Getting Lost in the Old Medina of Fes

After getting ripped off by the taxi coming from the CTM bus station, we got dropped off at an entrance of the old Medina of Fes, in front of an obscure alley. “Straight ahead, then right” scrambled the driver, directing us to our riad. A fainting light hardly lit the entrance arch. We paid the atrocious amount of 70dh to our driver, to later finding out it was really supposed to be 20dh. We headed up the alley. The ”straight ahead” became a panoply of zigzags going uphill through dark pathways. Soon enough, our confident look turned into complete confusion. A little boy on his bicycle pointed a direction. It couldn’t seem more like the beginning of the end, lost in a maze of confusion in alleys of wandering kids and young men gatherings. However, the way indicated was more attractive than the basic directions our driver told us.

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A lot of children wander the alleys, day and night, cruising on bicycles or playing futbol. There will be more happy to show you the way or pose for a picture… in exchange for a dirham or two.

At the end of the passage, a group of young men greeted us by a stand of candies. “Are you lost?”. We tried to hide the truth but our dazed look confirmed his thoughts. “I’ll guide you to your place” he continued, anticipating the answer. At this point, we didn’t have better choice. Either to follow him, or be followed.

After a left, and a sharp right through a gloomy tunnel, another left and a final right, we ended up at the end of the darkest alley where he opened a wooden door. I was reassured as soon as I recognized the living area with the vaulted ceiling pictured on the website. Therefore, the place was unlit and deserted.Suddenly, three giggling heads popped out from an indoor balcony. Pretending to be the only guests in the large riad, the three stooges invited us to join them upstairs. Lisa and I burst into an uncontrollable laugh. When assured we were safe, our guide wished us goodnight and goodstay without asking for any charge. He ended up being a real gentleman. We finally got shown a room: spacious with high ceilings, hand-carved walls, ceramic windows and three balconies facing the ceramic chandelier and overlooking the communal living area. The bed had golden sheets and the detailed lanterns added magic to the room. The bathroom was beautiful and cozy with stone work on the floor and walls. We had our palace. One guy finally admitted to work at the riad and gave us the key to the room. We were still laughing from the moment we got out of the cab and got lost in the dingy alleys. We even dropped of laughter on the floor when I found a pair of old man underwear on our royal couch. Good times. Medina of Fes Founded in 793 AD, Fes is found in the foothills of the North Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco. With nearly 10,000 streets, the medina inhabits about 150,000 Fassis. Probably the largest and oldest in Morocco, the medina is made of about 300 neighbourhoods, each housing five important features: a school, a mosque, a fountain, a bread oven and a hammam. Hundreds of merchants and craftsmen selling products such as dates, spices, carpets, copper urns and musical instruments are found in the narrow alleys, as well as the local people and tourist brave enough to venture the busy maze.

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Breakfast on the roof terrace overlooking the Medina of Fes

After an attempt to explore on our own, we soon got lost, as it is a certainty in Fes. We ended up following an other young man to the main square. Five hours later, he was still guiding us. We visited a traditional leather tannery where we got given a bunch of mint at the entrance to diminish the pungent smell. We observed the process overlooking the tanning pits awash with coloured dye. Lisa got a bag made out of camel leather and rug, and a beautiful pair of boots the same style. I got an Indigo wallet made out of camel stomach.

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Leather Souq, the oldest leather tannery in the world. Tanning pits are like honeycombs where workers treat and work the leather. First, the leather is soaked in diluted acid pigeon excrement to soften hide, then it is soaked in vegetable dye such as henna, saffron and mint,  and finally hung to dry.

We continued with a visit to an argan oil and natural remedy pharmacy. Then the carpet and blanket factory where we had mint tea. Lisa ended up purchasing a beautiful carpet and a cozy blanket.

For lunch, we skipped the traditional tourist restaurant and opted for an authentic family eatery instead. A woman brought us in the kitchen making us sample three different dishes with a communal spoon. I chose the lamb, Lisa chose the beef. It was served as tagines, with side plates of lentils, caramelized onions, white beans, and cooked salad. Our presence was very noticeable as we were the only women patrons in the room. Food was authentic, delicious and a cheaper option.

Walking in the streets of the old medina was definitely a tumultuous experience. Venturing through slippery and tight alleys amongst donkeys, Fassis, tourists and sheeps being purchased for the Eid Al-Adha was inevitable and a constant effort. But these are nothing less than the joy of travelling!

