal pan of hot oil that looked three times as old as he did. Two dirhams bought us two delicious snacks, and we wondered how that guy could sit cross-legged like he was for so long at a time. At another small hole in the wall, another classic National Geographic looking old man was selling spices, and in his shaking hand offered us a spoonful of something aromatic to smell. It was ground cumin, our favorite ingredient in Dutch cheese, and we gladly bought a little bag of it and a picture for 10 dirham. Everything that we saw and experienced was so strange and so amazing, that we wanted to take pictures of just everything. But it was really problematic and even dangerous to hold up a camera, as it’s just not an acceptable thing in the culture.
In one instance, Rob tried quickly to take a picture of elderly lady, but her teenage son was fast out of nowhere and directly into Rob’s face. He demanded that Rob erase the digital photo, and also that he give him money. Rob did show him that he erased the photo, but then walked away not feeling obliged to pay him anything. But the boy shouted something grotesque, and grabbed Rob by the arm. Rob aggressively spun around and stood his ground by pushing the kid off, and although the kid followed us around for a while, he eventually did leave us alone. Rob knew it was always a taking chance to hold the camera up, point it, and take a picture, especially using the flash. So he developed a method for taking pictures where no one would know he did. He would hold our tiny digital camera concealed in his hand and walk through the crowds letting his arm simply hang at his side. When he wanted to take a picture, he first felt around and then pressed the button to turn on the camera. Then, with his arm still in its dangling position, would feel around again for the shutter button and press it when he thought the timing was right. But it was of course very difficult to aim properly that way, and especially hard to keep the camera still as he spun his body to guess the angle he needed to get the shot. Yet, even though he took lots of pictures of his sleeve and his own butt, a few photos captured what we never could have otherwise.
Farther into the souqs and near the main shopping routes, the crowds began to increase and sightings of tourists became more frequent. We still constantly had to dodge speeding mopeds, and numb-looking donkeys carrying huge heavy loads that on occasion would clip us. Each stall we passed was packed full of beautiful items for sale, and it was so easy to marvel at such an eye candy show. In the metalworking section, the walls and ceilings were all densely covered with lamps, chandeliers, silver teapots and intricately worked brass platters. Rob fell in love with teapots, after seeing so many of the locals hard at work with their tasks, yet always pouring aromatic mint tea for themselves into tiny cups or glasses. And I became infatuated with oddly shaped decorative lamps and carpet patterns. We normally have little interest in shopping, but the inexpensive prizes to be had in the souqs were quite luring, and we began calculating just how much room we had in our bags to take something home. Plus the atmosphere of the markets was so lively, we just had the urge to want to take part.
The vendors really didn’t harass us nearly as much as we had read about. And they didn’t say much unless we appeared to be interested in their products. Of course, once you stepped into their stall, the haggling game was on, and it was hard to escape without being offered our best price. We concluded that our experiences in Mexico with aggressive salesmen had helped us learn how to conduct ourselves for similar situations in Morocco. But some other tourists we saw, who just seemed like they didn’t have much travel experience, looked overwhelmed by all the unwanted attention they got, and persistent salesmen tactics.
As the crowds tripled and the widening alleys turned even more touristy, and we finally arrived where we first set out for hours before, the sea of vendors suddenly ended at the main square of Djemaa el-Fna. There, orange juice sellers awaited the thirsty, and hundreds of individual sellers had blankets spread out on the ground. They sold everything from live cock-eyed chameleons and ostrich eggs to incense, which continually gave the entire city a trancing scent. Seeing as how our hotel was so close to all the action, we went back to our room in the afternoon to rest. But first, we ventured up on to the roof and found interesting views, and four metal cages. Inside each, were mats on the floor for sleeping, and even the belongings of other travelers inside, including two touring bicycles. The doors of the cages could be locked, and I guess would have made a unique place to spend the night for 20 dirhams. We then knew what it meant, to sleep on the roof.
