Sunday, March 15, 2015

Essaouira and Oualidia

We were a little lost as to where to go next. The kids were sick of driving and most of our top choices were a long way away. I think it was Frances's idea to go back to Marrakech which makes a great starting point for getting to the coast because all good roads lead to Marrakech. It also meant that we could take the road through the Tizi n' Test pass, a spectacular switchback road through the High Atlas mountains which we'd been eyeing since we first decided to come to Morocco.

We hit the road early and the road was lovely, fresh tarmac through groves. There was almost no one on the road. We'd chatted with an English couple at the riad who had just come this way and said they'd only met four cars on the whole stretch.

The road soon started to go vertical and the tarmac pretty much fell away. Two lanes became one and a half and then one as we worked our way up the mountainside. The sheer drops off the side were pretty nerve-wracking and we were pretty damned happy to have the road pretty much to ourselves. We only had to pass a couple of times —a grand taxi and big truck. Wil craned his head to the left and me to the right hoping against hope that someone wasn't going to come flying around the corner. The nasty condition of the road was obviously having an impact on the volume of traffic because the two or three tourist caf├ęs at the lookouts were shuttered. Like much of what we've seen in Morocco, there seems to be money for new construction but no money to maintain the infrastructure once it's in place. In many towns we've seen long stretches of very grand, elaborate streetlights, mysterious towrering pink cob gates on either the side of the highway to welcome you to something only the writing is gone and they're falling apart. The street lights are missing all the metal plates that keep the wires hidden, the pavement in the big cities is in pieces, making it all a bit of an obstacle course.

As everywhere, the countryside is dotted with herds and their shepherds. One man was out with his large flock and two teenage boys in the early morning of a school day. I think what we'd talked to the kids about — about many people not having the means to go to school after grade 6 started to sink in. Several kilometres later we passed a huge group of high school students standing around and laughing, carefree, outside their school. They were probably the classmates of those two boys — and all the other kids in the country who can't afford to be in school.

We make it back to Marrakech, finding our way around without a hiccup this time. We spent the afternoon walking around the souk while Henri slept off a fever back at the riad. It was more familiar the second time but no less exotic. We are instantly struck by how many more tourists are here this week than last. So many of the stands are selling identical wares. No wonder it is so incredibly competitive. My favourite stall was a woman sitting at a typewriter with a client sitting beside her dictating. In a country with so much illiteracy, services like hers must be invaluable. I couldn't help but think of the stories she must have collected over the years (I'm writing the screenplay, don't even think it!!). Shop owners sit in the passages, sipping mint tea or playing a hand of cards. They chew the fat or good-naturedly bicker with the shop owners across the alley.

We go back to the riad and get Henri for dinner. We all decide that we should eat in Jama el Fna, knowing what we know now. We wander around, taking our time to assess the clientele and appearance of the food on the tables — waving away the constant assault of menus — and settle on #31. We get greeted like old friends and whisked past the stand into a long line of benches and tables. We have a wonderful view of the cooking station. You would never suspect that this square, a heaving mass of mobile restaurants at night, is a wide open, empty square by day. This stand would make a boatbuilder jealous — a stackable, foldable restaurant in a four by ten foot wheeled cart. There is a deep frying station for french fries, a grill for the little chains of sausages manned by a man with asbestos fingers who flips them with his bare fingers, a grill for the brochettes, one for the vegetables, a little man who stands at the narrow end of the stall opening up round breads, pouring in a splash of tomato salsa and throwing in a pile of merguez which he cuts into pieces with scissors inside the bread and, of course, the man at the till. Wil points to a heavy, aproned man in his seventies who lumbers over for a sandwich. We wonder at how many nights & years he's been coming to work in the Jama el Fna. Scurrying around all the guys on the grill are the waiters. Six or more men who hustle people to the tables and get the orders up. There is also a young runner who goes to pick up drinks if the fridge runs dry or to get change. Every once in a while a man wanders off with a bucket of dirty dishes and comes back with a bucket of clean.

