September 18th, 19th 2010
After exchanging emails and saying goodbye to Yumi, I left to catch my 10 am bus to Fes. Instead of allowing us to load our bags directly into the baggage compartment of the bus, they made us pay 5 dH (dirhams, USD$1 = 8.5 dH) to check our bags in and they would load it for us. As one of the Canadian tourists I met there said, ‘Boy, they get us one way or another don’t they?’ But then again, this was common practice in Egypt and also parts of Eastern Europe, although they usually tag our bags and receive payment at the bus itself, instead of funneling them through a separate room.
The 6-hour journey took us through the towns of Tetouan and Chefchaouen, some popular tourist stops but I decided to skip those towns due to time. I have to be in Casablanca to catch a flight to Cape Town (South Africa) on the 25th. The plan was 2 nights in Fes, 3 nights in Marrakesh, and 2 nights in Casablanca.
Sat beside a Moroccan man who was very nice. He apparently spoke Arabic and German, but no French. Most Moroccans speak Arabic and French so his was an interesting case.
The journey on the bus allowed us to see a lot of Moroccan landscapes. What surprised me was how mountainous the regions we passed through were. The mix of colors was amazing as well. A couple different hues of brown, yellow, green splashed onto a canvas. I wish I had a better vocabulary to describe it all. Pictures say a thousand words but on a bus, it wasn’t easy taking pictures. The reflections from the window don’t help at all.
One thing I told myself before getting to Morocco was to ‘just let it be’. By that, I mean that I should just accept what prices people tell me their product and services are. I don’t mean I should be a pushover and overpay greatly if I know how much it should roughly be. I just mean that I shouldn’t go around stressing out at getting the best possible prices. If I do that, I lose my focus on enjoying everything else around me. In Egypt, I had spent a lot of time feeling stressed because I felt like I was constantly being cheated. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t but I had no point of reference. I automatically felt that way because the culture and reputation of the country made me feel it. I am a tourist; I will be a target to be cheated by people trying to make a living. I try to remind myself of that last fact; that these people are just trying to make a living. But it remains a fact; no one likes being cheated.
To sum my feelings up, I will ask about the prices. If it’s a little more than what I think I should be paying but I want it, then I will go for it. If it’s severely overpriced, I will just say no and move on. If I have no point of reference, I will have to think about it for a bit, how much do I really want it then and there?
Once at the bus station, I take a taxi service to the medina (the Islamic version of Old Towns in Europe, it’s really a town square). It’s packed with people watching street performers. There is also some sort of fair going on. I am initially lost but some guy offered to take me to where I wanted to go, Hotel Lamrani, a budget hotel. (Hostelworld, the website which I usually book accommodation through, has very few, if any, listings for hostels in Morocco, mostly because there probably aren’t any. All the website lists are overpriced hotels. So I look at my Lonely Planet guidebook for listings for recommended hotels, choose the cheapest ones, then go look for them upon arrival. If there is space, great. If not, go look for another one. If I run out of options from the book, which are few to begin with, I just walk around and find a random hotel, inquire about prices, check out rooms, then decide if I want to stay there or not.) Of course, he works for another hotel so he first tries to get me to stay at his hotel but I decline. Then he continues to take me to Lamrani. It’s just inside the Blue Gates, past a plethora of street hawkers and restaurants selling Moroccan foods. There is space, a triple-bed room but the hotel owner, ‘grumpy’ Mohammed (words from Lonely Planet), a man probably in his 60s or 70s, kindly charges me for a single. It’s nothing fancy, just a room with some old beds, a table, a sink and a window. The showers and toilet are communal but right next to my room.
I go take a walk that first night, intending to find a particular restaurant but there are too many small alleyways with no signs intertwining and I immediately get lost. I ask for directions from a teenager standing around and he hands me off to a kid, whom I immediately recognize as a faux guide. I know if he leads me to the place, I’ll have to tip him. I felt like a cheap bastard that night so I declined and set off on my own. The kid constantly followed me around trying to convince me to use his services. I continue declining nicely until one point I turn around and warn him to stop following me or I will call the police, a lie of course. The kid then starts yelling at me in Arabic, something about ‘Japon’, ‘shit’, and ‘fuck you’. I am amused but worry slightly that he’ll go find some thugs to find me and beat me up. A random guy, Kareem, apparently who owns one of the many shops on Taala Seghira (one of the two main alleyways), offers to take me to the restaurant but we find it is closed. He takes me to an alternative, which looked high class, had no one eating in it, and charged exorbitant prices. I declined eating there and Kareem kept asking me why. I mentioned that I though he was taking me to a friends’ place to get a commission. He immediately became angry and told me he felt insulted I would accuse him of such a thing. He told me to find my own way back but I told him I was sorry, and that my suspicions are due to my experiences in Egypt. He eventually accepts my apology and we shake hands and part from there on good terms. I eat at a random restaurant near my hotel and head to bed, despite the night being relatively early. I was tired from my bus ride, and also felt I needed to get away from the crowded night streets and regroup. What a night! All night long, I could hear the sounds of the streets within my walls but the melatonin soon kicked in and I was dreaming strange things.
The next day was spent exploring the areas within the walls of Fes, checking out a couple of the main sights. A lot of interesting places were off-limits to tourists and non-Muslims (like mosques) so there really wasn’t much to look at. For me, Morocco was a place I visited to walk the streets, smell the smells, hear the sounds, taste the food, and see how the people lived, not to visit any tourist sights, because unlike Europe, there aren’t many, at least which interested me.
(Beautiful woodwork, was tempted to buy a chess set)
(Coffee shop, Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid)
Let’s talk food. I had b’sara, ‘a garlic and butterbean soup topped with a dash of olive oil, eaten with a hunk of bread, a favorite breakfast food amongst the locals’. Lonely Planet gets the credit for the description as I would have no clue what it actually was. I actually sat at a table, in a cramped little space, eating with a bunch of locals so that was fun. I sampled different street foods ranging from sweets to fruit to different breads, one of them being very similar to roti canai (Malaysians know what this is) but eaten with Nutella or honey. I had tagine (of course), pastilla (a Fes creation, basically chicken, almonds, veggies and other things all stuffed inside layers of pastry, topped with sprinkles of cinnamon and powdered sugar, so delicious and filling despite its deceiving size), sweet mint tea (why take drugs when you can have mint tea?), and the best chicken couscous I’ve had so far, all at a restaurant called ‘Thaami’, spread over a couple of meals of course. All the local restaurant workers and shopkeepers constantly try to draw tourists into their establishments by waving their menus or wares in front of your face as you pass, and that’s really how I ended up eating there and liking it.
(Having b’sara with the locals)
(Pastilla, a Fes specialty, so good)
(Couscous with chicken)
Sometimes I cannot believe how different a country can be when it’s in a different continent and only separated by 2 hours on a ferry.
I booked a ticket to Marrakesh at the main bus station. Had to use all kinds of sign language and even writing down some Arabic numbers to try to get the ticket-guy to understand what I wanted. I didn’t book a CTM bus ticket (run by Eurolines, a bit more pricey but also nicer) because I decided I wanted to brave the waters of serious local transportation. This is the cheapest option for locals, so I knew discomfort was imminent but I must like pain. Oh boy…9 hours.