Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

In Fes: Walk until the day becomes interesting

September 3, 2010 by Rolf Potts

Less than two weeks into the journey, while wandering the Moroccan city of Fes, I did something I hadn’t planned on doing so early in the no-baggage trip: I bought something — a new (and hopefully useful) item that now resides in my vest pocket alongside my toothbrush and sunglasses.

My approach to exploring Fes was an old travel strategy I like to call “Walk Until the Day Becomes Interesting”:  Instead of starting out with a list of goals or attractions for a given destination, I opt instead to find an intriguing neighborhood and wander around until something catches my eye.  In this way, my instincts become my guidebook — and it can be fun to see what happens (good and bad).

Novel as this manner of spontaneous sightseeing might sound, it’s actually a time-honored travel practice — not dissimilar, in fact, to the French flâneur tradition of wandering the streets of Paris in search of small details and experiences.  As the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote:

For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it’s an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you’re not at home, but you feel at home everywhere; you see everyone, you’re at the center of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody — these are just a few of the minor pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial minds whom language can only awkwardly define. …The amateur of life enters into the crowd as into an immense reservoir of electricity.

The traditional French flâneur doesn’t see his wandering as a purely touristic act (by definition, he exploring his own city) but it’s an interesting comparison: Freed of expectations, a person can wander into a new environment with the sense that anything might happen. As an outsider I certainly wasn’t “hidden from everybody” in Morocco, but I love the idea of being a “passionate observer,” of being an “amateur of life” experiencing small moments of electricity in novel surroundings.

Since Fes is the third largest city in Morocco (with over a million residents) I limited my wanderings to Fes el Bali — the old medina portion of the city — which is reputed to be one of the largest car-free urban zones in the world.  I started my stroll at Bab Boujloud — the “Blue Gate” of the old city — and the moment I entered Fes el Bali I was swarmed by Moroccan touts who, for a fee, wanted to steer me to the standard monuments and mosques (and, no doubt, a few carpet shops).  The market-driven profit for touts lies in helping tourists find what they have come to see in Fes — but upon entering the old city I didn’t know yet what I wanted to see.  When I respectfully declined their assistance and walked away from the high-traffic areas of the medina, a common refrain from the touts was, “But there is nothing to see in that direction!”

This assertion intrigues me, since it hints at a more philosophical question: What “sights” are worthy of our gaze as travelers, and who decided they were important?  Several hundred years ago, the “sights” of a non-business oriented journey were frequently the objects of pilgrimage (shrines, holy sites, saints’ relics).  By the 19th century, museums and factory showrooms and even hospitals became “sights” on the tourist trail (Mark Twain famously visited the Paris morgue on his Innocents Abroad journey in 1869).  In recent years there has even been a boom in “slum tourism,” for people who want to see the “real” Rio or Nairobi.

I’d like to think these are all worthy enough “sights” for the curious traveler, but I’ve always loved sociologist Dean MacCannell’s assertion that “anything that is remarked, even little flowers or leaves picked up off the ground and shown to a child, even a shoeshine or gravel pit is potentially an attraction.  …How else do we know another person except as an ensemble of suggestions hollowed out from the universe of possible suggestions?  How else do we begin to know the world?”  In this spirit, I love testing the limits of what is and isn’t worthy of my attention as I travel.

I’d been in Fes for more than a day before my journey beyond the Blue Gate.  The withering Moroccan heat (which had peaked out at 107 degrees Fahrenheit the day I arrived in Fes from Chefchaouen) kept me lying low in the hotel on the first day, not spending much time outside until after sundown. Since I was visiting Morocco during the month of Ramadan (when observant Muslims abstain from food and water during daylight hours), the newer part of the city was was a sleepy place during the daytime anyhow.  My more interesting interactions with Moroccans that first day came after dark, when Justin and I were out eating dinner. (Most memorable was a moment when the hose slipped off our restaurant’s propane tank, and the noisy rush of potentially flammable gas sent 30 or so diners — including Justin and me — sprinting into the street for safety.  When we were assured everything was safe, seconds later, all 30 of us had a sheepish little moment of solidarity — sharing covert smiles of embarrassment at our collective moment of panic.)

