May 24, 2015: Touring Fes

Today is our one full day in Fes, Morocco on this adventurous three day Memorial Day weekend.  We all slept as much as we could.  The Riad Khouloud was very comfortable and we slept great.  We all needed that a lot.  We were refreshed and ready to face the day.

Late last night some other people came to the riad, a big group from Lithuania were staying there too.

At nine thirty we went up to have breakfast.  The riad is a bed and breakfast style arrangement so this breakfast is, I believe, included with the room.  It is a set breakfast rather than one that you order, but it is not like a continental breakfast at all.  We were brought two kinds of flatbreads plus the round loaf style bread that we had had with dinner last night too.  There was a poached egg for each of us and tea and coffee.  There was butter, olive oil and peach jam all provided. It was a very nice breakfast.  A good way to start the day.

While everyone else finished up having their breakfast, I went down and met the tour guide and worked out the price and the plan for the day which took about twenty minutes or so.  Dominica got the girls ready and it was probably ten thirty before we were ready to get going.  Our tour guide surprisingly had a problem with his voice box that required him to swallow air to speak rather than using his diaphragm which was amazing that he chose to work as a tour guide because the amount of work that he had to do to talk about all of the places that we were going and to be loud enough for us to hear him was really something.  He worked hard to do this job!  He was really nice and we liked having him as a tour guide.

Because our riad was right in the medina, it was easy to start the tour as we walked right out of the riad and were right in the middle of things.  We started off going to a bank so that I could get cash as we were going through our dirham much faster than we had anticipated.  Not because things were expensive, just because we were using cash for absolutely everything like train tickets.  This is a cash intensive society, and for good reasons.  It was amazing seeing a bank in the middle of the medina.  It is built right into the old town and such a bizarre mix of ancient and new in one spot.

One of the neat things that Dominica spotted right away was a gas station with the pumps inside of a building.  The ground floor doors of a corner building could open up and you could just pull a small vehicle up to it and get petrol right there and at night, when closed, it would be completely nondescript and look exactly like every other building.  So weird.

Our guide had warned us before leaving to make sure that the kids were holding hands with us and carefully watched all of the time.  The medina is pretty safe, but it is very crowded and hectic and there are tens of thousands of tiny little side roads and the kids could disappear very easily in the crowd.  The things that make the medina so awesome are also what make it rather precarious.  That being said, the medina was full of children, clearly healthy, happy children, running around freely and at no point all day did we ever feel unsafe in any way.  You very much got a friendly, welcoming vibe from everyone.  People were smiling and happy to have visitors or just ignored us as they were very busy.

Almost immediately we dove into the main market in Fes which came as a huge shock.  Our guide told us that we were going into the market and that things were going to get crazy but I was not at all prepared for what the market was really like.  The market is really just small stalls all along the already tight and twisting streets of Fes.  It goes on and on for an incredible distance.  There were people selling every kind of food stuff that you can imagine.  There were “districts” within the market.  Whole streets of just produce or just fish or whatever.  It has to be completely crazy trying to shop here but it was clearly not for tourists, although we were free to shop of course, but this is actually where the population of the medina actually comes to buy their food every day.  This is real life, not a show for us.  And this is how the market has been operating for likely many hundreds of years.  It was amazing and crazy all at once.  Really glad that we got to see that.

Much of seeing Fes is just… seeing Fes.  Looking at the old buildings, going to see the outside of the mosques (non-Muslims may not enter them here), exploring tiny little streets.  There are so many tiny little streets.  It is really something.

The temperature was nice this morning but the sun was really beating down on us and the humidity was high.  We had seen some rain while on the train yesterday and had seen some in Fes, like while we were waiting on the taxi we had gotten to see them squeeging up the water in front of the train station as it was collecting there.  We knew that some rain was expected today in Fes but had hoped that we would have an overcast day for walking around all day.  No such luck.  Unadulterated sunshine with the humidity that comes before the rain.

One of the first places that we got to visit was one of the religious schools.  As we were not allowed to go into a mosque, this allowed us to go into the closest thing and see how students of Islam would live, study and worship.  It was pretty neat and interesting.  There appeared to be no classrooms, which was odd.  Just dorm rooms and a worship area.

From there we went to a carpet dealer.  We had told the tour guide that we wanted to do no shopping and he agreed, but welcome to Morocco, any tour is really just taking you to shopping.  You have to accept that a certain amount of being scammed about that and being pressured to buy things is what happens in Morocco and if that didn’t happen you would not be getting an actual look at Morocco.

The carpet “store” that we went into was in an enormous, beautifully conditioned riad.  Much bigger than the one that we are staying in.  We were told, but who knows what is true, that this was a government run carpet store where the main salesmen is paid by the government to show carpets so that we would be under less pressure to buy and he has to tell us that because it used to be private sales and they would do very high pressure sales tactics.  This was very high pressure compared to the US, but very low pressure compared to traditional Morocco.  So, splitting the difference, I guess.

