Morocco Beckons: The Ancient Medina

“I’m almost half way to Fez, Morocco. My flight departed at 12:40pm — a delayed departure, so we should arrive in Fez around 4:00pm Central European Time. I’m not sure what time that will be locally, but I’ll find that out when I get there. This is a moment I’ve been anticipating most of my life…”

That’s how my November 28th mid-flight journal entry began.

I had departed Germany’s Frankfurt Hahn airport and was anxiously anticipating my arrival in North Africa, in the medieval Arab city of Fez. My journal entry continued with a brief synopsis of the background story that had led me to take this flight, and then proceeded along the following lines:

Because of these events, I’ve had an acute awareness, ever since, of how my life would have been different had I not been adopted. Would my father still be alive? Would I be living in Morocco? Would I be Muslim? Would I speak Arabic and French? Or would German be my mother tongue? Would I cover my hair with a head scarf?

The myriad might-haves are endless.

Would I have grown up in Germany and passed easily between two cultures: the Moroccan and the German? Or would I have left Germany as a baby and grown up in Morocco? What would my place in society be as a Moroccan woman? Would I have wanted to travel? What would my outlook on life have been?

Would I be the same person?

“I don’t know,” my journal entry continued, “and some of these questions may better be answered once I get to know Fez. I know nearly nothing of its culture, its societal structures, or how things in Fez may have changed over the past forty years.

“This is a voyage of discovery for me, and I already know now, without having yet landed in Fez, that this trip won’t be enough to answer my questions. This trip is where the discovery begins.”

With that in mind, I landed at Fes-Saïss Airport at 2:38pm local time. The flight took three hours and two minutes. I walked down the movable steps that had been rolled onto the Tarmac and secured alongside our Ryanair Boeing 737-800 plane.

The little Ryanair plane that brought me to Fez

It was cloudy, with small patches of blue, and fairly cool. The warmer weather that my friend, Tracy, had alluded to turned out to be technically accurate.

The temperature in Fez was indeed warmer than in Germany, which had been just above freezing the morning I left. By contrast, the high in Fez was practically tepid at 62 degrees, Fahrenheit, with a low of 48.

But the Arizona-child in me refused to consider that warm!

I approached the terminal’s “Aeroport Fes Sais” sign and accompanying Arabic script with much excitement.

Aéroport Fès Saïs

Inside, the immigration officer examined my passport, giving me a stamp along with a scrutinizing glance — as immigration officers are so expertly inclined to do. I went to collect my luggage.

A new stamp!

After sailing through customs and continuing through the terminal, I placed my bags on one final conveyer belt to be X-rayed by security.

The immigration form

Not knowing what the local ATM situation would be, I exchanged some Dollars for Dirhams and walked outside.  There was a Moroccan flag flapping in the wind across the street. It was a bit of a dreary day, but I was very excited.

And nervous.

Hello, Morocco! Marhaba!

I had been in contact with the host of the local AirBnB regarding transportation from the airport to Riad Palais Yazid, as the hostel-esque accommodation is called. The host had said that a taxi driver would be waiting in front of the arrival area holding a sign with my name on it.

I chose the Riad Palais Yazid because it was a tremendous bargain and had great reviews on AirBnB; but ultimately, the deciding factor had been a picture of the terrace view overlooking the ancient medina of Fez.
The deciding factor: this view as seen on their AirBnB listing

I was the only unaccompanied woman outside the airport. There were a bunch of men across the street. It looked like many of them might be taxi drivers, but I wasn’t really sure. I didn’t see anyone holding a sign with my name on it.

It started drizzling. I began to wonder if I would make it to that terrace.

I know from many years of travel experience to always maintain an appearance of confidence, especially in situations when you are not. I was full of emotions: excitement, apprehension, a tiny tinge of worry, and welling anticipation all at once.

Using the airport’s free WiFi, I was able to send a message to the AirBnB to let them know that I had just arrived and to re-confirm the airport-transfer arrangement. I figured that my flight’s delayed arrival might be the reason there was no one holding a sign with my name on it.

Bags in tow, I stepped off to the side to wait for a reply and maintained my fake air of confidence, as if it had all been part of the plan that I would wait right there for someone to be picking me up shortly. Whether that someone was actually on the way or not was yet to be seen.