We ate ice cream for lunch after our short much needed nap, and before strolling over to the train station to get tickets for the next day to Fes, we went to see what other activities might be taking place on the square. This time, crowds were forming in the daylight around groups of dancers, snake charmers, herbalists, palm readers, and monkeys on leashes. Rob was approached by a very wild looking guy in a long red robe, who wrapped a snake around his neck and demanded 50 dirham. Rob paid him five dirhams for the experience and a picture, and certainly couldn’t talk me into playing with any snakes. I enjoyed just watching and listening to the charmers blow strange music out of their flutes, thank you very much.
Our stroll across town to the train station took us to the new part of the city outside the wall, where modern looking buildings and mosques replaced the ions old architecture we’d gotten accustomed to seeing back in the depths of the medina. We took a bus back to the Djemaa el-Fna just in time to dive back into the souqs one more time for some shopping, and where we bought 12 colorful hand-carved wooden skewers (for the purpose of cooking marshmallows over campfires). The handles of the shish kebab skewers were made on a small lathe, which was spun by moving a string wrapped once around the lathe spindle that was attached to the stick at either end. A craftsman seated on the ground, kept the stick in constant motion with one hand to spin the lathe, while he held a carving chisel between his toes and directed the angle of the chisel with the other hand. I also bought a “Morocco” t-shirt, but only after the salesman searched long and hard for my size, and paid full price for his extra effort (100 dirhams).
When we return to the square after our shopping spree, we were amazed to see that during our time away, up to 30 open-air food stalls had been erected with tables surrounding each, and thick smoke was once again bellowing up into the air and smelt like a giant 4th of July barbeque. We had just enough energy left to go back to our hotel and shower, and then partake once again in a taste bud explosion feast of fish, kebabs, round breads, and those oh, so addicting olives.
Early the next morning, not long after another pre-dawn echoing call to prayer through the city, we took a 20 dirham taxi ride to the train station with a very friendly driver who told us in broken English all about his Berber family roots in the Atlas mountains. Up too early to buy any Moroccan bakery items that usually cost one dirham on average apiece, we bought eight pastry/bread looking type things at the train station for our eight hour long trip to Fes. What a shock when we were charged 76 dirhams for our bag full, and even worse, they were brittley stale and tasted totally gross. Good thing we still had some granola bars, and a bag of peanuts.
The train ride was very interesting, first passing through an expansive palm tree forest just outside of the city. Shepard’s were seen all along the way with herds of goats and sheep, and fields of wheat and dried grass were being cut with cycles and stacked onto donkey carts. There were also long stretches of empty, arid, and parched plains, and groups of treeless mountains. Cactus was a common sight, as were eucalyptus trees. Morocco’s only long distance train line takes an indirect route to Fes by passing through the cities of Casablanca, Rabat, and Meknes. But the stretch between Casablanca and Rabat that hugged the northern African coastline offered fine views of the ocean, pounding surf, and miles of sandy beach. Rob was always on the lookout for elephants, giraffes, lions, water buffalo, and especially long-horned rhinos, but we only saw seagulls, egrets, and lots of donkeys. Our train compartment filled and emptied many times during our journey with veiled women and Arabic speakers. One man pulled out an Arabic newspaper, and to our amazement opened it up to the back page first! But of course, the Arabic language is written and read from right to left. And it looked a lot like just chicken scratching to us. And then at about 2:45pm, we at last pulled into the Fes train station. But just before we came to a stop, we heard a loud crash, and looked to see a hole in the window down the aisle from us that somehow remained in place although heavily splintered. Don’t know what caused it and didn’t care. We were too hungry to worry about it, and instead got off the train with hopes of finding something to eat real soon.
Our hotel this time was easy to find, because it was right next to the train station. Our room, that Rob had booked online at an Ibis Hotel, was comparatively plush with in-room plumbing and overlooked an inviting pool and beautiful tropical garden. But before going for a cooling dip, we found a store and brought back all sorts of snacks to fill our groaning bellies. Then it was down to the pool for lazy laps and naps in palm shaded lounge chairs, before eventually venturing off in the evening to start seeing the sights of Fes.