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Sheeps marked for the Eid Al-Adha

Since we were off volunteer duty for the weekend, we decided it would be a good time to treat ourselves. Morocco doesn’t tolerate alcohol openly however, liquor stores can be found in some of the largest cities. We ventured outside the busy medina and took a cab to Burj Fes (shopping mall) where we stacked up on some goodies. Our plan was to be back on time for sunset, however all cabs were fully occupied due to rush hour. After waiting a good 20 minutes beside a stall selling sheep, we finally got a cab to pull over. Unfortunately, language barrier got in the way and we got dropped off at the wrong entrance of the medina. With the night approaching and a group of locals circling us offering to walk us through the dark maze, I found myself at the edge of losing it. I took a deep breath and stepped back. They were only trying to help us, yet their approach was overwhelming. They put us back in the cab and told the driver the correct way. We made it safe back to our riad. And so on, finishing the day on the roof top terrace munching on goat cheese, sweet dates and chocolate, sipping on Moroccan wine. I admired the old Medina of Fes illuminated by thousands of lights while the prayer chanting of a thousand Fassis soothed the chaos of the day. We shared travel stories with our local host and a German guest while the scent of Moroccan hash floated in the cool air of the African night.

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Sand Castles, Golden Dunes & Camel Love

The sun painted the sand a peachy light, at times switching to rosy stripes. My scarf protected my head, shielding the sun and the midday fieriness. My legs dangled on each sides of his ribs, 6 feet from the sandfield. He wasn’t the most cushy ride, but I couldn’t criticize, I was the one sitting on his back. His hoofs softly brushed the golden sand. His lashes were lengthy and thick, mighty and majestic. Sometimes he would turn at me, requesting a scratch on his long wool neck. His name was Africa. An athletic and elegant 21-year-old dromedary, worker of the desert people.

When my mom announced she would meet with me in Morocco, I was overly excited at the idea of travelling with such a cultivated and well-travelled woman. At 63 years old, she was ready to jump on local buses, eat from street stalls, ride a camel through the desert and get lost in the chaotic Arab country. A few years earlier, she travelled solo, within an organized group, to Morocco where she experienced it all. She didn’t want me to leave the country without seeing the Great South so, after travelling Marrakech and Essaouira together, we jumped into a 5 day road trip through the High Atlas Mountains, all the way to the entrance of the Sahara Desert.

We could have rented a car and done the drive ourselves, since the roads are well maintained, it is easy to navigate and traffic fairly makes sense. But we treated ourselves with a driver, to avoid confusion, save time and get to know more about the country from a resident’s perspective. We met Hocine, a young Berber who was going to chauffeur us on our journey aboard a spacious and comfortable wagon.

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Day 1: The Road to Ouarzazate

We left Marrakech early this morning and headed south towards Ouarzazate. The two Kasbahs we visited didn’t impressed me as much as the drive itself. The winding road through the Atlas was stunning, with earthy mountains and vast dunes forming the view, and a variety of fruit trees such as olives, oranges, lemons, dates and figs colouring the lunar landscape. Berger and their goats were seen climbing the mountains in search of a meal, accidentally throwing rocks on the paved road. I glimpsed at men travelling long distances on donkeys, artists selling handmade pottery and crafts and vendors selling fossils and mineral rocks from the Atlas.

We arrived in Zagora where Ismael, our 16-year-old chamelier, guided us through the obscurity of the night. Aboard our own camels, we ventured to what seemed to be a space odyssey through a lunar sandfield. We had no control on our animal, had left all our belongings in the car (requested to only bring the essential) and put all our trust in this boy. What was thought to be a 20 min camel ride ended up being an hour journey through the darkest night. We finally arrived at the bivouac, where we laughed about what just happened, glad we made it safe. We were invited to join fellow travellers sitting on the sand. Tea was served and conversations were shared with the Berber. A delicious couscous was prepared then served in the main tent.  There were chanting and dancing around the bonfire, feet in the sand while the moon slowly climbed into the darkness.

Day 2: Sunrise camel trek in Zagora

When Ismael whispered “it’s time” at the door of our tent, it wasn’t 6am yet. There was no possibility to sleep in or snooze for an other 15. It was time. I put on my hoodie, wrapped my scarf around my neck and grabbed my camera. Barefoot I left the tent and climbed the dune ahead. Fellow early rising companions were sitting atop the dune, blankets around their shoulders, camera on tripod ready for action. I looked at the horizon. At the end of this terrain of sand, stood the mountains. And there it was. The first ray of the sun, penetrating the blue morning light.

