Monday, February 18, 2019

Au revoir, Essaouria!

(Paul, standing at the kitchen sink) Well, this sponge is about shot. Time to get another one… No, wait! We’re leaving in a week!
Yeah, only a week left and we’ll be moving on from Essaouria to our next stop, Fez. Our time here has been worthwhile; we’ve enjoyed the warm temperatures and the bright sun, strolling through the ancient medina and watching the noisy seagulls. We’ve reconnected with people we met before, and have made some new friends. Overall, though, it is time to be moving on. I really feel we’ve squeezed all the juice we can from this orange (to name just one of the many available fruits here).

On the way to the medina
I’ve been feeling a sort of timelessness here. A personal timelessness, brought on mostly by our lack of any schedule: we have nothing to do and no place to go. Essaouria is slow paced; visitors come here to slow down and idle on the beach, ride camels or quads or wave-driven boards. No doubt there are many locals working very hard, but what we see are slow-moving gardeners and shop keepers sitting in the medina awaiting the tourists. Quite different from Seville, where just outside our door were crowded streets with people coming and going, and crowded cafes with people sitting and talking, eating and drinking. There was always something going on; even the buildings themselves seemed to be in a constant flow.

But Essaouria—indeed, Morocco itself—is the embodiment of timelessness. Like most underdeveloped countries, modernity has been slow in coming, and traditional ways are retained. And, Essaouria is an ancient city. The Phoenicians were here, the Romans. Fortifications built by the Portuguese in the 17th century are prominent in the harbor; the medina was finished in the 18th century, and while parts of it are crumbling, it really is pretty much the same today as it was then. Local men and women wear the traditional djellaba; fruits and vegetables and small round loaves of bread are sold off carts wheeled into the streets every morning.

Sunset view from the ramparts

A heavily ornamented window tucked away in the depths of the medina
Always something interesting...

But as the time for departure draws near, we, as always, begin to feel a sort of pre-nostalgia for where we are. We start noticing things more, regretting what we haven’t done and appreciating even more what we have; missing things that are still here: seagulls circling endlessly above the fishing port; waves moving relentlessly towards the shore; the immobile islands in the near distance; the sunset. (Yes, and even the damn camels!)

OK, I'm still not over camels on the beach! But this will be the last one... (I like the blue burnous idea--it really locks in the "nomad of the desert" fantasy)

One of our favorite squares, hidden away in the medina

World's most perfect cafe au lait? Maybe. Hard to beat the setting, though!

One of the keys to staying in one place for weeks or months at a time is to get connected to local events and to meet the local people (although for us the “local people” will most likely be ex-pats!). Aside from Diane, a Brit who has been living in Essaouria part-time for a dozen or more years, Paula has also found the Essaouria ex-pat Face Book page (I’m no fan of FB, but it does appear to have its uses). And that lead to the Sunday beach cleanup.

Diane and Lew, at one of the many produce markets

My first time at the weekly cleanup the wind was blowing like stink. After collecting more sand in my eyes than trash in my bag I headed home. The next week, though, the wind behaved (it blows every afternoon and has made Essaouria a haven for windsurfers, and now wind kiters, but in the morning? How rude!). The three of us—Paula, me, and Lew, the Canadian ex-ship captain staying upstairs from us—showed up, picked up our collection bags and gloves, and got a lift down the beach to the river mouth. It was fertile ground for trash collection! We were working with a half-dozen others, and in a couple of hours we filled a trailer with our trash bags. It was quite satisfying.

Just gettin' started--there's no end of stuff to pick up

A good morning's work

Lew chose to head home; Paula and I hiked along the river for a mile or so to the small town of Diabat, a bedroom community for Essaouria.

Most colorful spot in Diabat. Sign says "1969, a date that marks the presence of a great star in this place"
 Diabat has created a reputation for itself with not one but two guesthouses/cafes named after Jimi Hendrix, who passed through this area in 1969. (In reality, Jimi spent two or three nights at an upscale hotel just outside the Essaouria medina. He came with his girlfriend, but not his guitar, although there are still places in the medina trading on the “Jimi Hendrix played here!” legend.) Aside from the brightly-painted Jimi Hendrix CafĂ©, Diabat is a bit drab. We’d been through here a couple of years ago on one of the hikes organized by Diane, and knew there wasn’t much up the road. We didn’t get very far into the town before returning to the more popular beach cafes of Essaouria.

Once a great palace...
Castle in the sand?

Along the riverbed, though, we came across what appears to have once been a palace, now in ruin and filled with drifting sand. It’s a place that speaks of wealth and power, now lost and buried.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Some like to think this ruin was the genesis for the Jimi Hendrix song “Castles Made of Sand,” but the song was released two years before Hendrix visited the area. It’s a nice story, though!

Public Transport

We don’t have a car here in Essaouria. We rely primarily on what my mother called “shanks mare”: walking. But there is another option, here in this small coastal town: small blue taxis are everywhere. And, we’ve learned that the fare is always the same, 7
dirham, about 70 cents US. (Outside the city limits the rate goes up.) We use a taxi once or twice a week.

