Frazzled, frustrated, fearful in Fes. I left not a fan.
To be fair, the seven- hour bus ride on CTM with no bathroom break began the trip badly. At 10 AM as Monica and I tried to board behind other passengers allowed on the coach at the station, we were yelled at angrily and herded back into the lobby. As we showed the glaring employee our tickets he shut the glass door in our faces. Ten minutes later another man opened another door and we were allowed to file out with others. Was the first guy’s treatment of us because we were the only two on the bus from outside the country? Because we were the only two women? Because he was rude, tired, or angry? No idea.
At dusk we rolled into Fes exhausted. Monica had come for a fall break visit, and we’d just returned to my apartment the night before from a 3-day camel campout far south in the Sahara desert. Thankful for her company, I was glad we’d booked a big week. Outside our bus window we saw a mob of people running frenetically to cluster in a circle around something, someone in the middle. Was this the start of protesting the US Embassy warned us about via email while we were en route—a strike we were told could become violent? The email cautioning Americans to stay inside appeared on my phone a couple of hours from our destination. Hoping it was an an over-precaution, I contacted a friend who teaches in the city. She said her school told them to stay home and stay in. Too late for that. I messaged a coworker who was on an overnight train headed to Tangier to be careful.
By the time we arrived by taxi at the world’s largest Medina–a medieval maze dating back to the 9th century–it was too dark not to negotiate a deal with a boy who offered to guide us to our riad. With over a thousand streets and a population of 250,000 within the ancient city walls, we appreciated the young man grabbing our backpacks, throwing them into his cart, and taking off so fast we had to rush to keep up. Another man appeared, walking alongside the one we’d hired. We assumed they knew each other. He chatted at us as if our old friend. By October I’d already learned to ignore young men who give “helpful” suggestions you never asked for. Some follow foreigners even after being told their services are not needed. Unsolicited, they’ve told me I’m going the wrong way—and though they are sometimes right—a word of thanks leads to a demand for money. We’d struck a deal and typically that made us off limits to another guide asking for pay. Still, I didn’t talk to Guy Number 2 because I was too tired, a little suspicious, and experiencing the first symptoms of culture shock that would hit full force in this city.
The alleyways smelled of sewage and animals live and dead. Cats clawed at garbage flung everywhere. Peering at me in the dark was either a Kafka-sized cockroach or scarab beetle that had migrated north from The Mummy set. Though I was thankful for the absence of motorbikes that threaten to run over my foot or mow me down with one mistimed step in the Marrakesh souks, donkey carts were more prevalent here—always depressing as I feel powerless while many drivers hit their animals with thick sticks. The stench of the tanneries— raw and pungent unlike a leather coat or couch smell– assaulted every alley.
Doors were open and from inside dark, narrow thresholds, solemn male faces and those of their horses and mules stared at us as strange creatures. Children’s cries came from upstairs windows. Scaffolding—wooden boards—held up leaning, stone walls, obstructing light and making sunny days dark. Groups of boys ran wild—no parents in sight, the older ones looking for business. A little guy, about six, smacked me on the behind and laughed as I passed. This was a male town. Over the next 24 hours I’d see younger boys with dads but never a girl and rarely a woman in sight.
When we finally stopped at our destination my imagination was in high gear, transporting us back in time. We used the iron knocker on the heavy wooden door and I waited for some mysterious, shrouded figure to open it, then give us some secret sign to enter. Thankfully, a smiling, professional, thirty-something man—Mohammed—opened the door and welcomed us in. Monica walked inside. I had no change, so I handed the boy we’d hired a 200- Dirham- bill and asked if he had any. The other guy grabbed the money, saying it was his portion. I’d reached my limit—furious from exhaustion and the repeat of a couple of bad experiences I’d had early last fall. I said we had no deal and that money was for the other guy—the one who had actually done the work.
The interloper took off down the alley, saying something about getting change. Monica came out asking why I’d given the guy cash. I hadn’t heard her say she was getting smaller bills. We wondered if he’d return. He did and insisted again he keep the money for his “services.” He was hostile and I’d had it. We paid the guy we hired, and the manager and Monica took over with Con Guy. I stumbled into our new place.
