Sensory overload

4 October 2014

The day started with a lovely breakfast on the terrace and after weeks without a cup of coffee we savored the French press coffee. We then headed up stairs to finish getting ready for our mid-morning tour of the Medina. But the teeth brushing had to take a back seat to what was going on across the way on our neighbor’s rooftop. While I thought we wouldn’t see any slaughtering until tomorrow, I was wrong, really wrong. All before 11am, we would see two cows get ready to become dinner. It was much like watching a car crash, I wanted to look away, but I was so intrigued by the whole process. I thought for a moment that maybe the cows were just getting a bath until one man came upstairs carefully carrying a towel when I realized he was being so cautious as he had a huge butcher knife underneath the towel. Then the three other men begin to tie up the cow and at this point his friend (the other cow) realized what was going on a relieved himself. At that point the young boy was put on comfort duty and took the cow to the other side of the roof to keep him claim, by gently patting him on the head and making sure he was looking in the opposite direction.

You can see the cow in the bottom left become dinner, and his friend on the right being consoled

You can see the cow in the bottom left become dinner, and his friend on the right being consoled

And here's Adam brushing his teeth while taking this all in

And here’s Adam brushing his teeth while taking this all in

Then it was a finely orchestrated process with three women cleaning and the four men working after the cow was dead to skin and butcher the animal. While we thought they were done for the day the little boy then brought over the next cow, I guess this family was planning a big celebration.

The whole city was making finally preparations for Eid al-Adha. This brings with it lots of smells, there is sheep poop everywhere and it smells of hay.

The city is filled with sheep tied up waiting for the festivities

The city is filled with sheep tied up waiting for the festivities

Kids in the neighborhood, starting about 10 days prior, start selling hay and oats in the streets. And other kids are buying up big bags to feed their sheep which are hanging out on the rooftops. People are buying bread, preserved pickles and olives, knives, vegetables and whatever else they will need as most shops will be closed for the next few days -some even weeks. And this was of course, the day we decided to take a guided tour thru the Medina.

Before I begin, here are some fun facts about the Medina that just might help paint the picture of where we are. There are over 9,000 alleyways in the city of one million and in the medina itself is about 300 hectares (yeah, that is about a square mile) so to say the people here live on top of one another, might be an understatement and ‘personal space’ is a phrase most are not familiar with. Lucky for me I got over my need for personal space a few months ago.

One of the "streets" in Fez

One of the “streets” in Fez

The garbage truck

The garbage truck

As we power walked thru the alleys, everyone here power walks and if you try to walk slowly you will get passed by a 70+ year old woman. Plus if you walk slowly, people will think you have nowhere to go so they will try to talk you into coming into their shop, so your quick tip for traveling in Fez is power walk everywhere. Our guide was telling us about the traditions of marriage, the holiday, about the size of the city and so many other facts, it felt like my head might implode. That or everything going on around me was really testing my capacity of comprehension. But one fact that I found very practical, was the way families move within the Medina. If you are to move within the Medina, you move using the rooftops not the alley ways, which are just a few feet wide and sometimes smaller and just a few feet high in many sections. You would just ask your neighborhoods to use their rooftop as you transport your belongings from one building to the next.



As we wandered thru checking out little narrow passage ways that seemed to lead to nowhere but really connected you to another section of town or walking up to old home doors that required me to keep my hunch my shoulders and keep my elbows in tight, we somehow made it to the Quartier des tanneurs aka the tannery of Fes. While I always like to pride myself on knowing how to get from point a to point b after being somewhere just once, based on all the landmarks I remember, this is one place where I would have absolutely no clue how to get back. But as we got closer, the smell of chemicals began to sting my nostrils, luckily before we went up to the rooftops for a view they handed us mint leaves. I kept mine close to my nose while I had a good laugh watching other simply stick the leaves up their noses. As we watched the men work under the scorching sun I began to develop a new appreciation for leather goods.





Of course the building we had entered also sold every type of leather good you could imagine in every color and size we managed to walk thru without being noticed, or we just looked like we were cheap, before heading back out to the streets.


Our next stop was to Bou Inania Madersa the former university. When we walked in, this building immediately reminded me of the Alhambra in Granada, and even our tour guide called it out. I think there might be some connection, but I wasn’t really paying too much attention at that point. I am really like a kid in a candy store when I see all of the intricate details in these buildings and I really can’t focus on much else.





I think it also might be Adam’s new favorite pass time to mock me as I call out to him, ‘oh, look at this, isn’t it stunning?!?!’

We then found ourselves entangled with a large tour group as we reached the doors to the Kairaouine Mosque (Mosque of al-Qarawiyyin). We had to weave our way around the group of 40 or so which had taken over the entire walkway making it nearly impossible to move. I guess I can’t complain about the zonies taking over SD in the summer, as the residents here have deal with this daily. It was just a quick stop here as we could only look in from the open doors. Unlike Turkey, in Morocco there are only three Mosques where non-Muslims are allowed to visit.

One of our last stops was to a carpet shop. At first I thought we were just going to check out another cool building which just happened to be full of carpets.



