This past weekend me, my girlfriend and a couple of our friends took a trip of a lifetime to visit Morocco. Our journey began before the sun came up in Seville on October 11. While the entirety of the trip was extraordinary, for this blog post I’ll be focusing on the three most exciting and intriguing parts, le crème de le crème if you will.
The first place I’ll talk about, and probably the biggest cultural shock I have ever had, is the medina in Fez. To give a little background the official name for this part of the city is the Fez el bali and it's close to 1200 years old. We started off our tour in an area that was clearly the local meat market. Before I continue, I want you to imagine the butcher counter at your local supermarket. Chances are all of their products are inside a glass refrigerated display. The person behind the counter is wearing plastic gloves for sanitation purposes and there is probably a sink within your view. Still have the image in your head? Now let me take you to this particular meat market.
As we walked through it the smell was overwhelming, as plain clothed men laid their meat out in the open hot Moroccan air. Flies manifested themselves everywhere in these hole-in-the-wall shops, but took a special liking to the unprotected meat products. Live chickens could be seen in cages every couple of stores, presumably to be slaughtered for a potential buyer on sight. This was definitely a huge shock as compared to how many restrictions and safety codes there are in place for food products back home in the states.
Eventually we left the meat market and it’s smell behind us to visit a more commercial area, where everything from handmade steel tea kettles to incense to Adidas shoes could be found. Men would approach us with jewelry or leather purses and systematically work their way through our group trying to get us to buy something. If they were trying to sell a bracelet they would put it on your wrist and tell you how much you had to pay for it, if it was a bag they would sling it over your shoulder. We all politely refused and he would move on to the next person in our group, and then once he had reached the last person, would start again from the beginning, this time offering slightly lower prices, definitely one of the most aggressive sales techniques that I’ve ever seen. However trying to let this salesman down easy while following our tour guide proved somewhat difficult. I would have to guess that each street could probably fit three average sized men shoulder to shoulder at any given time, and with hundreds of people trying to squeeze down these narrow avenues with the occasional donkey and cart pushing its way through our task of following the guide wasn’t made any easier. With over 9,000 streets, getting lost in the medina is a definite possibility if you are not careful. Eventually after squeezing through what seemed like hundreds of streets and market areas we arrived at the tannery.
We were warned at the start of our tour that when we arrived near the tannery it would be best not to breathe through our noses. After being lead up a flight of stairs and being handed large sprigs of mint (in order to help mask the scent) we arrived at balcony that overlooked the whole operation. The smell up there was definitely overwhelming, but you got somewhat use to it the longer you were there. From where we stood we could see large pools of different colored liquid where the leather was being treated. Apparently in order to get their leather as soft as it was, it was treated with pigeon excrement, which is where the bad smell came from. I later learned that this was the oldest leather tannery in the world, dating back nearly 900 years, and much of the processes that they used to treat the leather hadn’t changed since the day they opened. While we stood up on the balcony it felt like we had stepped back through time, a feeling that I was starting to get used to in Fez. After looking through their shop we left the tannery behind.
The next day we visited Chefchaouen. The city itself was like a smaller less intense version of Fez. I found myself wishing that the travel agency we went with had brought us here before Fez, as a way to acclimate us to intensity of the medinas. On a whole the blue painted streets of Chefchaouen, or just Chaouen as the locals call it, were pretty laid back. The blue city was built in front of the gorgeous backdrop of the mountains, which seemed to surround it on three sides. We spent a lazy afternoon here as many of us had been exhausted after three days of constant travel. We relaxed in a large market where several of the girls in our group decided to get traditional henna tattoo’s. Afterwards we got back on the bus and headed for home.
Morocco was one of those trips where I wasn’t sure if I had enjoyed it until I had gotten a full night’s sleep. Looking back it was an amazing trip that took me completely out my comfort zone, however I would definitely suggest this trip to only the most experienced travelers.
Dan Hibbitts is the Fall 2013 CEA MOJO in Seville, Spain. He is currently a junior at Columbia College Chicago
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