When I got past the touts in the old city the following day, I found that the back alleys of Fes el Bali served as a vibrant, retro-style economic zone.  The first sight that captured my imagination was a guy sawing slats for wooden buckets in his storefront.  That alley led me into an entire woodworking district, with shop after shop of Moroccan craftsmen planing boards, building furniture, and hand-carving crown-moldings.  None of the storefronts were bigger than your average living room, and the pre-industrialized vibe made it feel like I’d wandered into a medieval village (albeit one with the occasional band-saw and power lathe).

From the woodworking district I wandered into the leather-crafting quarter of the old city, where I saw similar storefronts (and back-lot tanneries) attending to every step of the trade, from the cutting of raw skins, to the tanning and dyeing process, to the sewing and ornamentation of leather cushions and furniture.  In this way, my wanderings felt a little like time-travel to a place where everything is still manufactured slowly, by craftsmen, one step at a time.  The alleys were so narrow in that part of the city that the supplies (including propane, building supplies, and wholesale groceries) were carted from place to place on donkeys.

Since few merchants and craftsmen spoke English, I communicated through a garbled (yet surprisingly effective) mix of unconjugated Spanish, phrasebook-grade French phrases, and a few of the Arabic words I still remembered from my visit to the Middle East ten years before.  Eventually I made my way into the more high-traffic areas of the old city — narrow streets that sold everything from keys to fruit to phone cards.  One winding street of tidy storefronts sold a combination of shoes and clothing that was identical to what (apart from the donkeys and the 1200-year-old paving tiles) one might find in a J.C. Penny’s in Irving, Texas.

Uphill from this area, I found a closet-sized spice shop, run by a bearded old fellow named Hassan, that sold a curious array of Berber beauty products.  Hassan’s storefront display looked similar to what you might find in a Walgreens — but instead of mascara and hand cream, it featured kohl stones, henna powder, and translucent  white chunks of mineral-salt.  When a neighboring merchant (who spoke a little English) told me the mineral salt could be used for shaving and hygiene, I remembered that a number of friends and readers had recommended this product as a way to keep my armpits odor-free (apparently, the mineral salts kill foul-smelling bacteria before it has a chance to form).  Inspired, I plunked down the equivalent of a dollar and added the mineral-salt stone to my no-baggage pocket-gear.

So it was that four hours of randomly wandering the Fes medina led me down medieval-era alleyways, past medieval-style craftsmen and merchants — and culminated in the purchase of medieval-style deodorant.

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  • Kkelley15

    This is so interesting. I've expirianced exactly what you decribed in this post and you representations of it are completely accurate. You are opening peoples eyes to just how big and different the world can be.

  • "I'm lost and walking in circles, but at least I know I'm lost and walking in circles"

    I think a better statement would be... "I'm lost and walking in circles, but at least I don't have any bags!"

  • Beth

    how's the salt working out?

  • Susan

    In my wildest dreams I don't think I could travel with so little. In fact, my husband sent me your video. He's a funny guy, I think he was trying to make a point, but I'm not so sure he could do it either. Just want to know what you would do if you get cold, since you are only in shorts? Also, what about rain?

    Enjoy the rest of your trip and I look forward to continuing reading your blog.

  • Erin

    Mineral salt has never been a particularly successful deoderant method for me but what I did find was that it took a few days of using it and detoxing from the store bought stuff before it started working.
    Erin :)
    ps. wonderful discoveries on the back streets. I like to "live" in an area when I travel. Buying groceries and living day to day is a great way to get a sense of life in a particular place. This, of course, would not work with the kind of travel you are doing during this trip.

  • A great "no baggage" approach to experiencing the places you visit. I'm looking forward to trying this on my next trip especially with the cafes, bars and restaurants. Will pick places solely on the popularity with the locals (which may or may not be easy to determine).

  • Loved this post! Make sure to use the salt after your shower and wet it before applying it.

  • I love that philosophy!! Thank you for sharing - another great post. It's like Christmas every time I see a new post from No Baggage!

  • Thanks for that beautiful quotation. Reminds us that there are always marvels to be discovered, especially in our own back yards. BTW - a friend of mine swears by lemon juice in place of deodorant. He just keeps a few lemons around at home...and uses a slice or two every morning, I guess. Perhaps worth a try? Hope the salt works for you.

  • Taj

    Love the exploring on a no-time-constraint. Whatever you'd like to name it, Rolf! I have spent so many days wandering a HUGE market in Seoul...Dongdaemun... that I then led other expats through this maze of merchants, horizontally and vertically packed into blocks by blocks. Unfortunately for me the city of Seoul has reworked some of this area to a "greener" look. Haven't been back for 5 yrs.

