I pictured Africa to be full of dirt roads, crazy drivers with beat up cars, small villages rich with culture and vast expanses of desolate desert. I could go on about the socioeconomic status of the people and overall safety of the continent, but I'll let you fill in the blanks.
Even with this image in mind, nothing could have prepared for what I saw on my first day in Fes. Somehow I didnt actually believe that this fairytale land that I had learned about through such a narrow American lens would be anything like I imagined.
My hostel was located within the medina, or walled area of the city. The Fes medina is one of the largest in the world and consists of 9,400 intertwined alleyways filled with street shops, riad houses, bustling street markets and lots of mud.
My first morning in Fes I went on a tour of the medina with eight other travelers from the hostel. Walking through the streets for the first time was complete sensory overload. I was exhilirated and fascinated by this far away culture and spent at least an hour snapping a constant stream of photos.
The tour guide took us to a pharmacy, tannery, carpet shop, clothing store and mosque school so we could learn about the different aspects of the culture and see how the perspective items were made. This of course included a 30 to 60 minute sales pitch by the store owner at the end of each session. At first I found the speeches highly entertaining, but by the time we reached the carpet shop and sat staring blankly at the man unrolling carpet after carpet, thinking that this was really the last thing I would ever consider stuffing in my backpack and carrying around for two months, I had had enough.
Ninety percent of the time I feel like I must be wearing a clown suit with a giant sign, "come talk to me!" Walking through the streets of Fes is like a parade. You are the leader and are followed by lonely Moroccans shouting, "hello, bonjor, how are you? Where you going? You need guide?" Sometimes three or four will congregate around you bartering with eachother to give you a good price on a service you didnt even want in the first place. The people are overly eager to help, as long as you are willing to pay.
Even, if you were smack dab in the middle of the Sahara with no civilization for miles, I'm sure it wouldn't take more than ten minutes to run across a friendly Moroccan who will take you to his uncle's restaurant then offer you a great deal at his hotel with a camel to go along with it.
In addition to these amiable offers, you must also take into account that you are getting ripped off 90% of the time. Morocco is not for the faint of heart. You must always be on top of your game, and be able to drive a tough bargin.
After a few hours of playing the game, my new travel friends and I began to get the hang of how things worked and came up with a few ground rules for navigating the Moroccan maze:
1. Before ordering in a restaurant always ask how much the food costs (of course there are no menus in Morocco, and the prices change depending on what you look like. They will tell you the price, then after eating they try to bump it up, forget that they already told you the original price)
2. If someone wants to help you get somewhere start of by saying, "no money." They may or may not stick around, but at least you won't be obliged to pay.
3. Pretend like you don't speak English, French, Arabic, Spanish, German or Russian. This is a great deterrent, and excellent way to practice your non-native English accent.
3. When in doubt, run from the Moroccans.
I have found myself in several situations where I need directions, but don't want to pay for a Moroccan to guide me all the way to the destination. The running technique is perfect here. I let the helper point me in the correct direction or lead me down an alleyway, then, when they're not looking book it in the opposite direction. The medina is confusing enough that it takes virtually no effort to lose someone.
This is also an excellent strategy if you get sucked into a bartering match with a shop owner. I made the mistake of asking the price of a small teapot just out of curiosity. The clerk responded with, "120 Durham"-an outrageous price in my mind ($15 USD). He asked how much I would pay, and since I didn't actually want the teapot, I thought I would be safe going with a ridiculously low price and walking away when he said no. I offered 40 Durham ($5 USD). He came down in his initial asking price, and when I showed no interest and began to leave the shop he wrapped the teapot in a plastic bag and chased after me coming down by ten Durham for every ten feet I continued to walk. He eventually hit 40 Durham, my offer and I had no other choice than to run from the man! Luckily, they are not too enthusiastic about pursuing you, so it is always easy to escape.