a mule transports raw leather through the tannery district of Fès, Morocco
“Now down here, this is where you can see Camel heads on hooks. You know, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Over here, you will start to see big brown arrows painted onto the sides of the medina walls. Follow them. They will lead you to a tiny hole in the wall in a dark alley. You will need to crouch.
People will very aggressively tell you there is nothing to see down there – that you should follow them to their friend’s carpet shop instead. Ignore them. Go through it. At the end of the path you will find a courtyard where the last remaining weavers of Fès are working.
Now, to get to the tanneries, follow the smell. You’ll know it when you smell it. You will see a door with a tiny number 10 written above it, go up the stairs until you get to the roof. Ignore anyone trying to lead you away. At the top you will be able to see all of the tanneries.
If you get lost, and you will, you can get back to us by walking uphill and to the right. When you see the snail man, make a right and keep going. The Snail Man is how you know you are on the right track”
The blue city of Chefchaouen, Morocco
Getting lost. It’s so romantic when it works out in that serendipitous kind of way. You know, where you just happen to stumble upon that perfect café in the most beautiful hidden garden, away from all the tourists. I love the idea of it, I may even give the impression that I do it a lot when I travel – but I am a control freak. I like to make sure I don’t miss anything. I love to plan, obsessively.
I “get lost”, with my handy dandy, GPS enhanced, cell phone in my back pocket… just in case - Because before smart-phones existed, I managed to miss the entire state of Kansas on a road trip across the US – simply because I forgot to check my archaic paper directions every five minutes and missed a left turn. I passed the city of Albuquerque on that very same trip. I never got to say I ate Turkey Jerky in Albuquerque. It was literally the only thing on my list of things to do there – but still, I was denied that joy.
My GPS didn’t work here. With all of the meandering alleys and pathways that wove and intersected on each other like a corn maze, the poor little location marker was hopping all over the place like a grasshopper on a hotplate. He wasn’t sure if I was in a mosque or a butcher shop - the tanneries or the copper district. Not only do I not speak the languages. I don’t even understand the alphabets (whether it is the beautifully cursive Arabic one, or the gloriously goofy, wingdings looking one of the Berber language). Going by small handwritten street signs wasn’t going to help.
The medina of Fès el Bali is arguably the largest, car-free, urban area in the world (which I would learn does not mean “motorcycle or donkey in a 5 foot wide, two-way alley” free). It is Aladdin’s Agrabah meets David Bowie’s Labyrinth. Words can’t really describe how huge it feels, how wild, how dense, and how intimidating. so I’ll just leave this here…
The Medina ofFès el Bali
The lack of control in a Moroccan medina is suffocating and intoxicating. The aroma of honey, leather, mint, and hot donkey dung is dizzying. Flea freckled alley cats, missing teeth and eyes and toes, weave in between your legs and vibrate with purrs so strong that their whiskers quiver like the strings on a strummed guitar. You hopscotch over piles of chicken guts until you realize you just dipped your toe into a puddle of sheep’s blood and say “screw it” (or something more obscene). You squat through small, haphazardly cut, holes in walls to find the weavers and climb to the rooftops of leather shops to see the men below – waist deep in a rainbow of vats filled with cow urine and saffron and pungent pigeon shit. They smile and wave.
Children giggle and clod clumsily down the streets with bare feet as they play “knock knock ditch” on their neighbors. They make concentrated eye contact with you and put their finger to their mouth to tell you to keep mum. Their grandmas watch and laugh heartily as they scrub their calloused feet on the stoop. Men will grab you against your will and wrap river snakes around your head for good luck and demand that you pay them for the honor. Around sunset the haggling and the harassing halts as the call to prayer begins to envelope the city in waves. First behind you, then in front of you, then all around you – staggered like a performance of row row row your boat in the round – echoing from every megaphone atop over a hundred mosques; the cries bounce off the walls and rattle in your brain and belly and soul. Raw and loud and accented with vibrato. Even an atheist like me has a lump in the throat and a stomach in knots and a heart that feels like it might burst. And then the jackals in the hills beyond the walled city will begin to yip and yowl in their own call to prayer and make you feel like someone just slid an ice-cube down your back.
And just when you feel like you will never find your way back, when you accept the idea that you may stay here forever, getting gluttonous on fried honey dough and couscous, when you will end all of your long days with a cup of mint tea, when you barely bat an eye at a little old lady hanging sheep intestines on a clothesline out her window, you will see him – a nonchalant fellow, sitting next to a neatly arranged display of netted bags and woven baskets, bursting with fresh snails; a comically large tub of snail soup sending streams of steam toward the sliver of sky above the medina. The Snail Man.