I thought about some of the things I had heard about Morocco previously. Just a couple of days before my flight to Fez, I was having dinner with my cousin, Roger, his wife, Susanne, and a family of refugees from Syria. Roger and Susanne had been helping them over the past couple of years to acclimate to their new life in Germany.

We told Mohammed and Kulud, the mother and father of the family, that I would be flying to Fez on Monday to visit Morocco for the very first time to search for my birth father’s family (assuming he had any family left in the area, or at all).

Mohammed seemed somewhat concerned that I would be traveling by myself in Morocco. If he, a person from the Arab world, was concerned about a woman traveling alone in Morocco, should I also be?  

Maybe Mohammed knows more about Moroccan culture than I do, I thought. But then again, it’s not uncommon for people I know to be concerned about my travels regardless of where I go — even it I’m headed off to Paris or other places I feel very comfortable. And some people just feel it’s unsafe for a woman to travel solo, period, I reminded myself.

I had also previously heard stories of tourists being pestered in the streets of Morocco, especially unaccompanied women. In one story I read, the blogger wrote about a ten-year-old boy not leaving her alone. Allegedly he kept following her around, begging her to have sex with him.

But I also knew about cultural norms and how to blend in. I was accustomed to the many different ways one can be approached in markets for example. As a kid growing up in South Korea, I learned how to haggle in the Itaewon market of 1980s Seoul.

I had honed my haggling skills in Mexico many times, and I had been rigorously accosted by local vendors in Dakar, Senegal, who wanted to sell me their wares — so much so, that I turned around and got back on the ship that was my floating home and place of employment at the time.

(Coincidentally, that turned out to be one of my bigger regrets from my cruise-ship days. I wish I had toughened up and proceeded ashore, despite the pushy salesmen on the dock. Who knows what sort of experiences and learning opportunities I missed out on. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to return to Senegal one day.)

My knowledge of cultural norms would help me fit in in Morocco, I was sure of it. I knew that if I wanted to draw less attention, I could always cover my head with a scarf. I had my scarf handy, just in case — and also simply because it was cold outside.

It had started raining while I waited for a reply from the AirBnb. And, happily, I did get word that the driver would arrive holding the sign with my name on it, as we had previously arranged. I felt relieved.

While I waited in the light drizzle, gazing at the Moroccan flag dancing in the breeze and scanning the nearby crowd of men to see if my taxi driver might be approaching, I thought about the flip side to these “scary” scenarios.

I’m lucky to be a part of a wonderful community of travelers in my job at Rick Steves’ Europe. And two fellow Rick Steves’ Europe staff members, Laura and Veronica, both had spent quite a bit of time in Morocco. Veronica had studied abroad in Rabat for five months; Laura lived in Fez for six months. And they both loved their time in Morocco.

I was sure I would too.

Then, a slim man approached with a limp-looking piece of paper with “Stefeni” in hand-written chicken scratches.

My ride had arrived!

Interestingly, he looked just a tad bit like what I imagined my dad might possibly have looked like.

About thirty minutes later we arrived at an entrance to the old medina of Fez. He couldn’t take his taxi any further, and there wasn’t anyone there to meet me and bring me to the riad. We couldn’t speak the same language, but he was very nice. So, he parked his car and got out to help me find the accommodation, carrying my luggage the entire way.

We walked along many alleyways, up and down stairs, and he had to keep stopping to ask locals which way to go. I was breaking into a sweat trying to keep up with him, and I felt bad because he was lugging my suitcase the whole way. At one point he realized we’d gone off course, and we had to backtrack a while in the way we’d just come.

Eventually, we found the place. Riad Palais Yazid. I thanked the driver and gave him a tip.

My taxi driver! He had been very kind. I wish I had asked him his name.

I entered the Riad Palais Yazid, walking down, then up a few steps, pausing in a small hallway that had an entrance to the breakfast room. It looked just like the pictures I had seen in the AirBnB listing.

The central courtyard that serves as the breakfast room of Riad Palais Yazid. These double doors lead to my room.

