essaouira and beyond

we arrived in essaouira around 7pm after a fast and furious bus ride from marrakech. the german girls and i were all seated in the back row, which seemed like a good thing till i realized those seats don’t recline and are the jounciest. but ca va, we got there and i only started feeling nauseous at the end. we descended from the bus and were of course instantly greeted by a bunch of helpful fellows who would be happy to take us to their guest house. we politely declined any assistance and decided to head first toward mt riad and ask there for help getting the german girls to theirs. the streets were smaller than marrakech – it is a much smaller place in general, and reminded me of a cross between varanasi and pushkar in india. i followed the map i had to get to my hostel, only to find it took me to another riad entirely. luckily the man there was very nice and helped us find our way. the german girls and i split ways with vague notions of meeting up again, which i knew intuitively neither party would follow through on. when traveling, you must not get too glommed onto other travelers or run the risk of violating an unspoken rule of freedom.

i found my riad easily, though the streets were small and dark and windy. instantly noticed a difference between marrakech and essaouira: everyone said hello – children, older gentlemen, everyone was helpful and open in a way i guess it is hard to be in marrakech with so many people. in my mind at least, it is analagous to new york and the way we all avert our eyes to give each other more personal space. essaouira is smaller, though, and can afford to be more friendly. it is also about 20 degrees cooler, on average, than fez and marrakech – because of the proximity to the sea.

on my arrival at the hostel, i was greeted by the proprietaire of the place, who calls himself magic man. a few brits sat at the bar smoking cigarettes. the music was classic rock. magic fed me dates and mint tea and some lovely vegetarian lentil soup. it was just what the doctor ordered for my stomach, upset a bit by the long and bumpy bus ride, and my latent tendency toward car sickness.

what the place lacked in graciousness compared to my last riad, it made up for in atmosphere and the sort of clientele that chooses a place like it. i was rooming this time 3 spanish girls, two sisters and a friend traveling together. the stairs to get to the third floor were tight and winding and the room was certainly not luxurious, but i don’t look for luxury when i travel by myself anyway.

the spanish girls were going out to do some shopping and i tagged along so as to get my bearings in the city, since it was night and i hadn’t seen much of it by day. we went to some shops, all open late at night as in marrakech. they bought some flip flops and we continued to a music store where you can listen to any of the cds on the loudspeaker before you decide what to buy. the man there seemed to take his job pretty seriously. then on to a tea and herb shop. they had met the man there before and he sat us down and made us some amazing tea. this was real berber tea. it contained around 12 different kinds of herbs: ginger, ginseng, rose petals, and i am not sure what else. it was delicious and calming. you could feel a wave of relaxation wash through you a few minutes after the the first glass. i wasn’t in buying mode, sadly- i wish i had been!

we continued on after with no agenda. one of the sisters, a beautiful pediatrician who attracted attention wherever we walked, mentioned that it would be her birthday at midnight and i suggested we try to find a place to have a drink somewhere. easier said than done. during ramadan, the late night cafes close early, and even those that stay open stop selling alcohol for the duration of the month-long fast.

we tried to go to cafe des arts, a place i had read about in my essaouira/marrakech guidebook (all in french since i hadn’t bought one before i left the states), but were told at the door that they didn’t have any alcohol. however, there were a couple of young men, musicians, at the door, who told us they knew a place we could get a beer.

we followed them to several places, all closed for the holiday and nearly gave up, but they finally found a really interesting and hidden spot – we coudn’t have found it ourselves. it had a club-like atmosphere and all the waiters wore white shirts with black bowties. we followed the boys into the back room where there were cushions and a few tables, blocked off from the rest of the restaurant. we ordered beers and i ordered a pizza, a full day of barely eating finally catching up to me. in fact, though i am not sure how much i weighed when i started this trip, i am very sure i have lost weight. a combination of feeling inclined toward veganism lately and moving around alot, plus skipping meals rather frequently has led me to get a little worried about my appetite, which seems to have decreased to the point that even when hungry, i can’t finish a plate, and after i feel both full and hungry at the same time. very bizarre.   

regardless, that night i managed to eat half my pizza and then one of the boys, named chakib, wanted to hear me sing. he said he could tell by my face i was a singer. he played stand by me and i sang along. both of them were rapturous about my voice and we found every song we knew in common and sang and improvised. he plays flamenco and jazz, touring around with bands in europe and morocco. the spanish girls were ready to leave and the boys and i stayed behind to play a little more music before they walked me back to the riad.

the next day i promised them i would try to keep ramadan (failed) and join them for dinner when they broke their fast. i had breakfast with the spanish girls and then they went to buy a bus ticket and i went to the beach. the beach at essaouira is lovely, though very windy at times. the city itself was once a portuguese port and there are vestiges of that period. the towers and walls around the port reminded me of cochin in the south of india, also once a portuguese outpost.

