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.