Fes is the oldest of the Moroccan imperial cities, and it’s wall-enclosed medina, the Fes el-Bali, is one of the largest living medieval centers in the world – with the exception of those in Marrakech, Cairo, and Damascus. Its 9,400 narrow twisting alleys, blind turns, dead ends, covered bazaars, and numerous souqs are crammed with every conceivable sort of workshop, restaurant and market, mosques, and extensive dye pits and tanneries. From just outside of our hotel, we caught bus #19 into the depths of the medina, where we hoped we were again ready to withstand gigantic senses overloading, and exhilarating cultural shock. Our handwritten map, so as to leave the guidebook at home, got us lost instantly (it’s part of the fun), and we just followed the current of people like fish in a stream. Who knew where we were going, but we’d again ended up where we saw no other tourists, and were completely engulfed in the intense local madness of the medina that surrounded us tightly on all sides. It was thrilling and nerve racking and beautiful and daunting all at the same time, and gave us the rare opportunity to gain a perspective of life far from western Christian ways. We rubbed shoulders with different mindsets, different customs, and different values, and constantly had to dodge garbage trucks (ok, donkeys with small wagons being filled with trash by robed men with pointy hoods). Our only escape could have been into various mosques that we passed by, but that meant taking off our shoes like everyone else did inside, then dropping to our knees and bending over to kiss the floor, and chanting in Arabic. I think our cover would have been blown there.
Finally, we turned a corner out of the dizzying maze and entered onto what seemed like a main thoroughfare that was much wider than the narrow alleys we’d been squeezing through, and looked like it may lead us back to reality eventually. While Marrakesh is a city on a flat plane, Fes is built on huge hills, and this main thoroughfare ran always either up a hill or down, depending on your direction of travel. We started on the bottom and had to work our way up the hill, following mules carrying enormous loads, and peering down more skinny narrow alleys that led to the front doors of homes in a massive Lego-block construction pattern. Crumbling alley walls towered above us sometimes four to five stories high, and were sometimes seemingly solely held up by wooden planks and beams wedged between either side. Fes, like Venice, seemed a city slowly disintegrating with age and neglect, and the wooden supports were so far the best way to keep the city from collapsing on itself.
With hunger setting in again from all the excitement and the climb to near the top of the hill, we stopped to watch a vendor make a Berber sandwich. It was essentially pita bread stuffed first with several types of whole grilled sausages, then lots of cooked vegetables topped with some kind of sauce. We were spotted envying the creation, and ultimately then coaxed into ordering one for ourselves. While we were waiting for our take-out order, we were invited to follow some guy into a slender crack in the wall next to a camel’s head hanging on a hook. The crevasse turned out to be a tiny salon lit by a black light with carpets hanging on the wall, and just wide enough for a bench and narrow table. We were politely told to sit down, while the guy we were following suddenly disappeared through a tiny doorway back in there. Soon, he reemerged with a big smile and a dented silver teapot full of hot mint tea (YUMMY!), and offered us a toke from his smoking hashish pipe. Then our sandwiches appeared, and everyone just left us alone right there in that little fissure in the wall. And we somehow felt right at home just eating our meal and sipping our tea, and listening to blaring Arabic music in our ears from crackling speakers just above our heads.
Along with the kaleidoscope of smells and bizarre sights that had so far made up our Moroccan experience, the music we constantly heard was a huge part of it also. There was no chance of hearing American top-40 hits, classic rock, country, hip-hop, grunge, or for that matter, any jazz or classical music. It didn’t seem to exist in Morocco, but there was plenty of the music Moroccans knew and listened to, and it was everywhere. It was music that was amazingly different; yet still music in a very strangely beautiful and unique way. It seemed mostly comprised of squeaky shrilling strings and whining flutes and pipes, playing eerie dissonant notes, scales, and chords, and used irregular rhythms and mesmerizing, never-ending beats with lots of percussive chimes, cymbals, and hand drums, and shrieking Arabic chants and howling, haunting vocals. It all seemed to say and express a lot, and certainly allowed Rob a treat for his ears and soul.
