Saturday, February 25, 2017


It took me a while to learn how to spell Essaouira. I finally realized that if I start with Ess and then just throw in every vowel (except y and w, which, after all, are 
really just Fake™ vowels anyway), I’d come pretty close. (But don’t forget the …ira at the end.)

However you spell it, we’ve been here for three weeks; only one more to go! We’ve gotten around a bit, and seen most of what there is to be seen. Essaouira is a small town. People come here mostly for the beach, to swim or wind- and kite-surf. Of course, the locals, for the most part, don’t have the luxury of travel as entertainment; they’re just trying to make a living. There are many small villages in the surrounding countryside, and farmers come to town to sell their produce. On a few occasions while in the medina we’d see a cart arrive, piled high with tangerines or other produce, with buyers crowded around.

Events like that are a constant reminder that the medina is the downtown area; lots of shops and hotels and restaurants cater to the tourists, but it’s also home for many locals. Tucked in among the leather goods and ceramics and brightly-colored cloth are produce stalls and tiny hole-in-the-wall grocery stores. We find these tiny stalls far more convenient for milk and yogurt and bread than trekking to the supermarket at the far end of town.

Shop stalls in the medina

Colorful ceramics and spices on display. Prices are in Dirhams, 10 = $1USD

 Finding our way around the medina here turns out to be relatively easy. It’s small and straightforward, with two main, parallel streets and numerous smaller streets crossing at right angles. Many of these smaller “streets” are alleyways, narrow and tight, with merchants’ goods spilling out of shops into the pathway. And there are enough “mystery” passages – covered alleys that curve away into the darkness – to keep explorations of the medina interesting.

A colorful doorway

Just another side street in the Essaouira medina

All in all, while there is always more to discover, we are satisfied with our time here. We have met a number of interesting people, expats; British, mostly (no language barrier!). One woman conducts nature hikes around the area every Thursday. A couple of weeks ago we walked for several kilometers along the beach (which extends much further south than I’m willing to walk!), watching the waves and the occasional tourist camel caravan. Last week we headed into the nature preserve that runs along the town’s eastern edge; rolling hills (ancient sand dunes, really) covered with scrub trees, extending up into the hills surrounding the town (and with a few camels hiding out).

A lake! Just beyond the edge of town

A sad camel hiding out

Yup, Morocco, as far as the eye can see

Last week Diane, who organizes these weekly hikes, hired a car and driver, and the three of us spent the day exploring the area around Essaouira. The driver, a highly experienced and knowledgeable local who spoke excellent French, took is to places we never would have found on our own, and gave us a context that really helped us understand what we saw. We visited a couple of seaside communities with incredible beaches; went to the oasis that provides water for the extensive agriculture in this area; walked on the dam storing drinking water for Essaouira; and watched goats climb Argan trees to eat the leaves.

A common mode of travel in Morocco

Moulay Bouzerktoune, about 30km north of Esaouira

Contemplating the view at Moulay

Diane and Paula behind a ruined wall
The Oasis at Ain Lahjar, about 10km inland

Goats eating argan leaves

Goats climbing trees to eat argan leaves

Nice doggy! Not really, touch his goats and you're in trouble!
Spillway of the dam that holds water for Essaouira; the driver told me Morocco is building one dam a year to ensure adequate water supplies

We were taken to a women’s Argan cooperative (more on this in a future blog), and had lunch at the driver’s recommended restaurant in a town with a stunning beach. Now, it’s highly probable that our guy got some kind of commission for these stops, but I’m ok with that. Our driver was pleasant and friendly, and I was very glad he was driving and not me as his ancient Mercedes ground up those hills and around sharp curves, dodging donkeys on the shoulder of the road. All in all it was a good day, and well worth the $50USD it cost.

The classic view of Essaouira, through the hole

Up Next: Gosh, there's more to be said about Essaouira, but we will soon be in Fez! Stay tuned...

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Getting Soaked in Essaouira

The wind howls through the building. The palm trees bend like they might break. Waves dash up the beach, almost reaching the wall along the ocean walk; further out to sea, spray shoots high as huge swells crash onto the offshore rocks. Seagulls hover, nearly stationary, then gracefully swoop as they ride the 30-mph winds. Sheets of rain move through, and buildings only a block away are obscured by the blowing mist.

We’re dry and secure in our cozy modern apartment, with a third (or fourth?) floor view of the confusion outside. Another pot of tea, perhaps? A good day to work on the blog…

Today marks our 11th day in Essaouira. What have we been up to? Well, first let’s clear up a small mystery.

            Why Camels?
A more exact title might be, Why Camels are Seen Walking Through Essaouira, but that begins to sound like an article in the journal Nature, or something. (National Geographic?)