We were given a tour of the riad and a trip up to the roof to see the view of the area which was very nice. When we came down they gave us Moroccan tea and set up a carpet for the girls to play on while we were taught about Moroccan carpets and shown a bunch for sale.

Dominica and I love getting artwork from the places that we travel so we gave in to looking at carpets for a while and haggled, probably very poorly, and are sure that we paid way too much for a small, hand made, Berber carpet to hang above our bed, once we finally have a bed and a wall and a house.  So, for now, it is folded up and in a little bag to carry it.

Carpet buying was a multi-hour adventure that we foolishly had not planned on.  But we are pretty excited about our carpet too.  It is our work of art from Morocco and something that we will be able to keep for forever.  We always buy art on our travels so we feel pretty good about it and it was an amount of money that we could part with, even if it was more than we should have.  There were a lot of carpets that we would have liked to have purchased but they were much larger and much more expensive.

After the carpet shopping we visited the tannery which sits right on the Wet Fes (wet is the Arabic term for river, that should be easy to remember) – this was not high on our “must see” list but it was interesting.  Getting to see the river, which is polluted beyond imagination, was interesting and seeing the old fashioned tanning operations was something we have never seen before.  A whole district of the city that is just open vats of water and pigeon poop used to tan the leathers.  The number of people and donkeys involved in leather processing in this part of the city is staggering.  Apparently this is a major industry here.

We got an explanation of the tanning process and were then, after we were done taking pictures and examining the tanning process from a rooftop, we were led down to the showrooms where we got to see shoes and furniture and purses and other leather goods.  I am not sure if the guide really did not understand what vegetarian meant because Dominica was pretty disgusted by the whole thing and none of us had any desire to buy anything there.  The people were very nice, but leather good are not something that vegetarians typically buy or want to spend they time looking at.  The walls were lined with skins and it was really nasty.  Thankfully the kids did not understand what they were looking at as it was rather disturbing much of the time.

After the tannery the guide took us to an “authentic Moroccan restaurant.”  This, I feel, was his biggest fail of the tour.  He did explain, so there was no pretense, that this was a restaurant in the owner’s house and that only tourists ate here.  Why he thought that would mean we were happy with it made no sense to me, it was exactly the opposite of what we would want.  The last place that we want to eat is a place just for tourist.  And the prices were accordingly way, way too high.  Even more expensive than eating authentically in Spain, which makes no sense.  On top of that, the menu was tiny and not very vegetarian friendly.  There was one option, but only one.

At least the food itself was good.  We got vegetarian couscous, which Liesl, again, raved and raved about.  She loved the food.  Everyone was very happy with the food, for the most part.  The price and selection was not good and the food was mostly the same that we had the night before.  So it was not much of a new experience like we had hoped and it was hours later in the day than we had requested.  I was dying of the heat and the kids were way past the point of needing food.  So that was handled very poorly.

After our way too expensive lunch (if you ever get a tour, demand that you stop someplace that you see and do not let your guide take you somewhere that they have prearranged) we went to an apothecary that made Moroccan products, mostly from Argan oil but also from black iris and other things.  This was nothing but a showroom for beauty and health products but they were nice and had some interesting products and we all ended up buying some stuff.  There was a lot of trying oils and ointments.  The girls kind of enjoyed it.

The funniest part of the whole thing was when we had to all try black iris.  The guy who owned the shop took some black iris, put it in cheesecloth and suddenly shoved it up Rachel’s nose and made her breath it in, which burned her sinuses and throat.  It was super awkward and surprising.  Then he took the same cloth and went around the adults (thankfully not the kids) and made us all do it, from the same cloth, which was pretty weird and kind of gross.  I was last, of course.  I did find that it helped my sinuses and ended up buying some if it to try out as I have so many sinus problems.

We did get to see two girls sitting on the floor making the oils.  It was obviously just for show, but it was neat.

From the apothecary we were taken pretty much next door to a weaver which was far more interesting.  As we walked in the lights kicked on revealing several people who had been working in the dark, which surprised us a lot.  There were two guys working at traditional looms which was really neat to watch.  The girls got to learn how cloth is made and there was a huge shop full of cloth and products to buy.

The girls had been so desperate for ice cream and the tour guide kept refusing to take us to get any (he would say that he was and then taking us somewhere trying to sell us something, we were getting less and less happy at this point) that here the people who ran the shop actually sent someone out to buy ice cream for the kids.  And the ice cream that they got was awesome, but of course, because they did not let us go and get the one thing that the girls will eat (plain vanilla) they got awesome ice cream that both girls refused to eat.  So Dominica and I got ice cream and the girls just got more upset.  Our tour guide really does not know how to handle groups with children or to do what the group wants to do.

