To us here in the land of the hot dog stand, the atom bomb, and the Good Humor man, Morocco is Africa’s shallow part of the pool – a wholly foreign, Islamic land that’s easily accessed by ferry from the south of Spain. Hell, it even contains parts of Spain within its shores. Most travelers arrive via the port city of Tangiers, a one time international zone where most everyone speaks at least a little English, Spanish, French, and of course Arabic. In April 2011, we arrived in Morocco, but by plane and in Casablanca. Luciana and I had found an unbelievably low airfare and figured, why not. The flights included a nice little bonus, which was an overnight layover in Madrid.
(Of course, no sooner had we bought the tickets in early January than the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere erupted. Would Morocco be the next domino to fall? We checked the news constantly, but finding no cause to cancel our trip over the next three months, we carried through with our plans.)
The first thing you should know about Morocco is that its people are extremely friendly and helpful. The second thing you should know is that almost all of them seem to work, dabble, or moonlight in the tourism business. Thus friendliness can often lead to aggressive pitches to be hired for tours, not just where you’re going but wherever you want to go, or don’t want to go. On the four-hour train ride from Casablanca to Fes, we endured one such hustler, friendly enough but relentless in his explanations of just where he’d take us and for how much. Finally, I had to tell him flat out that I was jet lagged and this was “sleepy time,” or he’d have kept talking right through my nap and infiltrated my dreams.
This is the toll to be paid as a tourist in Morocco. Since you’ll stand out more than usual, you’re going to be approached more than usual, by guides, vendors, drivers, beggars, and hustlers. It’s understandable that they see Westerners and hope to separate them from their money; $10 to us might be like $100 to them. Nevertheless, don’t feel compelled to forfeit cash in a show of empathy or as a means to get somebody to piss off. If it’s something you want to pay for, practice the art of haggling – to do otherwise is insulting and ostentatious. Of course, if you DON’T want to pay for whatever they’re peddling, stick to your guns and remain firm. “La, shukran” (No, thank you) repeated several times and with emphasis will eventually get the point across. The challenge is really to go in with an understanding of why they behave in ways we find grating and intrusive, and simply to laugh it off and let it roll off your back rather than annoy you. Our first day in the medina of Fes, we went into one gentleman’s store but decided not to purchase anything. He followed us through the alley and waited outside ANOTHER store while we looked around, then intercepted us on our way out. This man was friendly and polite enough, but his desperation felt to us contemptible and alien. When you think about it, in America we respect and patronize the businesses that don’t seem to need our money. We respect success and reward it with more success. Check out the sheep mentality behind the Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan if you don’t believe me. Any jackass can throw flour, butter and sugar into a bowl and bake it into something delicious. But not every jackass can get a ringing endorsement on Sex & The City. The old bakery down the street with no line out the door? Who’d wanna go there? But I digress.
At a certain point, we were as determined to refuse to buy from this man as we was determined to sell. Our determination won the day, however, as he finally recognized he was wasting his energy. I’m sure at least half the time, people will buy something cheap from gentlemen like this just to be rid of them, but that seems to me just as crass and contemptible. We may be tourists, but we’re not suckers.
We only spent one night and one day in Fes, but it felt like a week. It was our first stop, and the visual, aural, and other sensual assaults were jarring yet mesmerizing. The medina, a warren of ancient corridors too small for autos but just big enough for scooters, donkeys, wheelbarrows, and thousands of vendors, buyers, tourists, and hustlers, would seem like a Hollywood concoction were it not so decidedly real. We haggled, we dodged traffic, we got lost, we found our way out, and we returned to our guesthouse, exhausted.
Probably one of the most impressive sights we encountered was this ass being loaded with crates of Coca-Cola, as the delivery truck could not enter the medina.
Our guesthouse, Riad Lune et Soleil, lay just outside the medina, but inside felt a galaxy away. Orange blossoms scented the charming blue-and-white tiled courtyard, where turtles ambled across the floor and a modest fountain dribbled calming drops of water into its pool. Hospitality isn’t just a custom in Morocco, it’s an art, and from the beer I was handed when we checked in to the hearty breakfast of crepes, eggs, bread, and dates the next morning, every morsel of food and every favor from the staff energized us for whatever adventures awaited outdoors. Our room (the “Caftan Suite”) was a mini museum, with djellabas, shoes, postcards, tools, and other ephemera adorning the walls. The riad was built in classic wraparound style with the courtyard in the middle; the uppermost level contains a mezzanine garden for relaxing, reading, drinking, and socializing. Although our bathroom didn’t live up to the “hammam-like atmosphere” promised on the web site, overall the room and the guest house were a great way to start our trip.
Outside the guesthouse, our meals were relatively touristy; we dined at a couple of joints just inside the Bab Boujloud gate, a relatively young (built, 1913) but still kick-ass looking portal separating the ancient part of town with its more modern surroundings. One restaurant we enjoyed was Chez Hamid, where we sampled our first tajine, a steaming plate of lamb, couscous, potatoes, and carrots.
Getting to Fes
Morocco’s western corridor has an efficient train system. Trains from Casablanca to Fes take about four hours, and cost around US $20 for first class, $14 for second class. (The difference is six or eight people per compartment.) Snack vendors make their way up and down the aisles. It’s customary to offer any food you are enjoying to passengers next to you, even strangers.
Getting Around Fes
The best option is the “Petit Taxi,” little red cabs found all over Morocco. For a small fare, negotiated up front. It’s liable to pick up other passengers going in your direction (and won’t take you if you’re not going the same way they’re going), and your luggage usually gets tossed on top. There are more expensive regular taxis, usually Mercedes, that are more private.
On foot, you may be approached by gentlemen offering to be a hired tour guide. Don’t feel like a mark; the government licenses official tour guides, who wear medallions around their necks (just ask to see it) and can be of valuable service, especially in the medina. They’ll show you the right places and help you fend off aggressive sales people. We didn’t feel the need for one, but having read about them I don’t see the harm. As with everything, negotiate your price up front. (If you find yourself lost in the medina, offer any kid a few dirham to show you the way out.)
Like many Moroccan cities, Fes has a Ville Nouvelle, a remnant of French colonial city planning. It’s modestly charming in a neo-European way, with some wide, palm tree-lined boulevards and modern businesses and buildings. But it’s not likely the reason you came to Fes, so I wouldn’t deem it a priority unless you have a specific reason to venture there. (We needed an ATM.)
Coming up next: The Sahara.