It started with Diane, a British woman we met, an expat who’s been here for 15 years or so. We met with her in a café just outside the medina walls, and over a pot of tea and learned that she organizes nature walks, every week, on Thursday. So, we made arrangements to join them in the upcoming walk.

This walk was along the beach, and started from a beach café about a kilometer (0.6 mile) from our flat. We arrived a bit early, with the idea of getting lunch before walking. This café, and a couple more nearby, marked the end of the town’s beachfront; further down, it was just ocean waves and sand dunes as far as the eye could see.

Looking back towards Essaouria

Paula relaxing after lunch
Since this was the edge of civilization as far as beach activities were concerned, several businesses competed for the last bit of space. In addition to the cafés there was a surf shop (of course!): both board and kite surfing are popular here. And a place to rent “quads,” small four-wheel drive all-terrain vehicles, and horses, and camels. Yes, dromedaries (the one-humped variety; the two-humpers are found in Asia).

Both are quads, in a sense -- one goes long distances without a fill up, the other requires refueling regularly

Hard to believe we are hundreds of km from the desert!

Perhaps this is the fellow we saw last week, making his way to the beach to offer camel rides

So that explains why we saw that fellow walking his two camels along the road last week. He was heading towards the beach, where he no doubt expected to find some clients for a camel ride. (One of the members of our hiking group later remarked that a camel costs around 30,000 Dirham, or about $3,000USD, which is why the owners are so pushy to get clients for camel rides!)

With that issue cleared up, and lunch over, we were ready for the day’s hike.

This may be a pushmi-pullyu (from The Story of Dr. Dolittle, Hugh Lofting's 1920 children's novel about a man who talks to animals), but is more likely two camels

Although it was a gray day, the weather gearing up for today’s rainstorm, walking and talking to the other hikers was pleasant. Most of the folks on the walk were long-term British residents of the area. We got some insights into the region, and it’s endlessly interesting hearing people’s stories of why they left home and what drew them to a foreign land. The return walk was marred somewhat by quads (the four-wheel ATVs) zooming up and down the beach, driven by joyful vacationers more captivated with thrills than safety (their thrills, our safety!).

We also saw some other, slowly-moving “quads,” the kind with four legs and a hump. The camels were picturesque on the sand, especially with the waves behind them.

Lawrence of Essaouira!

            So where are we, anyway?
Can you find Morocco on a map? Bet you can’t find Essaouira! To help out, here’s an overview.

Morocco. Yellow star south of Gibraltar marks Fez, our next stop; red marker is Essaouira

Essaouira. Red marker is our apartment, a few blocks from the medina and almost on the beach

            Views of Essaouira
This trip to Essouira is the second time we have been here; indeed, impressions from our first trip three years ago is what drove us to return. There have been changes: the city is growing, spreading north and south. Heavy equipment works day after day expanding and modernizing the port; sidewalks are torn up to lay new paving stones.

The old port, though, has stayed the same. Workers hurry to and fro, fishermen work on their boats, vendors sit with an array of fish on display. And crowds surge through it all. Plenty of tourists and sightseers, but lots of locals as well. It's a busy scene at the harbor!

Part of the old fortifications, and part of the fishing fleet

Entrance to the town from the port

The classic "Essaouira hole"

Crowds surge through the port

A man prepares to sell the days catch

More crowds surging

More fish for sale (note, no ice! buy it quick...)

But inside the medina, though, it’s the same as it’s ever been: main streets lined with shops selling the stuff of daily life – incredible produce, wonderful bread, tiny stores crammed with dish soap and yoghurt and eggs with the straw still sticking to them – along with everything the unsuspecting tourist could want. Clothing, both traditinal and modern; carved and inlaid boxes; leather goods; colorful weavings; brass and metal ware, spices...

Gateway to the old city

The ancient city of Essaouira. And seagulls.

One of many, many "hidden passages"

Tangerines! Tangerines today!

            Major Storm Hits Essaouira!
Yes, Saturday was bad, Sunday was worse. Wind gusts to 60 MPH, blowing rain so thick we could see nothing out our window; angry brown seas. Sometime in the early afternoon we headed out for a walk. Just after stepping out the door of our building a board came flying from above to land in the street, well away from us but just in front of a car. The driver stopped, and shook his head, waved his arms at us in amazement. What next!? he seemed to be saying.

What next indeed! We looked at the litter-filled street in front of us, and Paula decided the risk outweighed the reward on this venture. She headed back to the safety and excellent view from the apartment. The heavy weather lasted for hours, and while we were fine, the streets were littered with broken branches. Our only causality was the Internet satellite dish on the roof, which stopped working. Two days with no Wi-Fi! The building manager acted quickly, though, and by Tuesday morning everything was up and running. (But this blog entry did get delayed!)