The exit from the Medina was under a huge arch in an enormous movie-set looking wall that looked to encircle everything for as far as you could see. And our five-mile taxi ride home was safe, a relief, and cost one dollar and fifty cents (15 dirhams).
Rob let me sleep in the next morning, while he was out on the streets early changing money, buying train tickets to Tangier, getting breakfast, and changing large dirham bills into small change (good to have to for beggars and to avoid getting cheated when given change). We took the bus back to the medina at about mid-morning, to search out the famous Fes dyeing vats and tanneries, a task not too difficult if only you have a nose. Leather produced in Fes has for centuries been highly prized as among the finest in the world. At the tanneries in Fes, little has changed in centuries. Skins are still carried by donkey to the tanner’s souq, and tanning and dyeing vats are still constructed from mud brick and tile. Along with being one of Morocco’s (and the world’s) oldest arts, leather making is also one of the smelliest. Rank odors abound at the tanneries due to the exotic ingredients used in the vats for dyeing that include pigeon poo, cow urine, fish oils, animal fats and brains, chromium salts, and sulfuric acids.
It was even easier for us to find the tanneries, because I guess all the locals saw that we were looking for something, and kept pointing us to “the tanneries”. And quickly thereafter, we were swept away by a guide who simply chose us, who immediately led us up a maze of steps through one of the shops in the leather souq, to a rooftop that overlooked the tanning and dyeing vats. Workers below us, labored with animal hides in an eye-catching configuration of vats filled with different colors of dye. And yellow and brown hides were drying on a layer of straw on every rooftop that we could see, in air that indeed stenched of unsavory aromas, but really wasn’t that bad at all. Not any worse than living next to pig sheds. We later saw an entire tour bus of people show up holding sprigs of mint to their nose to ward off the smell…wimpy tourists.
Our English speaking guide, who said he’d guide us around for free, saw that we were impressed with what we saw on the roofs, and began leading us to an even better vantage point that we wanted to get to. But of course, he dumped us off on the way at his brother’s carpet shop first, and then left us there. So, we first heard about the carpet making process and shown a loom, and then invited to have a seat on a bench in a room full of folded up woven products. Immediately, a myriad of carpets and rugs and blankets were spread out before us on the floor in a dizzying array of colors, sizes, and patterns. Rob and I sort of looked at each other and said, “Do we need a carpet? How would it fit in our backpack?”
The carpet guy demonstrated to us how easily they rolled up into really small and tight packages, and I mistakenly wondered aloud, if we maybe needed one for our kitchen. Well, the game was on then! We’d read in guidebooks, that what we were experiencing could possibly happen. First you’re invited to relax and served tea, and then shown a variety of carpets. With any gleam of interest in any particular color or pattern, meant you were likely to see many more like it, until you are asked to choose from them all, which ones you like best. Ultimately, you end up eliminating all that you don’t like, and left with one that you do, and then why not buy it? For a great price!
So, we never got any tea, and before letting the process get along too far, we politely told the salesman that we would think about buying a carpet and come back later. After giving us a business card and letting us go without anymore pressuring – his style to gain our approval of him, we made it out the door. Our guide was waiting outside, and still promised to take us to another rooftop vista. So, again we were led up a series of steep, tight, and twisting stairwells, and then through a large leather goods shop, and finally out onto a terrace again overlooking the tannery action below.