If you have a tour guide, do not go into any building with him unless you want to be sold stuff and have your “tour” actually be a shopping trip.  Simply state up front that there will be no shopping and if he tries to go inside somewhere, just stay outside and explain that you are not paying him for a shopping trip for him or for you.  It is your tour and you need not pay if he is doing his own shopping or if he is not providing the tour agreed upon.  Had I realized how this was going to work, we would have skipped a lot of this.  The tour went way, way too long and we were not able to get food when we agreed to have gotten it, we did not get the ice cream we were promised nor did we wrap up at the time we had decided we needed to wrap up because the children could only go so long.  He had his own agenda and ignored all of the stuff we had agreed on.

The weavers were really nice and had a nice selection of stuff.  We tried on a lot of things and the girls ended up each picking out an outfit, which was pretty cool.

While we were at the weavers, it started to rain.  Really rain.  A crazy amount of rain.  This was long after our tour guide had agreed to have us done for the day so we would not have been caught in the rain had he not been refusing to take us home and instead getting his commission at one store after another.  He tried to get us to get a taxi but we were okay walking.  It was chilly outside but not unbearable.  It was a lot of rain, though.

We walked for a bit but instead of taking us back to the riad, the guide took us back to the tannery.  We have no way to know if this was really on the way back or not but we went in there to be out of the rain for some time.  At least half an hour, maybe more.  The rain just got harder and harder.  This was actually one of the better parts of the day since we were very cool and had nothing to do but to hang out with the locals and talk. And watching the Wet Fes rise during the time that we were there was really, really cool.  I am so glad that we got to see that.  When we had arrived at the tannery a few hours earlier the Wet Fes was basically a little stream coming down in front of the tannery and not impressive at all as a waterway.  And, like all of Morocco, there was trash all over the place.  But as the rain was getting going the little stream turned quickly into a real river.  A really dirty, nearly black river that went faster and faster and climbed higher and higher.  The river rose many feet while we were standing there watching it.  Amazing.

I talked to the tour guide and he said that this was definitely the biggest rain storm in at least seven years, maybe a lot more.  Not a typical rain storm for Fes.  Fes is a green area, but the rain is rarely that heavy.  This was really, really heavy.

Eventually the guide reached the riad and they sent our driver over who got us right at the tannery.  The rain was way too hard to try to get home in on foot.

The drive back was pretty exciting.  So much rain.  The city was freaking out.  You could see tons of roads underwater.  The driver said that many ways through the city were already impassable.  It is nothing like Texas is getting right now but Texas is a lot more used to heavy rains than Fes is.  So we were really getting a show this evening.

It was late, probably around seven, when we got back to the riad.  By the time that we had gotten in and had tea it was too late for dinner.  We were unsure if we even wanted dinner because we had eaten lunch so late and it was a large meal.  But eventually Rachel and Shawn were hungry so we tried to figure something out.

We spent quite some time having tea and just relaxing in the courtyard.  Our friend from reception came and hung out with us for quite some time too.

We had asked the riad to find us wine and they actually went someone out to the supermarket to find Moroccan wine for us!  That was really awesome.  Then we asked if there was any way to get food.  They were originally going to find take out for us but failed to find any and ended up making us a full dinner late at night!

We ended up having a really nice, quiet evening at the riad.  Everyone had a good time except for Liesl who was completely distraught after Luciana had put on her authentic Moroccan outfit to show it off because when Liesl went to put on hers she realized that it was not the one that she thought that it was going to be and was inconsolably upset over having gotten the wrong outfit.  She is so emotional.  This is one that she loved when she tried it on and we had been super clear and careful when we bought it to make sure that she picked out the one that she wanted.  But in her mind, after having done so, she had switched them and to her this was a tragic loss of the outfit that she had loved.  Dominica was so upset over having spent an hour or more and a lot of money on the outfit just to have Liesl be so upset that the entire evening was lost for her.

After dinner, Dominica the girls down to bed.  Rachel, Shawn and I stayed up later finishing two bottles of Moroccan wine made in the region and in a city that we had come through on the train so we actually knew where it was.  The wine was quite good and we were really happy that we had an opportunity to have real Moroccan wine while in Morocco.  We would have been quite disappointed had we not been able to try that while there.

Tomorrow morning we have to be up and leave rather early so that we can catch the early train and head back to Spain.  We will be traveling nearly all day.

While things did not go as planned and we spent way more money that we had intended to spend we did have a very good day and we really did get an authentic “Moroccan Experience” which is good.  Everyone is glad that we did it and we did get some awesome outfits for the girls (hopefully Liesl will be happy with hers once she gets to show it off back in the States) and we did get a very cool rug that we look forward to being able to display.