Jephir Treks America: Bumbling Through Central America

A 6 week adventure in gastronomica, sights, and observation.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Fes-ian recollections...

Fes is a grimy, twisting city smeared between two hillsides. More visceral than Marrakech, more Berber than Casablanca, Fes is often called the brain of Morocco due to the Madrusas full of Koran wielding students, arabic language schools and a Fes-centric view of the world. We arrived in Fes to sheets of rain near 5 pm on Friday. A curious example of East meets West, Moroccan banks are only open 4.5 days a week due to Friday being the Muslim holy day. As such, Sam failed to change any travellers checks, leaving him without funds for the weekend.

Whilst Sam searched for funding, Z and I were looking for fuel. We were nearly delirious by the time we found a vendor serving street food out of a (literal) hole in the wall. Concrete and tile, the only gas lines streaming from propane tanks to burnerds lit with flaming napkins, our chef cooked with pride and intensity. While his color scheme was drab, the harira (soup) was steaming and the fried potato and egg sandwiches tasty.

Stomachs filled for $1.25 each, we hopped in a cab for Hotel Dalila, a pension recommended to us by a local during our trainride to Fes. Located on the edge of the medina, Hotel Dalila is a clean place with friendly, English speaking staff. After checkin we ran to the closest internet cafe where Sam read lengthy emalis from his latest romance and I received notice from Peter and Mary that we were to meet them at a tea shop in the new city at 8:00pm. We checked the time and the map and realized we were to meet them in 10 minutes 2 blocks from where we had eaten dinner! The meetup went off without a hitch and we shared a few cups of tea before setting up a meeting time and returned to our respective hotels. Once at the hotel, Sammo shot off another email to Idi and Jephir went to bed.

Morning brought more mint tea and conversations ranging from donkeys to the socioeconomic impact of football on Moroccan society. Our hotel manager offered us his son Nisha to be our guide around the medina. Without a guide one cannot avoid becoming hopelessly lost and constantly attacked by would-be guides, so we agreed without reservation. Nisha, a slender boy of 13, speaks Arabic, French, English, Italian and a bit of Spanish. We filled in some of the gaps in his English vocabulary with words such as: Lord of the Rings, Reaganomics, Ragin' Cajun and "It puts the lotion in the basket." Grateful for his lesson, Nisha showed us the tanneries and requisite leather shop (1 pair shoes, 2 pairs sandals, 1 money belt). The tanneries in Fes use camel, goat, sheep and cow hides to make leathers for all sorts of items ranging from hassocks to jackets. The tanning process uses pigeon excrement in a fairly ingenious manner and all sorts of natural dyes to give the leather wild colors - saffron for yellow, indigo for blue, etc. Supposedly the pepole working in the tanneries have had the process handed down one generation to the next - although once you smell the tanneries you have to wonder why anyone would want them in the first place.

Speaking of smells, due to the rains, the streets of Fes released all the pentup odors from months of dry weather - goat, donkey, sheep, chicken and cat dung (Mohammed liked cats), all kinds of rotten and otherwise spoiled food as well as any random smells you might expect in a medieval city. Because that really is Fes at its heart - a city from the past where modernity with its gadgets, bells and whistles can't fit through the 3-foot wide streets, trips on the cobblestones and irregular steps, and is too impatient to wait behind a throng of women in gelabis (jellybeans). Even when the UN allocates $75 million to restore and preserve the medina, most of that money is spent on 12' long 2x4s that are used to keep the buildings from falling in on one another.

These boards are surprisingly common about the city, often crossing streets at a lower altitude than one might imagin possible. Such boards were only one of the many obstacles one encounters when trying to keep pace with a 13 year old boy who seems to be nonchalantly strolling along without a care in the world. Meanwhile, you find yourself running at full speed to keep up, assailed by vendors, blocked by old women and toddlers just learning walk, nearly run over by overloaded donkeys and groped by old men.

Travelling through the medina at such a breakneck speed is like driving your Formula 1 racecar while bikini clad supermodels try jaywalking on your racetrack. Because while you want to follow Nisha to the madrusa where students sit alone in 5 ft square cells and study the Koran for 10 hours a day, you also want to look at the 50 heaping piles of olives or the crazy pastries in this stand or the many colored textiles pouring out of souk after souk... And it just keeps going, with tiny 3 ft doors and passageways that never see the light of day, beggars lying on the ground and women bargaining ferociously. All this forms a kind of sensory overload which is both intoxicating and tiring at the same time.

After the madrusa, Nisha led us to a carpet factory where we could learn about how carpets are made (mostly by men, by hand, and with high quality 6'x9' carpet having almost 13,000 stitches) and then took us to an impressive shop full of beautifully colored carpets. Carpets... hmmmm... someone once said something about Moroccan carpet sellers....

(now I'm off to drink more tea and find the bus station in order to figure out what time we can leave for tan tan tomorrow... more fes adventures soon)


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