morocco-march-2009-498Thursday, March 26.

My day in Essaouira certainly doesn’t start out the way I expect.

I hear crying as I walk into the ground-floor eating area for breakfast.

The grandfather of one of my tour-mates – who fell ill while she was away – has died. She’s understandably devastated and sobbing uncontrollably.

I don’t know what it is … perhaps it’s my own fatigue, my slightly weakened immune system, or even my thoughts of my own parents, which trigger my sudden thoughts of the realization of their mortality.  But I’m overwhelmed.

At first, my heart just goes out to her. Then, I feel my eyes water. Then a lump forms in my throat.

And finally Alex – sitting across from me at breakfast – looks at my face and says, “Are you okay?”

“Don’t say it!” I rasp, the tears rolling down face. Too late. I’m sobbing within seconds. Nobody knows what’s wrong with me. A few people seem to think I’VE lost a loved one, the way I’m crying.

Until now, I’ve NEVER, EVER reacted that way at the news of an acquaintance’s loss of a loved one – especially one I’ve just met. 

(I still feel like a complete jackass when I think about what happened. But perhaps it’s some weird psychic reaction; unbeknownst to me, my mom back home is suffering from a nasty flu.)

I eventually stop crying, but my eyes are still watering under my sunglasses as we gather near the entrance of the riad for our walking tour of Essaouira.

Our guide for today is Hassan, a slight, moustachioed man with glasses. He takes us out onto the main drag – Avenue Istiqlal – through the gate and out by the ports.

Seagulls are all over the place – flying overhead, swooping down, their cries echoing through the air. Rows of empty blue fishing boats bob in the water.

We morocco-march-2009-515wind our way through the back streets of the old town and Essaouira’s mellah (Jewish quarter). 

I am taken by the brilliant blue colour of a lot of the doorways we pass by. It would certainly be hard to confuse this city with any other.

We also pas through the old fortification by the water. We see the cannons lined up by the wall, their countries discernable by the various insignias.

A local woman stands nearby, selling small paintings and various other tourist wares. Close by her feet, about a half-dozen chicks, dyed different colours, hop about amongst themselves. A cute little hot dog lies not too far away, trying to take a nap.

morocco-march-2009-527We head back into the old walled part of the town, going through the souks. We see spices, colourful plates, catches of the day laid out at the fish market.

A merchant tries to get me to buy some spices. He ends up rubbing some amber on my arm and talking me into taking a clay pumice from him, for free.

Hassan also takes us to a woodworking shop, where an older man shows us a table made of thuya wood. We also see various boxes, game sets, bowls, etc, in the adjoining gift shop.

We also head into a jewellery shop, where people young and old are working on all sorts of pieces. In the gift shop, I finally find my Hand of Fatima charm (a bit smaller than I hope, but it’ll do), and pick up two more as souvenirs for friends.

Our tour ends after Hassan shows us what’s apparently the biggest ficus tree in Morocco.

The majority of us then head back into the old part of Essaouira, and, after getting a little lost, we find this tiny square with a restaurant.

But not just any restaurant. It’s a Mexican/burger joint, run by three ex-patriate Brits. Go figure. In any case, I break with the culture experience and have a burger with fries. While I’ve eaten tajine and couscous with no complaint over the last week and a half … the burger? SO. GOOD.

Upon returning to the hotel, we decide what to do next. The others plan on bumming around the souks or hanging out for the afternoon.

My goal for today was to spend the afternoon at the hammam. But given the fact I’m bordering on entering a food coma, I reckon that’s not a good idea. Plus, Will says, I can always arrange it for tomorrow morning.

So I end up doing something I never thought I would: I ride a quad bike (better known here as an ATV).

I’ve never ridden one before in my entire life, and before now, haven’t really had the urge to. But Will wants to try it out. And Alex and Grace are both interested. So I figure, what the hey?

Make no mistake – I’m nervous on the car ride over, when we pull into the garage in a nondescript suburban area, and most definitely as we’re standing in front of one of the parked quad bikes, as our bike “expert” gives us the 45-second lesson on how to operate the vehicle.

I’m sure the whole process is unbelieveably lax, sketchy, and maybe not entirely safe. (I mean, in Canada, don’t we usually need some sort of licence to operate one of these things?)

At any rate, we hop on and follow our fearless leader (whose name I still don’t know to this day) as he navigates our group down the street, through traffic, through a dry, dusty, construction site, over some garbage-covered brush, and then – FINALLY – along the beach.

When I’m not getting stuck in the odd dune and constantly trailing behind the others, I’m zipping along the sand, breeze on my face, seafoam rolling up along the water’s edge.

I think we were on those things for a good 90 minutes. And by the time we return to the bike garage, our faces and fronts are COMPLETELY covered with a fine layer of sand and dirt.

Mmmm. Quad bikes.

Even more mmmmm? Gelati. Which is what we had as a reward such a fun afternoon, stopping off at the parlour in the big open square.

Fast-forward to dinnertime … We head out to this restaurant, which is definitely more French than Moroccan, run by this big burly woman with badly-applied makeup and frizzy hair.

It also includes, of all things, a magician for our dinnertime entertainment. Named “Magic Youssef”, the young-looking wizard with the high-pitched voice goes from table to table showing patrons sleight of hand and card tricks. (His signature lines are, “Just one … just this one …” and “Brrrring!” whenever he makes something happen.) Tour-mate Amelia tries her hand at fooling Magic Youssef with a couple card tricks of her own. But he kind of spoils it.

Dinner, however, is leaps and bounds better than the night before. I have some monkfish in a wonderful cream sauce. Tasty!

After-dinner drinks are at this place next to Taros (where we were the night before). The rooftop, save for the staff, is completely deserted. A couple of musicians start playing for us, but walk away when we’re not paying them enough attention. So Will has to sweet-talk them into coming back and playing a couple songs that we request. It was really too cheesy.

We stop for more gelati on the way back to the hotel (seriously, there is no such thing as too much gelati!), and once there, we hang out for a while; Alex, Colin, and Will and I go to the roof, while the others (including Simo) hang out in the lounge, smoking shisha.

On the roof, we stand in the corner, away from the laundry still hanging from clotheslines. It’s dark, except for the lights reflecting from other buildings. And it’s anything but quiet. Aside from our chatter, the seagulls are zipping around above us, squawking.

Somehow, despite all the photos I’ve taken of in this city, it’s this last image at night – only in my mind’s eye – that reminds me most of Essaouira.

And it’s just perfect.

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