From The Hammam To the Market

Friday, March 27.

Before I hit the hammam (with tour-mate Sally), I head over to a nearby internet cafe.

I haven’t checked my e-mail for days. And (sadly) it’s feels weird. It should feel liberating. But instead it’s almost as if my brain’s a goldfish -it’s  finally used to having its own bowl with fewer fish around, and now it’s been pulled out of its solitude and dunked into that huge tank with schools and schools of other fish it left behind almost two weeks earlier.

This feeling takes hold as I open my e-mail and read about the imminent  job cuts announced at my workplace while I’ve been away.

I also get an e-mail from my long-time friend, who also happens to work in the same building, in another department. Her contract wasn’t renewed, so she’s out of work.

I return to the riad a little sobered and a bit sideways,  and hurriedly pack my backpack for our trip later in the afternoon to Marrakech.

I rush downstairs after to meet Sally and a young woman from the hammam. We walk down the main street nearest to the water and catch a cab that whisks us away from the old part of the city to the more modern, suburban part less than 10 minutes away.

We’re dropped off in front of a nondescript block of white buildings where the hammam is located. Once inside, it’s another matter.

We start with one-hour, full body massages. We assume we’d be getting these AFTER the hammam. But whatever – it’s absolutely awesome. 

Following this, we enter a small, tiled, bathing room. We each lie on adjacent heaed slabs, as a woman (the one who gives me my massage) individually washes, exfoliates, and soaps our bodies, covers us in scented paste, rinses us and washes our hair.

We feel like we’re five years old again. But it’s a worthwhile experience that leaves us feeling relaxed and understandably dazed.

We’re completely mellowed by the time we head back out into the harsh sunlight, grab a taxi and return back to Essaouira’s main square, where we both have some well-deserved gelati.

We return to the riad, collect our things and load them into the carts of porters waiting by the front entrance. We’re taken to the bus depot, where we wait for our bus to arrive, then cram into the first 10 seats once it arrives.

It’s a packed bus on the way to Marrakech, but I’m feeling too dopey to notice. When I’m not trying to record trip details into my travel diary, I’m fast asleep.

We pull into Marrakech ’round 6:30 p.m. The sun has started to fade; everything seems sepia-toned and dusty. It looks like it’s about to rain.

And the streets are congested – cars and scooters going every which way. Men on scooters. Young women on scooters – probably the most I’ve seen all trip.

Getting off the bus and walking towards our accommodations, we feel raindrops spordically pelting us; I hope it holds off until we can take shelter.

morocco-march-2009-5301Our hotel isn’t in the medina –  where I assume most travellers and tourists would stay to get “the authentic Moroccan experience” – but in the newer part of town, in a hotel about two minutes’ walk from the train station.

For the second – and final – time, I get my own room. Pros: big bed, clean towels, a bathtub complete with towels, a shower rack and those little wrapped soaps, a TV and a shower all to myself.

Cons: the big neon sign right outside my window. Meh. You can’t win ’em all.

(While I’m casing my room, tour-mates Nikki and Alex – who’re right next door – apparently look our their windows and witness an accident involving a woman hit by a car. I’ve no idea how the situation resolved itself, but I got the impression the woman was all right.)

morocco-march-2009-531For dinner, the group walks from the hotel to the Djemaa el-Fna, the square and marketplace within the walls of the old city – the beating heart of the district.

 There are all sorts of people hawking their wares; street performers galore during most parts of the day and night; and – in the evening, when we go – there are food stands lined up beside and across from one another, with benches to sit at and eat.

We feel a few droplets of rain as we approach the food stands; just after we find stand #42 and take our seats, the heavens just open up. The rain pelts the ground, forming huge puddles under the benches and pooling in the plastic tarps above. The skies even toss down some hailstones for good measure.

morocco-march-2009-535There is no set meal. All we do is sample dish after dish after dish … plates of salty fries, sizeable shrimp, salad, grilled eggplant (or aubergine, as Alex would say to correct me, ’cause that’s the British way 😉 ), vegetarian coucous, meat skewers, pastilla … 

I didn’t think it would fill me, but I am surprisingly stuffed by the end of it.

