Morocco. “Medina Navigation: there is none”

i awoke with a minor hangover and a concerned tourguide urging everyone to get ready with a little more haste than usual.  i was too haggard to question why, so i stuffed my clothes into my backpack and loaded myself into the van.  after we had been driving about an hour, our tour guide, zuzu, explained to us that there were extremely large rainclouds unexpectedly approaching and we needed to hurry if we had any chance of making it up and through the mountain pass in the atlas mountains before the storm settled in above us.  zuzu was uncharacteristically and visibly nervous, and after a few follow-up questions we were able to determine that there was a high chance of heavy flooding coming with this storm, and that was cause enough for some concern among the group.  the middle of the desert is not where you want to be in the middle of a flash flood, and neither is a narrow mountain pass with one way in and one way out.  our driver stepped on the accelerator and began whipping the van back and forth along the curvy mountain roads as the rain began to come down.  i was suddenly aware of how few guardrails existed on this perilous road, with steep cliffs shooting straight down into nothing for hundreds of feet, leaving no room for any margin of error.  it wasn’t until a couple hours later when we had finally made it to the other side of the pass and pulled over for a brief bathroom break that anyone in the van breathed even a single gasp of air.  inside the rest stop and hiding from the driving rain were at least a dozen other tour groups from various different ethnicities and nationalities.  we only stayed for 10 minutes before zuzu corralled us back into the van and our driver shot the van forward, back into the race against the storm.

green among the dustas we sped along the desert, retreading our paces through morocco all the way back to marrakech, we all noticed in bewilderment the volume of water building up in the previously dry creek beds.  parched old riverbeds that we had previously hopped over on foot through stepping stones or wooden planks were now raging rapids, tearing through anything in its path and taking it along for the ride.  we crossed over bridges that had been easily 15 feet high before, and now the violent river waters were lapping greedily at the bottom of the bridge, and in some cases splashing and spilling up onto the roadway.  each town we went through was empty, as inhabitants and residents had all made their way to the riverside to gawk at the unbelievable act of nature occurring right in their front yard.

i remember wanting to stop and take some pictures, but i could tell that we were currently in a state of emergency.  where zuzu had previously been entertaining and educational, he was now silent or on his cell phone, trying to get weather and roadway information.  he was concerned, and he wanted to get back to the big city where things would be safer.  we would later find out that this storm was the biggest flood in 40 years, cutting off over 100 roads and killing over 30 people, including tourists from another bus somewhere behind us that had gotten swept away in one of the rivers that had broken its banks and made it onto the bridge.  we were all extremely grateful for our aggressive driver.

that night i made the decision to leave the tour early.  we still had a day and a half left on the tour, which the group had decided would be spent in the portuguese-influenced town of essaouira on morocco’s western coast, but after evaluating the options, i was ready to strike out on my own.  i had decided to head north, in an attempt to find my way to chefchaouen, a tiny little town nestled in the hills below the rif mountains also known as “the blue pearl.”  the weather wasn’t getting any better, and i thought it might be best to push as far north as i could before the heart of the storm settled in and stranded me somewhere, especially because i was scheduled to depart a week later out of tangiers.  i said my goodbyes to the australians and to gugu and surjit, as well as zuzu, our guide.  they had all been fantastic travel companions, and each of them had a part in me finding the confidence within myself to begin traveling in morocco on my own.

i got off my bus in fes and decided to stay for a couple nights.  i made my way to bab boujloud, the main city gate into the medina and starting point for most first-timers.  as i crossed into the great arch of the gate, i mentally prepared myself for the coming onslaught of undesired attention i was about to get.  i had a general idea of where i wanted to go and had memorized the map, so i felt about as prepared as i thought i could be, but no further than 10 steps inside the gate and i was already unsure if i had zigged when i should have zagged.  i silently cursed google maps as people began calling to me in various different languages, taking blind guesses at what my nationality might be.  the ancient medina of fes is over 1200 years old and is widely accepted as the oldest one in the world… how hard could it be to have an accurate map online?!?!  they’ve had plenty of time to update it!

