Berber jams and mariachi serenades

Kids in the Jewish Quarter of Fes
Kids in the Jewish Quarter of Fes | Photo by Lauren Girardin

The grand taxi that takes us from the Sahara to Fes is not grand by definition, neither in largeness or in luxury. There’s no air conditioning and only three of four windows roll down. The driver’s and front passenger’s seat belts have been repurposed; instead of keeping us safe, they wrap behind the the front seats to hold them upright. The seats – upholstered in torn, dirty lime green velor that’s spattered with cigarette burns and multi-colored stains of unimaginable origins – are less comfortable and more filthy than the one-humped camels that were our most recent ride.

But, the tape deck works, so Todd asks our driver, Ali, to play some music using the international language of pointing at the radio and busting a move. Keeping one hand on the wheel and no eyes on the road, Ali reaches into the glove compartment, and then scatters nearly a dozen cassette tapes onto the dashboard. After a few rejects are tried and ejected, Ali settles on a tape of what sounds like one long instrumental Berber oud jam band session. Satisfied, Ali leans back and begins to delicately stroke his short mustache, a gesture he’ll continue almost unabated for the next six hours.

Kids and sheep play at garbage beach near our "hotel" in Asilah, Morocco
Feeding ground and Playground | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Instead of backtracking with our Sahara tour van on the twelve-hour drive back to Marrakesh, Todd and I have chosen the forward-road, a grand taxi north to Fes through the sun-beat desert and Middle Atlas Mountain valleys. We share our ride with a hip Italian couple, the mini-mohawked Marco and the much-pierced Elena. It’s an uneventful if sweaty drive, interrupted only by a stop for a roadside lunch, where Marco orders the best tajine any of us have tasted in Morocco: a meaty hunk of fatty local mountain goat stewed with vegetables and aromatic spices – spices that have so far been completely missing from most of our Moroccan meals.

Once we arrive in Fes, a surprisingly helpful man gloms onto our quartet. Sai’d helps us find almost a dozen different hotels in the Ville Nouvelle district. Despite what our time in Morocco has made us come to expect, Sai’d asks for no money in return for his half-hour of generous guidance. He only offers to sell us some kif at a very good price, which we decline.

We settle, somewhat reluctantly, on the Hotel Central. Todd and I only later realize this is the same hotel that Jeff Greenwald adored in his book The Size of the World, a copy of which Jeff gifted to us just before our departure from San Francisco.

During his circumnavigation of the earth by land in 1994, Jeff said that his room at the Hotel Central “reminded me so nostalgically of Paris that I found myself suffused with an unrequited appetite for romance. This was the sort of room in which one wanted to spend a morning making love and drinking orange juice and champagne.”

Círculo de Identidades, Mexican art in Asilah, Morocco
Mexican art in Morrocco, Círculo de Identidades | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Regrettably, instead of allegorical fresh-squeezed mimosas, the Hotel Central is now slinging cocktails of Tang and bathtub gin. In the intervening fourteen years since Jeff’s stay, the hotel has been on a path of abysmal decay: damp holes in the ceiling, ice-cold water showers, electrical outlets ripped from walls, towels tinged a greenish-grey (though they smell clean), and none of the toilets have seats.

Yet still it was the very best of the affordable hotels in Fes’ Ville Nouvelle.

The next day, we lose Marco and Elena to the siren’s call of a hotel with luxurious amenities like a swimming pool, full bar, and toilet seats. Todd and I spend the next 24 hours in Fes wandering around the alleys of it’s mellow old town with Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina” stuck in our heads.

For our final stop in Morocco, we hop a bus to Asilah in search of modern Moroccan creativity at the beach town’s annual International Festival of art and music. Instead, we are transported south of the border – not to Mauritania but to Mexico, or at least to our beloved Latino-flavored San Francisco Mission District.

During our final days in Morocco we are serenaded with mariachi bands, treated to Aztec trance dance performances, and tour impressive murals by Mexican artists. It’s a culturally dissonant yet memorable way to end our time in Morocco.

Photos from Fes and Asilah, Morocco

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.