Arriving in Fez

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I arrived in Fez from Barcelona on a full flight. After exiting through the back of the plane and passing through customs, I exchanged some euros and left the airport in search for the bus. I read that haggling is a normal part of all transactions in Fez but I didn’t feel like venturing into that ritual on my own with a taxi first thing upon arrival, so I arranged with my hostel to get picked up at Le Gare Fes train station. To get there I could either take a shuttle or the local bus. I spotted the sign for the shuttle but the red arrow led me no where. Thankfully I ran into some women who led me to the local bus. During the 30 minute wait for the bus, I chatted with two kind Moroccan men who had been on the same flight as me. They ensured that I was going the right way and made sure I knew where I was getting off. I got on the bus where I was charged an extra dirham for my ticket, but sometimes I’m not as assertive as I wish I could be, so I just found my seat.

I arrived at the train station 30 minutes later than anticipated so I worried that my ride might have left but thankfully I spotted a man running  across the street with my name on a sheet of paper. After a short drive, we entered the blue gate into medina. I was dropped off in front of two small stores where I was welcomed by the hostel manager. I’m very glad I asked to be picked up because I never would’ve found the hostel otherwise. I followed the manager up a small road and then down a staircase on the right, followed by a sharp right turn into what appeared at first a dead end but that actually led to a long passageway. After another right turn, we ended up at a wide rectangular with the hostel door at the end.

I stayed at Rab Dharba, a very beautiful riad. I was welcomed with mint tea and a map of the medina. I got settled in my 6 bedroom dorm and ate a sandwich I had packed before venturing out to the medina around 4pm. I was told to exit and go left but not to go straight. Now, I thought I did this but I might have made a wrong turn and gone in the “straight” direction because I ended up in an area near one of the blue gates (exit of the medina). There was large mountain of garbage at one end and stands with used clothing on the other while the middle passage was only lined with men who very quickly took notice of me. I walked back and after going in a bunch of circles I finally found “left”. There were almost no other people walking on this main street, which the hostel manager later told me was because of the afternoon heat. I walked quite a bit, passing by small stores and stands selling mostly leather products along with herbs and pirated movies.

 

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Much of the online descriptions about the medina said that it was like “traveling back in time” using phrases like “another world” and “life from a different century”, which in my opinion are drastically exaggerated comments. I’m not denying that walking through the medina is truly a unique experience. Fes el Bali is the oldest walled part in Fes– named a world-heritage site by UNESCO in 1981– and is one of the largest urban-free sites in the world. Horses and donkeys are used to transport large bulks of merchandise through the medina’s winding–sometimes very narrow and dark–passageways. But if you’ve ever visited Mexico, then describing the medina in Fes as “life from a different century” is quite laughable.  The resemblance between the medina and a Mexican mercado or tiangis is striking, from the leather products and different stands specializing in clothes, herbs, or fresh fruit and meat, to the carts selling juice (date and orange juice) and quick snacks. They even sold tunas (cactus fruit) on nearly every corner! You can see tunas on my header, they’re the pink fruit on the ends of the nopal. I’ve always known them as a very traditional Mexican fruit but due to the similarity in climate, I suppose they’re traditionally Moroccan too.

After my walk through the Medina, I tried to find the Jardin Jnan Sbil on my map, a beautiful garden that was supposedly just outside the blue gate but I never found it. I did run into a wedding though! There were men in coordinating light blue outfits holding drums and long horns next to a large group of women in long flowing dresses with jeweled belts. Eventually the bride and groom arrived in a car, which began the celebratory rituals. The blue men began playing music with their instruments as the bride and groom stood in front of a white dome covered in glitter and sparkling stones. After a while, a woman lifted the bride’s lace veil that revealed the beautiful crown she was wearing. The bride sat inside the dome, which was then carried by some of the blue men. While the groom stood in front of the dome, he and the blue men did a dance, moving in tiny steps from side to side all while the bride high above them waved at the guests as she bopped up and down. During the 15 minutes that this happened, other women with their children and me watched from across the street in delight. After the dance, all the guests went inside a building and I continued my search for the garden but gave up after a while and returned to the hostel.
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Upon my arrival, the hostel manager told me he could take me to see his cousin so he could give me information on a desert tour I had inquired about upon my arrival. I didn’t have much money to spend budget-wise but I had read online about 2-day desert tours with camel rides that many travelers had loved and had found for around $90. Unfortunately, this cousin didn’t give me such a low price so I passed on it. One of the cousin’s workers was kind enough to walk me back to my hostel. I was surprised to see that the medina was packed with people and lots of more carts selling food only an hour after I had passed by its empty streets. After getting back, I ate a Pb&J sandwich I had packed, then drank some tea with the other travelers in the hostel before I went to bed early.
Most surprising observations after walking in Fez’ medina:
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  • It’s reminiscent of a Mexican market.
  • There are cats everywhere! Cats and kittens, alone or in groups, sleeping or climbing but e v e r y w h e r e.
  • Like cats, there are men everywhere. There is a clear gender divide between the private and public spheres. Without trying to invisibilize all of the women who participate in the public sphere either through its economy (directly or indirectly as family members of working men) or through daily activities, the use of public space seems to be primarily reserved for men. This is especially noticeable in outdoor cafes and in the medina shops.
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