the beach was lovely and i read my book (anais nin’s journal in french, from the years between 1939 and 1944). i was approached by a woman who wanted to give me henna and eventually submitted, though it was a bit more than i wanted to pay. she was very nice, though, and we spoke in french about her life, her son, she invited me to join her for dinner the next night if i wanted to and gave me her phone number. her name was hafida. she gave me a present, i surmise because she oversharged for the henna, and decorated my feet also.

the wind in essaouira, while perfect for kite surfing and wind surfing, eventually becomes too much to bear on the beach, and i had to run away. i walked to the port where the fish market was in full swing, all the fishermen displaying their wares of rays, eels, octopi, spotted yellow fish, shiny silver ones, beautiful to see, except for the offal and heads strewn about. i ran into one of the boys walking through the market in search of a bit of fish for that night’s dinner. he guided me around the city a bit and then i headed back to the hostel to get ready to go to the hammam at 4.

magic man had recommended me a place to go and had one of the ladies who worked at the hostel lead me there. the hammams are the public baths and this one was very much a local affair – not a bit touristic. i got their and stripped down to bikini bottoms as perscribed, then followed a rather rotund lady, comfortably clad only in large black undies, into the bathing chamber. there she proceeded to coat me with some sort of substance that looked kind of like gelatin and smelled like a lovely perfum. then she had me sit there for 10 minutes, which gave me a chance to observe the women around me. they were all scrubbing themselves and going through the whole ritual – tubs of water, different temperatures, accompanied each bather. this is a weekly ritual, from childhood to old age. everyone’s skin, even that of the old women who hobbled in, looked somehow fresh and made me think that the hammam probably does help keep the skin fresh somehow.

my lady came back and commenced to scrub off my old skin with a mit, not unlike something you might use to clean tough grease off a pan it was cooked onto. it wasn’t unpleasant, though, and there was something satisfying about seeing that skin come off and wash away. somehow invigorating and renewing. she took me into another room and had me lay down and scrubbed every bit of me (just about) and then rinsed me and washed my hair with a fragrant soap that left my hair smelling lovely and clean for days after. then it was done, all with the efficacy of a mother changing a baby’s diaper.

i left feeling like a new woman and went back to the hostel to get ready for dinner with the boys.

when i arrived, there was a young man there from seattle with a chameleon. he told me he had bought it for 30 dirhams – 3 dollars – and that he heard after that sometimes they are used in magic ceremonies and thrown into the fire. i got to play with the chameleon a bit and loved his calm presence, his cleft fingers and googly eyes.

there was also a cat in the hostel, named mimi, but she wasn’t too interested in the chameleon.

dinner that night was festive, communal dinner in the cafe one of the boys works in. many of the boys ar musicians of the traditional sort, playing an instrument kind of like a bass with 3 strings. someone else on the drums and another on something like castenets. i have videos which i will try to post – it was amazing!

eventuall chakib and i played some songs and he had aparently told all his friends about my voice, so i had instant fans. he was full of plans for me to come back and put together a band with him.

eventually we left and after a little shisha i went back to the hostel. there was another musician there playing, and i played some songs on the guitar in the hostel before going up to the terrasse for a bit. it was almost 4 when i got to bed.

the next day i needed to get my bus ticket to go back to marrakech, and to make my plans to get from marrakech to fez. the day was eaten up with such tasks. when i had done all i could do, i went in search of chakib, who wanted to show me some songs to learn. we ended up at cafe des arts that night, drinking tea and ultimately playing our repertoire to a very receptive audience. it was a pure pleasure and another tourist from france sat in on the drum. everyone full of praise and admiration. amazing how people open up to you when you tickle their eardrums, so to speak. another late night full of music and chakib’s talks of touring and coming back to essaouira. we wandered then ended back at cafe des arts where they mazde me food, as i had onceagain managed not to eat much that day. we played more songs, talked with the servers at the restaurant, and finally to bed.

the next day i took care of the last few things that needed taking care of in town and made my way to the bus station for my 3pm bus back to marrakech. the plan was to take a train from there to fez where i would arrive at 2 am and be picked up by a driver and taken to a riad for the night. i had a flight the next morning around 11 and knew, unfortunately, i wouldn’t have a chance to see fez.

the train trip was long and i felt somewhat ill, perhaps from the change in temperatures from essaouira to marrakech, where it was over 100 degrees. a nice man in my train cabin gave me tea and coke to drink, though we couldn’t communicate as he spoke neither english nor french, and my arabic is pretty non-existant.

at one point i followed his lead and descended to change trains. i hurried out to buy water and when i returned saw that no one else was waiting for another train. i asked at the counter and was told it was the next stop i needed. luckily, all was well and the next train even had ac, which was like heaven after the stifling air in the first decrepit train.

the rest of the journey passed easily and though we were about 30 minutes late, still the driver was there and he took me on a brief driving tour of fez. his name was ali and he was very nice. he said he would come and pick me up in the morning to take me to the airport.

i slept in the first ac of my trme in morocco, in the first single room, too. i managed to get a good night’s sleep before getting up the next morning to pack my things and prepare again for another stage in my journey. back to france! 

 

love and miss,

kira

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