Faux Guide For Hire!

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Africa » Morocco » Fès-Boulemane » Fes
July 3rd 2015
Published: July 3rd 2015
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Anyone that tells you that travelling is 100% pure, heavenly joy, is lying through their teeth. The truth is traveling consists of extreme highs, some pretty low lows, and everything in between. For me, the highest of the highs occurs even before I leave home. For months leading up to a trip, randomly a thought will enter my head and interrupt whatever I am doing, reminding myself of my upcoming trip. It always brings a smile to my face, as if I have the best secret ever, that no one else can possibly understand. Then in the days leading up to travel, I can feel the excitement literally coursing through my veins. The idea of not knowing what is about to occur is both exhilarating and somewhat scary. The actual bulk of the trip is usually somewhere in the middle for me. While awestruck by the beautiful sights I’m seeing, I usually experience some vague discomfort at being so far away from everything familiar. And even more so, I’m usually so damn hot, or tired, or dirty, or all of the above, that it can sometimes be challenging to enjoy what you’re doing in the actual moment. And then come the ‘lows’, things that feel quite bad in the moment, but actually end up being either the most enlightening or make the funniest dinner stories later on. These are the moments that differentiate traveling from vacationing.

Unfortunately, we have discovered very quickly, that if you are a foreigner strolling through the Fes Medina on your own, locals assume you MUST need a guide… and lucky for you, everyone and their brother is a guide in Fes. Every few feet a local would start to walk with us, show us their ID card, and offer their services to us. Presently a man started walking with us and going through this ritual. Travis waved him off, saying “no thank you”, “la shukran” over and over again, but the guy wasn’t getting the message. Hot, tired, and annoyed, I made eye contact with the man and in a much firmer voice I said, “no thank you, we do not need your help.” Immediately the man’s mannerisms changed and he began mouthing off to me saying, “are you looking for trouble”, “go back to your hotel”. He started to walk away and yelled “bitch” at me over his shoulder. Unfortunately, pissing people off is becoming a somewhat common occurrence for us.

The next afternoon we struck up conversation with another traveler who was staying at our riad, which shed some enlightenment on our own experiences. After talking with him, we learned that in fact, we had actually gotten off easy! In one single day in Fes, our new friend had been called a “racist”, gotten a death threat, and had hot oil poured on his head. He shared this story with the staff of our riad, and the response was amazingly blasé. “Try again after breakfast” he said – referring to the breaking of the fast at sunset. This being our third time offending someone, we are starting to realize that there is a pattern here, and no matter how we respond, there is probably no way to completely avoid it. I also have to think that the fact that it is Ramadan, the intense heat, and the limited tourists probably plays a role, but have nothing to compare it to.

That evening, we had someone from our hotel guide us to Riad Fes for late refreshments. We never quite got the hang of the medina in Fes. There are no real landmarks, most “streets” are actually unmarked alleys that twist and turn to no end, without any real distinguishing features. Worse still, there are not many recognizable landmarks or large squares in Fes, as we have used as references points in other cities. Given our experience from earlier in the day, it also did not feel overwhelmingly safe, especially at night. Riad Fes was even more opulent than our own place (Dar Bensouda). The main courtyard dripped with luxury. Every inch was adorned in intricate mosaics tiles, large paintings, and velour pillows. The roof terrace had plush, hip furniture arranged to look out over an expansive view of the historic Medina below. It was stunning. I felt like a total bourgeois jerk, sitting in this opulent space, ordering a drink that cost the equivalent of the average person’s salary for the day. My drink came (it was disgusting) but I swallowed it down anyways, along with my Western guilt. Moments like this all you can do is try to convey your respect for the person serving you with your actions and words, and leave a good tip.

Our last day in Fes was markedly less exciting, in a good way. It turns out hiring a guide instead of wandering unassisted changes the situation dramatically. We hired an official guide through our riad, who took us all over the Medina to see the main monuments and sights. With him in the lead, we didn’t get hassled even once. We visited the Kairaouine Mosque and University – one of Africa’s largest mosques, and possibly the oldest university in the world. We could not actually go inside the mosque, but we could see people relaxing inside on their prayer mats. We were able to enter the Medersa el-Attarine, an Islamic college, next door to the mosque. The main courtyard had incredible zellij tilework, and intricate cedar ceilings. Next we walked through the souks, where locals buy all of their goods, past the ancient ‘water clock’ and to several artisans’ shops. Our last stop was the Chaouwara tanneries, one of the most iconic sights in Fes. From shops positioned above, you can see the massive pits used for dying leather. As you walk in to any of the stores they hand you a sprig of mint to cover the smell of pigeon poop, which is used to strip the hides. They have been using this same method to dye leather for centuries. It truly feels like you are stepping back in time, as you look down at the huge vats of dye, and the historic Medina in the background.

What I’ve learned from our short time here is that Fes is a city of extremes. On the outside it can feel large, confusing, gritty, and aggressive. But then, on the other hand it is filled with the most amazing historical monuments. It packs so much history into a couple square miles, it’s hard to explain. And then of course, there are the restored riads and dars, homes that used to belong to royalty, and have all since been converted into guesthouses. From the outside, there is no hint of what lies within – there are just large wooden doors. The moment you step inside however, you are completely transported to a tranquil oasis. All of the dirt, pollution, and noise dies away, and you are suddenly surrounded by gurgling fountains, exotic plants, and lanterns casting beautiful shadows. Our riad was no exception. It was a palace built in the 17th century that later became a medersa. The owners had taken four years to restore the building and convert it into a functioning guest home. It was by far the nicest place we have stayed the entire time. The staff were exceptional as well, providing delicious meals, directions, and guides whenever we needed it.

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