We took all the time we wanted out there, and marveled fully at the scene, but we also knew we’d probably have to end up looking at some leather goods products on our way out. So we did exactly that, with our guide at our side pointing out things, and we were a bit curious about a whole bunch of strange leather things hanging on the wall that looked somewhat like round dog or cat beds with six-inch high sides. Rob actually thought they were something the Moroccans possibly danced in, like they do around the brims of sombreros in Mexico. Well, it turned out that they were armchair footrests that doubled as small cushions to sit on, that are unfolded and stuffed with padding for them to take shape. We laughed ourselves silly after learning about that, and our guide was certain he had a sure sale. Rob seemed tempted to buy one for a second there, because they were quite nice and made of soft camel skin, but we decided we really didn’t have anywhere to put it in the house. But our guide sure tried to sell us one, and we just had to tell him that we’d back in the afternoon after lunch and after thinking about it, to either buy a footrest from him, or a carpet from his brother.
Through the alleys on our way back to catch a taxi to the hotel, I spotted a lamp store, and we stopped to look at the type I’d been eyeing in all of the other shops we’d been passing for days. Well, Rob barged right into that store and immediately offered 200 dirhams for a lamp. I immediately grabbed his arm and whispered to him, that 200 would probably be the storeowners opening price, and that we could probably end up paying as low as 150 for one. Oops. Rob grumbled back, that he thought I’d told him earlier that the lamps were 250, and explained that he was simply starting the bargaining process right off the bat. Well, the extremely animated and very lively guy in the store began accumulating a vast collection of beautiful lamps on the floor all around us. And after I talked him down to 120 dirham for one I liked, he was happy to see me happy. In fact, he offered to bring us to his home to sip on some mint tea, and to take a look at carpets and other neat things he had. Well, we graciously declined, and that was perfectly all right with him, and then he wished off with a handshake and much fun during the rest of our vacation.
We really didn’t get very far up the alley though, before we came upon an interesting looking small music shop that I wanted to peek in. And by the time we left, I’d bargained again for a cool bamboo flute and a recorder with a goat horn at its end. They both sounded like the instruments snake charmers used, and now all I needed was a snake.
After a swim and a nap back at the hotel during the midday hours, we returned to the medina with the intention of returning to the carpet shop and leather store by the tanneries, to look again at carpets and footrests as we had promised. But fate intervened, and as we slithered our way through the crowds on our way, that man who’d earlier sold me my lamp, literally appeared out of nowhere and enthusiastically said, “Let’s drink some tea.” And without any hesitation, sensing the destined chance of that meeting, we followed him through a door into a small and cluttered warehouse looking place, that was quite a distance from where we’d run into him before back at the lamp shop.
He then led us past a bathroom that had nothing more than a hole in the ground and a tea pot in it, and then up some stairs to a very cozy looking room, where thin red sheet material hung from the ceiling and covered every inch of the walls. There were also lots of shelves stacked with blankets and carpets, and then Ahmed introduced himself and invited us to have a seat on a rug covered bench and relax while he went to make some mint tea. So there we suddenly were, trapped in psychedelic surreal situation somewhere in the middle of Fes, yet quite content, and wondering what would possibly happen next.
Ahmed soon returned with a silver pot of tea and candied dates to eat, and then introduced us to his uncle. He explained that the house we were in belonged to his “tio”, who was kind enough to let him stay there and help out with the business of selling lamps, carpets, and anything else. Ahmed said that his father was from Fes, and quite a sophisticated man that he didn’t see too often. He also described how his mother was from a Berber tribe and still migrates around the Atlas Mountains on camelback with a tent, looking for choice spots for her goats to graze, and is a place Ahmed goes to each season to help her. Conversation with Ahmed was in comical broken English at times, and the rest of the time in Spanish. He said he knew Arabic, Berber, French, Italian, English, and Spanish, and seemed quite knowledgeable about the world. But he admitted he’d never been outside of Morocco. He once went to Tangier to study and learn Spanish there, where enough people there know it due to the city’s proximity to Spain. And he’s dreamt of at least entering into Spain for some international experience and adventure, but acquiring the proper paperwork to do so has always been an issue. He said he knows about distant places from talking with people he meets right there in Fes and throughout Morocco. That’s why he was treasuring the opportunity to drink tea with us, and make new friends and hear new stories.