We cameled back to our vehicle as the sun slowly reached up to the sky. We were relieved to see Hocine, along with all our belongings. Back into the car and en route to Mergouza.

Day 3: Entering the door of the Sahara in Mergouza

I got introduced to Africa.  Entering the doors of the Sahara, we embarked on a scenic and pleasant 2 hour journey through the silent dunes of Erg Chebbi.

We arrived on time at the bivouac for the sunset. I jumped off Africa’s back, feet landing in the cool shaded sand. I scratched his head as a thankful gesture, also giving him a slight break from the resting flies on his face.

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I challenged myself in a race against time towards the highest dune ahead. I wanted to be a spectator of the most impressive sunset. I’ve seen a lot of setting suns, over oceans, mountains, cities and landscapes. Therefore, I was still a virgin of this upcoming spectacle. Sitting atop this challenged dune, the sand slowly cooling off underneath my feet, I admired a sea of seemingly endless sand dunes: quiet, scenic, majestic. The scarf that once protected my head soon covered my shoulders. The sun slowly disappeared behind the dunes, cooling the air and leaving room for the moon to take over the sky.

Berber carpets were placed on the sand in front of each tent. A short table was placed on top, with cushions at its sides. handmade blankets for extra comfort. Dinner was cooked and served by the chameliers on each table. A delicious traditional couscous paired with an authentic Moroccan mint tea. Romantic candlelit dinner in the middle of the desert, in the comfort of the cushiony sand, under a shimmering African sky.

Day 4: Todra Gorge in Tinerhir and the Road of the Thousand Kasbahs

Watching the sun rise over a sea of sand dunes was revitalizing. I jumped on Africa and we took the road back to civilization.

On our way to Tinerhir to go explore the Todgha Gorge. My stomach is upset and I can’t even swallow a sip of water. While my mom is dining solo downstairs, sharing my sickness with fellow travellers, I am stuck in bed with the worst dizziness. If it wasn’t for the kindness of the guesthouse host bringing me a Vervaine tea and some rice, I would’ve not eaten in 3 days. I managed to rest, have one bite of rice and magically finished the tea. The next morning I was welcomed by everyone in the dining room, asking how I felt. Thanks mom!

Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding and language barrier between our guide, our driver and us, we ended up skipping the Gorge, at my greatest disappointment. Instead, and little did we know, we were brought to a Berber women carpet factory where our guide strongly forced us to purchase a product, making us feel bad towards the hard work of women. I’ve been travelling Morocco for 6 weeks now and I’ve heard the song before. I have already did my part and I hate when people see us as travelling banks. I friendly told him that I came to volunteer in Morocco. He understood right away that my finances weren’t similar as a wealthy European traveller. However, he turned to my mom who felt so bad that she ended up buying an expensive piece of carpet that she’ll never use. Oh mom! Things like that unfortunately happen when travelling in foreign countries where tourism has a challenging impact on locals. We were very disappointed in not seeing the gorge, but at this point it is what it is.

We headed west on the “Road of the thousand Kasbahs”, a spectacular drive along desert landscapes, snow-capped mountains and palm groves. We also stopped in El Kelaa M’gouna, the “Valley of the Roses”, to grab rose water spray bottles, which made for great presents to bring home.

Day 5: Wrapping up in Ouarzazate

I felt like I froze up in time when I entered the 11th century Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou. The walls made of red mudbrick formed a labyrinth of inhabited homes, souvenir stalls and view points. While most residents now live in a more modern village at the other end of the river, 8 families still inhabit this fortified city.

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Last stop is at the Atlas Studio where many Hollywood and famous movies have been filmed. We walked through the impressive decor, fighting the gusty sandy wind.

Back in Marrakesh, we thank Hocine and generously tip him. He’s been a helpful and attentionate chauffeur and we wish him the best. It’s been a great adventure here in the Great South of Morocco and am so fortunate I got to share this amazing experience with my mother.