From what I could tell, no one was around. I entered the breakfast room and looked around. There were double doors on the right- and left-hand side of the breakfast room. The doors on the right were closed, but on the left they were open.

I approached and was about to enter, when I saw an older woman lying in prostration on a prayer rug. I quietly reverse-stepped it out of there, not wanting to disturb her prayers. Instead, I sat on a chair in the central room and decided to wait.

It wasn’t that long till a gentleman came out of the kitchen area down the hallway adjacent to the breakfast room. He didn’t speak English. The woman emerged from the bedroom. She also didn’t speak English. The man, who’s name I later learned was Mohammed, got me some clean towels and showed me to my room — the same room in which the woman had been praying.

My room at Riad Palais Yazid!
My room from another angle — those double doors led to the bathroom.
Yet another picture of my room. Not bad. Not bad at all!

Okay, it looks nice and clean, I thought. I got settled in and came out a bit later to check out the terrace. I pointed up, trying to indicate to Mohammed that I wanted to see the view. He pointed me in the direction of the stairs.

After climbing about four flights of stairs I was rewarded with an incredible view. Mental note to self: Must wake up early for tomorrow’s sunrise!

The incredible view of the medina on the first evening of my arrival in Fez!

Once I got back downstairs, other travelers were sitting in the breakfast room. A young couple from Spain was waiting for transportation back to the airport, and a Chinese man in his twenties or thirties sat at another table across the room.

Mohammed offered me some tea. I accepted, thanking him. He poured, first holding the kettle low, then raising it high, allowing a steady foot-long stream of bronze liquid to cascade into my cup.

It did not taste like the Moroccan mint tea I make from tea bags at home. This was more like a sweet serving of hot and flavorful mint water: the mint, fresh and strong, and the tea, excessively sweet — yet very delicious.

View of the breakfast room from above. My room was through the double doors on the left.

I began chatting with the Chinese guy. He works in tech, lives in Berlin, and just arrived in Fez the day prior. We exchanged brief greetings in German. Then it seemed he wanted to unburden his complaints on someone, and I was that someone. Thus began the outline of his grievances.

He complained that every time he left the hostel, he got lost. “It is impossible to find one’s way here!” He was exasperated by it. I mentioned to him that I hadn’t been able to download a Google offline map for Fez. It just wasn’t available. He mentioned a few other map app options.

“But it’s no use,” he continued. The GPS location on the maps were not accurate enough, and there are so many labyrinthian passageways, that one simply cannot navigate their way through the medina. You think you’re going down one street, but really, you’re heading down another!

“Locals are trained from a very young age to sniff out lost tourists and lead them home — for a price,” which is a sort of apprenticeship for job security into adulthood, he speculated. This is how some locals must supplement their income, he said, by escorting lost tourists back to their accommodations.

The labyrinth

He had strong, if unfavorable, opinions about this system, and wasn’t too shy about sharing them with me. He said that as long as you have coins, though, it is not an issue to find your way back. Someone will always be there to lead the way. “They will find you, because they can smell when you are lost!” 

Sadly, his frustration seemed to have taken a toll on his view of Fez. There are worse ways of earning a living, I thought. But it had been an interesting and informative conversation, nonetheless.

Maybe it was true then, what Anaïs Nin had said, that “only those born in this ancient city can find their way.” I debated with myself as to whether I should head out this evening for an exploration.

It was getting dark, and I was getting hungry. I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw a comment from Veronica:

“Oh my god Stef you’re going finally?!! SO exciting!!! Check out Cafe Clock in the Fez medina. It’s shwiya [exotic-sounding typo?] difficult to find but worth it – amazing views of the medina rooftops from the terrace. They have a delicious camel burger and don’t forget an avocado orange smoothie to wash it down ” 

As a pescatarian, I didn’t plan on ordering the camel burger, but the place looked amazing from what I saw on their website.

“Screw it,” I thought. I didn’t come all this way to sit in a hotel, even if it did offer amazing views. I’m going out to explore, and I’m going to try to find Cafe Clock. I plugged it into Google Maps while I was still on Wi-Fi at the riad.

