Fez, Morocco – how I got the travel bug

Like many young Kiwi’s arriving in London in 1987 for my O.E. (overseas experience, common kiwi slang for heading to London to earn pounds and travel the world for a couple of years), I had vague ideas about working in London for a few months, saving my pounds, and in summer heading off to see Rome, Paris, Amsterdam and bits in between. It’s just what we did at that time, so even though I resigned my job, sold my car and jumped on a plane to fly 24 hours to the opposite end of the world, I had no real plan at all.

My expectations of England were mainly based on Coronation Street, a long running soap featuring rows of grimy terraced houses and interminable rain. An impression quickly reinforced as I arrived into a dull grey rainy day. I very quickly found myself a home in a two-bedroom basement flat in Lancaster Gate, sharing with four other aussies and kiwis (not counting the ones dossing in the lounge) and catching the tube to Brixton where I had picked up a job earning a good hourly rate.

Three months later I was hating it, and all due to the weather. It was now December, and while the parties and the lit up street decorations were fun, it had become progressively darker, colder and more damp every week. The continual chilling damp never left me, whether it was a rainy day or not, and I couldn’t stand it.

Morocco, it must be warmer?

“If I am going to freeze, I may as well do it properly!” I told myself, and promptly headed to the Austrian alps for some skiing over the New Year. Which was fantastic, but didn’t make me feel any better about chilly London on my return. “OK, head south for warmer weather” I told myself, and not brave enough to travel by myself yet, I signed up for a Top Deck tours “Spain, Portugal, Morocco” trip – after all, that is definitely heading south, and Morocco is in Africa, so that must be warm, right? Well, almost right, but January is still winter in these countries. At least we got some “t-shirt” days even if it was “winter woolies” nights. Top Deck was hilariously corny, but a surprisingly practical way to travel. Take an old double decker bus, put bunks in the top deck to turn it into one big dormitory, and put a kitchen, tables and chairs in the bottom level for living, and voila!, a combi on steroids, no tents required.

Morocco, here I come.

The stand-out memories heading south through France and down the eastern coast of Spain were: a foolish drunken midnight wander across the Pont du Gard, a roman aqueduct in the south of France, 50m high and 300 m long (more on that another day); the unfinished insane beauty of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; and the “arabian nights” air of Granada and the Alhambra in the south of Spain. Unfortunately at that time of the year there is not a lot of “sol” in Costa del Sol, it was raincoats all the way. Which then lead us to our first stop in Morocco, the ancient walled city of Fez.
Fez, for me, is all about the medina in the old walled city. It is reputed (by wikipedia) to be the largest contiguous car-free urban area in the world – in other words it is a really big centuries old market, a byzantian maze of covered alleyways zigzagging in every direction, with people lugging goods on foot, on trolleys, or by donkey through dark and narrow streets. It is a place to lose one’s sense of direction, and then one’s self, so us girls on the tour banded together and hired “Good One” as our guide – clearly the name he had adopted for the tourists.

Fez, exploring the Medina.

I learned many things that I previously hadn’t known about myself that day. One was that I have a great innate sense of direction in markets – the more overcrowded, twisted, busy, loud and out of control the market, the more at home I feel. I can still get lost, but I always seem to find my way to a point I recognise without too much trouble. I must have been some kind of gypsy market brat in a former life. It certainly signalled the start of a lifetime love affair with markets throughout the world.

Good One walked us through the medina pointing out all the interesting areas – the olive market, the spice market, the jewellery market, the copper market, the carpet shops and the tannery. The tannery is a complete and unpleasant assault on the senses, but it is also a visual feast. I could smell it long before I saw it, indeed it is the permanent undernote to the smell of Fez itself. The tannery is the oldest in the world, dating from, and seemingly unchanged from the 11th century.
It is a honeycomb of stone vats through which the animal skins are transformed into leather. Fresh sheep and goat skins are softened in vats of diluted acidic pigeon excrement (so they say), and then coloured in various vats of natural vegetable dies, like henna and saffron, and hung out to dry. From the balcony where tourists can enter and look over the tannery, you simultaneously taste it and smell it as the acid sears your throat so that the dead animal smell can penetrate that little bit more. The tannery workers’ arms and legs are permanently stained as they physically haul hides in and out of the vats while standing in them. It is hard to imagine that this is a healthy occupation. Strangely none of this seems to dampen our ardour for shopping for the leather bags and wallets that Morocco is famous for.

