Fes: A Startling Introduction To Morocco

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Upsides and Downsides from Fes, my first stop in Morocco.

To start out our month in Morocco, Matt and I flew into Fes, the cultural capital of Morocco.

Fes is home to the oldest Medina in the world and the oldest university in the world.

The traditional ways of the Moroccan city are very well preserved, even with the rising tourism sector.

As someone who has traveled a fair bit, Fes was still a huge culture shock.

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So why did Fes create such a strong sense of culture shock?

You can’t walk for five minutes without someone trying to haggle you, and you can’t ask anyone for directions without being expected to pay them.

Locals seem to have made a profession out of milking tourists for money, and they do a damn good job of it.

Moroccans are so friendly and nice that it’s hard to ignore them.

Without even asking, locals are walking right by your side leading you to a restaurant or a tourist attraction.

It usually seems generous at first, but we learned the hard way to always assume there’s a price for even the smallest gesture of kindness.

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The Downsides

We were wandering through the madness of the Medina on our first night in Morocco when we almost walked into a Mosque by mistake.

A local man stopped us and said kindly that non-Muslims could not enter the religious building.

So we apologized and turned to be on our way.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

The man, who we soon found out is a 27 year old Medina native named Abdul, suggested we go to the upper lookout to see the Mosque from above.

Since we had no plans or sense of direction, and Abdul was pretty much already pushing us along, we agreed.

After speed walking around sharp corners and up a few random, hidden staircases, we found ourselves on a rooftop overlooking the city and making small talk with Abdul.

He told us that all the Mosques have green tiled roofs, because green is the color of Islam.

He told us that the massive Medina has over 9,000 streets. This fact didn’t surprise us at all throughout the next 45 minutes, as Abdul continued leading us all over the Medina.

We went through pitch-black alleyways, sunny courtyards with kids playing football, and crowded, narrow, winding streets.

Feelings of uneasiness began to set in.

We were starting to feel like Abdul wasn’t just showing us around to be generous and kind.

Assuming there would be a price, we started saying we wanted to leave this impromptu tour. But he just brushed it off and kept pushing us along.

Matt tried giving him a 50 dirham tip after he brought us up a steep hill outside the Medina to another lookout point.

He refused the tip and insisted on walking us back to our hostel.

He was so determined and eager to have us follow him that we just did.

Finally, Abdul got angry.

When we finally arrived back at our hostel, sweaty and tired, he refused again to take our tip and kept repeating “you pay Moroccan people 200 dirhams!”.

That’s only about $20, but we didn’t have that much money on us and we didn’t even ask for the tour.

Matt literally emptied his wallet for the guy, which had about 120 dirhams in it. Abdul was an overwhelming mix of furious and hysterical.

We couldn’t tell if he was about to cry or fight us. He even gestured to his ring and threatened about “doing this the hard way”.

After a few minutes of stressful arguing, where we apologized endlessly and tried to defend ourselves by saying we just arrived in the country hours ago and didn’t know the customs, Abdul finally took the money and stormed off.

It was not how we imagined our first few hours in Morocco would go.

Matt and I spent the rest of the evening feeling a mix of confused, guilty and embarrassed.

We were hungry and wanted to eat somewhere cheap and out of sight.

But we felt so defeated that we just let another local shove us into a touristy restaurant right in the main square.

We ate our first meal in Morocco, a 60 dirham tagine that equals about $6. This is still super cheap, but for Morocco it’s very overpriced.

After we got over the shock of the incident, we laughed about it and promised ourselves we would never take any more directions from Moroccans.

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The Upsides

Our second day in Fes was a lot better.

We headed back into the Medina, which felt a lot more relaxed at 10am than at 5pm.

We watched craftsmen, carpenters and artists work in their tiny little shops, creating beautiful handmade goods.

Tiny stray kittens either slept curled up in street corners or roamed around looking for food scraps.

Store fronts sat adorned with traditional gowns, jeweled shoes, and vibrantly patterned camel blankets.

The Medina is actually quite fascinating. But you can’t even glance at an item without instantly being pressured to buy it.

Fes’s Medina is still crazy.

Even in the peace of early afternoon, however, the Medina still feels overwhelming.

You get lost so quickly, and though some parts of it caters to tourists, a lot of the Medina is just shocking.

A few different times I saw a man with 4 or 5 chickens laying paralyzed at his feet, tied together by their claws but still alive.

Donkeys are used to transport giant stacks of materials.

Locals barrel through the tiny streets with big rickety wooden carts filled with watermelons.

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The scents in the Medina are crazy as well.

From sugary sweets, roasting meat, and fresh bread, to thick industrial scents, body odor, perfume and argan oil, to coffee, mint, cigarettes, shisha, trash, livestock, leather, animal waste, urine, paint and so much more that I couldn’t identify, the aromas in the Medina changed every second.

Chouara Tannery

The Chouara Tannery is one of the main attractions in the Medina.

As the largest tannery in the world, locals here make leather using traditional methods.

They dunk animal skins in giant vats of dye to color the material, then lay the skins out to dry in the sun.

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We also ventured to Bab Bou Jeloud, known as the Blue Gate, the western entrance of the Medina, and continued outside to the Royal Palace and Jewish Quarter.

We mainly just walked around and observed the beautiful chaos, feeling a bit more comfortable in Fes and a bit more confident in saying no to persistent locals.

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For dinner that night we found a little roadside stall and paid 10 dirhams ($1) each for a massive sandwich filled with mashed potato, french fries, rice, pasta, olives, tomatoes, onions, and a lots of sauces.

It was the heaviest sandwich I’ve ever had, but it was the cheap meal I was looking for.

Overall impressions of Fes

Our stay in Fes was short, but we are happy to be moving on.

The city was hectic and we constantly felt targeted by the locals to try and take our money.

But the people who didn’t try and hassle us, like the people who ran our hostel and the guy who sold us our bus tickets, were extremely nice and helpful.

We even went into a shop in the Medina where the owner didn’t pressure us to buy anything. He even gave us a little cup of super sweet tea just to be hospitable.

So moving forward in Morocco, we’ve learned that locals can be very friendly.

Just always be careful of the pushy ones and tell them right at the start that you don’t have any money to give them.

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☼ ☼ ☼

Before traveling to Morocco…

To read about more of my adventures in Morocco, check out these articles:

Chefchaouen Photo Diary

Budget Travel Guide to Essaouira, Morocco

13 Awesome Things To Do In Marrakech

How To Visit The Sahara Desert From Marrakech

How To Visit the Atlas Mountains on a Budget: Imlil, Morocco

Fez, Morocco

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