I was at a goodbye brunch with friends when R called, having just realized that our flight from London to Fez, which we thought was a day after we arrived in London, in fact departed the same afternoon we arrived, meaning we would spend the day crossing from Heathrow to Stanstead, and arrive in Fez that night after a full two days of travel.
“How did we miss that?” R asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
This was the first of many indications that R’s and my easy-breezy, take it as it comes travel style could result in some snags. But nothing we couldn’t handle! R’s boyfriend drove us to Newark and we were at the gate hours before our flight.
I had a major cold and had forgotten to bring cough drops, so I searched for them in the airport while R booked us a hostel in Fez using her ipod touch. The owner emailed back immediately saying that the hostel was really hard to find and he’d like to have a driver meet us at the airport.
“I’ll email him back when we get to London,” said R, and we boarded.
Our flight was practically empty, so we had plenty of room to spread out, which was great, although the giant, empty aircraft seemed a tremendous waste. I was too excited to sleep, so I watched Sunshine Cleaning and felt better about my life, and then I watched Grey Gardens and felt worse about my life. I also watched these two gangly aging rocker-types across the cabin from me consume a truly heroic number of cocktails. I agree with Louis CK about flying: life in the 21st century is a truly unbelievable adventure that is also clearly entirely unsustainable, so we should all revel in it while we can.
We landed at Heathrow around 7am on Sunday morning, went through customs and got on the tube. R used to live in London, so I didn’t have to think at all for this part of the trip, but just followed her around. She soon discovered that her international phone wasn’t working at all. Neither was her camera, and her ipod touch wouldn’t connect to any wireless networks.
By the time we arrived at Liverpool Station, we were both really feeling the lost night’s sleep. We tottered around in a fog, ate an 11am breakfast in a pub and then killed a few hours sitting in a freezing waiting room. R tried to get online again, but to no avail.
When we arrived at Stanstead, I found out all about Ryanair’s draconian baggage policy. I had ignored all the boilerplate in their many emails, but it turns out you can only carry one bag on a Ryanair flight, even including your purse. I had my big pack and then a smaller daypack that I thought I might want, and that had my purse and my toiletries in it. Combining the two was not an option. Turns out, if you do not check your bag ahead of time, Ryanair charges you over $50 to do it at the airport.
“I can’t wait to sleep on this flight,” I said to R, as we made our way to the gate, R still trying unsuccessfully to connect to the internet. The queue for our flight stretched down the terminal, its end somewhere out of sight past the horizon. We waited for everyone to board. We waited a long time.
Apparently, Moroccan people also agree with Louis CK about flying, but they agree in a much more active, voluble way than I do. You would have thought that our plane was filled with one giant, multigenerational family who loved each other more than air and had not seen each other in decades. This plane was a riotous party. People screamed and laughed and hugged and cried. Children careered up and down the aisles. The flight attendants were summoned continually to join in the fun. There was (I swear) disco music and strobe lights.
Meanwhile, I had slept for about 15 minutes of the past 48 hours. I employed earplugs and draped my sweater over my head, but there was no help for it. When R and I disembarked at Fez, we were in a mute daze of exhaustion. We saw palm trees and felt that it was warmer, but mostly we followed the people in front of us. We went through customs, claimed our bags, changed a little bit of money and wandered into the vestibule with no real idea what to do.
Then, we saw a man with the name of our hostel on a sign. We approached him and pointed to the sign. He turned around, and we followed him to his car, which was parked in a nearby lot. We got in. He drove us down many wide boulevards lined with lights and palm trees, with many well-populated roadside restaurants and gangs of teenage boys wandering along trying to hitchhike closer to town. There were also a great many pharmacies, lit up in green neon lights and marked with the crescent moon (the color and symbol of Islam – I’m not sure why these are used particularly for pharmacies, but they are all over Morocco).
We approached the medina, but passed up the many busy entryways for a deserted back alley, a sort of parking lot packed with men leaning against their cars. Our driver handed our bags off to some guys who were standing around, and we were told to follow them.
“There is no need to worry,” said one. “I work for the hotel.”
Too tired to argue, we followed these men into the medina.
There are no cars permitted in Fez medina, which is basically an enormous labyrinth of high walled, shop-lined passageways, splintering off into hundreds of narrow alleys leading up, down, around and backwards. The medina is impossible to navigate unless you live there, and at eight o’clock at night, it was very dark with few people about and no women anywhere in sight. It looked like this:
The men led us down one main avenue, past shops and food stalls and barbers, and then jagged into a dark, narrow alley, which looked like this:
From there, they turned down another, darker, rubble-strewn alley, and came to a halt before a large wooden door, unmarked by any sign. They unlocked the door and gestured into the pitch black beyond.
“After you,” one said. We went in.
The lights switched on, revealing a charming building with tiled walls and a sunken, central sitting room with a high, skylit ceiling.