The peak of the storm, blowing rain obscures the view
Two hours later, still storming but much calmer!

View from our balcony. It was awesome!

Next up: more on the medina; in 10 days we leave this seaside town for the big city of Fez!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Our First Day in Essaouira

It all went so smoothly, thanks to Paula’s careful planning.

We woke up in the flat in Seville where we’ve been for the month of January. We spent the morning making final preparations, and by the end of the day we laid our heads to rest in a hotel in Marrakech, Morocco. The hardest part was the walk to the train station in Seville, hefting our backpacks, our laptops, and towing our stuffed “wheelie” suitcases, bouncing and rattling over the cobblestones

The bus ride to the Seville airport, standing room only, was only slightly easier. . (“Next time it’s a taxi!” we both mouthed to each other.) But once we’d dropped the bags off at the airline (accepted even though we were 1 kg over the 20 kg limit), things got much better. Riding in a crowded, cramped airplane is never my favorite thing, but requires no effort on our part. Soon enough we were on the ground – it’s not very far, the south of Spain to Marrakech –meeting up with our driver (Paula had arranged for that in advance, too), and speeding through the modern streets of Marrakech to our hotel.

Exit from the new super-modern Marrakesh airport

The hotel was upscale in the newer part of town, but still only $40 USD for the night, selected for its proximity to the bus station. Once settled, we walked the 15 minutes to the station and got our tickets for the next day.

Entry to the train station. Pretty cool!

Next day? Why are we leaving Marrakesh so soon? Because we’ve been here before, and know what it’s like. Vibrant, busy, crowded, modern and exotic, old and run down. Lots to see and do, but not our favorite place in Morocco, and certainly not for a whole month. So the next morning, after breakfast at the café we’d spotted the night before, we were once more walking down the street towing our wheelies, and loaded with our backpacks and laptops. (No cobbles this time, though!)

The new super-modern Marrakesh train station. The much less interesting bus station is behind it

Since we’d been here and taken this same bus ride a few years ago it was old hat. Sit patiently in the bus station, watching people come and go. Finally we load our bags aboard the bus and climb up with dozens of others to find our reserved seats in this large, modern, comfortable, air-conditioned bus. Then through the suburbs – which seem much larger now than they did three years ago – and out to the highway. We watch the fields pass by, mostly flat and often dry. Hundreds of acres of olive trees, and orange trees; old men and young boys with herds of goats. Plain low houses made of drab mud bricks. And always, sooner or later, a minaret, the distinctive square tower of the local mosque from which the call to prayer is issued five times a day.

Market Day! A city we passed through on the bus

View from the bus window, near Essaouira

Our first view of Essaouira and the Atlantic Ocean
About two in the afternoon we reach the coastal hills, and have a brief view of the city of Essaouira stretching along the ocean. Soon after we pull into the unpaved turnaround of the bus station, already crowded by the porters and touts offering their services to carry bags or guide the newly-arrived to their accommodations. Paula has made arrangements to meet with Bouchra, the caretaker for our apartment. By the time we connect with her the bus has left, the crowd has thinned, and we make the quick walk to a modern apartment building just down the street from the medina, the old town within the ancient city walls.

Inside the fourth-floor apartment we were greeted by the woman’s adult daughter, who speaks perfect English, offering us anise-flavored cookies (biscuits, to our English friends!) and glasses of the traditional Moroccan mint tea, hot, sweet, and refreshing. After introductions, and a run-down on use of the apartment, how the keys work, don’t put laundry on the terrace use the roof instead, etc. we are left alone to contemplate the view of the city and the ocean.

First order of business was the Internet. Apparently we buy it by the day here; still not sure how that works. As instructed, we found a tobacco shop and gave the owner the phone number and 100 dirham ($10USD). After a few minutes of doing something behind the counter he said we were good for 30 days. (Whatever that means!) But yes, the apartment does have Internet now!

Second task was to find a bottle of wine, a delicate issue in a Muslim country… not really. There’s a shop just outside the old town walls, and while it looks edgy in a run-down, skirting-the-law sort of way, so do the machinist shop and the carpenter shop and the hair dressers that surround it. (We’re spoiled in California, one of the richest states in one of the richest countries; everything else can look tawdry and run down. Realizations of the traveler…)

Now we were prepared to sit on the terrace, glass of wine in hand, and watch the sun settle into the ocean, past the palm trees and next to the nearby rocky islands. Yes, this will work just fine for the rest of the month!