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For more information about the excursions, check out www.clickexcursions.com

Volunteer Abroad: Preparation

Think about how you can help and what you want to get out of the experience

Volunteering might have been part of your ”list” for a while now. The urge to save the world, play a hero, get recognized, tell a great story. But seriously. Why do you do it? How can you help? What do you want to get from the experience? Volunteering isn’t just a thing to try and say “checked, I’ve done my part”. It goes well beyond that. There are a lot of people in need all over our world and they require people committed in helping them find a brighter light. Most of us, literate and educated people, we are fortunate enough to come from a decent family, a decent country, decent government. If I find the time and money to travel and enjoy myself in developing countries, I will take the time to learn and help with the tools I have behind the scenes of less fortunate countries.

I am travelling to Morocco to volunteer with women. Being an Islamic country, women of Morocco are facing everyday challenges such as poverty, violence, illiteracy and unemployment. My goal is to help improving literacy levels by teaching French and English, assisting with professional development and providing support to female victims of domestic violence.

Even if I won’t change the world during my short stay, I will provide the best I can, if only to see progress and change in one person.

Sign up

There are several volunteer programs running worldwide. Volunteering tend to be expensive, so a wise search is necessary. I opted for IVHQ, a program providing aid and assistance to developing countries while increasing education and  awareness.

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Here is an interesting link of an article published on the Verge Magazine written by Jim Carson regarding choosing a volunteer program:

http://www.vergemagazine.com/articles/volunteer-abroad/volunteer-abroad-how-to-choose-a-volunteer-programme.html

Get documents

After signing up, you will get a booklet of information regarding the program, the preparation, the stay, the activities, etc. It is important to read it thoroughly as important information is provided.

An important document to get is your criminal clearance record check. Since you will be working with people, probably children as well, making sure that you are cleared of any criminal activities is necessary for the process of your application.

It is usually your responsibility to get a Visa. Do your research and get one if required.

Make photocopies of all your travel documents (passport, ID, flights, insurances, Visa).  Leave one copy to a friend or family member at home. Take the spare one with you.

Learn about the country

Where is it located? What is the religion? What is the clothing and culture like? What are the customs? What kind of food? What is the weather like? What is the currency? How do you greet someone? How do you thank someone? You don’t need to know everything in detail as you will explore and also learn on your own once there. But there is some essential information to know before landing. Arriving with a basic knowledge of the country would be beneficial for you and be grandly appreciated by the locals.

See a doctor

Make sure you are in a healthy condition to travel abroad. Have him/her update your vaccines and inform you on the ones you need for the country where you will be volunteering.

Pack

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You are almost ready to go! Get a travel backpack and fill it with only the essentials. Don’t pack too much. You can always purchase the missing items in your host country. That way you also invest in a developing country.

  • Clothes: know what are the appropriate clothes to wear and pack accordingly. Some people tend to presume all countries are westernized and there are no customs to follow since they are on vacation. WRONG! Respect the religion, the customs, and the people. Blend in. Also learn about the daily and nightly temperatures and weather. That might prevent you some surprises.
  •  First aid/medical kit: I like to bring a few bandaids, polysporin, grapefruit extract (natural antiseptic, antiviral and anti-fungal agent and excellent for healing of wounds), vitamin supplements and antihistamine tablets.
  • Toiletries: your everyday use.
  • Presents for hosts and children: it is nice to bring a present from home to your host family. Nothing expensive, just a little thought. For the children, anything from pens, stickers, chalk, books, games will make them happy. I usually always bring a few items for the local kids, however, you have to be very careful with that action. A lot of developing countries, including Morocco, have a rising problem of pedophilia. Kids have developed a facility to approach foreigners and offering presents to kids in the street will not help the problem. Instead, save the presents for the time you will be invited by a family to have tea or dinner at their house (of course always be vigilant from who you accept these offers).
  • Cameras: From DLSR to GoPro, to point and shoot to iPhone. Bring enough memory cards. Perhaps a memory stick to keep backups.
  • Music: for the lonely times, or to start the party!
  • Reading material: I always carry a travel diary to document my experiences, thoughts and progress. Our memory can only retain so much information and events, that way when on paper it will bring you back someday. A travelling book like Lonely Planet could be of good help as well. Don’t forget your pen.
  • Important documents: Of course, don’t forget your passport, ID, cards, flight information, insurances, etc. 

Get excited!

Try to get everything organized at least one day before your departure. At least, I try. There are so many things to think about that it is easy to let the stress take over the emotions. I like to keep the last day stress free and start to get excited.

I’m leaving tomorrow for Morocco. And yes, I am excited 🙂