Morocco was everything, and nothing, that we expected. The guides we read – articles, blog entries, cursory advice – taught us what we should encounter; the vitality, the contradictions, the very life-ness of the country taught us to expect more. It was indeed a moroccan dream.
By Cassandra & Guet Ghee
The Beginning – Airport
A light-filled, airy place, Fez airport provides an easy transition from the developed world that you have just come from. Since you want the full experience, change €5 at a money changer, either before or after security, for some small change to pay the local bus driver. The Moroccan dirham is a closed currency that is only circulated within the country, therefore you will only be able to buy it when you arrive. Save the stacks you’ve brought to buy Berber rugs and Persian carpets for when you actually find a bank or bureaux de change in the city, where the rates will be better. You might ask the Informations desk for directions, and the lady’s instructions will probably help you thirty percent in actually finding the bus stop, and zero percent in staving off the grand taxi drivers at the carpark. If you are in a bigger group or short on time, negotiate a price between 120 to 150Dh before being whisked away with a radio blaring a mix of Arabic, English, and Spanish songs for twenty or thirty minutes into the city of Fez.
Otherwise, continue to cross the carpark, angle through the exit towards the right, and cross the roundabout. The bus stop possesses a very minimalist design, consisting of a rugged post, no schedule, and a natural tree set back from the pavement for shelter. After an indeterminable period of waiting, you’ll feel unmerited thankfulness when the city bus decides to turn up and you fork over the 4Dh fare. Other than its very purpose, this rattletrap has a negative of redeeming qualities that you notice during the 40-minute journey: cracked plastic seats, no bells, and every seat is a window seat because there’s no aircon and sometimes the window is to the rushing tarmac under the bus.
Follow the crowd of other tourists when they alight and you will be just down the road from Gare de Fès (main train station). The travel-on options are: 1) walking to the Supratours office opposite Gare de Fès to get bus tickets for an overnight journey to the desert town of Merzouga (170Dh one way, possible 5Dh luggage fee), 2) taking a taxi to Gare Routière to get CTM bus tickets to Chefchaouen, the Blue Pearl (75Dh one way), recommended to be done the day before departure, 3) get first-class train tickets to any other city in Morocco. Popular day trips include the Roman ruins of Volubilis, and the Tuesday-market town of Azrou.
Medina of Fez
You decide, correctly, that it wouldn’t count unless you visit the medina. Since it’s not Friday afternoon, which is prayer evening and when the shops close early, take a red petit taxi near the train station to Bab Boujloud (Blue Gate), the most picturesque entrance of the medina. The cost for a pair of you to this attraction should be 15Dh, an individual 7 or 8Dh. The driver might pick up some other people along the way, and you’ll wonder if the locals pay as much as you do. They never seem to bargain prices beforehand.
Historic Arab Quarter of Fez
The historic Arab quarter will remain the most vivid of your experiences of urban life in Fez, with its labyrinthine paths from one souk (covered market) to the next, and its sheer concentration of humanity. Everything has two or more faces here. Pyramids of fried cookies buzzing with houseflies and bees, next to a cafe that sells only crepes for breakfast, like an establishment catered to foreigners with snobbish tastes. The books say not to expect locals to speak much English, only Arabic or French. But the vendors do, and they say a lot: “Hello, where you from?” “You speak English?” and a hundred incessant repetitions of “konnichiwa” and “nihao”to your Asian-ness. The rules say that it is a conservative country, and there are no public displays of affection; yet you feel a touch on your elbow to have you turn around, a head bent close to yours, as if the successful act of prising out where you are headed to is as consequential as a marriage contract, a momentary mimicry of intimacy.
As you head downhill towards the tanneries, in the direction of Bab R’cif, these queries will intensify, become more dogged. You struggle not to grow circumspect and accept one of the boys’ proposals (“You want to see the tannery? Cost nothing”). And after being invited to a balcony of what is a narrow house converted into showrooms of leather goods hung layers-deep, and seen the vats and smelled their stink, and you decide you’re not spending your stacks there, the man will ask you as you’re leaving if you’re going to pay him, and when you decline, he backs off because the guide had said it was free. There’ll be another time that you’re lost in the medina, and a taciturn man with a plastic bag will lead you back to a familiar street without so much as acknowledging you after his first and only word: “Medina?”It’s a time before 9am, and as you wander the silent paths, you pass the same cleaner and his donkey with its Sisyphean load of trash four times.
You find the Qarayouine Mosque, which you’ve heard is Muslim-only, but the janitor pushes the doors wide open for you to look and take pictures, and the white sunlight makes everything gleam like the new day. The pale city walls, crumbling yet stoic, will convince you of their eternality as you walk around them towards Borj Nord and the Merenid Tombs, swallows dipping and chirruping above you. The North Fortress affords shade in the afternoon, and a panoramic view of the oldest medieval city in North Africa – as crowded as a favela, as deep-rooted as the surrounding mountains, you can imagine the centuries worth of merchants and travellers that have passed through Fez, of which you are now a part of.
When you return to the medina, you’re a bit more confident this time that you can find the place you plan to go for dinner, recognising the stalls and shops you’ve passed by several times. Someone yells at you that you’ve turned up a wrong street. “Good luck forever!” he shouts exasperatedly when you don’t immediately reappear. He tells you later, at the same volume, how to get to Café Clock as you pass him and his bicycle. The drinks there impress you more than its signature camel burger does, and you will return to savour their mint lemonade, lemon tea, and the breathing space it affords at roof level.