I guess it was a mix of the heat, dehydration and trying to process everything we had seen today, but by point we were exhausted and probably a little delirious.  We were lead up to the roof top of the shop to take in some of the city views. By this point in the day standing on the rooftop felt like we were being cooked. It was so hot and I could not stop sweating and the sun was blinding as it reflected off the white building and green tiled rooftops. From the roof top of the carpet shop we could see from the roof tops University of al-Qarawiyyin or al-Karaouine. We were then given a weaving demonstration on how to weave carpets which was a very awkward experience.


And moments later we got to experience firsthand the legendary Moroccan carpet scam and it was everything we had heard and somehow we walked out with a rug. As the fast talking salesman stated lines like “You could easily buy a few and sell them on eBay. Many people come here and buy three or four carpets and sell them on eBay and make lots of money,” or “We are a co-op and give 80% to widowed and poor women,” or “Here is our fixed price list by rug type and size, this is set by our great king Mohammad the VI (with a gesture pointing to the ever present no matter where you go picture of the king).” I had read that these are all the classic lines that you are being scammed or the biggie, never buy a rug (or any items) when a guide leads you in as the guide will get a commission so that means a higher price for the buyer. But as the rugs were rolled out, we sipped our sugar high inducing mint tea and pointed out the ones we liked and didn’t like as the salesman continued on with his fast paced pitch (I think he could give the micro machines man a run for his money). As we debated back and forth between two rugs, we settled on one that we (I’ll be honest it should be said that it really was me that liked it) liked and we were give a ridiculously high price (ie we have paid less from rug from West Elm). The seller walked off as Adam and I debated the price we wanted to pay, we wrote down a reasonable price and then began some more negotiations. The seller kept asking us to meet him in the middle and we both just shrugged our shoulders and gave a half furrowed brow and said we couldn’t afford to go higher. I thought we were going to walk away emptied handed, but no sooner than that thought had crossed my, we were walking up the stairs to the office to make our purchase. It was like we were going thru the motions not really believing that it was real. As we handed over the credit card, Adam was pretty upset that had to pay a 3% fee for using our card as the seller suspiciously walked off in that moment we said ‘wait’ only to see our card being run thru the machine. And on top of that it was requested that we give a 100 dirham tip to the guys who rolled out the rugs. While I know we got ripped off I was still pretty content with our purchase and although expensive by Morocco standards it still ended up being a pretty good deal.

We were feeling very wiped out after our carpet scam, I mean purchase, and were ready to call it a day as we were now hungry and thirsty. However we had just one more stop at the Shrine of Moulay Idriss II, where we learned many women, usually poor make their pilgrimage here. As we could not see inside we admired the ornate carvings on the outside of the mosque and the offering box. It is here where you can make an offering just outside the temple for good luck and fortune. The metal star where the offering slot is located is very worn and made for some cool pictures.

Orginally we were going to take a taxi back to the other gate to our riad, but with the holiday we could not get one, so we continued on our power walking way back to the riad.

When we returned home around 2:15pm my head was spinning. We had seen so much and maybe it was the lack of food and water or the constant observation and sensory overload but we both felt like we had been hit by a truck. So after some mint tea and a big bottle of water we headed out to find lunch. With the markets still buzzing along the Bab Boujeloud – kids carrying dough on pans to the baker, shoppers haggling with shopkeepers –  it was an easy feat as we grabbed to large pita like sandwiches bought more water and retreated to our roof top terrace. As the food kicked in we began to feel human again and just took in all the sounds from the various calls to prayer, animals crying out and what I could only imagine as a group of women dancing in their home as I could hear clapping and celebratory chant.

And of course after we were full hydrated and had a full stomach we began to discuss our rug purchase and how we didn’t haggle enough. I thought that we could have easily saved $100 on the rug, but hindsight is 20/20, right?

Later that evening we ventured out for a light dinner. For some reason I thought it might be quieter out since it was after 8 and all day the streets had been packed. I was wrong, the streets were still crowded and most people were still shopping. As we found a small café next to the knife seller/sharpener it was perhaps one of the best people watching spots. From the kids yelling over the sounds of the blades being sharpened and searching thru the pile of knives as if they were Legos to the women buying knives and mops and the shop selling pickled products that was packed all day long it was just madness. This was nice distraction from the fact that I felt like I might be having an asthma attack even though I don’t have asthma. I think it is a combination of the elevation, the crowded city, all of the hay and the heat that made me feel like I could barely breathe. For the first time we were debating cutting our time here short and heading out because I just felt like crap.

Lying in bed and trying to process all of the day’s events was next to impossible. I thought we had seen lots of chaos and crowds in the last few months but nothing can compare to today’s events. From the constant fast talking touts, the blazing desert sun, the packed walk ways, everyone acting as if they are your ‘friend,’ over sugared mint tea, the detail and beauty of the mosques and universities and the smells of animals, the tanneries and the food I can only imagine what tomorrow might bring.

Today’s Travel:  A tour of the Fes Medina

Accommodations: La Maison Maure