The Medina

Our trip to Morocco was a mixture of wonder, beauty, and naivety with cultural schooling. We enjoyed our traveling companions Deb and Frank; experiences are always best when shared with people you love.

The trip started out rather rough. Tom almost didn’t make the trip. 6 days prior he had gotten food poisoning and was sicker than I’d ever seen him. The day before our trip he went to the hospital and got pumped with fluids and antibiotics. He still couldn’t eat much and was weak, but was determined to make the trip.

Our first stop was Tangier, an hour and a half flight from Lisbon. We arrived at the El Minzah hotel just after midnight. It was a beautiful elegant hotel of the old Hollywood days. A bit worn, but her glory still shone.

The next morning after breakfast we ventured to the medina and its narrow streets. We didn’t get very far before a variety of unofficial guides tried to help us find our way. We had been warned that there were men would try and help you for a fee. All we had to do was stop, look at a map, or just look up and there would be someone to “help”. Once they locked onto us we had a really hard time shaking them. “No Thank You” 20 x went right past them. We’d think we’d finally break away only to find them around the next corner waiting for us. It made it difficult to enjoy the surroundings. After this we decided a guide from the hotel would be best, as just their presence created the needed barrier.

Ramadan was happening which brought an exclamation point to the Muslim culture, fasting during the daylight, no food, water, smoking, or sex. Restaurants were often closed in the day and so we needed to plan accordingly. We felt a bit guilty pulling out our water bottles in the 90-degree heat, but not enough to stop us from doing it.

Tangier is like many cities with a little less than a million people… bustling, traffic and hustling. We didn’t really see that much of the city as we only had 1 day before heading to Fes & much of it felt like navigating our way out of being “helped”.

We took the train from Tangier to Fes, the trip was a little over 5 hours in comfortable seats and through countryside similar in many ways to eastern WA. Rolling hills of wheat, dessert and olive groves. On the train, a lovely man tried to scam us into switching hotels (a 5 hour story best told over cocktails). In Fes we were greeted by 2 drivers, one from the scammer and one from the hotel/riad. We negotiated our way out of the scam and into the van for the riad. By this time my spidey sense was on full alert and I was ready to draw my sword at any moment.

The riad is located within the walls of Fes El Bali, one of the worlds’ oldest still operational walled cities. Its streets are pedestrian only, too narrow for vehicles. We were met at one of the gates by Abdou from the riad along with a man and his hand cart. They put all the luggage into the cart and off it went. I leapt into action following the cart directly. There was no way I was going to let it out of my sight.

As soon as we went through the gate into the medina it was like “POW” we were in a time warp and different dimension. It was like walking into a land of a thousand fairytales in a maze of tiny streets. The streets were lined with little shops, each with a story. The first one I noticed was a cobbler working on a leather piece, his space was about 10’ square. He sat prominent in the window framed like a painting by shoes, materials and tools that lined the walls and piled the counters. The streets range from 3-8 feet wide. Trying to keep up with the cart I rushed passed a stream of people, donkeys, and carts all flowing peacefully through the streets. The sights, sounds and intimacy of the medina were intoxicating. We turned left and right too many times to recount until reaching the Riad Kettani.

We walked through the doors into an oasis that would be ours for the next 6 days. We landed in a courtyard with a fountain and seating. Tile and plaster carved walls with balconies led up to a glass covered ceiling 3 stories up.

We were greeted lovingly by Latifa who brought us warm wet towels to wash away any unpleasantness and hot Moroccan tea to replenish. We rested in the courtyard before being shown our rooms. The rooms were very spacious with tall ceilings. Beautiful tile and woodwork lined the surfaces. The space truly felt welcoming, like a second home. Soon after arrival we heard the call to prayer. All the business with scams that had me fragile seemed just like foolishness now. Just a way of doing business I was not accustomed to.

KhalibOur riad arranged a guide, Khalib, to take us on various excursions. We started with the old Medina where 156, 000 people live in the compact maze. The medina is full of craftsmen: weavers, leather goods, wood carvers, metal workers, potters, tile workers…. Khalib explained while tourism is very important to their economy, the medina was for the local people. Most business in the medina was done by men. The men wore a combination of western clothes and djellabas (robes). The women, mostly consumers, wore djellabas and head scarfs. There were also lots of what seemed to be homeless cats, many were kittens. Deb saved table scraps and would feed them; the locals would smile at her approvingly.

Always with the call to prayer there would be scurrying of people going to their places of worship. The were 50 mosques within the walls. While we weren’t invited into the mosques, the doors were always open and the street being very narrow provided a good view.

Khalib lead us through sections of the medina at a steady pace: craft, practical goods, food, meat market and the tannery. We briefly touched on the larger city of Fes, the second largest city in Morocco with 1.1 million people.

Our first trip out of Fes the next day brought us to Volubilis, an ancient Roman and Berber city in operation from the 3rd century BC to the 11th century AD. Beautiful stone ruins met with the dirt and sky in a hot and mostly arid climate. Then on to Meknes a medium sized city, now known for the place I got food poisoning, as I can’t remember anything particularly interesting about it.

I missed going to the Atlas mountains the next day as I purged. The best thing about the illness was I had no pain, just a fever and evacuation. I was however in a fasting dreamlike state for the rest of the trip with an elevated temp each evening. I didn’t really mind, I loved Fes, a lovely place to convalesce.

Fes is very special. The tiny streets full of life, holding on to a culture centuries old. There something grounding about being so close to so many people who devout to their culture and religion with the call to prayer 5x a day. It brings a continual reminder of the present moment, our purpose and intent.

I would have loved to spend more time just hanging around the medina observing, as everything we did was at a pace that kept us moving through spaces. To sit quietly and listen would have brought a deeper meaning to this magical place.

The only word I can remember in Arabic is “shukraan” which means thank you.  Shukraan Fes, I look forward to returning one day.

DSC04835aMore photos here…