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Bobbi, Dusty, Glenn, and Vance in Morocco and Spain

June-July 2000


The way was not particularly appealing. The road veered inland so there was only rolling hills with scrub and bare rock, much as one would see in the UAE or Oman, and until Essaouira came into view on the coast, there was nothing remarkable at all about the ride. The city looked large on its peninsula and strikingly out of place in that barren land. We were soon into it and deposited at the bus station which LP said was in a particularly unappealing part of town. It didn't seem that bad as unappealing towns go, but we were greeted straight out of the taxi by people offering us accommodation, though we had seen none of the city. I told all comers that I was visiting friends there and we would stay with them. Then we retreated into the bus station to pay a dirham for a pee and figure out when the buses left for our next destination, Marrakesh. Threre was a bus every hour or so, so leaving Essaouira would not be a problem. We noted the times and then got a petit taxi for the town center.

Pete had given us the name of a hotel, Riad al Madina. As usual he had explained nothing about it, but we had read on the bus ride that it was the rather upmarket digs frequented by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane on their passes through this fair city. At least it was a destination to tell the taxi driver. Cars were not allowed in the medina, which was one of its many charms, so we were carried up to one of the gates of the city and told to go in and to the right.

Essaouira was one of the most tranquil and pleasant places we would find in Morocco. The weather all along the coast in late June was pleasantly cool, for one thing. As we walked into the medina, we noticed an Internet cafe on our left, and inside a further gate, there was a pleasant place to take refreshements with outdoor tables spread in the shade of trees, in a small square replete with souvenir shops. We proceeded through another archway into the enclosed medina area. Directly ahead was a square lined with open air cafes and to our left a main pedestrian thoroughfare with a bakery on the corner. This pleasant but busy street led to an intersection not far from which was the Riad Al Medina.

On our way there, we were propositioned, politely, by people informing us of the existence of apartments which we could rent for bon marche. The come-on was low-key for Morocco, the people telling us if we found the hotel too expensive, just keep in mind that there are cheaper places. At the intersection just short of the Riad Al Medina, we finally succumbed to a young man who said his family had several places all over town. I agreed to have a look at one, an apartment for 200 dirhams a night. We were led up a shopping street and into a residential alley, then into a dark corridor and up a stairway. There were noisy kids there reminiscent of our neighbors in Abu Dhabi, who play in the hallway yelling and screaming with no parental control. The apartments were quite large though. The sense of roominess was enhanced by high ceilings, and the lower parts were attractively tiled. There was a kitchen with a poor excuse for a shower and toilet, but the sitting room had several couches which Dusty could use as beds, and there was a master bedroom for Bobbi and I. The only concern was the general state of disrepair of the place and the noise of the kids. We told the family, the ladies of which had all come down, that we'd check at the hotel and come right back. They insisted the hotel would be too expensive, and that if someone else came along, they would rent out the room. I spoke to them in Arabic since the ladies obviously did not speak French, and I said I preferred to look at the hotel, and we'd return directly if we wanted the place, and if they rented it out meantime we could just take another apartment elsewhere. They, and especially the young man, seemed loathe to let us slip through their clutches, but they had no choice but to let us go.

So to make a long story short, we had a look at the hotel. It was a very tastefully pleasant place with rooms on several floors arrayed around a central courtyard. I noticed immediately that the prices were triple that of the apartment, and when we were shown a room, very attractively appointed, it was for three people a bit cramped, with three beds all in one room. My recent experience in Venezuela also taught me to be wary of rooms around courtyards as well, and when we visited later that evening, we indeed found that the music that was so pleasant to diners in the courtyard might be a bit grating to people trying to chill out in their accommodations upstairs. It certainly was a camp spot though, and when I said to everyone that, well, is there any question which to take? This for 700 dirhams or the apartment for 200, like let's go, it's obvious isn't it? And the family sort of looked around and said, well, quality accommodation vs. the noisy kids up the dark stairway? They didn't want to leave.

Matters weren't helped when we ended up back at the apartment with the ladies and the young man, the latter asking us how many nights we wanted the room, and trying to pressure us into taking it for more than one. We were a little constrained though. My unexpected illness had delayed our arrival in Morocco and to meet Glenn in Marrakesh we really needed to get there next day, so we were willing to commit to only one night. I am always, in any event, after long years experience, hesitant to take any room for longer than one night my first night there. You have to see if you can sleep there first. All kinds of unpleasant surprises can occur in the night, and getting out of a room is ten times more difficult than simply renewing a lease in the morning. So I insisted on paying for one night's accommodation.