not wanting to pay anyone for help quite yet and determined to figure it out myself, i made a snap decision and began walking down what seemed to be a main avenue, following the throngs of foot motorbike parkingtraffic into the narrow walkways and into the beating heart of the medina.  camelskin rugs, bushels of mint leaves, loaded-up pack mules, walls of adidas and nike shoes, leather handbags, smells of freshly baking bread, spice racks filled to the brim brightly colored spices, ornate brightly colored exotic lamps, and myriad other items all swirled around my head, attempting to lure me closer to a booth or shop and elicit a purchase.  with my large backpack mounted high on my shoulders, i attracted everyone around me like a magnet.  there was no anonymity for me here, and i only hoped that i would be able to find my hostel soon.

“hello my friend!  what hostel are you searching for?  i will help you!”  a tall but young man called out to me from his small booth only 4 feet away.  despite the close quarters here, it was still necessary to yell due to the amount of activity all around.  “yeah right, i’ve heard that before..” i thought to myself as i smiled and kept walking.  i walked for another 10 minutes, never finding the turn i thought i needed.  i was now lost and it was almost dark.  my sense of direction was telling it was somewhere to my left, so i decided to just take my next left and see where it took me.  after wandering around random dark alleys with random stray cats and small children eyeing me a pair of assessuspiciously for a couple minutes, i realized that was a complete mistake and tried to make my way back the way i’d come.  except i couldn’t find it.  i took a few more turns and began walking down an increasingly narrow and dark alleyway until i couldn’t move anymore.  literally.  “what the hell?”  i said aloud, realizing that my large backpack had become wedged between the two concave walls, trapping me where i stood.

“shit”  i said under my breath as i tried to wriggle free, hoping no one was watching.  after a minute of no success i stopped and started laughing quietly in futility. i was completely lost and totally frustrated.  this was exactly what i’d hoped to avoid, but my fear of getting lost in a medina had never included becoming a human cork. a kid appeared about 20 feet ahead of me and looked at me curiously for a few seconds before realizing what had happened.  he laughed and then ran away.  “time to get out of here” i thought to myself, and instead of wiggling back and forth, i dropped to the ground and the pack slipped free from the leaning walls.  there was more room the lower i got.  i crawled the rest of the way and finally made my way back to a crowded area where shops and vendors were touting their services and wares.

“lesson learned,” i said to myself, and chalked it up to “medina navigation:  there is none.” i decided to just follow the upward slope that i had been descending, assuming that most roads in that direction would lead me back to the main gate.

on my way back, i heard a familiar voice call out to me “still lost, my friend?  dar el yasmine, you are looking for dar el yasmine, i can help you.”  that was indeed the place i was looking for.  i surrendered, knowing i was never going to find this place on my own, and turned around to see the tall young man i had briefly interacted with earlier.  i prepared myself to bargain for how much it would cost for someone to escort me to my hostel, but was surprised when, after a few brief exchanges, he gave me short, easy to follow directions.

“no, this is my neighborhood, i will help you. you don’t have to buy anything from me.  welcome to fes” he said with a genuine smile.  i thanked him profusely and made my way to the riad.

inside a typical moroccan riad

a riad is a traditional moroccan house with a courtyard or interior garden in the center, typically with rooms on multiple floors that surround the courtyard.  similar to staying in a hotel with a big center lobby that all the rooms face out toward on all floors, only smaller.   a tall man named yussef opened the door and politely informed me that dar el yasmine was overbooked, but that they had another property nearby where they could put me up.  he could have told me the world was ending the next day, i didn’t care, i was just relieved to have found the place.  i followed him down another alley and into the other building where he checked me in.

after locating my bunk bed and securing my valuables, i walked down to the courtyard area of the riad, where yussef had sent me a pot of mint tea for me to relax.  i gratefully poured some and began talking with yussef.  he was tall, with a fashionable sense of style and a good sense of humor.  he had a big contagious smile and spoke very good english.  after joking with me a bit about my troubles getting lost in the medina, he gave me a quick rundown of all the things to do in the area and then left me to do some work.  after a few minutes, an attractive female hostel guest entered and sat on a couch nearby.  i struck up a conversation and before long, she was introducing me to her group of friends and we were making plans to go out that night.  we asked yussef and he instructed us to go to a specific place where we would be able to dance and drink some alcohol and smoke shisha (tobacco flavored with fruit preservatives) from a hookah pipe without concern of any consequence.