  • Toniri

    It's rather difficult to have to NOT have an interesting time in a city like Fes, a very visual place where most of the action happens on a pedestrian streets. And even though that the chosen stile of exploration will work in every location, my guess is, that it would be much less rewarding in a city like, let's say Billing, MT.

  • Toniri

    grammar mistake: It's rather difficult to NOT have an interesting...

  • TravelMaster

    I've used the mineral salts for a while now, and they work great for me. I think this is a wonderful addition to the travel list, Rolf. I hope it works well for you!

  • Barbara Dove

    Today is my Birthday and I am going to flâneur the day away with my daughter and grandkids in the town they just moved to. To keep it interesting for the kids, we're going to combine our wanderings with Geocaching. (See Geocaching.com)

    I've found this 'modern treasure hunting' to be an awesome tool for discovering hidden and delightful places just off the beaten track. For instance, while in Charleston, SC, for example, geocaches were hid near a gorgeous old church garden, in a park tucked away near and inland waterway. I never would have seen these places with typical tourist wanderings.

    Thanks for re-affirming that the little details, even work-a-day ones can be wondrous!!

  • Supposedly those mineral salts work but I've never tried it. You know what you can buy in Morocco that is good for your skin and protects it from harmful uv rays? Argan oil. Argan can only be found in Morocco. Depending on how they process it, it is used for your skin or on bread. It has a nutty taste and is very good.

  • Sometimes it's the supposedly unremarkable that is the most interesting thing - you can learn as much about a culture from what it takes from granted as you can from the things it lauds as sight-worthy. Sometimes on my travels I'll be fascinated by the shape of a doorknob, or a particular stylistic flourish in the graffiti. In a way people remain the most interesting sights - they're multifaceted enough to keep your interest for all the time you can devote to them.

  • Are you still lost and walking in circles? ha ha! I guess we'll know when we get the next post :) I really enjoyed this video too - I loved seeing all the craftsmen in action. Very vibrant and rich culture. I've been in Shijiazhuang, China now for a week and have been getting to know my new city in similar ways - I've been walking around the neighborhoods but also taking the buses to get a sense of the lay of the land and see where everything is. The city is so big with many shops that taking the bus is a good way to cover a lot of ground in an afternoon. But I've also enjoyed walking through the neighborhood markets where locals are selling produce and other items. Many of the older people play Chinese chess and something similar to dominoes in these market alleys. It's my goal to take a different bus everyday - not sure how many days that will be as there are many different bus routes here! Love following your journey!

  • Taj

    Could that similar to dominoes be Majhong-- I would bet. Keep exploring

  • racarl

    Thanks Rolf. Keep the stories coming. I loved Jack London when I was a boy and reading your accounts are even more intriguing.

  • om

    where is your vest? back in the hotel?

  • Rolf

    Yup. In hotter weather I tend to just keep the vest on a hanger in the hotel on non-transit days.

  • Peatt

    Looks like my kinda day. Loved this post! Make sure to use the salt after your shower and wet it before applying it.

  • Dragonfly7

    Though we are more likely to be doing it from a car in larger cities, my husband and I use a similar method to explore new places. It was a particularly nice way to see Galveston for the first time, where we stumbled upon a great harbor tour. Doing it by foot would be even better.
    I have used mineral salts as deodorant but hadn't heard of using them for shaving. I recommend applying it immediately after taking a shower, or it may not work as well.
    Wishing you more safe and fascinating travels.

  • It's still amazing to see people working with their hands like that. My father is a carpenter and I remember him teaching me the trade. It can be hard work creating a fireplace mantel or a stair case railing but the satisfaction you get from completing such a task is amazing.

    Keep up the awesome posts about your travels with no baggage! It's inspiring!

  • SCOTTEVEST, Inc

    My favorite video yet! Fez looks beautiful. Love the walk till you discover approach.

  • Sharon Miro

    I love this type of wandering-and thanks for teaching me a new word: flâneur. I did this type of discovery for almost 3 weeks in Italy this past spring. No set places to be or see. Never set foot in a church, or museum-(except to escape from the rain), never took a taxi. Wandered, got lost, and found time and again. Udine,Verona, Venice, Florence, Rome. Fantastic. I loved it. This is how I will travel from now on.

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