Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pictures of Fes, Morocco

Austin in the sweat box Second Class train to Fes.  We tried to find the First Class car!

Fes: the view from the hills above (as with all pictures, click to enlarge).

This palace gate is only about 30 years old, but it took three years to make.

Austin at an old gate above the city.

UNESCO is subsidizing the repair of the old Medina walls.

A potter at a tile factory.  The wheel is foot-powered.

A typical street scene.

Tiles are made, baked, glazed, baked again and then cut to shape with a hammer-chisel.

The cuts are precise, and go into tessellated designs.

Cut free-hand with a simple hammer-chisel, the pieces are as precise as a clock gear.

The tiles are assembled into patterns upside down inside metal racks.

Austin with a finished product -- a tiled table.

In Morocco, a lot of tiles go into walls, floor, and doorways such as this gate.

Intricately carved plaster is everywhere, and the work is still being done today.

A camel head shows what's being butchered -- and it's proof of freshness.

The dye pits of Fes are more than a 1,000 years old, and in continuous use.

Sheep hides, dyed yellow, will be turned into shoes (babouche).

Bread --  a staple food consumed in massive quantities.

A donkey with a muzzle made from a large plastic bottle.

A gravestone carver.

Guinea hen, rooster, and eggs -- a typical market meat and egg scene.

Propane canisters are moved in the Medina by mule and hand cart.

The Medina streets are too tight for cars.  My shoulders touch left and right.

Austin leads the way.

Austin and I in front of the Blue Gate.

Austin smiles despite the heat.

Musk melons are a staple food and colorful.

A very nice olive man.  Morocco's olives are terrific!

This hand cart is packed with eggs all the way down.

Another narrow street with dubious construction.  You learn to trust in Allah.

Austin in front of wood used to fire bakery ovens.

There are lot of fruit stands, and they are always colorful.

This mule had been given a smashed watermelon to eat, and he seemed to love it!

Our hotel, Dar Melody, was an old house with three guestrooms and breakfast in the courtyard.

The door to the hotel was as wide as the street -- and no sign on either one.

Following Austin into the labyrinth.

Narrow streets, crumbling walls, and a cats cradle of overhead electrical wires.

Another mule hauling propane in the Medina.

Turkeys await their fate, while a fresh goat head advertises the meat of the day.

Coke goes everywhere in this world -- here by three-wheeled motorbike.

More fruit.  Morocco's oranges are the best in the world.

More typical tourist pictures, this time from Fes, Morocco.

Austin and I took a taxi from the top of the old Kasbah in Tangier to the new train station, where we boarded a train for the five-hour trip to Fes.  We had tickets for the First Class section of the train, but we were a bit flummoxed trying to find it and there seemed to be no one to ask.  We finally got on the train, found seats (there were plenty) and settled in for the ride, which was hotter than hades, as there was no air-conditioning. It turns out the air-conditioned First Class coach was the very last one on the train -- and there was only one coach! We learned that lesson the hard way.

On the trip from Tangier to Fes, the land got a lot more arid, and I was surprised to see hay bales and a few tractors (John Deere and Massey Fergusons). Morocco's agriculture seems to have just started down the road to automation. Automation makes sense with wheat (and the wheat fields were big), but I am not sure it makes sense for anything else other than, perhaps, hauling some good to distant big city markets.

Along side the train tracks we would occasionally pass massive stacks of old rail that had recently been pulled up and replaced. King Mohamed VI is clearly pumping a lot of money into building national infrastructure -- not only in the ports around Tangier, as we had seen, but also in the railroads. I explained to Austin that one unique feature of this trip was that it could be done by train at all; there are almost no trains anywhere else in Africa, and most of the track that does exists simply connects a port to a mine or forest, without any attempt to tie the people and the land together.

In Fes, we found another new train station, and we also finally found a taxi cab driver that did not seem too intent on ripping us off (everything is a price negotiation in Morocco). He called our hotel on his cell phone, and they told him where to drop us off. When we pulled up the crowded and chaotic parking lot outside one of the gates, we were met by the female half of the two owners (both French) and their son, who guided us through increasingly narrow streets, and past a few piles of garbage, to a simple door without a sign. The doorway itself was less than shoulder height to me, but once inside, it was quite fabulous. 

Fes and Marrakesh now have quite a few of these small "boutique" hotels crafted out of old houses (called "dars" or "riads" depending on their design).  This place was substantially redone, and we had Internet, a massive bathroom, two bedrooms, and air conditioning. Perfect!

