When my tour guide Omar arrived at the hotel on Friday morning, I was eager to experience Fes, the Imperial city of Morocco, on foot with the rest of the group. I had seen the documentaries, read the books, dissected various editions of the Lonely Planet travel guides and watched U2’s “Mysterious Ways” music clip hundreds of times (it was filmed in Fes). Needless to say, an orientation tour through the medina with a guide was a perfect way to get a feel for the place. All we needed was for the others to arrive and we’d be away. I had imagined a predictable scenario – a minibus with a small group of mismatched people from around the globe, speaking English in their various accents, perhaps English was not their mother tongue, exchanging stories about their travels, their lives, whinging about jet-lag, moaning about the oppressive heat, trying to wrap their heads around the language and local currency etc. As Omar and I took a seat in the hotel lounge to briefly discuss the day’s plan, a fez-wearing attendant in a pristine, white ensemble approached to offer us mint tea. I suggested this would be a good idea ‘while we waited for the others to arrive’. Omar looked at me quizzically, ‘Is someone else joining us?’
This is the defining moment that will live on forever in my memory. My mind was racing as Omar’s mouth continued to move, although I couldn’t hear him. Was this Moroccan humour? Was he joking? He wasn’t laughing. He wasn’t joking. As it turned out, this was just the beginning of my first Moroccan adventure.
… and so it begins …
It was 48 hours ago that my Emirates flight had touched down at Mohammed V airport in Casablanca. Travelling from Australia, I had been in transit for over 24 hours. I was tired. I was weary. I was excited. And I was tired, did I say that already? I’m tired now, as I type this, reliving the moment. My suitcase was also tired, exhausted even, as it was the last to trip through the luggage door and flop onto the conveyor belt. I walked towards it, yanked it onto the floor and made my way to the exit.
My itinerary had stated a driver would collect me. Yes, he was outside the Arrivals lounge waiting, standing beside a very shiny black ‘people-mover’ type van. Car windows that heavily tinted are banned in Australia, I think. He was holding a placard. Scribbled upon it was a row of letters that resembled my name. I guessed he was there for me, so I approached him. He nodded and motioned me towards the passenger side of the van. As I watched him load my luggage into the van, I had asked after the others – ‘When would they be joining us?’ He briefly explained that he would drive me to Fes via an overnight stay in Rabat, and ‘everything else was on my itinerary. Once in Fes, the music festival would begin on Friday.’ He had a good grasp of the English language – enough for me to understand him although I did find myself slowing down my own speech to ensure he understood me.
The Fes Sacred Music Festival was the very thing that prompted me to book this trip to Morocco. The organised tour was advertised online as a way of experiencing the culture and history of the country with the musical interludes in between. There would be day excursions, workshops, free time to do your own thing and evening concerts for 10 days. It had sounded perfect. So perfect in fact, that I arranged to stay an additional week on my own to soak up the culture without ‘touristing’. So when the driver had said “the music festival would begin on Friday”, I heard “the tour would begin in Fes on Friday and you will meet the rest of the group then”. I didn’t question him further as his explanation vaguely resembled the itinerary I had received via email the previous week.
Never. Assume. Anything. EVER
So, I relaxed into the front passenger seat of the people-mover and allowed my shoulders to drop. I would meet the group in Fes. The person I had been in contact with online had sent numerous emails over the previous months asking me to ‘pay the deposit by a certain date to secure my place on the group tour’. When, in one of our email exchanges, I had asked how many would be in this particular group, he had assured me ‘it would be an intimate group’. ‘Not too big’, he had said.
It was fast becoming clear that my tour group was going to be very intimate indeed.
Just one person.
I was the group.
Do taxis have seat-belts here?
Following our (very sweet) mint tea – and after the shock of my new set of circumstances had sunk in – Omar and I took a petit taxi that had been summoned. 36 degrees celsius was too hot to walk the 3 kms to the medina. Petit taxis are a curious thing … compact red cars (red in Fes, but different colours in the other main cities of Morocco), some better maintained than others, with meters on the dashboard that never seem to work … or non-existent. The air-con, of course, is all 4 windows wound down.
This was my first taxi ride in Morocco. “Omar, do they have seat-belts in taxis here?” “Yes, Madame, of course” he had replied. (A ‘nervous laugh’ emoji would be inserted here if I knew what it looked like.) Omar sat in the front, while I took my place in the backseat. As we took off towards the medina, I was almost catapulted into his lap. The taxi driver seemed to ignore the stop sign… and the traffic lights … and the occasional pedestrian, although in his defence, it seemed some pedestrians had a death-wish. Jay-walking in Morocco redefines the word ‘crazy’. A quick prayer before getting into a taxi was required along with faith that we would arrive at our destination ‘whole’. I’m certain this particular vehicle didn’t have seat-belts.
