Monday, July 27, Fez, Morocco

2015-07-27 15.08.52
My second lifetime attempt at a selfie. Why I’m sitting in the Fez train station taking a picture of myself will be explained below. The yellow tape is binding an expensive painting I bought in Essaouira by a well known Moroccan artist, Mohammed Tabal. You can look at his images on Google. 

This will seem like a depressing entry but I assure you I’m in good spirits despite a series of discouraging events.

It started when I put my trousers on this morning in my room in the Rabat medina. The realization came to me that I’d gained weight on this trip so far. That has never happened to me on a summer trip. This means my blood pressure will be elevated throughout the school year with all sorts of health implications. Not good news.

Last night I went on Airbnb and requested a room in Fez. The place had only two reviews, one positive, the other ambivalent. The latter party said there had some confusion about the fee for the room either because of a miscommunication (the landlady didn’t speak English but her daughter did) or because the lady was trying to hint for some added money beyond what she advertised on the site. The location was ideal and the price acceptable so I ignored any doubts and asked for a booking. I got back an odd message. Was I alone; and what did I expect to pay? The second question made no sense since the price was clearly printed on the Airbnb site. I replied, noting the posted cost. There was no reply by the time I went to bed, nor was there anything when I woke in the morning.

At the Rabat train station I located some untrustworthy wifi, good enough for me to determine that I’d gotten no confirmation of my reservation. I emailed the lady before my train left. When we got to Fez I got a confusing message that I ultimately determined to say, “Please find somewhere else to rent”. I can only surmise that the lady had been hinting for some additional cash, which I, of course, declined to proffer.

That left me with no place to stay in Fez. But there were dozens of other Airbnb listings (and I could have easily found a cheap hotel in the medina). I requested a place, and waited for a reply. It took two and a half hours before I got a confirmation. But my troubles weren’t over. The medina in Fez is renowned as the most difficult to navigate in the Arabic world. Without specific directions to my place I had to sit tight. Send me directions, I emailed my putative host. There was no reply for nearly an hour. Adding to my woes was the fact that I was dependent on the wifi of a little restaurant in the station, a signal that seemed to weaken as the day lengthened. I wasn’t certain that the directions–if they ever came–would show up on my phone. And there is always the worry that my battery will die before I get the email.

At 5:30 the directions came; but that wasn’t the end of the story. For some reason the text message was truncated.

“Take a taxi to the medina and get off at the square near the post office. From there take…….”.

That was all that showed. I nervously answered with another request. Could you email me the directions? I was sure this would take another hour, but, thankfully, two minutes later I had all I needed. But that was merely the good news of a very bad situation because, you see, I noticed a text message from TMobile right after the message from my host.

You’ve been paying exorbitant (my word) roaming fees, it said, don’t you want to stop them? Apparently somewhere on my trip I’d hit some button that opened me to a stunning bill. I can’t bring myself to tell anyone how much it was. Suffice to say that it depressed the hell out of me.

After absorbing that shock I went out front and negotiated a reasonable fare for a trip to the medina. Within a half hour I was safely ensconced in my dorm room.

But more misery awaited.

In the cool of the evening I sallied out for an exploratory walk through a portion of the medina. After about twenty minutes of wandering I found myself negotiating a jam-packed trip through endless shops selling oils, dates, clothing, ceramics, rugs, fresh orange juice, jewelry, restaurant meals, plants, vegetables, fruits, meat, and just about anything you can think of.

In other words a typical moroccan medina.

And as many times as I’ve made similar journeys there is always the unsettling realization that most of these people are eking out a living that barely sustains them. IOW they are poor; and I am relatively wealthy. Any sensible merchant in this compressed universe would feel some anger at the many tourists who look, but don’t buy. Which is most of us. One or two sales in a ten hour day would be, from my observation, typical. It’s a lot of rejection to handle. And too little income to live on.

So when I saw four young tourists fleeing one importuning guy–and doing it with archetypical contempt–I wasn’t surprised when I heard the guy cursing the departing visitors.

But then he turned to me and began importuning me. I was tired. I was depressed about the lost phone money. I was conscious that I’d already spent a great deal of money on this trip. I wanted nothing of whatever he was offering. But he refused to take no for answer. He was in my face trying to dislodge some of my hard earned dinars. I tried my best to walk past him without saying anything but he was ultra-persistent, more so than anyone I’d heretofore met in Morocco. His only rival in my experience were some guys in the Dakar airport trying to carry my bag.

Then he began cursing me. And following me.

I tried dashing into one of the stalls to buy some sun screen.

He was waiting for me when I completed my purchase. The guys in the stall tried to help me; they sat the guy down and tried to convince him to leave me alone. They told me that this guy was a regular and that he often harassed tourists, trying to get fees as a medina guide.

I tried ignoring him, but just then I realized he was right behind me kicking me in the back of my feet. I darted into another stall. This place was similarly sympathetic to my problem. The guy tried to reassure me:  “Don’t worry. This place has good security, nobody can hurt you.” But I wasn’t mollified. I consented to check out the guys store, which was well stocked with the usual things, clothes, jewelry, ceramics. Guiltily I examined what they had knowing I had no intention of buying anything. I’m certain the proprietor thought I’d purchase something out of gratitude for his harboring me. I swear he looked chagrined when I fled, finally–hoping my pursuer was gone.

But he wasn’t. Within a minute or two he reappeared. He insisted I shake his hand, which I did. Then he asked for ‘a tip’. Now I was more frightened than ever. I refused the bribe and ducked into still another stall. This time I was able to leave the store and get close to my dormitory before he found me again. I bought some fresh orange juice from a vendor and asked for refuge in his little restaurant. The restaurant owner shielded me, saying he knew the guy to be, essentially, bad news.

Finishing my oj I sped toward my dorm. Safety. And the end of a long day.

Tomorrow I hope to go on a one day tour of local ruins.

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Jerry Heverly

I'm a high school English teacher from San Leandro High School in California.

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