Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ouch! Fez.

It’s Christmas Eve today and I awoke to an overcast day; our first since our arrival in Morocco.  Looking back, I should have taken that as a sign that today would not go smoothly.

Without the sun, it felt colder than it had previous mornings. Mildred was still lying asleep so I quietly snuck out and headed for the bathroom on the ground floor and took a quick shower. It was cold and the warm water felt so good that I didn’t want to get out but I have to leave some for the others or do I? ;-)

"Stuffing our faces.....again " Sabah and Sayeed had just arrived and were getting breakfast ready. I’m really curious what Moroccans usually have for breakfast because I’m not sure it’s the massive spread that they lay out for us each day. Look at it…..no ordinarily four human beings could eat all this. And with my Chinese upbringing where I’m suppose to eat everything put before me and not waste, I always feel a bit guilty leaving food behind. I hope that they take whatever is leftover and take it home for themselves. Food is something that we should all share.



Aaron came down from the terrace to tell us that the fog was no longer just lingering above the mountains in the distance by was making its way to hover over the medina. Argh……there went my plans to walk to the Merenid Tombs and the Castle that Ahmed had said we should go see. Ahmed assured me that the fog would lift by mid morning so we all decided to hang around the house until around 11am and then make our way out.

Sabah had wanted to clean our rooms today so as she bustled around doing the household chores, we kept ourselves occupied and out of her way. Soon and I did another load of laundry which needed to be hung up to dry. Given the dreary day outside, we strung up two lines in his room and hung up the clothes. He left the space heater on while we were still in the house to speed up the drying.

"Camel InnI must say that this travel foursome is a well disciplined team. On the dot at 11am, we were out the door.

Dar Sienna is just around the corner the Fondouk el-Nejjarine with its famous mosaic tile fountain out front. We had walked by the fountain countless times but never knew the fondouk was even there until I read about it in my guide book. Since it was so close by, I suggested to go see it.

Less than a five minute walk away and we were there. We bought our 20 dirham entry tickets and went inside. The Fondouk is one of the most renowned buildings in Fez. Built in the 18th century, this former caravanserai provided food, rest and shelter to the traders traveling through the region. Designated as a historic monument in 1916, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its restoration (completed in 1998) formed part of the preservation program that was carried out on the entire Fez medina.

The fondouk’s three floors house the privately run Musée du Bois (Museum of Wood). The interior of the fondouk is beautiful with the carved wooden balcony railings and carved stone arched pillars providing contrast.


Off the central courtyard are smaller rooms that display the collection of wooden artifacts – everything from doors to boxes to utensils for eating. Photography was actually not allowed inside the collection rooms but neither Soon nor I could  resist sneaking in a few photos.   Shhh.....don't tell anyone.








Of course, there were other reasons for photo ops as well.  I loved the simple pattern on the railing and Soon happened to be walking by so I asked him to pose.  I think he's getting tired of me asking him to pose but the other two don't like to have their pictures taken so I have no one else to ask :-)








Above the third floor was the terrace where the museum’s tea salon was located. We weren’t interested in the tea but I figured we would have good views from there.
 
There were and as usual, I like to people watch even from high above. This man dressed in the djellaba and fez (haven’t seen too many men wearing this famous hat) caught my attention.

Above us , the skies were blue and it was another picture winter’s day in Morocco. Ahmed was right. The fog burned off. I’m loving the weather here…..it’s perfect for walking about.

"To the hills we go " Back inside the fondouk, we made our way down to the ground level, exited and continued on our way.

By now we knew the route to Bab Boujloud like the back of our hands. We make our way up the street without a map or guide book. In fact, we walked with such confidence that no one intercepted us to offer to lead us. It’s amazing how body language can convey your state of being to a complete stranger. In my younger days, I could have probably memorized much of the map of the medina and never needed to reveal that I was new to town. Now that I am older and the memory not so good, what I can memorize is, unfortunately, not enough. Getting old sucks!

Standing in front of Bab Boujloud, we had no view of either the castle or Tombs so we had no idea which direction to go towards. We knew we had to head outside the city gates so we walked towards the gate that was closest to the direction we thought we had to go in.

We strolled across the plaza and out to where cars are allowed. Across a second gate and instinct told me we had gone too far.

We stopped an elderly woman who was passing by and with a combination of rudimentary French and hand gestures, asked where the Merenid Tombs were and how best to get there. With her index finger, she pointed up in the direction that I thought the tombs were in. She said we needed to take a taxi there and when I asked her if we could walk; she replied that we had to take a taxi. I had read that we could walk so that’s what we all agreed to do as the distance didn’t seem that much.

As Aaron and Mildred continued to chat, if you can call it that, with the woman, I walked back into the plaza and walked to a point where I could see the hills. The woman was sending us in the right direction. We just had to figure out how to get there on foot.

