Upsides and Downsides of my first days in Morocco.
To start out our month in Morocco, Matt and I flew into Fes, the cultural capital of Morocco. Fes is famous for its massive Medina which is the oldest in the world, and is also home to the oldest university in the world.
As someone who has traveled a fair bit, Fes is still a huge 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.
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. 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 wth Abdul. He told us that all the Mosques have green tiled roofs, because green is the color of Islam, and 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, through pitch black alleyways, sunny courtyards with kids playing football, and crowded, narrow, winding streets.
We kept telling him we had to leave soon, and 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, even though Matt and I both felt uneasy at this point.
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 about $20, which seemed a bit steep for a tour we didn’t even ask for and kept trying to leave. Matt literally emptied his wallet for the guy, which had about 120 dirhams in it, and 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 conversation 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 we had and stormed off.
Matt and I spent the rest of the evening feeling a mix of confused, guilty and embarrassed. We were starving, 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 Moroccan standards it’s definitly overpriced.
After we got over the shock of the incident, we laughed about it and promised ourselves not to take any more directions from Moroccan locals.
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, though you can’t even look at an item without instantly being harassed to buy it.
Even in the peace of early afternoon, however, the Medina still feels overwhelming. You just get lost so quickly, and though some of it caters to tourists, a lot of the Medina is 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 and locals barrel through the tiny streets with big rickety wooden carts filled with watermelons.
The scents in the Medina are crazy as well. From sugary sweets, to roasting meat, to fresh bread, to thick industrial scents, to the musk of shops, to body odor, perfume, argan oil, coffee, mint, cigarettes, shisha, trash, livestock, leather, animal waste, urine, paint, glue, and so much more that I can’t identify, the aromas in the Medina change every 3 seconds.
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, like simply laying the animal skins out to dry in the sun and dunking them in giant vats of dye to color the material.
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.
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 few unknown sauces. It was the heaviest sandwich I’ve ever had.
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, and he gave us a little cup of super sweet honey 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.