Traveling the M13 road through the Middle Atlas, there are few signs of life in the high desert except for shepherds and their flocks. These two Berbers lived nearby and invited Farid and myself to tea.
While we were talking and smoking, one of their cell phones went off. The ringtone was the voice of a Korean woman saying that “your phone is ringing and a friend of yours is calling” in a cute girlie voice. It was pretty amusing. The Berber said he had no idea how to change the ringtone on his phone so he had this woman’s voice greeting him from his pocket ever since he bought it.
Azrou is a small Berber city in the Middle Atlas Mountains on the N13 road south of Fez, just south of Ifrane.
In general, the rule for street shooting was that the urban centers were tough as people were extremely camera conscious and wary of the tourists and their happy snaps. The more off the beaten path you travel, the more open people can be. This woman and her child were beautiful but I was actually in this alley trying to shoot the woman this mother was talking to. She did not let me.
The dude I bought my Berber rugs from in Azrou.
I met Fatima through Farid, my driver for a few days in Morocco. He had family and friends in Imouzzer du Kandar, a Berber village, so we stopped by Fatima’s house for some tea.
She was amazing. 103 years old, she sprang up when we entered her house, beckoned us in, and made us mint tea, picking the leaves right from her garden outside. She chatted with Farid who translated some of it for me. Her husband had passed away almost thirty years ago and she has been alone since though while we were there, a local village girl stopped by several times to help her with a few errands.
She showed me the key to her longevity: one small glass of olive oil with a minced garlic clove, drank every morning, for almost a century. She offered me a glass and I declined. Farid laughed at me but he also would not drink it.
This was my first trip to Morocco in February 2012, traveling to Fez, Merzouga and Marrakech. Morocco fulfilled so many of my ambitions for any trip abroad. It was exotic and accessible and offered a wide variety of flavors, fantastic food and warm, generous people.
I arrived early in the morning and started with an early train trip to Fez from the airport in Casablanca. I skipped Casablanca in its entirety as even Moroccans do not have gentle things to say about this modern city.
Met a nice couple from the Bay area on the four hour train ride. The train station in Fez is beautiful, completely exposed to the sun, white granite platforms and center rows of orange trees.
Fez is an ancient medieval city, designated a UNESCO world heritage site because so much of it has not changed in hundreds of years. The medina is an incomprehensible warren of tiny streets. Expect to be lost on every trip to the medina, hawkers following you, offering to take you to a restaurant or to their shop where their family makes crafts, dodging donkeys and their carts.
I arrived at my riad and was immediately served a bowl of fresh dates and a chilled bowl of fresh milk, only two hours from the cow. Not a bad way to start.
The fountains of Fez are famous and each main street in the medina has one of these public water fountains where families fill up for their daily needs as there is no indoor plumbing in this ancient city. The Atlas Mountains are just on the horizon so the water is fresh, cold and clear from the snow pack. All of the fountains I encountered, even the neglected ones needing a restoration job, were all beautifully tiled with striking colors.
I met some locals and befriended them and they took me on a tour of the medina. Hasheesh was ever present. Every other cigarette smoked was rolled with some hash. Walking around Fez by yourself, you will get offered hash on the street in hushed whispers as if you were on a summer boardwalk on some beach back home.
Yes, the famous Moroccan mint tea was amazing but I soon abandoned it for the coffee which was exceptional everywhere I went. There was the standard offering but also a traditional Berber variation. The unprocessed dairy also made every au lait a cup of foamy decadence.
One thing to be wary of are all the scams and swindlers trying to get you to buy items at inflated prices. Every single person trying to lead you to a craft store or a restaurant will receive a commission for their efforts. This guy Michael in the photo almost pulled me into a scam buying carpets at way over-inflated prices. I caught on only at the last but I did end up feeling like a rube for even falling for it for a second.
There was a bit of swindler fatigue that settled in towards the end of the trip as you had to be on your toes all the time, even at very chi-chi Western hotels.
Fez is home to all the craftsmen in Morocco and if you are looking to buy lamps or rugs, you will be stunned at all the offerings. This rug vendor in particular had an amazing selection but if you can, head out of the cities to the Berber villages to buy directly from the craftsmen themselves. You’ll save a lot of money and will contribute directly to the artisans.
In general, I never go into museums or historic palaces as hermetically sealed artifacts have little appeal to me. This palace is in the heart of the medina and unassuming alleys will suddenly open up for a grand view into the courtyard.
Few people have ovens in the medina but instead of buying their bread from vendors, they send their children with the dough to the baker where he bakes the bread, sending the daughters home with the fresh loaves.
I asked one of the guys I had befriended where all the police were. Being from New York and Los Angeles, I was very much used to a strong and continual police presence. In Morocco, I had only seen one officer and he was mediating a traffic accident.
He leaned in close to me and said, “they are all around.” Apparently the police presence in Morocco but especially in the cities is all undercover, wandering the medina and the markets, ensuring that the tourists and visitors are safe. Except for traffic police on the roads, I never saw another uniform the whole time.