Rob and I at first though, were asking most of the questions, and Ahmed and his “tio” did all they could to satisfy our curiosities with in-depth explanations and even visual aids. We wondered why in such a hot climate, men wore seemingly smothering robes, and women long robes with veils. Well it turns out, that the loose garments are actually quite light, and with hardly anything ever worn underneath, are a great way to actually keep cool. And then the next thing we knew, the guys dressed us up like dolls in traditional Arabic wear, complete with robes, a fez for Rob, and pointy slippers that we’d seen so many of the men wearing. I was also given the chance to try on a beautiful blue caftan, and had my head wrapped in an equally gorgeous turban. It was all great fun, and never did Ahmed bring up the topic of buying anything, until we asked about the stacks of carpets we saw.
Ahmed refreshed our cups of tea at that point, and his “tio” took a moment to break up some hashish, and then mix the flakes with tobacco and roll it into a cigarette. Ya see, the smoking of “kif” (marijuana or hashish) is an ancient tradition in Morocco (“kif’ stems from the Arabic word for ‘pleasure’). Its use and cultivation in the country is widespread, and almost as much a common social offering, as a cup of tea.
Next, Ahmed and his uncle began unfurling carpet after carpet, and stacked them criss-crossed on the floor until the pile grew to over a foot high. It was explained, that the carpets were made from wool, silk, or a combination of the two, and that the patterns were always simply the result of the makers own creative whims. Or as is the case sometimes, old ladies who can’t see very well anymore, usually wove those made with fewer design schemes. Ahmed kept referring to all, as “magic carpets”, on which you could serenely seat yourself while sipping mint tea, and contemplate all the wonderful things you could imagine. He was a great philosopher, and would periodically just forget all about showing his carpets, and instead share his views and insights on topics that came to mind and that he found interesting, and then eagerly wanted to know our opinions as well.
Finally, there were no more carpets to display, and we were asked if any might be of some interest to us. To make the process of deciding that easier we were told, Ahmed and his uncle said they’d show us each carpet again by picked each up from the mountain of them on the floor, and then we would decide which off them all we liked, and which we didn’t. We were taught the Arabic words for “I like it”, which was pronounced hahlee, and “No, I don’t like it, take it away” pronounced eejmaah. So, we slowly eejmaah’d our way through the pile of carpets, until we were left with a small selection that we actually did like, and thought would fit in our kitchen. Then, it was time to get up and stretch, and make a new pot of tea.
Rob and I whispered amongst us both, when Ahmed and his uncle left the room and went downstairs. We concluded that before any real bargaining could take place, we needed to know ballpark prices for the carpets that were left, and if some may be more expensive due to design intricacy, material type, or any other factor that would set them apart. When Ahmed and His uncle returned and everyone settled down again, we asked Ahmed how much the carpets cost. “Well,” he said, “you mean a price like you get when you scan something at the supermarket? Or, what we all think all these carpets really mean to us? Any one thing’s worth for anyone concerned, should always be determined by an honest, thoughtful value given it. And there should always be great consideration of how it came to be something of interest to anyone in the first place. We all wish to leave here pleased with whatever outcome we all decide. If you really love something, what then is the price of love? If you don’t, does it still have a price?”
There was a great deal of silence at that point, and the ball was obviously in our court, as we squirmed with the thought of what to do next. Finally, Ahmed gratefully broke the ice, and told us that of course the silk carpets and any with lavish designs would cost more for the efforts made in making them. But still, we wished that after all the time that we’d contemplated carpets, that a price would finally be proposed to give us a better perspective of where we stood. Then after another long period of silence, Ahmed said, “OK, which carpets do you like?”
So, then the game began all over again. And as Ahmed held up the remaining carpets, we eejmaah’d a few more, and were finally left with a simple blue silk one, and a slightly smaller wool rug with wild multicolored patterns. So, I then asked Ahmed what the difference in price would be between the wool and silk carpets. Ahmed said, that the one made of silk was 200 dirhams more than the wool one. Rob and I then both studied each up close, walked around on them with our bare feet, and eventually did decided on one that we liked (loved?) best. “So, how much do you want for this one?” Rob asked. Ahmed told us that he had really enjoyed our afternoon together, and that he thought we were great folks, and said he’d give us a special price, … 1500 dirhams.