As we chow down on our amazingly flavourful meal I start wondering about where the dishes are going and see a little box a ways off that's closed on three sides where the dishes are deposited and retrieved. When our meal is over I head over to have a look and find it empty, the aproned man with the sandwich is sitting on a low stool right outside, calmly munching away.

In the morning we head east to the coast through rolling plains. We share the road with tour busses and motor homes which makes us wonder whether we've charted the right course. Our destination is Essaouira, a fishing village that is now a popular beach and resort town on the Atlantic.

All along the road are signs for women's collectives selling argan oil and the groves of trees stretch off into the distance. They really are beautiful trees. Like a thick trunked ficus or a bushy apple tree. We'd read in the guidebooks that the local goats sometimes climbed the limbs to get at the nuts. Wil and I were keeping our eyes peeled but we weren't very hopeful. The busses pulled over on the the side of the road tipped us off. That, and the huge crowd of people with cameras held in front of them, all pointing at one tree — a tree that very conveniently couldn't have been closer to the road that had SO obviously been planted with goats that stood awkwardly on branches looking incredibly uncomfortable and unnatural and in no mood to munch on argan nuts. The goat herd stood by, no doubt in case any of them fell or perhaps to take them down for a snack once the tour bus had moved on.

We pulled into Essaouira right outside the medina and went for a stroll. A small town chock-a-block with tourists but lovely all the same. The volume and caliber of tourists is a bit of a shock to the system — lots of day trippers in groups from marrakech, lots of people who don't even make the effort to say thank you in arabic. The medina is a maze of alleys through gorgeous porticos leading in a million different directions. I think we were suffering from souk fatigue however as all the kids wanted to do was eat. We found a lovely little restaurant tucked into an alley. The place was minuscule. Along each wall were two benches for two and two little tables not big enough to accommodate two place settings, with a matching bench and table along the back. Between the tables was just enough room for the owner/chef to serve the tables. We took three of the tables and waited for the owner's daughter, obviously on her lunch break from school, to write the day's menu on the chalkboard. As luck would have it they'd been closed for a week and had just reopened this very minute. We ordered up our best meal in Morocco. Fresh fish cooked to perfection and homemade gnocchi and pasta. As we were finishing our starters we were joined by a family of five. We had to do a little shifting of benches for everyone to fit. The mother and I shared a table and we ended up chatting about the usual. They had recently moved to Morocco from the south of France and were trying to make a go of it here. We talked homeschooling, moving to the country, having to reinvent one's career to live a different sort of life. The chat could have lasted 'til dinner but we had things to see and said goodbye.

We walked down the port to see the fish market, a string of fishermen standing behind tables with their shiny catches laid out before them. The seagulls screamed overhead, the cats skulked and housewives shopped around. We moved on to the other pier and the boatbuilders at work on huge and small skeletons of half-built vessels. I poked my head through one of the gates and talked to one of the builders about the one he was working on. The ribs of the boat were doubled-up 3 x 5s of eucalyptus which looked as though they'd been hacked into shape with a axe. The planking was all walnut, beautiful inch and a half thick cross-sections of trees out of which he cut the sizes he needed. The planking was about half-way up to the gunwales and he had big blocks of wood nailed into the ribs and was using triangular wedges of wood to squeeze the planking tight — the same way we get warped wood floors or decks to straighten out. I asked him how long he'd been at it and he answered thirty years. How long to finish the boat, I meant. A year, he said. I'd have been more than happy to spend the day walking around the boat and asking questions but the kids wanted to move on.

The kids had a swim at the hotel and we went into the basement for a little hammam action. I've never been a fan of steam baths or saunas but we went down into the bowels of the building to see what it was all about. We wandered around in the haze of steam going through a chain of rooms. It was all a bit underwhelming until Wil opened a door we hadn't seen. He walked in and disappeared in a cloud of steam. I mean literally disappeared. We all went in and fumbled around finding places to sit/lie down on the benches around the edges of the room. The kids messed around with some water at one end but I have no idea what they were doing. It was hot enough for me right beside the door (if I left it open a crack). We all tried to take it easy and I tried to relax into the feeling of not being able to breathe this dense, wet air. You can probably guess that I didn't last very long.

