On Dec. 1, Mimi, Krystal, and I all departed from Tanzania and headed toward Morocco. We would all be landing in Casablanca at different times so the plan was to just catch a train from the airport heading to Fes whenever each of our planes landed and we would rendezvous at our hostel in the Medina of Fes.
I flew on Qatar Airways and got a glimpse of just how rich and extravagant the Modern Middle East really is. As soon as I walked on the plane, I was enveloped in scented mist colored by the pink, blue, and green mood lights flooding the cabin. I sank into a leather plushy chair and got confused about whether I was indeed flying in coach like my ticket said or if I accidentally was seated in business. Qatar treats even the poorest passengers to a taste of luxury. My ride was comfortable, my meal was tasty, and my flight was on-time and hitch free.
I arrived at the airport in Casablanca at 7am and after picking up my bag rode the escalator down to the train platform. I needed to catch a half hour train from the Airport to the main train station in Casablanca where I would wait another 20 minutes before boarding a train that would take 4 hours to get to Fes. I arrived at the Casablanca station and waited outside in the freezing cold morning air with my African village clothes and blankets layered around me to keep me warm. I had left all my books behind in Tanzania. There was no wireless. My camera was broken. So I just sat and watched hooded and cloaked Moroccan’s walking by and thought about how much Morocco resembled Europe and how little it resembled Africa.
My train to Fes finally arrived an hour and a half late. On the train I met a mother traveling with her son and an older gentleman traveling by himself. They informed me that in their broken, French/Arabic accented English that there had been heavy rains for days before my arrival and it had slowed the entire train system down. I got to Fes around 4pm and the woman and man wanted to help me find my way to my hostel. It was rush hour so a taxi would be impossible to find. The man offered to help me hail a taxi and we could share it. He bought me some bananas from the road and though I was on guard in the presence if a stranger in a foreign country, I welcomed the assistance.
Driving around the outside of Fes was conjured up images of arriving at a citadel after a long camel journey across the desert. The walls of the city were high, mighty, ancient, and impressive. The road that wound around the walls of the Medina was the border of juxtaposition—modernity on your left and antiquity on your right. The taxi could only bring me as far as the Blue Gate covered in mosaics. After that point, I had to travel on foot. The gentleman was kind enough to pay my taxi fare so I strapped on my giant backpack and tugged my carryon luggage behind me through the blue gate, into the winding market alleys of Old Fes, and back into time--Arabian nights. The city looked magical and much more astonishing than I could have ever imagined. This was one of those rare cases where you go to a place and you actually are not let down by what you find but it exceeds your expectations. The alleys were bathed in the warm glow of a low, orange sun at dusk. Richly colorful spices shaped in tall cones piled up in front of spice shops. Dazzling sequined shoes and fabrics were brightly arrayed in front of clothing stalls. Detailed leather goods hung from the tops of the canopies of stalls selling belts, bags, wallets, satchels, and sandals. I was mesmerized.
But I had a task at hand: to find my hostel in this ancient labyrinth with no street signs or direct routes. I had an address but no directions. I began to ask the merchants if they knew where my hostel was. Some didn’t speak English. Some knew but couldn’t tell me directions. Finally one merchant tried to figure out how to direct me there when a lanky young man came up to us and asked if I needed help finding something. I told him I was looking for Dar Bouanania Hostel and he told us that he worked there. I was skeptical, aware that anybody could say that and jus be looking for a tip, but the merchant told me to go with him so I did. He brought me directly to the hostel and the Inn Keeper greeted both of us and said, “Oh good, you’ve met Saide. He’s the best guide. You should definitely go with him.”
With the Inn Keeper’s stamp of approval, I set out with Saide to catch the some sights of the city before the sun set. He brought me to a carpet maker, rug maker, and jewelry maker all of whom displayed “Moroccan hospitality, inviting me into their shops, giving me a tour of how the crafts were made, pouring me a glass of Moroccan whiskey (Berber mint tea), before artfully broaching the subject of prices and purchases. I gently turned down all offers professing that I was a poor student and volunteer.
