Saturday, January 24, 2015

Retreat to the Beach! - Morocco Week #2

After a madcap week in Marrakesh we retreated to the seaside city of Essaouria to catch our breath, and a breeze. Essaouria is a lovely, laid back destination on the Atlantic coast about two and a half hours away by bus. I have to admit to some fleeting trepidation around taking a bus in Morocco, but it was the best choice, and it turned out to be a fine way to travel. The bus was plush with lots of room and big windows - and not a peasant or chicken crate in sight.

We shared the road with donkey carts, camels, motorcycles, hippie-vans and dilapidated trucks, as well as meandering pedestrians - none of whom seemed concerned in the least that our bus was bearing down on them.
Our lovely bus to Essaouria - a great way to travel in Morocco.
We stepped off the bus in a dusty parking lot and were swarmed by "helpful" young men offering taxis, rickety push-carts to carry our bags, guided tours, camel rides, carpets and restaurant discounts. Add a few hangers-on and you've got a show! This is the first time in our Nomadic travels that we didn't have our host contact information and arrival details written out. I guess it was because our host told us it would be so easy to get to the apartment. “Just grab a cab and give the driver the name of my restaurant. It should cost about 6 Turkish Durham” - that’s about a dollar. Okay! Well ... there was a lot of animated discussion and grabbing at Michael's iPhone to verify this information. Then there was confusion about where the restaurant was (there was one with a similar name inside the Medina where taxis cannot go – this got the cart guys excited!) And then the price brought some laughs. Finally - we broke out of the scrum and found our host Federico by phone. We thrust the phone at the cab driver and hoped for the best. After a brief discussion, the deal was done and the crowd moved on. Total cost: two dollars. I don't think we were robbed.
Itching to get our toes in the sand! The weather was mixed, but we got a few sunny days.
Our newest home sat above our host's very nice Italian restaurant, Gusto Italia. Hey, you can't eat fish and tangine everyday! The pizza was delicious. The apartment was modern, but spare - the best feature being the large glass doors that looked through leafy palm trees at the beach. If you didn't look left, right or down it was a nice view and allowed for plenty of light. The sun was out - the beach beckoned and you could actually hear yourself think. Here's the link:

A sea of fishing boats in the port.
Essaouria is a small city with a big history. Its Portuguese heritage comes through in some of the architecture - but the real influence can be found in the thriving boatyards and fishing port. We watched as a dozen men worked to build one of four 65-foot fishing boats from the keel up. Every piece of wood is hewn by hand on-site. There were piles of eucalyptus, teak and mahogany ready to be bent to fit the frames. For a small tip a salty old sailor gave us a tour of the yard and we learned it takes ten men, one year to build each vessel. 

Our guide took us deep beneath the boats for a close up of the process
The underlying frame of a boat under construction
 At the nearby fishing port a fresh catch came ashore early in the morning, and again in the late afternoon. Housewives and vendors alike crowd around the boats to haggle for the best fish - then load up their carts and head off.  Steps away there were 30 or so stalls all set up to entice you with your choice sea creatures by the kilogram, toss it on the grill and serve it up with lemon and sea salt. You had to run the gauntlet of menu waving hustlers, and of course there might have been  a little slight of hand on the pricing  - but still, for a just a few bucks you got a plate full of just-off-the-boat fish, fries, salad and a warm coke. I gave my heart to Mustafa at stall 5.

Mustafa reminding me "American Idol Style" to come back to booth number 5
This fish is going to Hollywood!
The Medina, or old city, is walled on all sides with 6 entrance gates, or Babs. Within the Medina there was a lively souk with all the usual crafts, household goods, spices, fresh food, bakeries, cell phone kiosks and some impressive galleries.

 This piece really captured Morocco for me
Most of these shops are one-man operations so when the owner is called to prayer from the mosque minaret, he just put a broomstick over two crates or parks a bike across the shop entrance as a sign the will back in 10 minutes. That is trust and a compliment to Islamic culture.
Off to pray - back in ten minutes!
Loading up on our daily allotment of oranges and bananas.
Fresh herbs were piled high all down the street. I love cooking here!
Jars of raw pigments to mix with fabric dye, paints and glazes.
The most prevalent product on offer in Essaouria was argan oil - used both for cooking and skin care. It apparently has magic anti-aging powers! Shop after shop offered it as soap, cream or spray bottles for your body, or as a intensely flavored cooking oil made from toasting the nuts. Argan nuts are indigenous to Essaouria and the products are created exclusively by women. And goats. Lots of goats.  
You are not seeing things ... those really are goats in that tree!
First step, cracking the hard, hazelnut like shells with a stone.
When I first heard about the process I was a little put off. Apparently these goats clamber up planks into knarled argan trees and nibble off the almond sized nuts.Their digestive tracks can digest the tasty (if you are a goat) outer skin, and then the undigested hulls are gathered after they have been, err, "processed". Really? Much later I was relieved to find out that actually, the nuts are spit out after the skin has been chewed off. So really it's just goat saliva and not poop. Better, right? The real work starts after the women gather the nuts then crack the outer hulls, peel off the tough skin around the nuts, take those and grind them in ancient mortars and extract the oil in drizzles. I hope my purchases help their thriving micro-businesses. Learn more about argan oil online.

I enjoyed shopping during Essaouria's slower paced shoulder-season and wandered the souk for inspiration for a week's worth of meals and once again marveled at the myriad of spices, nuts, and fresh foods. We were also intrigued with shopping at the new Carrefour hypermarket that opened a week before we arrived. Carrefour is a French owned company and the largest supermarket chain in the world after Wal-mart. They have 10,000 stores in 34 countries around the world. In Morocco it is one of the rare places you can buy alcohol - however all that evil business is tucked out of site in a "cave" and those purchases are a separate transaction. 

The store itself was huge and brightly lit. It offered everything you could find piled in the souk, but in an orderly fashion all lined up in aisles and cold cases. And of course, there were European foods on offer and specials were announced on the sound system! The only thing missing were customers. There were some - but they seemed more curious than serious about shopping. It will take some time to shift the population away from the daily shopping and socializing over tea in the market to filling a cart full of plastic packages and sterile meat at a "Soukermarket”

Carrefour's  pre-packaged must-have ingredients for every kitchen. Your's for $3.00
What we enjoyed most were long walks on the spectacular beach. A 10-mile stretch of hard packed sand with dunes and a pile of ancient ruins along the way. There were lots of lovely camels and horses to ride. We petted them both but declined to ride either, although the ab-crunching movement that came with a camel ride seemed very good for the core.

A well deserved rest after a five mile trek, sans camels.
My new friend Daisy. She had lovely blue eyes and was soft as a kitten
Slow day on the beach for this young one
The weather was hit and miss, but we got a fair amount of sunshine and definitely cleared our heads. Soon it was time to load back on the bus and return to the magical, mysterious world of Marrakesh for our last week in Morocco.

Debbie and Michael Campbell
Senior Nomads in Europe (and a little beyond)

P.S. Most of the apartments we've stayed in have televisions but is rare to find English channels. As it turns out, in Essaouria there was a satellite dish so we got BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera which allowed us to watch the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris unfold. Our hearts were broken. Mary and Gregoire and the kids joined the big Sunday solidarity march with the kids. A historical day for us all. 

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