“What are you doing?” Vivian watches me from the bed while I try to find places to put wet clothes.
“I’m doing our laundry,” I reply, deciding I was definitely going to miss the hangers.
“Why?” she asks.
“Because we packed only a few clothes for each of us. Each time we stay somewhere longer than a night, I will do laundry,” I reply with half my mind on the laundry and half my mind aware she will need food soon or risk a breakdown.
“Oh. Will we stay here awhile?”
“Yes, sweetheart. We will live in this room for three nights.”
“Okay, good. I like it here,” she returns to her tablet while I lean over and kiss her forehead.
“Good, me too.”
Today we approached the maze of Fez’s medina, ready to take on whatever history chose to show us. Unfortunately, our travel companion was not feeling well, which would explain her bout of grumpiness yesterday.
I have come down with a moderate case of traveler’s illness, but I’m stubborn and will not miss the tour of the medina for all the stomach cramps in the world. Mind over matter.
We began our day with a driving tour to overlook both Fes el Bali (the original city of Fez, referred to by the locals as the medina) and the new city. From there we drove down along the palace walls and saw the original Jewish quarter along with the gate to the traditional Muslim quarter.
After 1950, a lot of the Jewish community emigrated out of Morocco. The remaining Jewish community has long since moved to another section of the city, though this area is still heavily regarded in city history.
Following our walk around the Jewish quarter, we stopped by the Zallige Factory. Sponsored by the state and heavily pushed as an occupation, the factory teaches apprentices how to make Morocco’s beautiful and world renown handmade ceramic tiles and mosaic art pieces.
It was fascinating the steps taken in each touching of the clay, from original gray soil to finished pieces. What blew my mind was each mosaic piece is placed on a mold upside down with the pattern residing only in the master’s head. Twenty-five years of experience before one can be considered a master.
From there we drove to one of the several gates of the medina where we walked in for our lunch. Our travel companion intended to return to the hotel since she was not feeling well. I will admit I wasn’t sure what I would find as we followed our guide through the narrow sand and stucco hallways of the medina. I did not expect to walk through a giant door into a two-story plaza surrounded by colorful mosaics and carved plaster, beautiful in artistry and ornateness.
So far, the restaurant had the best food with an amazing vegetable couscous.
After lunch, three of us continued deeper into the medina while our travel companion went back to the hotel to rest. The tour consisted of narrow hallways that opened into larger courtyards, surrounded by houses, shops, and conservation sites like museums, shrines, and mosques. Deemed a UNISECO site in 1981, the medina is home to over 300,000 residents.
Dating back to 798 A.D., the medina is the oldest city in Morocco and still maintains most of the original boundaries, walls, and historical markings. The medina itself has not changed size since the 14th Century, due to the exterior walls.
In 2009, UNISECO considered the site at risk and began funneling funds to maintain its historical nature.
As we learned from our driver, this has caused some needed changes by also stress. Many people live and work in the medina as it is a location that is inexpensive for them to live, unlike the outside “new city.” Yet the requirements for house maintenance have become expensive and time consuming with UNISECO deciding what material can be used. The State provides 10 – 20 percent, but for many families the choice becomes one of selling or living in houses that are becoming safety hazards.
For the families that have chosen to sell, the buyers are often foreigners who are refurnishing the buildings and opening businesses, but the money is not necessarily supporting the locals within the medina.
From a tourist standpoint, the medina is breathtaking. Some sites that were long
abandoned have been restored and are now public places. An old marketplace for caravan traders is now a wood museum, and an old theology university is slowly being restored to its original grandeur.
What struck me the most was how narrow the streets were for each house to open into wide open plazas with beautiful wood and plaster work, the sun shining down from open (though now covered with plastic) skylights. Each house is its own fortress, surrounded by other fortresses and the exterior wall.
Getting lost would be easy, just as getting overwhelmed by the donkeys and crowds could become too much, but I was just enjoying each moment. However, I was very aware of when I saw someone more than once, especially if they walked past us several times in quick succession or if money changed hands with our guide when he least expected eyes on him.
Also, I often heard “American” after seeing someone walk past once or twice to hear us talk to each other.
The layers of what I see are continuing to develop into a fabric of the tourist trade in Morocco. I am not as bothered by what I see, as I settle into how I observe things at home. No judgement or personal feelings, just acceptance of seeing the small details in human existence.
In fact, I played carrier pigeon after dinner, carrying the small sealed envelope from our supper location to our driver. Though I didn’t open the envelope, I knew the contents were a kickback for bringing business that would be paid for by the tour company. It was one of several stacked envelopes, after we were sat in a room with only tourists in what we were told “is our family home.”
Walking deeper into the medina brought us to the tannery, and National Geographic became multidimensional for me. As tourists, we were provided sprigs of mint for our noses in case we were too sensitive to the smell of lye stripping hides and prepping them for dye.
After watching the proceedings, Vivian decided she wanted to work in the tannery. I think she was fascinated as she watched animal skin take on a bright pink color. She didn’t use her mint once, saying she liked the smell of the tannery.
Slowly we worked our way back out of the medina and to our driver, who took us back to the riad. The plan for tomorrow is Vivian and I will go to a park to give her some free run while my mom and our traveling companion will decide what to do in the afternoon.
The day would not be as we expected, bringing about drama that will make me decide to extricate myself from what appears to be an unofficial tour guide and communicator role that has been forced upon me.