Travel Writing: Morocco

VISITED: February 2014

LOCATION: Fes, Morocco
DATE: February 21, 2014

First night in Fes and I easily made on of my stupidest travel decisions.

The medina in Fes (the ancient part of the city) is like a maze. The alleyways are tight: sometimes only large enough for one person to walk through without brushing the walls. The walls are high: more than 20 feet in plenty of cases. In some places it feels more like walking in a cave (dark, damp, tight) than in a city.

During the day, exploring Fes is an awesome experience. It’s easy to get lost, but if you keep walking you’ll probably find a sign that points to one of the main city gates (entry points along the ancient city wall) and you can re-establish your position pretty easily. At night, however, large doors are used to close off many of the main alleyways, which means it is even harder to make your way out. It’s like being in a maze and having extra walls thrown in randomly.

Well, I didn’t know this was the case. So when I went to dinner, I followed an easy path along one of the main alleys from my hotel to the restaurant. By the time I finished eating, however, this alley was closed. So now it’s night in Fes and I’m stuck wandering around these alleys without any idea of where I am and only a vague sense of what direction I need to go to get back to the riad (my hotel).

I exited one alley and stepped into a square that I knew was close to the riad because I had been there earlier in the day. But I didn’t know where to go next since my previous route was blocked. A young Moroccan guy (25 or so?) was hanging out on the wall of the square and saw me looking around, stranded.

“Hi there. Where you from? You need help?”

“Do you know where Dar Seffarine is?”

“Oh yes, this way. Follow me. I show you.”

He starts walking down a tiny, dark alley. I stop. That alley looks like the perfect place to murder somebody and I have no idea where it goes. But I’m also feeling out of options at this point because I don’t know where to go.

After some debate, another guy comes over and says, “You can trust this man.” I follow him, reluctantly. I had been denying directions from locals all day, but it was late, my willpower was draining, and I just wanted to get back.

Looking back, this was incredibly stupid. He could have led me into a dead end and pulled a knife on me, taken me to an alley where a group of his friends mug me, or any number of similar options. It was a stupid choice, especially considering that I was traveling alone.

Thankfully, what ended up happening was that he tried to swindle me out of some money and leave me stranded. We spent 10 minutes wandering through alleys, which threw up a red flag for me because I knew I was only a minute or two away from the riad when I had met him.

I told him this was taking way too long and he assured me that we were almost there. He made a turn and then said, “OK, now you are set. Just walk straight down this road. Don’t go right. Don’t go left. Dar Seffarine will be on your right.” Then he asked for money.

I told him I would pay him when he took me all the way there. We needed to make it back to the riad and then I would happily give him some money. That was when he started balking. “It not good for me to go much farther because of police. I’m not man with black heart. I have good heart. But police not like me helping you like this, so you need to pay me here.”

I stood my ground and he kept walking. Eventually, after another 4 or 5 turns and a few more alleys and we had made it. But how would I have found my way back if I had paid him a few minutes before? It certainly wasn’t “straight” back to my hotel.

I said, “You were going to take me around and leave me stranded. You said don’t go right, don’t go left, just walk straight. That’s exactly what you said.”

He denied any type of dishonesty. “No. No. I help you get back.”

I took a coin from my pocket and put it in his hand. I don’t even know what it was. Probably a 5 dirham piece. I just said, “You know what you said” and walked away. (Turning my back on him was probably stupid.) He yelled something in Moroccan and I walked into the hotel door.

Moral of the story: if you’re going to travel alone and you’re in a new city, especially one with crazy alleyways, don’t go out at night unless you are with a local. And at the very least, check with the hotel before leaving to get directions.

And most importantly, don’t follow strangers into alleyways.


LOCATION: Fes, Morocco
DATE: February 21, 2014

I was standing alone in the Al-Attarine Madrasa in Fes (which is spectacularly beautiful) when another American man walked in. As we started talking, I found out that his name was Jeff Ashley and he had a fascinating history. Morocco was the 136th country he had visited. Jeff had spent the last 25 years as a diplomat and public health professional doing work all over the world. We probably talked for an hour or more about all sorts of things — travel, medicine, war, the meaning of life, etc. — but there was one phrase in particular that stuck with me.

Jeff said, “Before you go somewhere, tell the people you love that you love them. And make sure they tell you back. Because you never know when you’re about to walk into the fire.”

Jeff has survived a plane crash, been in war zones, seen the genocide in Rwanda, and more — so for him “walking into the fire” really means that. But I think it’s true for all of us. We often try to predict whether the places we visit will be safe or dangerous, but the truth is that there is no way to know when you are about to walk into the fire. The people who went to work in the World Trade Center on September 11th didn’t know. You could be at home. You could be away. The fire could be a big life-changing challenge. The fire could be a small daily emergency. But you know never know when you’re about to walk into it. So tell the people you love that you love them.


LOCATION: Fes, Morocco
DATE: February 21, 2014

Just had a liberating breakthrough as a photographer.