Fez: finding our own way around.

Being cash strapped backpackers, we only hired Good One for a couple of hours, and after lunch we flung ourselves back into the medina unescorted. It was soon clear that even if I didn’t need Good One for a sense of direction, he had been extremely useful in keeping the touts at bay. On our own, they pounced, and were unshakeable, and at any time I would have two or three fighting for my attention, grabbing my arm to try and escort me, and if I showed interest in any particular stall they were quickly clamouring to the owner that they were the one that had brought me there and if I bought anything they were owed a commission.
A couple of the girls found the throng too intense and retired hurt, but the rest of us just went with it. Although it was intrusive and loud and relentless, we never felt unsafe or threatened. So we developed our own rules, giving a polite “no thanks” on the first approach of each tout and then politely ignoring them from then on, and always clearly indicating to a stall owner that no tout was our guide – not a straight forward task given the language barriers, but we quickly learned how effective body language could be. As soon as a tout trailing us started talking to a stall owner, we would loudly state “no, no, not with us” while vigorously shaking our heads and pointing at them – given the sulky looks we got from the touts, the message seemed to well understood by the stall holders. On a return visit to Morocco many years later, I discovered that touts had been effectively outlawed, and while an occasional one would approach you in a medina, they would disappear at the first “no thanks” – a huge change indeed.

Haggling in the Fez medina.

I also learned that I loved the process of bargaining. An early piece of advice from Good One helped – he told me “if they are still talking to you, they know they can still make a profit; if they turn their back on you, you have gone too low and they will make a loss”. The joy in haggling is not getting the lowest price per se, its the whole ritual. Its drawing it out for ten minutes, half an hour, or even a number of hours if its a pricey item like a carpet. It starts with exchanging pleasantries, names, where we are from, how much we enjoy this country/city, extends into discussion of alternative purchases that might better suit my budget, and will have moments of mock horror at how ridiculously high/low the price suggested is.

It may well involve clearing goods off a stool for me to sit on, and showing me the family photos, perhaps an offer of a cup of the local tea. If you embrace the process, then usually you part the best of friends, whether you have in the end purchased or not. The pinnacle of market haggling of course is carpets, and although I didn’t buy a carpet this time (not enough money to even try), this did sow the seed for twenty plus years of happily buying handwoven carpets and kilims in markets around the world.

In amongst the haggling, we lapped up almond milkshakes, and had handmade kohl makeup applied to our faces by the local, male “make-up artists” – not sure they are ready for a career in Hollywood yet. When finally exhausted we headed into the hamman, the local “turkish bathhouse”. Having never been in one before, this was the most confronting experience of all, getting naked and then being grabbed by one of the older woman working there, pushed to the ground in the few inches of slimy green water in the pool, and scrubbed abrasively, as if with pot scourers, until I just wanted to swear out loud. Definitely not a relaxing day spa here then! However it did remove several layers of built up backpackers dirt, and the soak in a deeper pool afterwards was relaxing, although still a bit greener and slimier than I would’ve preferred.

Catching the travel bug in Fez.

While eating a fragrant tagine that night for dinner, I realised that I had just well and truly acquired a travel bug. I wanted more of this feeling of excitement and immersion and being outside my comfort zone, whether from the sounds, the smells, the food, the art, the culture, the music, the natural beauty, or the people. Little did I know that I would now stay in London for a total of ten years, and my list of interesting places I wanted to visit kept growing and growing – the more places I travelled to, the more I wanted to keep going.