Fes at Christmas

Like many others trying to leave England for the Christmas period, I was caught up in the drone related cancellations and delays at Gatwick Airport. My trip to Fes, therefore did not get off to a flying start! Pun intended! I actually arrived a day later then scheduled but stepping off that Air Arabia flight at Fes Saiss Airport and feeling that sunshine on my face made everything immediately better. I forgave the drone mad enthusiasts or whatever they were for the delays; I forgave Air Arabia for only giving me minimal notice that the flight was delayed after travelling to the airport and I even forgave the check in desk lady who checked me into a middle seat then refused to change it claiming the flight was full and that I should have checked in online if I wanted to choose my seat. I admit to side eyeing her severely after little sleep as I tried to explain very respectfully that online check in for the flight had never opened! Yep the sun shining in all its glory made everything seem so pointless and I stepped out eager to soak up its rays and to get onto my solo Christmas adventure.

For the last couple of years, I have spent Christmas alone, usually in the UK, but this year I decided to start a tradition that was all my own. Since I am not a fan of this particular holiday or the season in general (that is another story in itself) I decided that every year I would travel to a country that met a few of my criteria for some alone relaxing and reflective time during the Christmas break. My criteria isn’t complicated. The country had to not be Christmas crazy; had a near tropical climate at this time of year and easy to navigate. I wanted relaxation but also sightseeing and easy access to most places of interest either by train or within walking distance.

This year Fes made the cut. To be fair Morocco made the shortlist but I had already travelled to Marrakesh and Casablanca and I wanted to see another city so Fes it was. I booked the flight back in August which was pretty straight forward. Air Arabia flights directly to Fes from London Gatwick and they had a deal for a week in Fes so that is what I booked. I wanted to experience the true spirit of Morocco during this trip so I decided to stay in a Riad for the duration of my trip rather than booking with a large scale hotel group. One of the things I am conscious of being from a country that depends on tourism for a lot of its economic stability is that where possible I want to use my coin to support local businesses. So unless there is an issue of safety or security I will always opt to stay with locally owned hotels or guesthouses when I travel. This doesn’t yet extend to AirBnB properties but I am working on this! ( I travel solo a lot so I like to stay where groups are rather than in individual properties alone).

The Riad I stayed at (Riad Fes Al Cazar Suite & Spa in Batha) had arranged for a taxi to collect me from the airport for a fee of 20 euros which I felt was reasonable. I could have just taken any taxi on offer from the airport but my original flight was scheduled to arrive just a bit before 1:00 a.m. in the morning and again for safety I tend to make arrangements with where I am staying to pick me up when I arrive. Although it must be said when I arrived in Casablanca back in March 2017 at around 11 p.m. determined to experience everything from the get go I went to the local train station and took a train to my hotel, having no clue where I was going and not speaking either the local dialect or French just winging it! It all worked out splendidly but this time round I thought let’s make some arrangements. I think it is important to state here that I have never felt unsafe in Morocco, not back in 2017 and not this time around either but still I think it is important not to be foolish about safety.

On arrival at the Riad, I was promptly greeted by the receptionist who took my details after seating me in the inside open courtyard and offering me freshly brewed mint tea and a selection of Moroccan sweet treats. I immediately felt at home and this was reinforced when the owner came and introduced himself to me and told me to treat the Riad as my home away from home. I was given information about local guides from the tourist office who could accompany me to the Medina for a fee. I was offered information about day trips to the blue city and other areas if they were of interest and then the pleasantries aside I set about getting situated in my room and then testing out the cuisine at the Riad by ordering dinner. I must admit that I am not a fan of Tagines, having tried this the last time and I visited and my second encounter did nothing to change my mind. The rest of dinner was nice and I appreciated the fact that most of what was served to me was obviously freshly cooked and locally sourced. I also found no fault with the service, it was excellent.

I arrived on 23rd December and promptly spent the next 3 days sleeping on and off as though I hadn’t slept in years. My only true moment of alert wakefulness was on the 24th December when I roused myself long enough to tour the Medina with a guide from the tourist office. I had been told that the Medina was a maze and that it was better the first time to use the services of a guide so I did. I don’t regret using a guide because I am not sure I could have found my way through or even seen some of what I did had I decided to wander in on my own. To be fair there were so many groups doing a similar thing that I guess I could have just followed along behind one discreetly but I was not to know this at the time.

The guide was knowledgeable and went at my pace. The Medina, what can I say about the Medina? It’s unlike anywhere else I have been and to be honest quite overwhelming! I decided to try and brave it on my own on the 26th December and promptly chickened out. That is how intimidating it is. To enter the Medina most people (am guessing mainly us tourists) will enter through the famous Blue Gates which fun fact is only blue on approach, the other side is green! The Medina is a mixture of food, antiques, household goods, worship, homes, restaurants, historical sites, narrow corridors posing as streets, skilled craftsmen etc etc; you name it, I think you will find it in the Medina.