we entered the nightclub, where the bouncers apparently had been expecting us.  we deduced that yussef had called ahead and made sure that we would be taken care of, which we were thankful for.  we made our way toward a corner of the room and grabbed a couple couches and ordered drinks and a hookah pipe.  the lights were flashing and the music was loudly bouncing an electronic beat with an arabic lean to it, and every single person in the place was looking at us, very aware that we were not local.  after studying my surroundings for a minute, i decided that no one was upset with our arrival, just gawking at the large group of foreigners whom had just entered the place and, if i’m being honest, livened the place up.  it wasn’t long before we were dancing and enjoying ourselves, and the other patrons seemed to be enjoying watching us make fools of ourselves.

irene was the name of the first girl i had met, and she had introduced me to everyone else.  irene was tall and thin with brown hair, a big smile, and a goofy, fun sense of humor.  i don’t think there was a single moment i hung out with her where she wasn’t laughing.  she knew how to enjoy life.  she was from spain, but had moved to casablanca for a change of pace and a job.  then there was blandine, a petite blonde woman with curly hair, alluring eyes and a cool confidence that could only be french.  she, too, had moved to casablanca for a job and a chance to experience another culture, where she met irene and charles, another fellow whom had moved from france to casablanca for a job.  charles was of medium height and was very funny, and appeared to be leader of the group (unintentionally.  he just seemed to be the guy who would take charge whenever the group needed to make a decision).  then there was also diego, another guy from spain who seemed to have a reputation for being the judgmental, sarcastic asshole that made everyone laugh.  many times throughout the night, irene or blandine would be telling me a story that would somehow feature some sort of hilariously insensitive or negligent comment that diego had made, forcing everyone to laugh incredulously at his gall.  and lastly, there was antonishing, a young german guy who, similar to me, was just passing through on his own backpacking journey.  they were all great fun and the chemistry of the group was fantastic, everyone got along great.

as the night began to get late, we left the nightclub in search for some late-night food and were lucky when we found a tiny sandwich shop opening up nearby.  we had only been there about 5 minutes when suddenly yussef appeared out of nowhere and surprised us.  someone from the club must have phoned to inform him the hilarious drunk europeans had left the party, either that or we were so loud that yussef could hear us clear back to the riad when we had decided to leave.  we were glad that he had shown up, because none of us could remember how to get back to the riad now that the streets had turned dark and the shadows had changed the face of the city.  also, all of us were a little drunk.

the next day i wandered around the city with a couple of other spaniards that i had been sharing a room with.  they were a couple of funny, curious guys who fearlessly ventured down alleyways and into parts of town where no other tourists were to be seen.  at one point, we had stumbled our way to a part of town where the ground wasn’t even concrete any longer.  it was now dirt, and the shops were a lot less tourist-friendly.  clearly people didn’t make it this far back very often, but it was a little nice that there weren’t the usual bevy of people in our faces trying to sell us something.  as we walked, we heard a commotion ahead and approached curiously to see what was going on.  we were shocked when we walked to the front of a small shop where a large fight had broken out.  12 or 13 men were grappling with each other, throwing big punches and kicking and yelling at each other.  we stood there for a minute, not sure what to do, before i shoved both spaniards and shouted “let’s get outta here!”  we ran until we couldn’t see the fight anymore, ending up at bab rcif, another historic city gate, where we relaxed with a glass of sugar cane and lemon, and i tried “ghoulal,” a moroccan soup made of snails, for the first time from a street cart.  needless to say, the sugar cane drink was fantastic, the snail soup was disgusting.