The next day our goal was a major food shopping expedition. While the medina (the old town in most Moroccan cities, typically inside the original walls) is full of vendors, we’re not yet sure where to get what we need. To shorten the shopping part, and make sure we’ve got the basics, we headed for the Carrefour (means road intersection in French), a large French supermarket chain, out on the edge of town. It is about a mile and a half away (3 km or so); walkable one way, but tough on the return when laden with groceries. But, taxis are cheap here, we’re told. So we headed out, backpacks empty except for some extra shopping bags (including our special Trader Joe’s bag).

The streets through this newer part of town were fairly clean and wide, lined with 3- or 4-story apartment buildings. (Floor numbering, and hence number of stories, is a bit of an issue: in Europe the ground floor is called, well, the ground floor, or floor 0, with the first floor above that called, well, the first floor. In the US, of course, the ground floor is number 1, and the second floor is the first one above that. So we push button 3 on the elevator to get to our apartment here in Essaouira, which makes it the fourth floor. Right?)

Along one side of the street is a rusty old fence, with vegetation beyond. Our map shows some kind of park. We follow the fence along, trying to see in; we do catch a glimpse of a lake of some kind. Then we come upon two camels.

Camels going on about their business (whatever THAT might be)

This is about as surprising as seeing horses in downtown San Luis Obispo. Sure, there’s lots of horses in California, probably more now than before those horseless carriage things came along. But they’re not very practical for day-to-day use. I know there are many camels in Morocco; they are still used for transport in the desert. Desert camel rides are certainly a staple of the tourist industry. But here we are at least a three-day camel ride from the desert!

It seems this fellow was on his way somewhere, and had stopped in the shade to rest, or adjust something. Uncertain of camel protocol, we were hesitant to approach. Would he offer us a ride? Let us take his picture for a fee? As we continued along the road, following the edge of the park, he finished his preparations and mounted the lead camel, then rode off ahead of us. Later we came to an intersection and saw him in the distance, riding the one camel and leading the other, with us none the wiser.

Meanwhile, we were discussing getting a roast chicken. In Montpellier during the first three months of our trip we found any number of chicken rotisserie places, and tired several before settling on our favorite. In Seville, the one chicken roaster we found wasn’t very good, but we had an oven in our apartment for our last month there, and turned out some very good oven-roasted chickens. Our apartment here has an oven, leading us to wonder if the raw chickens here would roast up as well as those from Andalusia.

Right about then I saw a shop down a side street with a drawing of a chicken on the sign. There were crates of produce around the doorway, but we were interested in chicken. I stepped into the darkened shop and found a powerful and not pleasant odor. As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom I noticed cages near the ceiling, with live chickens in them. Not exactly what we were looking for! The proprietor, busy pulling things out of a chicken carcass (don’t ask!), did not seem to speak a language we knew. Another customer, though, helped us understand, in French, that no, no roasted chickens were available here, but we could try down the street and around the corner somewhere. We thanked him and continued on our way.

A local market in suburban Essaouira selling produce and chickens. Live chickens...

We arrived at the Carrefour, a large, low, plain-looking building surrounded by a nearly-empty parking lot (not a lot of people here have cars; on the other hand, we saw no place to tie up camels, either…). Inside it was like most supermarkets, with large wide well-lit aisles separating high shelves loaded with brightly-colored stuff. We quickly found the liquor room, a separate part of the store with a good wine selection and all the usual hard liquors. We were told we were not allowed to take our purchases into the other part of the store; most likely, I figure, to avoid putting off the more devout Muslims whose religion forbids the consumption of alcohol. So while we won’t find a liquor store on every other corner here in Morocco, alcohol is hardly a banned substance.

We wandered through these familiar aisles we’d never seen before (are supermarkets an archetype?) selecting the products we needed. I found raw chickens, carefully cleaned and safely protected behind tight plastic wrapping. Great! We’ll roast this in our oven and see how it compares to the ones in Seville. (Spoiler alert: We liked the chickens from Mercodonia – a supermarket chain in Seville –better.)

Finally, our packs bulging with bottles of wine and packaged goods, we needed to find a taxi. But it didn’t take long, waiting forlornly in the near-deserted parking lot, before someone arrived in a taxi, and we were on our way home. We had a bit of a problem explaining to the driver where the apartment building was; I inadvertently stumbled on a good solution: I held up my cell phone so the driver could see the mapping program showing the route. He appreciated that, and we were soon at our door. The cost for this 10-minute ride? Less than a dollar! (Camels can’t compete with that, I imagine.)

After four days or so we are getting settled in, exploring the medina and the newer parts of town to the north and south, finding shady cafes and stores selling everyday food supplies. In the next blog we’ll talk about what we’re finding, here in this ancient coastal city.