“Let’s follow the clues, ok?” Vivian is looking at a cement bench that was covered in graffiti. While I recognized the English curse words, she cannot read and does not.
“Okay,” I agree. The park our driver brought us to is not exactly a let a kid run out and play park. Instead, we are in the royal gardens across from the palace.
However, I love the smell of the air and being around lush vegetation, and if I play Vivian’s game, she won’t know the difference.
“What’s it tell us to do?” I ask her.
“We go this way to find lady bugs,” she states, walking to her right.
I straighten my head scarf and hat, and respond, “ok, let’s go.”
No matter where we look or follow the clues, we cannot find any lady bugs. We did find a nice Australian couple. Thy recognize us as American and start a conversation. They are here with a group of eight friends. He shows Vivian a picture of a lady bug, the only lady bug we will see today.
We go our separate ways, and finally I convince Vivian we should sit down for a moment to enjoy the trees.
“But Mom, you are sitting on the clues!” she exclaims, expressing her frustration at not having the free time she was expecting.
I grab her onto my lap and begin tickling her. “Tickle monsters don’t care about clues,” I say over her shrieks.
For once I’m not worried about the looks, my daughter deserves a moment for herself.
Although the four of us intended to meet for breakfast before Vivian and I went to the park, my mom and our travel companion chose to take a long morning. Vivian and I found ourselves sitting at breakfast alone before meeting our driver, giving me plenty of time to just look around at our surroundings.
A large riad, our hotel has 40 rooms total, set around 4 plazas. The main tile motif is blue and white that I later learn are Fez colors, with various water features in each plaza. Only one plaza remains open to the roof, while the other three have been covered.
Until the day we left, I struggled with orientation in the hotel, which was a weird sense for me. Usually my sense of direction is amazing, but the historical building confused my internal compass.
It was easy to go unnoticed in the riad. Due to the large size and location within the outer walls of the medina, the location appeared ideal for larger touring groups. This means there were often groups of 16 people being shuffled in through breakfast and dinner or tunneled through the lobby to their various rooms.
I didn’t mind being a small group, and I could see our assigned staff member was overworked since most of the larger groups were English speaking. I didn’t confirm, but it appeared staff was assigned based on strength in a certain language. Despite requiring less attention, and thus receiving less attention, Vivian was often noticed and fawned over. After all, the average age of the groups is 60 years old, so seeing someone of Vivian’s age was a novelty.
After our breakfast, Vivian and I walked up the short alleyway to meet our driver, and we were on our way. The royal gardens had a variety of different areas, all designed to provide a varied aesthetic. What I found more interesting was the edge of Fez against the garden furthest from the palace. The difference between the buildings and the lushness of the garden was striking, especially since most of the buildings needed repair compared to the gardens or the palace on the opposite side.
I carried an uncomfortable message from our driver to my mom and travel companion, informing them he would not be back though they planned on going to the bank. They had not informed me of their other plans, such as driving around Fez for shopping, and he took the opportunity to spend some time at home.
I inquired about local lunch places, which reception said they felt uncomfortable referring us to anything to prevent sickness. Irritation ensued while we stayed in the hotel to eat lunch. The general feeling from the other two was they were being held hostage in the riad. After all, we were told the medina is too confusing to walk but they have no driver.
After I put in some effort at small talk, which is not my forte, moods lightened, and a plan was agreed upon.
After making sure Vivian took a nap, we would walk on our own. I figured a bank had to be near, and why not try to recover the day. Vivian woke from a very long nap, but our travel companion was sleeping again so my mom, Vivian, and I ventured out on our own. I felt a slight difference between having a guide and when we were on our own.
It was the first time we had gone outside without some form of guide or our driver. While Vivian and I had walked on our own in Chefchaouen, the environment was much more contained. Plus, I had a clear sense people were making sure we got where we were expected. Finally, we wandered beyond the protective bubble.
We received more attention, especially since we were walking beyond where most tourists move, and we were such a small group. But I noticed very little difference other than once or twice when my attention was sought aggressively.
I was more focused on making sure Vivian did not get hit by a car and that my mom had enough energy to make it back to the hotel to meet the individual who was to walk us to our dinner that evening.
While we could have found the restaurant on our own, as Mom and I walked past it twice while wandering, our watchful friends are careful to not require that we find our own way for meals or sightseeing. Unlike individual travel, this is what comes from having a tour company responsible for our safety.
The restaurant was a small riad, run by a man who used to be a tour driver. Once his daughters reached a certain age, he knew he wanted to be home for them. He spent some time talking about how he designed his house, more specifically his specific design of blue and white tile in respect of the Jewish community.
Our host came from a Berber tribe. His father, struggling to find work, came to Fez and started working for an Army captain. After a while, he sent for his family. Our host was given the opportunity to receive education in Fez, unlike all his cousins who remained with the tribe, and one of the distinctive aspects of his education was his exposure to all the cultures.
While his father was a hard worker and did as well as he could, our host felt he owed his education at the hands of all Moroccan culture for giving him a path unlike his cousins. For that reason, he made sure all Morocco was represented.
The food was delicious, though too much for any of us to eat, and the dessert was beyond anything to date. Most of our desserts have been fresh fruit that is delicious and perfect for me after a large meal. However, the riad served a formed chocolate pudding covered in chocolate gonache and topped with an almond praline.
The dessert was a sweet reminding of a bitter ending, as we are set to leave Fez in the morning for a long drive southward towards the desert. We have come to know the people who are around us daily in the riad, and the next stretch will be a different room every night as we venture into the sand dunes of the Sahara.
I know I am just a tourist, being shuffled through a business where people meet new tourists daily, but some of the connections we are making are real regardless. Also, Vivian takes time to warm up to people. We will see how she handles moving every night.