Sunday, September 05, 2010

No-baggage traveller in Fez

While some airlines restrict you to a mere 15kg of baggage, there's one man travelling the globe with no baggage at all. The View from Fez takes a look.

Travel writer Rolf Potts (above) has taken on the No Baggage Challenge. His blog states that starting and ending in New York City, Rolf will travel through 12 countries in 42 days. He’ll make nearly 10 flights (spending over 50 hours in the air), ride countless trains and buses, and maybe even a boat or two. All with no luggage.

From New York, the first stop was London before taking a train to Paris. Then it was off to Spain, where he saw the sights of Madrid, then Gibraltar for a ferry to Morocco. Next up it’s Egypt, and then South Africa for a safari. Another long flight to Bangkok before making his way through Thailand, Malaysia, and on to Singapore overland. New Zealand is next, with a quick stop off in Australia, and then it’s back to the United States for a cross-country jaunt back to New York City.

Rolf is accompanied by a cameraman, who probably has enough equipment to make up for his no baggage! He is being sponsored by a company that makes travel clothing with a lot of pockets. His vest has 18, that are filled with such necessities as toothbrush, toothpaste, sunblock, sunglasses, spare underwear, t-shirts and socks and detergent.

'While on a conscious level I’m enjoying the no-baggage experiment', says Rolf, 'my subconscious is still carrying bags. After years of traveling with (at the very least) a backpack and a wallet, I still have gut-level instincts to keep track of those items. This started at JFK airport in New York, when I had a small moment of panic upon realizing my wallet was missing (it was in storage in Manhattan), and I continue to get hit with occasional, irrational micro-flashes of “where’s my bag?” panic.

As for my no-luggage laundry duties (washing a rotation of socks, underwear, and a t-shirt each day), that has become a part of my nightly routine, kind of like brushing my teeth before bed.'

Arriving in Morocco was not without mishap. A mispronunciation of 'Chefchaouen' meant that Rolf and cameraman Justin ended up in Tetouan instead, but they enjoyed their stay there.

Rolf and his multi-pocketed vest in Tetouan

'Justin and I entered the medina through Bab Tout and wandered the old city for upwards of an hour before a Belgium-born Jean-Marc (of Dar Rehla guesthouse) kindly informed us that we were still a good hour way from Chefchaouen. Tetouan, where we were standing at that moment, was a town ten times the size of our presumed destination. Though less popular with foreign tourists than Chefchaouen, he said, Tetouan was fascinating in its own right: It has an extensive old market and medina studded with low, cube-like white houses; it is surrounded by almond, orange, and pomegranate orchards; it had a historical reputation as an operating base for pirates preying on Mediterranean shipping; it was rejuvenated in the 15th century by Muslims and Jews kicked out of Spain during the Inquisition.'

FEZ: walk until the day becomes interesting
They did eventually get to Chaouen, and are now in Fez, where Rolf reports that he started his stroll at Bab Boujloud.

'The moment I entered Fes el Bali I was swarmed by Moroccan touts who, for a fee, wanted to steer me to the standard monuments and mosques (and, no doubt, a few carpet shops). The market-driven profit for touts lies in helping tourists find what they have come to see in Fes — but upon entering the old city I didn’t know yet what I wanted to see. When I respectfully declined their assistance and walked away from the high-traffic areas of the medina, a common refrain from the touts was, “But there is nothing to see in that direction!”

'This assertion intrigues me,' continues Rolf, 'since it hints at a more philosophical question: What “sights” are worthy of our gaze as travelers, and who decided they were important? Several hundred years ago, the “sights” of a non-business oriented journey were frequently the objects of pilgrimage (shrines, holy sites, saints’ relics). By the 19th century, museums and factory showrooms and even hospitals became “sights” on the tourist trail (Mark Twain famously visited the Paris morgue on his Innocents Abroad journey in 1869). In recent years there has even been a boom in “slum tourism,” for people who want to see the “real” Rio or Nairobi.

When I got past the touts in the old city the following day, I found that the back alleys of Fes el Bali served as a vibrant, retro-style economic zone. The first sight that captured my imagination was a guy sawing slats for wooden buckets in his storefront. That alley led me into an entire woodworking district, with shop after shop of Moroccan craftsmen planing boards, building furniture, and hand-carving crown-moldings. None of the storefronts were bigger than your average living room, and the pre-industrialized vibe made it feel like I’d wandered into a medieval village (albeit one with the occasional band-saw and power lathe).

From the woodworking district I wandered into the leather-crafting quarter of the old city, where I saw similar storefronts (and back-lot tanneries) attending to every step of the trade, from the cutting of raw skins, to the tanning and dyeing process, to the sewing and ornamentation of leather cushions and furniture. In this way, my wanderings felt a little like time-travel to a place where everything is still manufactured slowly, by craftsmen, one step at a time. The alleys were so narrow in that part of the city that the supplies (including propane, building supplies, and wholesale groceries) were carted from place to place on donkeys.

Since few merchants and craftsmen spoke English, I communicated through a garbled (yet surprisingly effective) mix of unconjugated Spanish, phrasebook-grade French phrases, and a few of the Arabic words I still remembered from my visit to the Middle East ten years before. Eventually I made my way into the more high-traffic areas of the old city — narrow streets that sold everything from keys to fruit to phone cards.

Si Hassan the spice merchant on Tala'a Kebira

Uphill from this area, I found a closet-sized spice shop, run by a bearded old fellow named Hassan, that sold a curious array of Berber beauty products. Hassan’s storefront display looked similar to what you might find in a Walgreens — but instead of mascara and hand cream, it featured kohl stones, henna powder, and translucent white chunks of mineral-salt. When a neighboring merchant (who spoke a little English) told me the mineral salt could be used for shaving and hygiene, I remembered that a number of friends and readers had recommended this product as a way to keep my armpits odor-free (apparently, the mineral salts kill foul-smelling bacteria before it has a chance to form). Inspired, I plunked down the equivalent of a dollar and added the mineral-salt stone to my no-baggage pocket-gear.

So it was that four hours of randomly wandering the Fes medina led me down medieval-era alleyways, past medieval-style craftsmen and merchants — and culminated in the purchase of medieval-style deodorant.'

photos: Justin Glow

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