It didn’t look too difficult to find, I thought. Even if it was already a half hour past sunset before I finally set out. Although it wasn’t an option to download the Fez map for offline use, I could still follow the little blue dot on Google Maps that showed my current location. I would put its accuracy to the test.

Plus, I had plenty of coins! And that gave me confidence. I took a picture of the entrance to the hostel, then began on my way.

The entrance to Riad Palais Yazid, also called Palais el Yazid et Walid.

Pausing at each turn or junction, I tried hard to memorize characteristics about the way and proceeded in the direction of Cafe Clock.

"One always sooner or later, comes upon a city which is an image of one's inner cities. Fez is an image of my inner self... The layers of the city of Fez are like the layers and secrecies of the inner life. One needs a guide... There were in Fez, as in my life, streets which led nowhere, impasses which remained a mystery."
--Anaïs Nin

In awe of the sights and sounds along the way — the street cats, the vendors, the passageways flickering in flaxen hues and bustling with people — I continued on, carefully monitoring the “blue dot” to make sure I was heading in the right direction.

Miraculously, I made it to Cafe Clock about a half an hour later.

Cafe Clock, I’ve found you!
As a person who suffers from a terrible reaction to gluten, I was ecstatic to see a few dishes labeled “gf” on their menu! I highly recommend Cafe Clock!

I chose the winter salad of roasted veg, goat cheese, and harissa sauce, as well as the avocado-orange smoothie Veronica had recommended. It was delicious! I was one happy camper!

I told an English couple sitting nearby that a friend had recommended this avocado-orange smoothie, and that I must send her a pic! The wife obliged and snapped my picture!
My smoothie was an excellent and versatile model. It posed in many different locations and looked good from all angles.
The delicious winter veg salad with harissa sauce! Yummers!
I loved this old repurposed “Singer” table!
Lots of beautiful colors at Cafe Clock!

After my scrumptious meal, and after having taken lots of pictures of the eclectic interior of the restaurant, I thought about what I would do next. Based on the success of my very first outing in Fez, I was feeling pretty confident. So I decided to explore a bit more before returning to Riad Palais Yazid.

The narrow alleyway leading from Cafe Clock back towards the “main street, ” Rue Talaa Kebira.
Selfie in the alleyway!

I stayed on the “main street” in order to increase my chances of finding my way back home.

Colorful produce market
Four-legged transportation inside the ancient medina — poor donkey looked tired!
Vendors were shutting down their stands, but a few were still open.
Produce shopping by night!

After walking a while, taking it all in, I continued snapping pictures at an arch I had come upon. That’s when a young man began shouting “Eh, FUCK YOU!” at me.

I was surprised, but not afraid. Mostly, I felt curious. “Who on earth is this person yelling at strangers like this?” I wondered. And, instinctively, I thought: this person sees me as a tourist taking pictures with my camera, and not as a human being.

So, I walked right up to him.

Seen sitting off in the distance, the mischievous little chap (right) and his mate (left). The picture is blurry to protect his identity. Just kidding. It’s blurry because I didn’t hold my arm steady.

With a mixed expression of amusement, curiosity, and a dash of disapproval, I looked him right in the eye. He clearly hadn’t expected me to waltz right up to him with that questioning gaze. He smiled sheepishly, said hello, and shook my hand in embarrassment. The corners of my mouth curved subtly upward and I said hello back.

After an interesting pause of mutual acknowledgement, I continued on my way.

He was a teenage boy, keeping himself entertained, cursing in a language that was not his own. I remembered learning foreign swearwords when I was young. There’s something impishly fun in them rolling off your tongue. Even though you know the meaning, you don’t have any personal associations with the word. It just doesn’t carry the same weight as in your mother tongue. 

I wonder if he’ll shout “fuck you” at strangers again?

Finally, I came to a gate leading out of the medina, and decided I should probably head back to the hostel.

Gate to the outside world. Don’t know what it’s called, and didn’t really know where I was. Chances are, I wouldn’t be able to retrace my steps another time — although I sure hope to try someday.

I realized that the place looked completely different on the way back, because all of the shops and colorful merchandise had vanished. I kept a close eye on the blue dot.

To my astonishment, after some time, I made it back home on my own!