The ladies were finally out of the room and we were left to ourselves, and Dusty was going into a funk over having turned down the posh Riad Al Medina when there was a knock at the door. It was the young man. He asked me if I could give him something for having found the room for us. I didn't understand this, since he had told me in French that this was his family, so why was he asking me for more money on top of what his family was already getting? I expressed how inappropriate I thought that was and he told me I was not a good man, and suggested that trouble should befall me. This caused me some concern, on top of the concern my wife and son were having on having rejected Peter's suggested place to stay for this dubious accommodation. When the young man went off in a huff, I was particularly concerned that now there was an insider in the household who was decidedly not amenable to our presence there, and so we all shouldered our packs and went upstairs to see if we could get our money back.

The lady of the house came out and asked what the problem was. I asked who the young man was. I quickly found out that he had lied to us; this was not his family, and he was just a common tout from the street. He also had a shop, which gave him a position within the community, so as he wasn't living there, since we were under the protection of the lady and her family, and he wasn't one of the family, it was obvious he would cause us no further problem, and we returned downstairs to take up residence, concerns allayed.

Well, there was one further incident. Dusty complained that at night the bathroom started bubbling at him, but he had the presence of mind to turn the water off. Bobbi and I certainly slept well in our little room.

Essaouira was a lovely little town. It was enclosed by picturesque city walls that had again been used in movie settings, notably Orson Wells's Othello. Up the end of our street, there was an artisan's souk and steps leading up to the ramparts. The crenelations there were set with old cannon, each with the green patina of age. At sunset this was a popular spot, and it was not easy to find a free cannon to climb on and watch the sun sink into the water. The view to the south included the Ile de Mogador which also had a fortification of some sort. Between the ramparts and the Ile de Mogador there lay a harbor with a collection of fish restaurants al fresco, each with a cart full of various fish. Having just eaten a huge fish feast the evening before, these didn't appeal to us. There was a corniche leading out the swath of beach to the southeast. Kids plunged into the water near the harbor, but further along the beach we could see the parachutes being pulled behind boats. We never went out there. As residents of the UAE, beach holidays do not appeal so much.

In the evening, there was an incredibly crowded yet unthreatening market thoroughfare stretching almost from the harbor to the entrance in the walls on the northeast side at Bab Doukkala. The streets there were teeming with people, few of whom paid us any particular interest. The main shopping street was lined with food and clothing stalls and perhaps a souvenir shop or two, but we hardly noticed specifically what was there given the sensory overload. At the end of the street we decided to return by back streets, but these started out dark and residential. Locals warned us away from the huis closes without pestering to guide us, and we soon came back into the familiar parts of town and started looking for places to eat.

Here we had a minor hassle. We stopped to consult our maps and references and as such made stationary targets for people who came up and started suggesting restaurants. One guy suggested "my cousin restaurant" and started us on a genre of joking the rest of our time in Morocco. My cousin shop, my cousin hotel, etc.

We ended up in a place that was once called Chez Tawfiq. It was hard to find because it was no longer called that, and we had to be careful of who we asked for help in finding it. Eventually we went to a storekeeper, someone who couldn't leave his post, but as he was pointing out the way to us a shoe-shine boy offered, over our protests, to take us there. He did, but wanted me only to pause before going in and have my shoes shined. I had to refuse, since I was on my way to dinner. I felt odd about leaving the poor urchin in the street to go into a fancy restaurant without parting with some of my copious spare change, but to give people money in such circumstances creates further problems, so my instinct is to leave things be.

The restaurant was decorated in berber carpets, and the music on the stereo (which played over and over) was excellent Moroccan folk. I did like the music in Morocco. Of all Arab countries, Morocco has the best sounds, in my opinion, possibly from the Berber influence. Other than that the meals were tajine and couscous, which at that point was ok, but already starting to get redundant only the second time we'd had it. The harira soup was excellent, but again, the first of many times we would have it. After some time in Morocco, we all agreed that the predictability of eating there was not one of the country's high points. The tajines were always served piping hot in cone-shaped pottery, but they were the same throughout the country. I never found the delicious lemon chicken dishes I used to enjoy with Bill in 1973 eating on cushions at traditional restaurants hidden away in the old medinas.

Next morning breakfast was a treat. We bought a selection of delicious pastries for a pittance from the corner bakery and took our box of treats to the outdoor cafes where we ordered coffee. While we were eating there, wandering musicians came by and started playing, but they were chased off by our waiter so they moved to the next cafe down, which was ideal for us because we could enjoy their drums and flutes but not be pestered for donations. We made a last call at the Internet cafe and touched base with Glenn and Pete, and then we made our way to the bus station and bought tickets to Marrakesh.

The bus didn't leave for an hour, so we went to the small bar by the bus station to pass time. I ordered an expresso and Bobbi and Dusty played a game of snooker, made comical by frequent sinking of 8-ball and bouncing of cue ball across the barroom floor. Eventually, we ceased entertaining the locals and went to board our bus, a dalipidated rattletrap that took a few uncomfortable hours to reach Marrakesh. On the way, we passed a town with a water-seller who obviously worked to sell water, since there would have been no tourists there. Interesting, and contradictory to what I'd read about the water sellers existing still only by dint of the tourist trade.

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