I walked back towards Aaron and Mildred and they told me that they thought the woman was asking them for their address but they weren’t sure. They wanted me to interpret. So the woman turned to me and as best I could piece together, she wanted us to send her clothing from the US for her family. She would give us her address. I gently replied back that I was sorry but that would not be possible. With that I told Aaron and Mildred that we should walk away. As much as I like to interact with local residents, I always have to draw a line…..and it’s often very difficult, between who I give things to and who I walk away from. To me, it needs to be an exchange in kind…..at a minimum. A generous tip in return for some form of service rendered. Sounds like a pretty black and white approach. The difficulty comes when it’s a kind, elderly woman like this one or a woeful looking or hungry looking child. They tug at my heartstrings the strongest.

"How do we get there? " We decided our best plan of action would be to walk on the road, so long as there was a sidewalk, that runs alongside the city walls. We knew we had to keep going upwards so we took every opportunity to walk uphill.

We soon found ourselves on the edge of a neighborhood that I assumed was part of the Ville Nouvelle. The stark contrast between the colorful playground toys and the simple facades on the buildings caught my eye.

"The View " Across the street from the neighborhood area was a small strip of park. Soon and I veered of our walking path to see what the view was like. We could see the medina below, though the bus station was obscuring a bit of our view. Too late for us but I now know where we would have had to go had we decided to catch the bus to go to Chefchaouen. Maybe on the next trip. :-)

We continued walking on the path as it was taking us in the right direction…..towards the castle and ultimately, to the Merenid Tombs.

As is the case with many a city park, there was the occasional homeless person sleeping. But how many city parks have you been in where horses are doing the same? :-)  These two were most certainly well behaved as they were not tied up.

We continued walking the direction of the Merenid Tombs, every now and again walking into the park to see the view of the medina of Fez.   The view was quite hazy; I think it's smog though there are no cars in the medina itself.

By now, we could even recognize some of the landmarks like the Karaouine and the Moulay Ismail. With my zoom lens I was able to even capture Dar Sienna – the riad that we have been staying at. At the other end, we could see the minaret for Bou Inania which is just stone’s throw from the Bab Boujloud. It wasn’t until I saw the medina from this vantage point that I realized how truly big it is and how long the distance is from Moulay Ismail to the Bab Boujloud. No wonder it would take us about 30 minutes a day to make the trek and it’s an uphill trek to Bab Boujloud.  At times the incline is quite steep. With all the walking that the residents of the medina do, it’s no surprise there are no overweight Moroccans living here.

Soon shot several videos capturing the panoramic views of the Fez Medina.   I had to slow down this one video so the soundtrack is a bit funky. In fact, it reminds me of whales singing. :-)  The triangular shaped green roof is Karaouine.  Dar Sienna is just stone's throw from there.


"A museum and more views " It was quite a long walk but we did eventually make it to the castle only to find out that it’s not a castle but an Arms Museum, otherwise known as Borj Nord.

The Borj Nord, or northern fortress tower of the old town walls is truly old – built in 1582 by Saadian Sultan Ahmed El Mansour Eddahbi to secure the protection of Fez. Today, Borj Nord is a museum with an arms collection that has been built up mainly as a result of royal donations and includes a number of rare pieces.


As had become a common happening for us by now, a young man waved us inside the entrance to the museum’s parking lot and started to saunter next to us. I’m sure that whatever we needed, he could provide….as all the other unofficial guides of Fez have proclaimed. For some reason though this guy wasn’t as persistent as some of the others and he soon lost interest in us and went about his merry way.

None of us were in the mood to wander into an arms museum so we took a few photos and then decided to walk on as well.

More stops to soak in views of Fez and the Merenid Tombs.


 And another panoramic video courtesy of Soon.


"Where Merenid Sultans lie " It wasn't long before we reached the Hotel des Merenides which is a luxury hotel that is adjacent to the Merenid Tombs. I had read in several of my guide books that you can go to the hotel’s terrace restaurant, buy a cup of tea and take in the views of the tombs and Fez medina. Not sure any of us were really in the mood to do that plus there was a man standing guard over the hotel’s entrance and none of us felt like asking him to allow us to enter so we just walked on.


Just past the hotel, we found a dirt road that looked like it led up to the ruins. On the one side of the road was a cemetery. We followed the road and sure enough, it led up to the ruins. As most of my guidebooks had said, there really isn’t much to see. The original tombs might have been spectacular but there’ s not really much to make of the ruins. Today, there was a young man walking about and a couple of donkeys feeding on the grass.






More views of Fez and a few crumbling ruins. I don’t know why they don’t want to restore this site. If they did, I am sure more tourists would come to the site to walk about the ruins and take in the panoramic view of the town below.










From here, we had a great view of Karaoiune and Bab Guissa which is one of the other gates that lead inside to the medina.





As the guidebooks had said, there’s really not much to see at the Merenid Tombs so after a few minutes, we were ready to go. We started to retrace our steps and soon crossed paths with a shepherd and his small flock of sheep and goats. Only in Morocco can you bring your animals to graze within eyeshot of a suburban neighborhood and in the shadows of ruins that are centuries old.

We decided that we would enter the medina via Bab Guissa. The challenge was trying to figure out how to get there. The guys spotted some local residents literally hiking their way from the main road up towards us and so they decided that the quickest route for us would be to do the same.

"Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch!! "Me, the klutz, inched my way down. Somewhere near the bottom, poor Mildred slipped and fell.  She heard something crack on her way down.  Oh no, not a good sign. As Aaron helped her up to her feet, you could see from the look on her face that she was in pain.   With Aaron to hold on to, she did her best to limp along but with the distance we had to go, I knew there was no way she could make it. With the hillside obscuring our view of Fez, we sent Soon ahead to give us a better idea of the distance to Bab Guissa. When I got an email back from him saying that it would at least be a 10 minute walk, from where he was standing, to the gate, I knew we had to find a taxi.

As we walked along, I periodically turned back to see if I could flag down a taxi. At the same time, I tried to call Ahmed but the mountains that were all around us was obscuring the signal. I gave up after a few failed attempts.

It took a few tries but I eventually got a taxi driver to stop. When I told him I wanted to go to Bab Guissa, I think he initially thought I was crazy because the gate was really a short walk away. But then when I pointed back to Mildred, he understood. He put his car into reverse and met back up with Aaron and Mildred. I handed Aaron my map and told him that I would try to have Ahmed meet them at the gate.

A few minutes after the taxi pulled away, Soon and I had arrived into Bab Guissa. Aaron and Mildred were there. I was still not having any luck getting through to Ahmed. A young man approached us to see what was going on. He spoke English and so I told him that Mildred had injured her foot and asked him if there was someone nearby with a cart who could take her back to our riad in. Of course there was and he ran off to find the guy.

In no time, another young man returned with a cart attached to two very solid rubber tires. A plastic cover had already been fashioned into a sling type seat. With help from Aaron, Mildred gently sat down and the guys helped her into position for the ride.

And then we were off! The young man at the helm of the cart had obviously pushed this cart countless times before. He expertly navigated his way up and down the narrow, winding cobble stoned streets of the medina. I would think that carting people around, in emergency situations, is commonplace around here. It’s either that or on a donkey.

The rest of us walked alongside the cart, grateful that we had come across these two young guys. Otherwise, it really would have been a struggle for us to get Mildred back all the while trying to make our way through streets that we’re not at all familiar with.

We made it back to riad and Mildred was no worse for the adventure of having to ride a cart through the medina. The next challenge was getting her up the stairs and there are a lot of stairs. Slowly, one step and a time, with Aaron helping, she made it to the first level.

We pulled back the coffee table so we could place a pouf next to the couch and we propped her foot up. Aaron gently removed her sock and we could see that her ankle had swollen.   I can only imagine the pain she was in. I know what it's like having dislocated my left elbow on my trip to Egypt in 2007.

Sabah was still in the house and she brought an ice pack from the freezer. Lucky she had it. Otherwise, I was going to make my way to Sekaya Restaurant to see if they had any that I could buy from them. We immediately applied the pack to Mildred's foot and kept it elevated as best we could.

Ahmed was repeatedly trying to call me and each time I tried to call him back, the signal would drop so I decided to send him an SMS instead. A short while later, he showed up with Sayeed; he had received my message. Sayeed and Aaron got Mildred to the second floor where Aaron was sleeping and they tended to her in his bedroom. Poor thing, it’s no fun being in pain, especially when you’re not in familiar surroundings.

Ahmed did what he could for the moment and said he would be back later on to soak her foot in hot water and to massage it.





At this point, we just decided to hang back in the house. By late afternoon, Soon and I were hankering for a bite of food so we headed off, back towards the vendors near Bab Boujloud.   The place was hopping as always, everyone in Fez medina out and about enjoying the evening.





"In search of dinner "We bought some of the bread that Soon referred to as "roti chanai" but which is known in Morocco as mesemen.  We also bought some drinks and munchies for later and another lot of sausages for breakfast.  Standing at the butcher stall, I noticed that they had a flat top grill set up and a young man was cooking up a very large mound of ground meat.  The smell was so intoxicating.  I watched as he took a round of Moroccan bread, cut off a top portion, separated the two sides of the bread to create a pocket and crammed a good sized scoop of the meat into the bread.  Voila!!  A sandwich and it smelled and looked really tasty.  Too tasty to turn down.  So, I asked the butcher how much for a sandwich.  10 dirhams which is barely $1.30!  I handed over 20 dirhams and patiently waited for our sandwiches.   It seemed like an interminably long wait but as a waitress said to us in Merida, those who like to eat are willing to wait!  And so we did.  Of course, since I was hovering so nearby, I got next two sandwiches made :-)


It was a long walk back to Dar Sienna so we munched on the sandwiches as we made our way.  Oh my God, that sandwich was so flavorful.  The meat here is grass fed and fresh and that makes all the taste difference in the world.  By the time we arrived at the front door, I was almost done eating.

Aaron and Mildred were resting in his room.  We all pretty much called it a day.   This day started out but didn't end as anyone of us would have wanted, especially poor Mildred.  I hope she feels better tomorrow otherwise, the rest of the trip will be difficult for her as there is a lot of walking.

Well, good night Fez!