I was feeling pretty dang proud of myself for not only having found Cafe Clock on my own, but also for having carried out some interesting explorations by night — and to so adeptly have found my way back to the riad!

Dang, I’m a good navigator, I mused inwardly. I should have remembered that the universe has a way of bringing the overly confident down a notch! Conceit’s a sure ship to disaster, I once heard someone say.

Back in the hostel, they were impressed that I had made it back on my own. Mohammed, whose English hadn’t improved in the time I’d been out, handed me his telephone. On the other end was Abdul, the manager of the place, and the only member of staff who spoke English.

He apologized for not having been there when I arrived. (He had been helping some other guests on a special excursion that day.) And he asked how my room and everything was. During the conversation, I thought about the mission of my trip, but didn’t really want to explain the whole story to him over the phone.

I did tell him that I wanted to hire an English-speaking local guide for the following morning, which he was happy to arrange. The guide would be there at 10am, to give me time to enjoy some breakfast beforehand. I went to bed with the plan of rising early for the sunrise view from the terrace.

Tomorrow after breakfast, I would show the guide the address hand-written by my birth mother forty years earlier. And I would see what would happen from there.

The address: hand-written by my birth mother when I was eight-months old, in December of 1976, three months before she died.

My first day in Fez was coming to an end. I could hardly wait for what tomorrow would bring.

Please join me for the next step of my Moroccan journey!
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Postcards from Stef on Facebook for more.

When’s the last time you felt out of your comfort zone? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section!

14 thoughts on “Morocco Beckons: The Ancient Medina”

  1. Thank you Stefani. I am really enjoying reading about your journey of discovery to Morocco. I am hoping to travel there someday soon.

    1. Thanks so much, Cynthia! I’m so glad to hear that! I hope you’re doing great!! Looking forward to seeing you in person again sometime soon!! 🙂

  2. Really, REALLY enjoyed this entry–I confess I’ve never read you before. My experience with Morocco is only limited to a day trip to Tangier during my trip through Spain in October 2008. You really have me interested in finally seeing more of that amazing country. Should I change my November plans from seeing Argentina/Chile? Decisions, decisions!!

    Truly though, you write with an explorer’s heart and you share alot of yourself in your story. Shokran…

    1. Hello Alfran,
      Thank you for your kind words! I’m so glad you enjoyed this entry. 🙂 A trip to Argentina and Chile sounds amazing too! Ah, decisions, decisions! Prioritizing travel can be difficult! I also can’t wait to get back to Morocco to explore even more! Hope you’ll get the chance to return! Shokran! 🙂

  3. Looking forward to the next chapter. I felt like I was right there with you while I was reading- quite the adventure. Nice pics!

  4. Really enjoyed reading your post, it brought back memories of my own trip to Morocco a few years ago. Love how you walked right up to the boy who said “Fuck you”. Good for you missy, you got a pair on ya.

    1. Thank you, Ricardo! That boy turned out to be completely harmless, thankfully! 🙂

  5. You’ve always been lucky. Mom watches out for you. Out of my comfort zone contemplating ditching a halfway committed to diy project. Hmm.
    Looking forward to your next installment. Thx 👌

    1. Thanks, Karin! “Du hast mehr Glück ale Verstand” — that’s what mom (Ellie) used to tell me! 😉 I hope all goes well — with or without the project! I’m curious to hear more! 🙂

  6. The note from your mother and father had me finishing your story with tears in my eyes. Thanks for sharing your journey to your long-lost father’s homeland with us!

  7. Hello Stef,

    Glad to be ‘back on the road’ with you in Morocco! I lived in the Middle East for four years. By reading cookbooks by Claudia Roden I learned that ‘the sweeter the tea, the warmer the welcome!’ Using expensive sugar was a sign of sincere hospitality. Following your pictures to the Cafe Clock I would say ‘wow!’ That was some narrow alley. I am impressed that you ever found the place.

    1. Hi Jim!
      Wow, it must have been a fascinating experience, living in the Middle East! Love the sentiment: the sweeter the tea, the warmer the welcome! I’m not familiar with Claudia Roden — I’ll definitely have to check out her cookbooks! Thanks for your comments and for joining me “on the road!”

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