The owner of the hotel gave us an enormously complex map, and explained to me in French the broad layout of the Medina. The short story is that nothing in the world is more complex than old Fes. There are several thousand dead-end streets, few street signs, and the streets are narrow and quite crowded. This, I knew. The real problem was going to be getting back to our hotel. She said she would drive us to the other end of the old city, point out a place where we could have dinner, and that after we had looked around on the "main street" there, and had dinner, the restaurant owner would hail us a cab outside the Medina gate, call her on his cell phone, and she would come out meet us again at the parking lot. And that's exactly what we did, and it all came off without a hitch. A small miracle.

The next morning, Austin and I hired a guide and a taxi.  The guide spoke English, which was good for Austin as he does not speak French, and we took the taxi out above the city to get a panoramic view of the modern city (built about 30 years), the "new" city (built around 1500), and the old city where we were staying (dating from the 9th Century). We then went to a couple of palaces, a tile and pottery manufacturing facility, a forgettable museum and garden, the leather dying pits, and then a small parade of "artisan craftsmen" which, in fact, were small demonstration facilities tied to stores where we were worked over good in an effort to get us to buy something. We got away with only a few small purchases (nothing not on the list already), and we called it a day. It had been a very good day (especially the tile place), but I did not want a guide on Day Two to lead me around anymore. As complex and intimidating a place as Fes is, (and I assure you it is the most complex and intimidating city place I have ever been) I wanted to walk it alone and without paying someone who I sensed was part of the you-buy-my-product hustle.

The next morning Austin and I headed out alone.  I stopped to take detailed notes of every left and right turn out of the hotel until we got to a recognizable gate (a landmark). Would I be able to find our way back?  Hard to say! 

We walked a lot -- getting lost a dozen times, and circling back on ourselves at least as many times. 

Fez Bali (old Fes) is a true labyrinth, and the widest streets are too narrow for a car (though mopeds fly through the larger passage ways). As always in every Moroccan city, store owners and touts called out trying to get us to turn our attention to them. The trick is simply to keep walking and to never reveal your nationality or say too much in any one language (I often grunted in three or four languages to keep them guessing). Going out without a guide was better as far as I was concerned -- we saw less predatory shop owners, got to stop and talk to a wood-turner, and could dawdle a bit more for photographs.

Two or three of the more memorable scenes that stick in my mind about Fes were children swimming -- in one instance in a hole filled with drainage water seeping from a burning trash pile, and another in the wash water from the dye pits. Ugh! It was hot, but seeing kids swimming in what is essentially sewage water is always disturbing. Also disturbing were a number of kittens runover in the street by fast mopeds. Cats and kittens are everywhere in the old parts of Moroccan Medinas, and though I saw them being fed and petted, the lack of spay-neuter, combined with the crowding, filth, and lack of veterinary attention, means most cats do not have long lives. Finally, we saw honey being dumped over honey-soaked pastries, which would have been fine if the honey was not trapping bees and a few flies in the matrix. Surely a screen case could have been built over the wares?

I love Morocco, but a return visit reminded me, once again, how much we Americans take things like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), building codes, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), and the Consumer Product Safety Commission for granted. In Fes, the ammonia (used to strip hair and fat from the hides) and raw dye from the tanning pits is dumped, unprocessed, into the local river, where it's either a "red" day or a "blue" day, a "green" day or a "brown" day, depending on what is being dyed.

What about the fish? What fish? There have been no fish in that river in more than a 1,000 years.

The number of beggars that are crippled or blind is a silent testimony to what happens in a country without OSHA, a health care system, or a social service safety net. While fruits and vegetables are plentiful, and the meat is as fresh as this morning's dew, there are no health inspections other than those you make with you own eyes. Austin now knows why I always order meat "well done"!

Of course, there is always a certain amount of filth everywhere in the developing world -- par for the course in countries where animals are butchered next to defecating donkeys, and live chickens flap and crow only a few feet from pastry vendors. That said, Austin found the whole scene a bit overwhelming, and I cannot blame him as Fes is a bit overwhelming for most everyone -- including most Moroccans. This is a very old Medieval city that is simply too tightly packed and too complex to fully comprehend.

If you are not overwhelmed by Fes, then you must have missed seeing the city!

Pigeons await their pie -- pastilla.


3Laiki said...

Fantastico! My favorite 'tour' of yours yet! Did you eat any camel?

PBurns said...

I have had camel before. That said, I think it best to have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to meat in the developing world. Pastilla might have pigeon or chicken, your kebab could be beef, goat, sheep or perhaps camel. No cat or rat or dog -- that's the stuff you find east of Afghanistan, not in North Africa. I don't worry too much about meat in North Africa, but all must be "well cooked."


Jenn said...

Fabulous. I am in utter awe of that tile carver. Amazing work.

Rick said...

You've given Austin an education in how (some of) the rest of the world lives. A valuable lesson.