My overwhelming feeling on leaving the Medina was that I had been had for some of the purchases I made and not in a good way! I felt that my guide either was making a commission off some of the places he took me or the individuals running the places were his family members! Either way I felt some of his approach could have been a lot less biased but this is just a feeling I had rather than any concrete evidence. One incident which left me feeling very wary was when he took me to see what he told me was a carpet show, a show which he claimed would demonstrate to me the history of carpet making in Fes. He explained I would see this in action and also have a tour. I followed him in. What transpired for the next 30 minutes was the owner of the establishment showing all the carpets they had on sale and trying to persuade me to pay over £6,000 for a carpet to take home. To say I was not amused was to put my state of mind mildly during this visit.

After I explained patiently for what felt like the 10th time that I was neither in the market to buy a carpet and even if I was, I would not spend that kind of money on one runner for a staircase, I got up and simply walked out. My guide seemed perturbed by this and one point asked me why I wanted to see carpets if I was not going to buy any! The bloody cheek! I think he lost interest in showing me much after that and so shortly after this episode, took me to the taxi stand where he told me to pay the taxi driver 20 dirhams to return to my Riad and to pay him his fee in Euro. I paid him, by this point tired and irritable from the swindle that seemed to be occurring and promptly told the taxi driver that I would not be paying him 20 dirhams but whatever the fee was on his metre when I got to the Riad! I had experienced taxi services in Morocco before and by this point I had, had enough of being taken advantage of. It may have been my firm tone or just the wish to not have an exploding black woman in his car but he honoured my request and I paid him 9 dirhams when I arrived at the Riad, glad to see the back of this day. I promptly went to my room and fell asleep ruing wandering around before I was 100% ready to do and feeling annoyed at being taken advantage of.

As the saying goes, sleep and food makes everything seem better and I arrived at Christmas eve feeling good and relaxed but determined to avoid another tour until I was good and ready to do one. I spent a relaxing day on the roof of the Riad, listening to music and reading and occasionally gazing out lost in thought at the mountains in the distance. Christmas morning arrived overcast and cold and I spent the day, exactly how I planned to in my head; in bed with my kindle, notebook and YouTube for company, leaving only to partake of breakfast and an evening meal.

The 26th dawned bright and sunny and I geared up prepared to start my wandering outside the Riad once more. This time I was armed with sunglasses and a mental map of where I was going and what I wanted to do. I emerged from the dark narrow corridors of the area where the Riad is to the bright sunshine of the square. So far so good. It was a mere 10 minutes walk to the Medina and other local amenities and I briskly walked thinking to try my hand at this again but to no avail. My previous experience had coloured my views and I decided not to brave it again. I consoled myself that I had seen it once and that I had also made all the purchases I wanted to make so it wasn’t a total loss! Oh the things we tell ourselves sometimes! Plain and simple I was fearful of getting lost in the maze, that was it. My phone’s roaming was firmly switched off after landing when Three Mobile informed me it would cost me £3 per minute to roam, to accept calls etc. As much as I depended on imaps and google maps, this was not a fee I was willing to pay. So I meandered away from the Medina and walked briskly to the walls of the city. I wandered down streets making sure to keep an eye on tell tale landmarks so I could find my way back and just had a good walk here and there for a few hours.

I was surprised at the number of police that were about on the streets, some seemingly unarmed but every few kilometres I would come across of group of armed police and these guns were not hand guns but serious artillery. I don’t know if this is usual practice as I have nothing in my previous experience to compare it to. On one hand it gave a sense of security but on the other hand I wondered if there was expected unrest. In any event, I didn’t feel threatened and was even bold enough to approach one such officer to ask for directions when I felt lost at one point. I should stop here to say that as an English only speaker you are at a severe disadvantage where communication is concerned in Morocco and my second time here as cemented for me that I really need to learn at least basic French or Arabic or both. Some do speak English but not very well and it made communication difficult at time. It’s a good thing that there are things are universal like hand signals. I stopped at a fountain which for some reason was located in the middle of a busy street on the roundabout itself! Why I have no clue but there was a small park close by with seats so I sat there admiring the fountain and trying to ignore the cars who seemed to drive in any direction and lane they like around the roundabout.

I then went on a mission to find a restaurant that was close to my Riad or within a short taxi ride that served great food and also had music. You see I wanted to explore the nightlife in the area but I am not one for nightclubs so for me a restaurant with live or otherwise playing great music would be ideal. I found one about 4 minutes walk from the Riad and in truth how I stumbled on it was pretty amusing (well to me at least). I saw in my meanderings a dreadlocked white guy walking down the path and turning into what seemed to be a bar/cafe though it was hard to tell. I followed him because in my head, his locs indicated two things: reggae music and caribbean culture/food. Crazy I know but this is the power of images! anyway my instincts were correct! Not about the Caribbean food sadly but about the music! Yes for the win! The bar he turned into did play live music during the evenings and served food, so I had found the venue for my evening meal and entertainment.

The rest of the week followed in a similar fashion. I slept in late, had breakfast for lunch most days; went sightseeing for a few hours; lazed on the rooftop soaking up the rays of the sun and improving my melanin while reading, working sporadically on making a few goals a reality; watched birds perform aerobatic feats in formation and watched the sun set followed by a delicious dinner, then bed. I would like to take time here to acknowledge how accommodating the staff of the Riad were. At check in I was told breakfast closed at 10:00 a.m. I can only recall making it to breakfast one day during the stated times but no matter how late I arrived downstairs, it was to a greeting from the team working, questions about whether I had slept well and an enquiry if I would like to be served a late breakfast. All at no extra cost. This was service!