Fes is a fascinating place with basically limitless photography options. The problem is that for the photos to be really great, you need to step in and engage with the scene and subject. That’s easy to do when your subject is a building or a fountain, but more uncomfortable to do when it’s a person. You could just roll up and do it without permission. Or, you could try to be sly about it and sneak a close photo when someone isn’t totally paying attention. The last option is what I had tried to do on previous trips. But it never felt quite right. I didn’t think the photos were as good as they could have been and sometimes I would get caught photographing someone who didn’t want their picture taken, which didn’t make me feel great even though my intentions were good.

The solution was so simple: ask their permission. If they say yes, jump into the scene and start snapping. If they say no, move on.

But I avoiding asking permission for the longest time. I think this is because I was scared of being denied. Who knows. There was definitely some type of internal fear or barrier.

But today, in Fes, I started asking. “Can I take your picture?” The first guy turned me down. The second guy said OK. And so it went for the next hour or two. I probably had more people say no than yes, but once I started asking it was so much easier. And I felt so good about it because I was respecting the privacy of people who didn’t want to be photographed and getting great images from people who were OK with it.

It reminded me of being at a dance when I was a teenager. There was a lot of self-doubt, tension, and uncertainty about going out there, but once you started dancing for one song then entire rest of the night was easy, fun, and liberating. The more you do it, the more self-doubt melts away. The hardest part was getting started.

I’m really excited to see where this takes me with photography. In the beginning, I intentionally avoided taking pictures with people in them because I thought simple landscapes and cityscapes looked better. Then I realized that people often give those scenes emotion and meaning. I think it’s best to merge the two — an simple, but interesting environment with a person. And hopefully asking permission will help me do a better job of merging those two things.


LOCATION: Fes, Morocco
DATE: February 21, 2014

I had dinner at my riad tonight with two middle-aged American women. Sally and Emily. I think they were sisters?

They grew up in Portland and Emily said something interesting about the culture in the Pacific Northwest. “In New York, when they ask, “What do you do? They want to know what kind of work you do. In Portland, when they ask, “What do you do?” They mean how do you play? Snowboard? Ski? Hike?”

I didn’t realize it until she said it, but this is how I’ve been trying to design my life and organize my work for the last few years. Most people organize their lives around their work and focus on “play” when they have the time. I think it’s possible to do it the other way. Organize your life around the things you want to do and figure out a way to make work happen when you have time.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t want to work, don’t enjoy your work, or just want to “goof around” all of the time. I take my work seriously, I really enjoy it, and I hope that I do a good job at it. But if we always organize our lives by putting work first, then I think we spend too much time focusing on the things we “have to do” rather than the things that bring us joy.

Organizing your life with play first helps to make sure that you don’t miss out on the things that bring you joy. There is plenty of extra time for work anyway.

Of course, this requires you to look at work in a different way too. You have to be willing to be entrepreneurial and look for ways to create higher leverage so that you can be paid enough money while working less. But it’s possible. All sorts of entrepreneurs do it every day.

Regardless, I love that in the Pacific Northwest the default answer to “What do you do?” is focused on play (what brings you joy) instead of work (which we often consider to be a responsibility).


LOCATION: Chefchaouen, Morocco
DATE: February 21, 2014

I was basking in the sun on a rooftop terrace at my hotel. There were some boys playing soccer in the street below and I peered over to watch them for a minute.

The one boy kicked the ball, which ricocheted off of the side of the roof, and made its way over the hands of the other boy: the jumping goalkeeper. The boy who kicked it immediately claimed it was a goal. The other one argued that the ball was already out-of-bounds because it hit off the side of the roof, and therefore was not a goal.

Two Moroccan boys play soccer in a small plaza in Chefchaouen.

This debate went on for minutes. Was the side of the roof out-of-bounds? Or did it need to touch the actual roof to be out-of-bounds? On and on, they argued. It reminded me of all the makeshift rules that are happening in neighborhoods, backyards, and fields all over the world. My brother and I used to have similar debates playing baseball in the backyard. The tree that marked first base also operated as a foul pole. After a few controversial plays we decided that if you hit a ball into the branches of the tree, it was still “live” as it slowly rattled its way down and if you could catch it in time, then it was an out.

Our middle-class American childhood was very different from the lives of these little Moroccan boys living in a mountain village, but arguing playground rules is the same no matter where you live.


LOCATION: Chefchaouen, Morocco
DATE: February 21, 2014

My old Moroccan friend. (And Obi-Wan Kenobi in the background.)

This old Moroccan man came out of the local mosque (that’s the entrance beside him). He saw me with my camera and proceeded to pose in different places and positions for about 5 minutes. It’s was pretty funny because I didn’t understand a word he was saying, but he just kept motioning for me to take photos (and most people here prefer to not have their picture taken).

If my grandpa had lived in Morocco he probably would have been like this guy. When the man behind him in the picture passed by and looked as if he didn’t approve of all the pictures, the old guy looked at him, shook his head, and then waved his hand as if to say, “Why are you always so serious? Have some fun.”


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