The hammam got Henri's fever kicking again so he hung back and slept while the rest of us went to dinner at a fabulous little hole in the wall. Decorated in Marrakesh meets the Santropole. Little rooms with a table or two, crazy collection of art and retro furnishings scattered artfully about and a killer menu. We ate like kings and enjoyed our first bottle of wine of the trip.

We walk through the medina. Mothers tug their very small kids along. Anyone over five seems to be in a small pack, running a bit wild and loving it. They have so much more freedom than the kids at home. Vendors stand over steaming vats and pull out lima and garbanzo beans for sale. On our walk home from the medina we pass a young couple on a date — our first of the trip. It was so sweet to see them doing the dance of early days romance, a time that is so lovely and innocent and natural and, from what we've seen in the public domain, completely absent here. Maybe it's just my cultural bias but I can't help thinking that this is a loss for everyone. I imagine that young man's thrill when he gets to see the girl's hair for the first time but, aside from that, I can't see the benefits of keeping the sexes apart.

Henri is happy for the big plate of pasta we bring home which he polishes off before falling back asleep.

The next morning we hang out for a while and then hit the coastal road toward Casablanca. The beach appears and disappears on our left. For twenty kilometres we pass horse cart after mule cart after donkey, all of them hauling vast quantities of greenery in the same direction. Along the road are piles of feedbags stuffed with more greenery, apparently waiting to be picked up by someone. Gone are the cob walls, everything is chalky stone. Pale pink and white craggy rocks that look as friendly as pumice. There are piles of rocks for fences, piles of rocks to mark the corners of fields and every house is made of rock. There is next to no soil. It's like a pale moonscape. The few fields there are are abloom in red poppies or barley. Swallows divebomb the road. The carts are carrying double the people they are designed to carry. Every man in the countryside is going somewhere.

We soon find out. It's the farmer's market — which, in Morocco, is not well-heeled locavores with their recycled bags looking for organic produce, it is a market for farmers. In a field on the left are trucks carrying a load of straw that towers above them and hangs out perilously by several feet on the front, sides and back. On the right side of the road are a long string of donkeys, horses and mules with one leg tied to an upended cart. Many with their heads busily buried in feedbags on the carts.

The road swerves toward the shore and back again. The beaches become cliffs and bluffs and dramatic. The water is an enticing pale green. The whole view soon disappears in a smoggy cloud as we first pass a huge sardine factory and then chemical and cement plants spewing nastiness into the air. Past the plants and the haze clears as we pull into Oualidia, a town known for its oysters.

We stop for a quick lunch and a walk down to the beach where the fishermen are coming in with their catch. On our way down we are approached by half dozen men on bikes with little plastic boxes on the back filled with inky black urchins, still wriggling shrimp, sole, etc. Next time we come to Morocco we pack a hibachi! On the beach are a few plastic tables and chairs with a man on the barbecue serving up lunch to a bunch of men in suits. We kick ourselves for eating at the bloody restaurant.

We sit and watch the fishermen pull out their boats. After some young man hauls out the motor and carries it up the beach over his shoulder, they turn the stern toward the beach and argue. Then they unload the catch, in this case a whole lot of crab in nets which the young bucks haul up the beach. Then they insert a very long log through a loop above the stern and another in a loop in front of the bow. They stand beside each other putting a shoulder under the log, wait for the right wave and lift. Then they stop and argue. Then they lift again and stop to argue. They argue some more and seem to decide it's not working. There's an incredible amount of shouting and what looks like a nazi salute with palm upturned followed by flicking in dismissal and more shouting. I have to restrain myself not to laugh out loud. Throw one woman into the mix, I thought, and she'd have them sorted. And there wouldn't be nearly as much posturing and macho bull. Another boat pulls into the harbour and the first group decides to wait for it to come in so the three backs in the second boat can lighten the load. There are more than a dozen boats already parked on the beach which leaves me wondering whether they go through this every time. It seems to me they would know by now how many men it takes to lift this boat which is identical in every way, except in name, to every other boat on the beach. With the help of the other three, they finally manage to get the first boat up. We didn't stick around for number two.

On to Casablanca.

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