Moving to a new continent has taught me a lot. Mostly about myself and some of it not pretty. Navigating my first two months as an expat– some bouts of sadness over what I left behind and daily over-stimulation from first-ever situations– left me drained. I needed a break but in Fes felt placed on even higher alert. A baby in a new world, I was undone by hunger and fatigue and, in the words of my friend, Kim, ‘I wanted to fling myself on the ground and cry.”
Before I’d left Nashville, my friend, Dana, who was packing for Taiwan tried to give me preventive medicine. Having taught in Casablanca she gave me a list of comfort food to take from home that I wouldn’t find in Morocco. When my bags filled fast with a year’s worth of clothes, I dismissed her advice because when I’d previously traveled I’d loved eating the local cuisine. Tagines, grilled meat, and couscous was my future.Two months in, I longed for anything but. I didn’t realize the food here is bland for someone who loves spice. Tagines are pot roast, and grilled meat can be tough. On the Sahara trek only Moroccan food was served. The week before we’d had mostly the same. I knew from traveling one has to be flexible, but by fall break I’d learned living in a culture is very different from traveling through it.
Billed as a metropolitan city of 1 million, Fes had food reviews promising an international hub for delicious and diverse dishes. After the desert, food here would be dessert. Let the vacation begin! We’d planned to eat out; but after the drama of getting to our riad and getting rid of Con Guy, we were ready to stay in. The manager offered us dinner there. We asked about the strike.
“I’ll know by 10 AM tomorrow if it’s safe for you to go out. If not, you’ll need to stay here.”
Fearing our own episode of Big Brother meets Survivor, I asked, “If we can’t leave, what will we eat?” A carnivore with a gnawing stomach, I’d noticed the tagine on the stove he’d offered for dinner smelled good. Lamb or beef and a glass of wine would stop my hunger shakes and calm my nerves.
“We’ll find something. As soon as our other guests–a couple from Germany arrive, we’ll have dinner.”
“Ok, thanks. That sounds good.”
The tagine is vegetarian.” I need protein, my belly cried.
“And we don’t have wine in the medina.”
I put off this post for months because I realize I should have been thankful for any food given that many people here don’t have anything to eat. Having read Night I realize I’ve never been truly hungry in my life. But when baser urges took over, as we say in the south, I acted ugly.
I also hadn’t heeded Dana’s advice to stay rested. Recently I was talking with my friend, Sherry, an expat in Ecuador. She said it’s funny how much our way of doing things seems hard-wired within us–as if it’s in our DNA. Sometimes we naturally default rather than reset. Famished and frustrated, I reacted from my flesh rather than the Spirit. Assumptions about what a vacation should look like, smell like, feel like, sound like, and especially taste like set me up for disappointment I didn’t handle well.
But by grace, we always get better.
The riad was beautiful, and Frank Sinatra was crooning. Another guest, a young man from Australia, entertained us with travel stories. When the other guests arrived, we sat down to a delicious meal and, Voila, a bottle of wine, which the manager ordered appeared.
The conversation over dinner was one of the most interesting I’ve had since moving to Morocco. The couple that joined us was from Germany and the best treasure we found in that Imperial City. With Klaus, a vet, and Monika, a teacher,we discussed with Mohammed our children, education, travel, life. We learned that Islamic men are still allowed four wives if they can support them—another jolt of culture shock as I thought that practice was no longer observed and wondered how wives feel about that. He assured us, smiling, that he finds one is more than enough. We met her the next day—pretty and expecting their first child.
Though the protest closed most shops, it was deemed safe enough to go out. After a delicious breakfast with the best fresh-squeezed OJ I’d ever had, the four of us set out in the sunshine together. We strolled through the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Oraganization) World Heritage Site, capital of Morocco until 1925, and still- religious center, finding the beautiful palace and gardens. We stopped for tea. Klaus and Monika deflected harassment though one boy did tell us the restaurant we’d chosen for dinner was closed, lead us to another one, then wait outside for payment. When we left the riad the next day we exchanged contact info. They talked with Monica about staying with her in Vigo and gave me an invitation to visit them anytime in Eichenzell which connects to train routes throughout Germany.
With more time, we might have discovered the new city and found it lovely, and in the medina, wandered into rich riads and enjoyed them. But on this stop Monica and me found it wasn’t so much about what we saw as who we saw it with. With darkness lifted by the new friends, we set out for the blue skies of Chefchaouen.