‘It was Friday’, Omar began explaining from the front, ‘so everything will be closed this morning. We will be able to walk around without too much distraction.’ Only if we survive this cab ride was my thought. Friday is the Muslim holy day. Some refer to it as ‘Couscous Friday’ – everyone seems to eat couscous on Fridays. In any case it is the equivalent of a quiet Sunday morning in the western world.
As we made our way through the narrow medina alleys, I clicked away at pretty much everything we passed, trying to capture as much as I could of normal daily life. Omar would periodically begin with the history of a building we were passing or the area we were in. The mosques, the people, the king, the palaces, religion, the history of the city, the Jewish quarter, the Spanish, the French etc … all the while I was trying to retain some of the information. It was a walking history lesson and although it was fascinating and I was interested to learn more, after 90 minutes, my brain cells were fried – the heat didn’t help. When Omar announced we would be visiting the famous Fes tanneries shortly, a sense of relief washed over me – I foolishly thought it was a chance to sit down in a cool environment. (I had so much to learn!)
Wanna see MY tannery?
We continued down a very narrow alley-way and walked past a group of three middle-aged men sitting outside what appeared to be a shopfront. Although not obvious from the external appearance of the building, I caught a glimpse through the open door – various artefacts were positioned in the doorway and through to an inside room. I noticed one of the men focusing his eyes in my direction, giving me a slow once-over and then saying something in Darija (Moroccan Arabic). His gaze stopped at my chest – something he wasn’t even attempting to conceal. I had no idea what was uttered but the tone in his voice (and my gut feeling) immediately suggested it was about me and it may’ve been derogatory. I picked up pace to catch up to Omar who had continued ahead of me.
Knowing that he would’ve heard the comment, I asked “What did that man just say?”
He seemed hesitant to reply and averted his eyes.
“Because I know it was about me” I continued.
“He said he would like to show you his tannery” he quietly said, without making eye contact.
“Oh, I didn’t know there was another tannery in Fes” said I.
“There isn’t madame, please keep walking”.
He wanted to show me his ‘tannery’. Although I am laughing as I type this, I was initially annoyed that I couldn’t respond in his native language, a part of me wanted to respond in kind and another part of me was relieved not knowing what was being said – ignorance is sometimes bliss.
Shove it up your nose
We came to a fork in the alley where 2 street vendors were positioned side by side. One was selling freshly squeezed orange juice while the other had a cart overflowing with fresh mint. Omar picked up 2 sprigs of mint and handed the vendor a few dirhams. He gave me one and kept the other for himself. At the time, I thought … “what a lovely gesture, he’s giving me sprigs of mint … no, hang on a minute …. Is he hitting on me as well – with mint?”
The real reason punched me in the face as we approached a doorway at the end of the alleyway.
We had arrived
The Chaouwara tanneries were being cleaned & repaired when we attended, so there was no colour in the vats, no animal skins hanging out to dry … just the aroma. Everything looked spotlessly white, clean … except for the lingering smell. I can only imagine the stench would be amplified a trillion-fold if they had actually been operating that day. The mint leaves, it turned out, were for my nose … I quickly shoved 2 mint leaves in one nostril, just as Omar had demonstrated and tried to breathe through the other without turning blue. It took me a few seconds to adjust to this temporary way of being, while simultaneously acclimatising to the smell – I had no choice and there was no way out.
The sales pitch was immediate, but not over the top. I was quite taken aback by the lack of forcefulness as I’d experienced persuasive selling tactics the previous day in Meknes. I was given a tour of the shop but wasn’t allowed to go into the tanneries. A blessing in disguise perhaps?
Did I like leather jackets?
Would I prefer to look at bags? Shoulder bag or backpack style?
No and no.
Do Moroccan slippers interest me?
Now we’re talking. Take me to your slippers please Hassan.
I only purchased 3 pairs that day. I declined all other products as I was keen to have lunch at a nearby riad.
Leaving the tanneries, I removed the mint leaves from my nostril. No, they didn’t make a huge difference. The smell had become embedded in my nostrils, skin and clothes. Not easily forgotten.
Off to lunch we go …
But wait! There’s more. We happened upon another shop on our way to lunch. How coincidental! And, he’s your friend/cousin/brother/neighbour/father/son/uncle, you say? How lovely! I am asked if I’d like to have a look. As I was about to find out, this question has a different meaning in Morocco. In Australia it would mean that you were having a look. At something. To be asked in Morocco is akin to being asked what would you like to buy because, prepare yourself, you will not be leaving until you do. So here I was, being shown various items (read – carpets) with the unspoken expectation that I would buy at least one. Yes, you will buy. No, there are no steak knives with this purchase. But we do have teapots, trays, slippers, silks, jewellery and artefacts for you to consider. Or if you would prefer, we have a special room through this door … it leads you to our special stock. Our special things. Our special precious things for special customers only. It was only a 45 minute detour … and I still love the carpet I bought that day.
I just wish I had a home to put it in.
© madame fishflower™ 2018