Wednesday, January 20, 2016

[FEZ] Camel with Fries, Please

I don’t have to reiterate how life sucks when you just love to travel but you own a Philippine passport. The few countries you can visit without visa hassles are usually halfway around the world and the flight tickets alone will already cost you an arm and a leg. Brazil? Peru? Morocco? But our plans sometimes change. Finding myself welcoming the new year in Hamburg, the prospect of a Moroccan adventure suddenly became more feasible. And so I booked a flight via Ryanair: EUR 50 from Paris to Fez with 20 kg in tow.

No, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize how ridiculously cheap that is. I think the cheapest you can get is EUR 10 without check-in baggage, from Spain, given the shorter distance. But you know me, I can’t just move and do totally nothing. This is why for every new travel prospect, I try to squeeze in a language course or two just to convince myself that I won’t be wasting time in the end. And then I had a good idea, why not learn Arabic? Looking for language schools, I ended up with either Fez or Rabat.

In the end I chose Rabat, but still landed in Fez because that’s the cheapest flight ticket I could find from Paris. Fez is way inland and used to be the imperial capital. Everyone you meet who finds out that you are going there will tell you to visit the medina, which I did by the way, but more on that later. Exhausted from city hopping and, not to mention, the frigid weather in Europe, it was already clear in my head that I will just hang out in Fez for a week and do nothing. And yeah, maybe some sightseeing on the side.

I don’t think there’s anything else to see in Fez aside from the medina, which is huge. That place is a labyrinth full of touts and locals who want to be your tour guide. I went one quiet afternoon but for this medina, the term “quiet” does not really apply. "Medina" means “city” in Arabic and most predominantly Muslim communities will have their own, barricaded by a wall which would be way more ancient than your mother-in-law. What you usually see inside is a mix of the chaotic and the mundane.

I come from Manila so I'm not easily shocked by crowds, which is why Fez’s medina felt all too familiar. Think of it as an alternate reality where a gang of drunk extraterrestrials inadvertently passed by Philippine airspace, airlifted Intramuros, and casually dropped it on an unsuspecting Divisoria. What you get is a walled community full of people peddling whatever stuff you can think of, except that in Fez, you obviously get to sense the distinct Moroccan flavor in the air.

The medina has many gates and the taxi driver will be more than willing to discuss where you want to be dropped off… In Arabic or French. English works most of the time but don’t count on it that much. Sign language is always the last resort. I guess my mistake is that I was not so anti-social that afternoon, smiling at an old man while greeting him with a cheerful “Bonjour”. Lesson #1: Be a jerk. Your smile makes you polite, I know, but it will attract all the wannabe tour guides, and getting rid of them is really difficult to do.

What started out as a MAD 100 (~PHP 500) bargain ended at MAD 20 (~PHP 100), which is really cheap. I hate tours. I’m the type of weird loner who'd enter a totally strange place and bask in the bliss of getting lost and potentially getting mugged. But the old man said he'll protect me, maybe from other locals who just won’t leave me alone. And so I pulled out a MAD 20 bill from my wallet and handed it to him just to make him go away. I think I hurt his ego.

Jesus freaking Christ, now I offended a local and it’s my fault. He said that as a grown up Muslim man, he does not accept alms. And so I spent around half an hour right there trying to free myself from clingy grandpa. The best alternative was to have lunch at the first Moroccan resto I saw once I entered the gate. Even then, he watched me from afar and continued following me around when I started sightseeing. We parted ways when he got mad and demanded that I just give him the MAD 20, which I did. And then he left.

A medina will almost always be teeming with people because it usually serves as the center of activity in many of these cities. The one in Fez even houses a university considered to be the oldest in the world. EVER. No, I never found it. I couldn’t even figure out how to get out of that maze, what more find an ancient school that I didn't even get to see on Google Maps. It's also said that ALIF-Fes, one of Morocco’s reputable institutes for learning Arabic, can be found inside that labyrinth.

Thankfully, I have chosen to study Arabic in Rabat. I don’t like medinas anymore after this experience. I was taking photos in some random alley when I rounded a corner and encountered a random peddler who yelled, “NO PICTURE, NO PICTURE” at me. I ignored his presence. Was I being a douche bag? Taking photos of government buildings in Morocco is prohibited. The medina is not a government building, and that idiot doesn’t own the place either. Was it my fault that he was so assuming to think that I was taking photos of whatever it was that he was hawking? I don’t think so, so screw him.

That didn’t sit well with him because he seemed offended when I passed in front of him pretending he wasn’t there, after which he yelled: “FUCK YOU! BITCH!” I chuckled inside. Oh wow, did he just call me a bitch? It was hilarious. But after ten minutes or so I felt really annoyed and I wanted to go back to give that motherfucker a legit axe kick to the face. But then I was lost, and every tout I had eye contact with still wanted to sell me something, and more persistently so.

Knowing how they all think I’m Japanese anyway, I decided to use it to my advantage. For the next guy who approached me, I replied with a convincing, “EIGO GA DEKINAI YO.” It didn’t work. He just kept DAIJOBU-ing me and asking me to MIERU his paintings. I decided to switch to Mandarin. The weird thing is, every time I said, “不会说英语,” they would then try to speak to me in Spanish. Like, WTF, my tones must have been off again as usual.

A lot of stuff are being sold there: USB wires, postcards, tajines, traditional Moroccan clothing. But nothing beats the sight of a camel’s head hanging from a hook. Apparently, they eat camel meat here. I admit that I was disgusted at first. Like, OMFG, we shouldn’t eat camels! We shouldn’t eat dogs! But then I thought to myself, why don’t we have the same violent reaction when it comes to either beef or pork? Aren’t cows and pigs also adorable, to some extent? Oops, I digress. Let’s leave that debate for another day, shall we?

It started to rain. Yes, heaven, make me suffer. After the downpour subsided, I made my way to the exit where a local was looking at me in a rather weird way, like he wanted to console me for whatever inconvenience I experienced inside that place. He then approached me and when I was within earshot, he let off an audible whisper: “HASHISH?” I hurriedly hopped on a bright red petit taxi and asked the driver to drop me off at Borj Fes, a modern mall where the sight of Dominos, Celio, and Burger King never felt more welcoming.

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