“Welcome to Fez!” brayed our silent guide from behind us, turning on more lights, as the other guy ran off to the kitchen. “Now, we will all have tea!”
R and I sat on leather poofs around a low table and our friend placed himself before us and settled in to a long talk about Morocco, Fez, tea, and the elementary Arabic phrases we might like to know. “I believe all men are brothers!” he proclaimed. “Brothers, ikhwan. Can you say it?”
Eventually, we expressed as politely as possible that we were very tired and, while we’d love to continue our Arabic lesson, really had to go to bed.
“Of course, of course, you are tired! Come, come.”
But somehow, we ended up on the roof, being schooled in the history of the medina, the various sections of the medina, the mosques, the minarets, etc. etc.
After we had excused ourselves a second time, we were led to our room, given our key, shown how the locks worked and where the showers were, and then our hosts said goodnight and went back downstairs.
I had first shower, and it was lovely. The shower was in a little red-tiled room, with the showerhead directly overhead in the ceiling, and it was steaming hot and I was so excited to go to bed and having a wonderful time, when I heard R wandering around, calling hello to no one in particular.
“What’s going on?” I called.
“I locked us out of our room,” she called. “But I can’t find them. I think they left.”
They had. We were the only people in the building, although there was also a cat, a very loud cat who’d been yowling since we got there (“She is so happy you are here,” our friend had earlier observed). Fortunately, I had brought my pajamas into the bathroom with me; unfortunately, our coats and warm layers were locked in our room with everything else.
So, we slept in the lobby – or rather, we lay awake freezing in the lobby – all night. I started out in a sort of carpeted loft-like area where the cat had clearly been going to the bathroom for the last thousand years, and where I tried to erect a sort of fort out of throw pillows. I huddled there as long as I could stand it, then I got up and searched the building for keys, finding none. I had no idea what time it was, or how long I’d been lying there. I had no idea when dawn would be. I took all the towels from the bathroom, went downstairs and curled on the couch in the other room from R (who, I noted, had found a blanket). I spread the towels over me and wrapped my jeans around my neck. The cat came over to yowl at me. I thought, maddeningly, of Grey Gardens.
At some point in the black predawn, the call to morning prayers came warbling through from above. R, the cat and I tensed for possible salvation, but we still had a long way to go.
Finally, finally, after the longest night I’ve ever spent, we heard keys in the door. A young woman came in, and we pounced on her.
“Why did you not call the owner?” was her first question, and we blinked at her.
“I thought that number was to here,” said R.
“You could also have emailed,” said the woman, picking up a spare set of keys that had been sitting by the computer all night and letting us into our room.
We slept until 2:00, then awoke to an amazing breakfast of various kinds of crepe-like pancakes that the woman had just cooked. It was warmer, too, now that the sun was up, and the lobby of nightmares looked pleasant and airy once again.
After breakfast, we headed out into the medina. We spent a long day, wandering up and down busy thoroughfares and smaller alleyways, through vast, chaotic souks, and into quiet courtyards. There are a thousand boys in Fez that hang out just waiting for white people to walk by so that they can follow them around all day long trying to take them to the tannery. There is no way to shake these boys. Once they have seen you, they are yours forever.
“That way is closed, miss,” they will say many times. “Nothing interesting over there. Come with me. This way. Tannery.”
Sometimes, though, a boy will just materialize from an alleyway, announce where you are, and disappear again, which is more helpful. “You are in El Attarine Souk,” said one, before melting back into the shadows.
A lot of burros have to get through the narrow medina lanes with goods piled on their backs. There is always a donkey just behind you, and it would like you to move. Also, sometimes a group of men have to move a very long steel beam around a very narrow corner. This will take awhile, and many would-be passers-by will have a lot to say about it.
We made our way to one end of the medina, where we rested awhile in this pleasant courtyard.
Then, we made our way back to the main gate, the Bab Boujloud, or blue gate, where we sat at a café, ate cous cous and watched the people going past.
Before 8pm, we were exhausted again, so we decided to call it a night.
Miraculously, we found the alley where our hostel was located, but then, for some reason, we could not find the door. R and I had become of much more interest to everyone now that dark had fallen, and a gang of men followed us up and down the dark, deserted alley, to our extreme discomfort. Finally, we asked one of them where it was, and he told teenager to take us there, and then they all went away and left us alone.
We were relieved. But then we couldn’t get the key to work. While we tried, another gang of men gathered around us, making us far more uncomfortable than we had been before. Finally, one of them took the key from R and unlocked the door. And then they all immediately turned around and left. It was the strangest combination of harassment and helpfulness.
Anyway, that night, R and I managed to finally get a full night’s sleep in an actual bed. We agreed that we really liked Fez, and we decided to take the train to Casablanca in the morning.