Rob became a bit fidgety with that, and asked me how much the wool carpet we’d decided on was worth to me. He thought the amazing two-hour experience we’d had that day was priceless, but that the carpet to him, even as beautiful as it was, wasn’t worth much more than $100 to him. Ahmed suddenly produced a notepad and a new bargaining technique and said, “How ‘bout if I lower the price to this,” and wrote something down on paper. He then handed the notepad to us, and we saw the number 1300 written on it. We conferred for a second, and then Rob reached for his pencil and wrote down 860 and handed the notepad back to Ahmed. Well, when Ahmed saw that, expressions of sheer disbelief filled his face, and he exclaimed to me, “Ohhhhh no!, … this guy’s really tough, … please help me out. This carpet took months to make, … it was handmade every step of the way.”
So then Ahmed grabbed for the notepad, and after taking a moment to think and sip off his tea, wrote down another number and handed it to us. This time we saw 1200 on the paper, and Rob immediately wrote down 950. Ahmed also wasted little time and countered with a scribbled 1150. Rob then wrote down 1000, and robustly motioned with his hands that that was it. Ahmed contemplated his offer for only a few seconds, and then looked up and simply softly just said, “OK.” The carpet was then rolled up tight and wrapped for transport, we drank the last of the tea, exchanged email addresses, and parted the best of friends. And then we wandered back out into the Fes alley maze feeling like we had paid top dollar for a wonderful afternoon, and had a carpet thrown in for free. On our way back out of the souqs, we stopped for a traditional Moroccan supper on a rooftop terrace, with crazy views of the alleyways below us and out over crumbling city skyline. For 60 dh each, we dined on mint tea (can’t get enough of it), soup, olives, bread, fruit, chicken tajine (stew), and couscous. It was a fitting end to our Moroccan medina experiences.
The next morning, we hopped an early train for Tangier. And once again (you’d think we would have learned), we had nothing to snack on for our five-hour trip, and ended up eating stale train station bakery bread again. We passed lots of fields of artichokes and orange tree groves, and saw many tiny villages where people looked to be living in dire slum conditions. The train pulled into Tangier a little late, where we found an army of taxi drivers ready and waiting to serve us with a trip to the seaport. And even though we were in a slight hurry to get to our ferry that would bring us across the Straight of Gibraltar to Spain, Rob thought quoted taxi rides for 20 dirham were too much. He turned down several taxi drivers, who sped away with other clients, while he held up ten fingers in the air and shouted, “Diez!” I guess he was still in bargaining mode, but we finally did get a ride for 15 dirhams.
We passed through immigration and customs control, and then got onto a very, very large high-speed passenger ferry, where I immediately made a beeline for the snack bar. Tasteless frozen pizzas cooked in a little oven helped stave off our hunger pains, as we stood at the back of the ferry and watched the African horizon fade away in the mist of a very windy, but sunny day. As we looked around at all those on board, the old robed men with pointed hoods and canes were gone. There wasn’t a face in the crowd that was veiled. And Celine Dion tunes were being quietly piped through the ferry’s hidden speaker system. We’d begun our return to where we’d come from, as all passengers were of western manner, and mostly all just returning from a daytrip to Tangier for a couple of hours. It was a culture shock amidst a culture that we are usually part of. But we weren’t about to forget a much different one where we’d just been, and also partially become part of as well.
Sea spray continually spit on us as the ferry rocked sometimes wildly in huge, white-capped swells. I spent the entire 35-minute trip, attempting to balance myself on deck without ever moving my feet, whereas everyone else trying to get around, looked like they were sloppy drunk. Rob said that I appeared a bit silly, standing there like on a tight rope with my arms held out to my sides, while every other passenger was either stumbling, seated, or grabbing on to a railing. But I didn’t care. I always love a challenge.