Once the sun set, shops closed up and we headed back toward the hostel. As I followed Saide through the winding alleys he mentioned to me that all the restaurants in the area near my hostel were very touristy and expensive and since I was on a tight budget I should just come to his house to eat because then I could get a home cooked meal for only a couple of dollars if I pitched in for the groceries. He said “we live very close to the hostel and we love to have guests over to cook for them.” I thought “Well, it would be nice to see a real Moroccan family and it seems like an economical choice.” As we approached his house, he gave me the run-down of the history of the building and pointed out the architectural details, He opened a huge wooden door with brass fixtures and led me inside….to a dark and empty courtyard. He then opened another door on the left that led to a small, plain single room with one bed, one small coffee table, a chair, a tv, and random Berber carpets hanging on the wall. As I processed my surroundings, I realized that he did NOT live with his family, that this was the apartment of a bachelor, and that there was no one else around in this dark, drafty building except me and this strange man Saide. Before I knew it, he said, “Just sit down and I am going to buy some food for dinner. I will be back in 5 minutes.” And off he went. I was a little stunned and scared but I headed for the door. It was pitch black in the courtyard and either I could not figure out how to open the huge ancient door or he had locked me in. I went back to the room and sat down and marveled at how I, a savvy traveler, had gotten myself into such a stupid situation. Half an hour passed and by the time Saide returned I was very cold and on guard. He quickly pulled out a clay Tangine cooker (basically a kerosene lamp with a clay plate that sits directly on top of the flame and a cone shaped clay lid that sits on top of the plate to steam the food inside. He lit the lamp and began to heat the plate while pulling out the vegetables, meat, and spices form his grocery bag. At this point, I realized that if I were to freak out and make a run for it, I would not be able to find my way back to the hostel and he would be able to catch up to me no matter what. Also, he did appear to just be cooking dinner so I went with the flow readying myself to attack should he make any funny moves. Dinner was delicious actually, albeit awkward. The silence between the two of us was masked by some shrill Arabic music he had turned on for background noise. As soon as we had eaten, I quickly announced that my friends would be arriving at the hostel soon and I needed to return. He led me back to the hostel and when I offered him a couple of dollars for dinner, he said “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be back in the morning to help you with your luggage when you check out.”
I was relieved to be alone but anxious about the whereabouts of Mimi and Krystal. I had figured that they should be coming in on the train that arrived at 10pm and since I didn’t want them to get accosted by hustlers this late at night, I wrapped myself in my Masai blanket and headed out to the Blue Gate to wait for them. I was joined by some cloaked and hooded young hashish smoking Berber musicians who kept trying to get me to wait for my friends in their apartment that overlooked the gate. “We can watch them from up there and we can be warm and drink some vodka and smoke some hashish and play the drums.” “No thanks”, I said and endured their presence until midnight when I gave up and went back to the hostel alone. I had to wake the inn keeper to let me in and then to let me use his computer to check if my friends had tried to get a hold of me. All I got was a message from Krystal that said:
hey girl. All flights are all delayed. I will get into casablanca at 11 at night. So i cant take the bus until morning. Try to delay the trek one day or later in the day. Meet you at the hostel either way
No mention of Mimi. No info on her exact whereabouts. I couldn’t delay the trek because we only had five days in Morocco and our trek took up three of them. It would take us from Fes to the Sahara to Marakesh where we would spend one night in Marakesh before heading back to Casablanca to catch our planes out. If we delayed our trek one day we would not make it back to Casablanca in time for our flights. I would have to just cancel our trek entirely but then I would have to pay to get from Fes to Marakesh myself and we would lose everything that we had already paid in full to the tour company for our trek. Confused and tired, I went to bed hoping that I would know what to do in the morning.
Two hours later, at 2am, I was woken by a knock at my door. It was Mimi! But where was her luggage? And where was Krystal? Mimi asked me why Krystal wasn’t here yet. I asked Mimi why isn’t Krystal with you? Still as confused as ever we both went to sleep for another four hours and woke at 6am to find Saide asking for us to join him for breakfast.
We had the most delicious pancake/chipoti/crepe-like thing with Nutella and cream and rich lattes before heading out to the tannery with Saide in the lead. The tannery was amazing and surprising. We climed to the roof of the building and looked down on and puzzle of giant stone vats filled with different colored dyes and animal skins hanging on all the walls around. Men were walking with amazing balance on the edges of the vats, dipping the skins and curing them into leather. After again being hassled to spend hundreds of dollars on “Moroccan artisan goods” we asked Siade to take us back to the hostel because our driver for the trek was arriving at 8:30. The way back seemed longer than the way there and Saide kept saying “Oh don’t worry. Your driver can wait. You shouldn’t have hired a company anyways. We could have taken you to the Sahara for much cheaper”. Meanwhile at the hostel, the inn keeper was telling our driver, Jamal, that we had left with our luggage and we were going to the Sahara with another person and that he should just leave.
Yes, the inn keeper was in cahoots with the hustler to get rid of the legit driver so that we would have no choice but to hire more hustlers to take us to the Sahara. Luckily for us, Jamal saw through the ploy and waited for us. When we arrived and loaded up the car with our luggage, Saide then hit us with the $100 bill for his services. Mimi and I looked at each other incredulously and then looked to Jamal to ask if we should pay him. Jamal didn’t say anything and we fumbled around in our wallets to give him something to make him go away. It wound up adding up to around $60 but that wasn’t enough for him. Mimi was heading to a shop to get change to give him what he wanted by I grabbed her arm and told Saide that was all we could give him and we quickly got into the car and drove off. Jamal explained that he couldn’t tell us to not pay him then because Saide could have followed him out of the city and given him a lot of trouble. He just said, next time don’t give the hustlers any attention. But we were still glad that we had gotten to see some of Fes, especially the tannery.