Around the world in eight issues: Fes, Morocco

By Margaret Ward

One of the perks of the International Study Abroad (ISA) program in Granada, Spain, comes in October when the program offers a trip to Morocco. The day of the departure, I made the dark trek through the streets of Granada at 4 a.m. to meet the coach bus in the center of the city. We rolled out of Granada under stars, and arrived at the Gibraltar Strait as the sun was pushing up from the sea. A ferry took us across to Morocco, and during the trip we all waited dutifully in line as officials checked and stamped our passports.

The bus ride stretched out for hours, and I passed the time in a Dramamine-induced slumber, moving in and out of consciousness to look out the windows at a dusty landscape. We stopped for lunch at a gas station, but I ate the sandwich I had packed instead. Our instructors had told us to avoid any unbottled water, as well as any raw vegetables or fruits that may have been washed with tap water. I wasn’t taking any chances.

Finally, we arrived in Fes, which is the third largest city in Morocco. The hotel was beautiful—all marble and chandeliers in the entryway. Even though I had slept throughout the entire bus ride, my roommate and I crashed on our puffy white beds, cradling supersize bottles of water we had bought downstairs.

The next morning, we woke up early to file onto the bus again, but this time for a tour of the city. Our tour guide, a short gray haired man with wire spectacles, referenced billboards with the king’s, Mohammed VI, face sternly but benevolently gazing out.

“Our king is a very generous, very kind king,” he said. We laughed uneasily, skepticism of monarchies heavily engrained into our American upbringing.

The bus dropped us off outside of the Fes el Bali, one of the medinas in Fes. Our tour guide gave us explicit instructions to not drift off, because the streets of the medina are narrow and impossibly twisted. He brought us first to a rug store, the walls and ceilings of which were covered with thick rugs that were beautifully and impossibly expensive. I got into an altercation with one of the sellers, who took my reluctance to pay the equivalent of $100 for a rug to be me playing hard-to-get as a barterer. In truth, I was just bad at bartering, and he gave up after I started stress-crying.

We moved on, me sadly without a rug, to a perfumery. The men in the store passed around bottles of perfumes and lipsticks said to look good with any complexion. Students went crazy, loading up on Christmas presents for friends and family back home. I stuck with buying a few spices, as I was hoping to save my dirhams for the scarf store, which came up next.

In this bartering, I proved more successful. “Impossible!” yelled the salesman when I named my first price. “Completely impossible! Not even worth the materials!” He stormed off, and then came by once again several minutes later to reiterate, “Impossible!” I wandered among the stacks of silken scarves, trying to look disinterested and calm as my heart was beating in the chase of a decent price. Another salesman sidled up to me, and we resumed the bargaining. I walked out with two scarves, probably still fleeced for the price but feeling slightly more successful.

As we walked through the streets, shopkeepers noticed the pack of strange American college students with hardly a second glance. My friend took photos of their fruits and meats that sat out waiting to be bought by customers. Construction rang loud in our ears, and donkeys swung their hips around us as we stumbled through. In the streets, woven awnings keep most of the hot sun off, and the buildings are built close together to provide shade. Even so, sweat stuck my shirt to my back and flies began to buzz curiously around us. Finally, we ducked into the leather shop.

The smell was incredibly bad. They led us up to the roof to look out over an enormous plot of land with huge vats to dye the leather. From the bird’s eye view, they looked like little pots of magic potion. Inside, the walls were hung with leather bags in every shade, shoes, coats and sheaths for swords. My friend Steven bought a ridiculously overpriced jacket, and we all decided he was crazy. He, however, was beaming.

Our walk back to the bus was blessedly short, as we were all laden with our bags of the day. I examined mine closely, wondering if I could actually buy a piece of Morocco.


To be continued…