Following dinner (which includes the guy who runs the stand hovering over us for tips), we’re given a bit of time to explore. 

From the time we congregate near the juice stands, I finally experience the in-your-face nature of the market. It’s almost a bit too much, even on a full stomach.

We pass by aggressive henna ladies calling out for a sale, and vendors in their stalls farther away saying things like, “Hello! Australia! Hello, Obama! Rasta!”

(Oh NO he didn’t.)

Out in the main square, people are gathered around various dimly-lit performers, whether they were musicians, snake charmers, or just odd witch-doctor types with even odder things on display … all hoping to get your attention, and your money. This includes the odd pickpocket spotted nearby, trying to blend in with the crowds watching the performances.

We leave the Djemaa el-Fna and are back at the hotel by 10:30 p.m. It’s been a long day. And we’ve got just one more left.

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Essa-weird-a

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.

Goodbye Mountains, Hello Seaside!

morocco-march-2009-477

We survive The Night of The Howling Wind in one piece.

The following morning, there’s an option to go on a guide-led hike through the area, towards a huge, white painted rock, which locals are said to visit to make wishes (especially those for fertility/virility). It’s got nothing to do with Islam; rather, it’s a local thing.

In any case, I’m still feeling rotten because of my cold, so I opt out of it. So do pretty much all of us “youngsters”, except for Nonnie. I hang out in bed until about 8:30 a.m., when I eventually get up. 

After breakfast, I go and chill out on the sunny part of the terrace, while the sunshine lasts … and I catch sight of one of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen. It takes me a few seconds to realize that the white wispy bit of mist I’m seeing is actually a CLOUD making its way past the peak.  It really is a sight to behold.

Eventually, us stragglers get our collective acts together and leave the gite to take a walk into the nearby village.

morocco-march-2009-4902We wind our way around, up and down makeshift steps, passing locals, stopping here and there.

We come to a river, which we crossing by hopping along huge rocks, with the help of some cute local school-aged village girls. (I almost fall into the water, if not for one of the girls, who holds my hand as I struggle to regain my balance.)

Once on the other side, tour-mate Grace takes over from Will to play tour guide; her version of things are way more entertaining.

We return from our walk just as the others – tour-mates Sally, Cathy and Colin – come back from theirs.

We have one last meal – a lovely lunch – out on the sunny terrace, say goodbye to our host family and make the 45-minute trek back down into the village to collect our things.

We leave Imlil and the mountains behind …

morocco-march-2009-4941

… And arrive in the seaside town of Essaouira around late-afternoon. It takes a few minutes to re-adjust to the warmer temperature. The seagulls cry in the distance.

I have been waiting to get here for days.

Sadly, we part ways with our awesome driver Abdul. We all chip in to give him a generous tip before leaving the minibus one last time.

Local men line the sidewalk, standing by big empty carts, waiting to lug our bags (for a small fee) from the drop-off point to the riad where we’re staying.

It’s not far at all – it’s literally a five-minute walk into the walls of the older part of town. And the place has got character – nice rooms, lots of mosaic tile – cute all round. And from the looks of things, it’s a family-run business. 

We also have company, as it turns out. Trip leader Will’s work-mate and friend – nicknamed Simo – happens to be in town, in our riad, for a few days before his next job.

From the moment he calls me “rasta”, I can’t decide whether he’s irritating or entertaining. Either way, he’s already been drinking, which could make for an interesting evening.

Later when we’ve all freshened up, we head out to a place nearby for dinner – this French-influenced restaurant. Expecting a little European flare with my Moroccan food, I’m a bit disappointed when I sink my knife and fork into a much-craved pastilla. What a letdown! It’s SO BLAND. The one I first had in Meknes was LOADS better. (Must be the chicken.)

We have our after-dinner drinks at another place close by – the rooftop patio of Taros , this huge, multi-level restaurant/café/bar. A live band is playing Gnaoua music (also spelled Gnawa), which is unlike anything I’ve heard so far on our travels. It’s not heavy on the base, but rather kind of light, with a fast rhythm – even a bit hypnotic.

Between the white wine I share with Nonnie and Cathy, and the rosé I help Alex finish, I’m unsure of how well the night will end.

But luckily for me, I have absolutely no trouble sleeping.