But there is another option: horse-drawn carriages. Unlike the elegant polished and painted carriages used to carry well-heeled tourists around Seville, however, these are much more… ah, rural in character. And much cheaper. Two dirham, I’m told, will take you from one end of town to the other. But only on a fixed route, along the large road that runs through the center of Essaouria. The locals use these carriages quite heavily; there are always two or three of them in sight, and sometimes a dozen or more.  But always carrying locals; I’ve never seen a tourist in one. A little too cross-cultural, perhaps…

Mint Tea

We can’t leave Essaouria without acknowledging mint tea. Well, it’s a thing all over Morocco, but we’ve started indulging in it here. Partially, it’s our terrace; only in the last week or so has the temperature warmed to the point where we use it regularly. And what’s better than sipping mint tea on the terrace while watching the waves? Fresh mint is abundant here; bunches of mint, picked every morning, are sold throughout town. Going price is 1 dirham (10 cents!). And every Moroccan household has a tea set. Now we spend an hour or so in the afternoon, sipping tea and relaxing.

Fresh mint tea, just-squeezed juice, view of the ocean. Our life in Essaouria!

One of our favorite travel bloggers, Frank, was in Essaouria recently. For a different take on this town, look a his blog here:

By the time you read this, we'll be on our way to Fez. More later...

Sunday, February 3, 2019

What’s All This Argan Oil Stuff, Anyway?

This blog was originally written two years ago, and the events described happened then. It's still relevant, so we’ll publish now!

On our first trip to Morocco, I remember seeing Argan Women’s Cooperatives in many of the towns we passed through. I was only vaguely aware of Argan oil – something to do with cosmetics, I believe – and didn’t pay much attention. On our recent drive through the countryside in the hired car that Diane arranged (see an earlier post, Essaouria, here) we visited one of these women’s cooperatives, and stopped to watch goats climb argan trees to eat the leaves. So I learned a bit about the oil, and how it’s made.

Argan trees in the wild.

Argan oil has long been used in traditional Moroccan cooking, and in the last decade or so it has become exceedingly popular as a cosmetic oil. It is extracted from a nut that grows on the argan tree (Argania spinose), only found in southwestern Morocco; which is to say between Essaouira and Marrakesh. (Which is to say, rare!) On our three-hour bus ride here from Marrakesh I noted that every town we passed had a Women’s Argan Cooperative; the production of the oil and its related products has become an important cottage industry in this area, giving women a source of income and a certain independence.

Goats on the ground.
 Since cracking the nut to get at the oil-rich meat has not been successfully mechanized, argan oil production is done the same way it has since the beginning: women collect the fruit from the tree and dry them, pull off the pulpy fruit, crack the nut between stones, and grind the nut meats in stone grinders, releasing a thick oily paste. (The nut is often roasted to provide a… er, nutlike flavor to the edible oils.) The pulpy part becomes animal feed, the cracked shells are burned for fuel, and the paste is kneaded to release the oil.

Women at an Argan Coop shelling the nuts.
There is any number of shops in the medina here with women in traditional clothing sitting and grinding the nutmeats, or cracking the shells (although the grinding is more picturesque and pulls in more customers!). Our visit to the cooperative on our drive allowed us to see the process up close, and take photos. I also collected some nuts from the surrounding trees.

Demonstration of argan oil production in the Essaouria median.

Of course, we had the opportunity to try out, and to purchase, a variety of argan products, including argan honey (from the flowers, presumably), amlou, and the oil itself, both in edible and cosmetic varieties. We ended up buying a jar of amlou, the oil-bearing paste. It has the look and texture of almond butter, with a very similar flavor. (Too bad it was so expensive, about $10USD a pound!).

Grinding nuts at the Coop.
A Berber woman grinds argan nuts. She was quite lovely!

The trees apparently grow wild. Many are being planted, due to the popularity of the oil (and the trees withstand drought and very high temperatures, so are a good hedge against desertification), but they do not appear to be tended. Goats like the leaves, and really do climb up into the trees to eat them. Once upon a time the goat droppings were collected for the nuts they contained; the pulpy fruit gets digested, while the hard nut passes through untouched. But it seems there are just not enough goats eating berries to keep up with the increasing demand, so now the fruit are hand harvested directly from the tree.

Yes, goats in the trees!
While we were stopped on the side of the road watching the tree-climbing goats (and warily eyeing the shepherd dog, who took the security of his goats seriously), the driver explained that there is a good market for goat meat. It is, after all, a traditional food in this part of the world, and since these goats eat wild argan leaves exclusively, the meat is certified organic. And, a thing I did not know (yet another!): goat meat is approved for diabetics (it’s low in saturated fats). Apparently diabetics should not eat cow or sheep meat (also traditional foods), or pork (not that you can find any in Muslim countries). And, diabetes is a serious problem in Morocco. (Ever taste traditional Moroccan mint tea? More sugar than a candy bar! One change we’ve seen since we were last here a few years back is that the mint tea is now unsweetened, and served with do-it-yourself sugar.)

Argan oil production sounds like a win-win-win all around!

In the intervening two years since this visit, I’ve been using the cosmetic oil that we bought. Every time I'm done shaving (not every day—I let myself get a bit fuzzy) I apply the oil to my face. I find it soothing and not the least bit irritating: I use it around my eyes and have never had a problem with irritation. Even at the end of the day I can still feel the smoothing effect! We’ll be buying more before we leave…