bab rcif
bab rcif

after playing with some kids nearby for a bit, we wandered back toward the riad where i stumbled back into the young man who had helped me find my way to dar el yasmine the previous night.  i introduced him to my friends and Amine began excitedly introducing us to all the other shop owners in the vicinity, happy that i had remembered him and come back to say hi.  he walked over to his neighbor’s stall and grabbed a cup of goat’s yogurt, giving it to me and refusing any payment.  i was shocked at his generosity, especially since most of the people i had met in medinas so far had only been interested in my money, and amine genuinely didn’t seem to care about that.  i ate some of the goat’s yogurt and shared it with the spaniards, grateful that it tasted much better than the snail soup.  after about 10 minutes of standing around talking with amine, i suddenly had a random idea.
“amine. can we stay here and hang out with you?  i mean, can we help you sell your stuff to other tourists?”  i asked earnestly, but with a clever grin on my face.

amine, on the left
amine, on the left

he got a look of inspiration on his face and blurted out “yes!  excellent!”  he turned around and pulled out some chairs for us, clearing some space for us to sit next to his table.  “you sell to all the white people!”  he said enthusiastically, as we all laughed.

i began somewhat timidly, but within 10 minutes i was doing my best moroccan salesman impression, calling loudly to passersby, offering rugs or coats or saying whatever i could that might get someone’s attention.  as tourists passed, they would be doing their best to stay the course, ignoring the vendors and touts, but hearing an american voice…

DSC09266“my friend!  i make you good price!  nice camelskin rugs!  authentic moroccan coats! whatever you need, i have it!”  i would call out to people.  they would hear my voice and glance over in my direction and quickly back in the direction they were walking. a second later, their brain would register what they saw and they would then look back over at me with a mix of confusion and disbelief, unsure of what they were seeing until i would flash them a smile, causing them to laugh and keep walking.  amine and the other shop owners nearby couldn’t get enough, and they were all laughing hysterically, as were the spaniards.  i got increasingly confident, and started walking around, standing up, leaving the safety of my seat.  i even got a few tourists to come over and browse, but nobody bought anything.  whenever someone came over to browse, amine would jump up and snap into action.  he was young, probably 18 or 19 years old, but he was very good.  i watched incredulously throughout the afternoon as i heard him speak at least 6 different languages, and he claimed to speak 2 more.  he was very proud of what he did, bragging about being the youngest kid to ever loitererwork his own booth in fes, getting his start at his father’s booth at age 12.  he bragged about the deals he’d pulled off, getting rich and ignorant tourists to overpay significantly on items.  i was conflicted at first about such stories, but i ultimately came to the opinion that anyone who didn’t take the time to research a conversion rate before stepping into a medina probably deserved to get taken for a ride.  it’s not like people were buying cars here, anyway, and if somebody overpaid by $50 for a coat, it wasn’t going to break anyone.  it’s part of the learning curve.

after a few hours of hanging out with amine and his friends and trying my best to sell something for amine, we decided to call it a day.  we thanked them all, and amine thanked us for spending time with him, and we parted ways.

that night i was back at the riad searching for a place to eat dinner when i saw on facebook that an old college friend had posted some photos of fes.  incredulously, i reached out and discovered that she and her husband happened to be in fes the very same night that i was.  we arranged to meet at the main gate, bab boujloud, and from there we found a restaurant inside the medina.  abby and ben had both been a couple years behind me at my tiny little private college in arkansas, but we had gotten along great whenever we had hung out.  they now lived in the same city as i, in denver, though we rarely saw each other.  we caught up on each others’ lives over the years, but we mainly shared opinions and experiences about and in morocco so far.  ben had apparently not even supposed to be in morocco, as abby had explained that she had been taking the trip solo while ben was on a business trip in los angeles (ben is a badass photographer http://benjaminrasmussenphoto.com/ ) but he had stop for directionswrapped early and then hopped a last minute flight and surprised abby for the last few days of the trip.  they, too, had been interested in going to chefchaouen as well, so we made plans to figure out the bus the next morning and travel there together.

—-

this week’s suggested listening comes from a new band hailing from southern california called parade of lights.  the single is called “golden” and features heavy bass beats with a catchy chorus and playful synthy soundscapes around a straightforward piano riff.  once you play this song it’ll be stuck in your head all day.  enjoy…

and for those following along at home…

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