I stayed in Fes for six nights but in reality Fes can be seen thoroughly in around two days, but I didn’t travel to Fes to be a tourist for a few days. I wanted to rest and relax and this was exactly the experience I had. This was exactly what I needed at this time and Fes offered it in spades. Too soon it was the last night and though I would miss this place and definitely return in future, I was also ready to go home. Jadore Fes and Au revoir.

The links used in this article are not sponsored and the content are fully my own views.

Working from home: Hell or Heaven?

Working from home to quote the queen Beyoncé “can be a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare”. For some reason I now want to grab the imaginary mic and sing the full song. Tempting but I am not sure you would survive my rendition. This question has been on my mind all week due to “the Beast from the East” storm that rolled into the UK last week. I was snowed in at home for over 4 days and what is usually a dream became a beautiful nightmare!

Now don’t get me wrong I was glad that unlike other employment I have had throughout the years, my employer is very flexible and encourages working from home, so I didn’t need to take holiday or unpaid leave as I was able to and fully equipped to work from home. To understand my predicament you need to understand that given the choice, I would never choose to work from home unless I had personal appointments which meant I needed to be closer to home than work or I was having work done at home which required me to be present.

I applaud and encourage employers who offer this flexibility but for me personally I like going into an office and interacting with others. I like walking into a train station and getting my morning coffee. I like putting my headphones on and tuning out everyone on the train while browsing emails and the news. I like walking out to get lunch and debating what I should eat that day. I love being stopped by colleagues in the corridors and having impromptu conversations. But what I also love, is being able to sign off for the day, whatever time that is and putting on my coat and catching that train home. Work is done for the day unless there is emergency and that ability to stop and go home is essential to me, in enabling me to manage and have a good work life balance.

Working from home while great when it is convenient for you, I found this week was almost unbearable as there were no other options. I literally wanted to climb my walls! maybe it was the endless white of the snow outside or the cold or the feeling I had of being trapped inside! to be fair I wasn’t literally trapped I could have chosen to go for walks outside in the snow, but why? I mean its wet and cold! I grew up in a tropical country, unless I have no other choice and I always have a choice, I do not choose to be cold or wet! What this brought home to me is that employers should offer a variety of options for employees to choose from in their flexible working offer.

One size definitely does not fit all, consider asking your employees to be involved in suggesting what is on offer. Do not put limits rigidly on what is considered suitable or desirable. Be open to different ways of working and understand that what one employee will consider a good option for them will not fit someone else.

What this week also drove home to me, is how we engage with employees whose normal location is home.  Are they in danger of becoming the forgotten workforce?

Two Days in Malta – Day 2

We woke into warmth and sunshine. It was day two of the mini vacation to the beautiful island of Malta. Day one had mostly been spent exploring the city of Valetta and all it had to offer. Day two, we had decided the night before would be an organised excursion to the walled city Mdina and Rabat.

Dubbed the Silent City, Mdina and Rabat is sheer majesty at first glimpse on the approach to the city. The city dates back to over 4000 years ago when it is said the Apostle Paul lived here after he was shipwrecked on the island. 

Entering through the covered tunnel that leads into the city itself, you cannot help but feel transported back in time when knights of valour roamed castle walls. I half expected to be greeted by one and asked to state my business! alas, it was not to be. Instead the covered entrance with its narrow street led to a town square teaming with tourists and local trade. There was also a choo choo train that for a small fee took you on a tour of the city and its outskirts.

We ambled around, seeking out local areas of interest for the best pictures (because if you don’t take a picture, were you really there?). We visited the catacombs of a local church which was pretty dreary; hunted for a church to visit but none were open to visitors at the time we were there.

We sat in a local coffee shop and enjoyed the best plant based iced coffee I had ever had the pleasure of trying and we liked it so much that we went for a second helping not long after leaving there the first time!

We spent time in the local jewellery shops and bought more silver and stainless steel rings than we probably should have! We meandered down alleyways; posed for pictures, walked in the garden and for one perfect moment in time, all was right and perfect in the world. All too soon we were back at our hotel but decided as it was our last night on this atmospheric island, that we would go out and enjoy the local nightlife.

We didn’t need to go far. Not far from The Waterfront Hotel are lots of pubs and street side restaurants and cafes facing into the bay. We stopped at the local English pub (because why not?) Liverpool was playing and my friend is a nut where this team is concerned. Her support of Liverpool rivals my obsession with formula one and that is saying something. It was happy hour (when isn’t it happy hour?) and we enjoyed buy one get one free on cocktails. One word, just one, YUM! or maybe two LUSH! we are both lightweights so this kind of deal is wasted on us really, but we certainly enjoyed the two we had! Liverpool also won which was a fitting end to a brilliant night.

Too soon we were at the airport, winging our way back home. For everything we give thanks. Malta you were beautiful, give thanks.