Brook and I finished sharing our views on negotiation strategy with Ibby and Mimi over our first-day lunch in Fez, then walked out of the restaurant and into yet another carpet store, where we promptly agreed to pay the initial asking price for 5 small rugs. Whew, it feels good to confess that.
“You are both such softies,” Ibby told us afterward.
But in our defense: the salesman knew we left other stores over price, and the price he offered was less than half the ask elsewhere. We were tired of haggling, tired of shopping, and so we paid more than we could have. Fortunately, we really liked the rugs we bought. But how do I know we paid more than expected? The salesman practically danced when we shook hands, and his fellow clerk said, laughingly, that we shouldn’t walk on our beautiful rugs. Lots of merriment.
Brook was quickly hardened — including by snatching back an iPhone snatched from her in Marrakech — and after a few days was naming prices, chatting up merchants and walking tall.
[Click on any picture to enlarge.]
Our Fez Adventure . . .
Not that we did much shopping after our rug debacle. We spent most of our time in Fez just strolling through the medieval streets — the Medina, or the old city of Fez, is the largest car-free urban area in the world — and it felt like we could have been perambulating in any year since the unification of the city under the Almoravids back in the 11th century.
I loved how lively the streets were, and how much small scale commerce there still is. It’s not at all corporatized: no chains, no supermarkets, no brand-name retailers. Instead there are butchers, fruit sellers, egg sellers, olive sellers, iron workers, comb-makers, shoe makers, bakers and weavers. Each of the dozens of small neighborhoods in the medina still has now — just as it has had for centuries — its own hammam (or communal bath), public water fountain, community oven for baking bread, plus school, mosque and carpenter.
And of course, being car free means that supplies are carried in and out on donkeys and little burros and on carts and bicycles and on foot. There seemed to be plenty of reckless donkey drivers shouting “balak, balak, balak” as they careened through the alleys.
On the first day we had a guide for a few hours, which was mostly disappointing but with some small benefits. For instance, he explained to us that certain graffiti we saw was political, including the paintings below in which the figures represent different parties to allow illiterate voters to work the ballot. He also walked us hurriedly by the major architectural monuments in the Medina, almost all of which are closed to non-Muslims, and would say at each one only “there’s your postcard” before we hurried on.
Conveniently, we were staying on one edge of the Medina in an old riadh, which is a city house with a garden (as opposed to the dar, which has a courtyard but no garden), so we could dip in and out of the street scene. Our riadh was towards the end of a very inauspicious alleyway, but the little wooden door opened onto a beautiful courtyard with antique tile work and a small fountain in the middle. The house had been bought 20 years ago by a French couple who restored it, and who now serve the best meals that we had in Morocco.
Of course, we also visited the tanneries — by which I mean we climbed to the roof of a building that held a leather and handicrafts store and looked down onto the balconies with drying skins and the honey-combed pits with dye and other treatments for the skins, in which men where stomping around to agitate the leather or pulling it out to move. The merchant handed us mint sprigs to hold to our noses, but the smell of the animals, the rendered fat and the skins was still extremely strong.
And then to the Sahara …
After Fez we spent two cold but beautiful nights in fancy tents in Erg Chebi, a large sea of dunes formed by blown sand from the Sahara. The sand was a lovely reddish color, and the first night we rode camels out into them to watch the sunset. Our tents were on low platforms; they had carpets on their floors, and beds, and were tall enough to stand up in and with smaller bathroom tents off their sides. Very comfortable.
Unfortunately on the first night Benji forgot the safety rules, took a sip of water from the tap and then a few hours later (around 12:37 AM) threw up in his bed. He and I were sharing one tent, with Brook and the girls in another, and I shouted at him: “Bathroom!” He jumped up in the pitch darkness and ran NOT for the bathroom but to the exit door of the tent.
“No Benji,” I shouted again, grabbing my phone for some illumination, “to the bathroom, to the bathroom!”
He bounced off the door of the tent and collapsed like his legs were jelly, then started flailing his arms as if drowning on the carpet.
“I’m not gonna make it Papa!” he shouted.
I ran over to him with my phone in one hand — still our only light in the darkness — wrapped my free arm around his waist and tried hauling him like a sack of grain over to the bathroom. He let out another tremendous pile of vomit on the way, but we managed to get to the toilet, where he collapsed again.
“Leave me Papa! I’ll just sleep here on the ice-cold floor,” he wailed.
And the floor WAS cold. The desert temperatures dropped into the 30’s F at night, and the tent was only one or two degrees warmer.
But enough drama: I picked him up and, after some more heaves and coughing, we went back to bed so that we could repeat the whole cycle again every 90 minutes until mid-morning.
Fortunately, Benji bounced back like a champ, and within 12 hours he was ready for sandboarding on the dunes and a visit with a nomad family. Which was great, because he said on the first night that visiting the Sahara had been like a magical dream of his. He knows all the animals that live there! When the tent-master said that a fox visited the camp at night Benji asked if it was a fennec fox. Why yes, it was a fennec fox. We also saw a kangaroo mouse, and lots of fox and mouse prints in the dunes.
Oh, and on the drive there we got to see Benji go native when we stopped for lunch at a very modest house-restaurant. As it turns out, the boy loves Moroccan food.
And on to Marrakech . . .
From the desert we drove on to Marrakech, where we spent our last three nights in the very tranquil Riad Emberiza Sahari — another old house that had been restored, this time by an Australian woman who was also an ex-lawyer. The tranquility of the Riad was especially welcome because the Medina in Marrakech is noisy, chaotic and dirty, with few cars but with motorbikes gunning wildly down every little alley and with some full-scale urban beautification and restoration projects adding to the dust and clatter.
Which is not to say that it wasn’t also great. There was a wilder feeling here than in Fez, and it also felt more open, but still with the intensely small-scale approach to commerce.
And I don’t want to mislead about the commerce. Outside of the Medina the times change and we drove past Carrefour, Burger King, Starbucks, movie theatres, car showrooms . . . all the usual eyesores and conveniences of modern life. But inside the Medina it still feels timeless.
On the first day we again had a guide for a few hours, who again walked us hurriedly past monuments and to the famous Place Djemma El Fna, filled with food carts, acrobats, snake charmers and water sellers, all catering to tourists. The one special stop we made with him was a below-ground brick oven used to heat water for the hammam, where the oven is fired by a man who sits all day feeding wood chips into it. He let us come down and see the oven and also the clay pots that he has balanced against it, cooking tagine-like dishes for the neighboring households.
We also visited the Majorelle Gardens and the Berber Museum located there, as well as the beautiful old palace Dar El Bacha, now home to Museum of the Confluences, and the Secret Garden, a garden restoration project for one of the largest and oldest riadhs in Marrakech.
And then on Saturday morning we took a car to the airport and arrived home in Sevilla in time to celebrate Three Kings.