Fez was difficult.
Here’s the thing about women’s college. It makes you feel like you can do anything, and while after three years at Barnard I recognize how amazing it is that I (at least feel like I) have a license to do whatever the fuck I want, Morocco did everything it could to nip that self-confidence in the bud. Turns out, it’s not advisable to go to Morocco with only your (female) best friend for company. Meredith and I garnered a lot of attention just by existing in Fez, which started to wear us down after a while. You can only hear “nice pussy” so many times in the span of ten minutes before the most appealing option is to just turn around and go home.
A lot of people expressed concern that we were going to Fez without a male companion, and after our first, second, and third time being followed through the winding streets by a bunch of Moroccan teenagers, I can understand why. Really, though, they were just boys trying to make a buck, and once I realized that if I spoke Czech, they would run in the opposite direction, they became less of a problem.
Harassment is a real issue in Fez, but as my host mom pointed out upon my arrival back in Prague last weekend, I saw a different culture, and wasn’t that the point? For anyone thinking about visiting Morocco, a place I’d never considered visiting before Meredith mentioned that it held a coveted spot on her World Travel Bucket List, I’d recommend Fez. According to the tour guide who took us around on the first day, it’s a much more authentic Moroccan city than Marrakech. The Medina, or outdoor market, in the old city of Fez is a winding labyrinth of vendors hawking their wares: shoes, leather bags, olives, whole chickens–you name it and you can probably find it in the Medina. Meredith and I spent our four days getting lost, getting swindled, and getting the dead skin scrubbed off our naked bodies at a public hammam.
I’d never heard of a hammam before going to Morocco, but it turns out that it is the place to be if you’re a woman. As a rule, women don’t hang out in cafés in Fez (or really in public, come to think of it). Rather, you can find them chilling in one of the local hammams or bath houses hidden throughout the Medina. Meredith and I decided early in the week that we wanted to visit one, but we continued to put it off, not knowing what soap to buy or, really, how to find a hammam that wouldn’t just laugh us out the front door.
Luckily, on our last day in Fez, we were lured into yet another shop, where we bit the bullet and asked for what supplies we needed for an afternoon scrub-down. When, after spending way too much on a Tupperware full of olive oil soap and scrub-gloves, we revealed that we were not planning to go to a hotel bathhouse like most tourists do, one of the guys at the shop spoke up.
“My mom works in a hammam!” he said. “I’ll take you there.”
And like that, we were chasing this man through the streets to a nondescript tiled doorway, where he shouted until his mother emerged. They spoke in rapid Arabic, but I believe the gist of the conversation was “Mom, I just overcharged these stupid white girls. Please, please, PLEASE just wash them. Please.”
Disgruntled, the old woman, who didn’t speak a lick of French or English, pulled us inside. She took her clothes off. We took our clothes off. Then she grabbed my hand, I grabbed Meredith’s hand, and we were led like kindergarteners into the damp old bath house.
What followed was essentially what I imagine being bathed as a baby in a sink was like, with a few exceptions, such as the ferocious removal of dead skin cells and the massage on the hammam‘s tile floor. Basically, though, I had paid to get my hair washed and to have plastic buckets of water dumped over my head. It was an experience that has inextricably bonded me and Meredith for life, in case any of you were worried about that.
Other highlights of Morocco included the cat who lived at our Riad, whose name was Tara, and a precocious nine-year-old boy named Indigo whom Meredith and I ran into twice at Café Clock, a restaurant better suited for San Francisco than Fez, Morocco. Because women are discouraged from painting the town red, Meredith and I spent most our nights at the Riad, creating monologues for the cat, who was from France and who was, therefore, a total diva, and reflecting on the fact that we were, indeed, in Africa.
I’ve been back in Prague for three days, recovering from what was my most jarring cross-cultural experience to date. (Read: I’ve been back in Prague for three days binge-watching Archer and Hannibal.) On Monday, the only words I spoke before 6 PM, were those necessary to order a burrito in Czech. Yesterday, my host dad drew a portrait for me as a birthday present. And today, I turn 21 years old. I’m about to leave for the airport to pick up my dad and his girlfriend, who have come to visit, thus ushering out Phase Four and welcoming in Phase Five of this grand experiment.
May the family vacation begin!