Chefchaouen, a five-hour ride away, rewards you with food better than what you’ve found in Fez. Aside from the fact that one of the front-of-house persons of a restaurant derides you for not speaking English after he thrusts his menu in front of you and you show uncertainty, a joint in one of the dreamy blue streets called Snack Assaada and another called Bab Ssour tucked in a courtyard presents you with tagines, bissara, and magnum appetisers of bread and olives. On market days, women in hats adorned with colourful pom-poms line the streets with their vegetables and trays of msemen, figs and containers of preserves. The relatively serene town leaves you feeling silly for expecting the vendors of the same leather goods, clothing, and metalworks shops there to pounce on you, too.
Perhaps the shades of blue – Prussian to ultramarine to sapphire – do really work on the mood; certainly, there is no lack of an urge to take photographs of and among the painted alleys. Sometimes, tourists queue patiently at a street with their cameras in hand, as if there is a Smurf-like Santa Claus yonder. As you hike a certain stairway, a man with several baguettes passes you on his way back home, continuing on even as the walls around give way from calm azure hues to weather-beaten buildings coated in uneven swathes of functional white. Every mark of dirt, hazy puddle, and the remains of a trash bag dragged downslope stands out on the blue floors. You marvel at how intentional the blue is: not native to the brick or cement or stone walls, but stubbornly painted and repainted to maintain the namesake of the place.
A Town of White and Blue
The town is a checkerboard of white and blue from the viewpoint at the Spanish Mosque. The 20-minute walk from the centre, past Ras el-Maa, where local children scramble across mossy rocks and wade through the small cascades, is best made near sunset. At 7.30pm the call to prayer erupts from one mosque to the next, and the somnolent voices carry uphill powerfully, dancing into the sky in cadences. They bring dusk quickly on their heels. You spend minutes watching the sky’s colour change, and the town transform itself into a sparkling grid floating in the darkness on the side of the hill. The silence that falls at the end of the adhan is a population devoting itself to ritual. You are reminded of a scene that you’d caught fleetingly as you looked out of the window of an overnight bus, like one from a film with no audio: a courtyard of a humble mosque so packed that the floor cannot be seen. With an unheard command, these humped shapes lift themselves from their prostration. It is as fantastic as seeing a comber gathering momentum and washing through the square. You pick out sombre faces, clasped hands; only at this point do you recognise them as men: young, old, differently-shaped, wearing djellabas to t-shirts. It will be one of the most memorable panoramas you’ve experienced.
The natural beauty of Akchour will be something else that is unforgettable. Having covered most of Chefchaouen by foot in a day, you leave early for the taxi point in the hopes that you’ll meet other intrepid travellers to share a taxi for the 40-minute journey. A couple appears after some waiting, and the pair of you have to fork over 75Dh instead of 150Dh for the whole car. You think to yourself, somewhat naively, shouldn’t the African landscape would be more barren?
The hills pull away from the road in a patchwork of green and gold. Women in full sun protection gather straw in wide fields. A digger trundles ahead and you inhale diesel fumes and dust through the open windows. Construction workers look up as the taxi passes, tires crunching over gravel. You haven’t paid for someone to meet you at the destination, but a local comes up to you anyway with a smile full of grey teeth. It’s an interesting conversation that you have with him, one that sees him swerving from demanding to coaxing and back to demanding again, as he refuses to leave you alone. The same bipolarity lasts for the duration that he is your guide. At first, after you negotiate a deal, he is jolly and gracious. He will give you a cluster of pink flowers and calling your name, hospitably request to take lopsided pictures of you.
The riverbank route to the Bridge of God is confusing, and as you clamber over rickety bridges and a boulder sitting in the middle of rushing water, you don’t think you would’ve found the attraction on your own. You ask if he knows what the reason for its name is; he answers, because it’s natural. The 80 metre-high structure of orange rock shrubbed with greenery reminds you of a portal. A portal to a fabled oasis for good swimming and enjoyment, payment per entry, if you please. You decline, and the guide leads you back abruptly, saying little and drawing further and further ahead. As you come near the end of the route, he greets an Italian couple amiably and, as if to spite you, gives them directions for which you’ve had to pay and which they didn’t actually ask for. You hand over 50Dh and, as part of the agreement, he ‘speaks you the way’ to the Cascades d’Akchour. You consider yourself having made a good deal for that amount; the path to the Petite Cascades and the larger waterfall beyond very easily found.
The natural beauty of the lush mountains, just like the Sahara Desert in the southeastern part of the country, need not be rehashed. You would say rest assured that they are as, if not more, beautiful than the collective of descriptions you have encountered. But rest will earn you nothing; being an armchair traveller with regards to a place such as this is the greatest loss. The only right thing to do is to dive straight into the Moroccan melee: navigate the conglomerate of smells from the base to divine, drink milk mixed with Cola in a darkening tent with nomads, feel the throb of shock catching sight of a snake that someone has clubbed to death on the trail, embrace the same sunlight that beats fiercely on mountain, building, and head alike. The only right thing to do is to touch the unknown – the life-ness – for yourself.