ESSAOIRA (pronounced esso-where-ah)
The southern coastal town of Essaourira had never been on my itinerary. Even when I heard that there was to be a huge African music festival in Essaouira, my first thought was that the place would be overcrowded, and that most of the budget hotels would probably be booked out- shows I’m getting old, eh? Instead I’d planned to spend my last week in Morocco hiking in the Atlas Mountains and climbing the highest mountain in north Africa, Jebel Toubkal. Such conquests of nature though, will have to wait. The following is an account of my five days in Essaouira during the Gnawa Music Festival of June 2004.
The comfortable Supratours bus glided into Essaouira at about three o’clock. I was travelling with Dane, Natasha, Mike, Bhu, Tully and Nina, all solo backpackers whom I’d befriended in Marakesh. Our first impression was that Essaouira’s mild coastal climate was a welcome change from the blast furnace that was Marakesh. It was windy here though, even the guidebook warned of the strong Atlantic winds, perfect for windsurfing but lousy for sunbathing! Our plan had been to just sleep on the beach for the duration of the festival. We knew that all the hotels in town would be heavily booked, and any establishments that still had available rooms would be charging them out at a premium rate. Besides, we said, it would be fun to just hang out on the beach. We agreed that we’d have to take shifts attending the concerts, with at least two people staying behind at any time guarding everyone’s luggage.
I'll start with Dane because although he's the baby of the group, he always seems to be the one who's in charge of paying our communal bill at restaurants and hotels. He speaks French competently, but with a distinct Australian accent. Dane is from Sydney and misses the gorgeous Australian beaches. He's just come back from a walk around Essaouira, and assures us that we're not missing anything as far as swimming. The water is icy cold and murky, and the wind is whipping us blasts of fine sand. Dane has spent the last five months studying French in Bordeaux, and after Morocco he's off to Senegal and Mali. I've been boring him to tears with stories from my trip across those two countries.
Natasha's a French Canadian, but in spite of that she's actually very pleasant. Natasha is the only native French speaker in the group, so mostly gets lumbered with the task of negotiating us a group discount at restaurants. Sometimes I get Natasha to translate conversations for me, even if I'm not interested in what was said- just to hear her sexy Montreal accent. She said she hasn't really been enjoying Morocco as much as she'd hoped, and when she first arrived in Marakesh, she brought her flight to England forward to this weekend. Now she's found that she's enjoying being in this group environment, and has fallen in love with charming Essaouira, Natasha's gutted that she has to leave the group tomorrow.
No sooner had we collected our backpacks from the bus’ luggage hold than we were approached by touts, offering a range for apartments for rent. The most assertive of all the touts was a young girl, barely in her teens. She spoke perfect English and was very persuasive, but refused to give us any prices, preferring- of course- that we come with her to inspect the apartment first. We told her she was wasting our time, and in the end we had to be quite straightforward to get rid of her. I think it was the blustery conditions that made us suddenly reconsider our plans of sleeping on the beach. Well, no-one actually stood up and said “I’m not sleeping on the beach. Get me an apartment!” but by the same token, no-one rejected the idea of discussing accommodation prospects with the touts. Dane and Bhu accompanied one guy to inspect a nearby apartment, but they returned promptly. The quoted price had mysteriously almost doubled when the boys arrived at the premises. Besides, Bhu said it was located in the middle of a ghetto, a long way from the beach or the medina.
Bhu, from Oakland, California, has also just graduated from University, and is travelling the world to figure out what direction he wants to take with his life. His Mum and Dad were great travellers when they were young, having travelled across Rusia, Central and southern Asia in the early seventies on a budget of a dollar a day. In fact, Bhu is proud to say that his parents were the first tourists in Mongolia since 1945. They have encouraged Bhu to get out and experience the world, and not to make the mistake of just 'getting a job'. So far Bhu is one month into a twelve month voyage of discovery, making his way slowly acrposs Europe to the Middle East. He wants to write and direct plays, and is finding inspiration the more he travels.
Mike is our only Englishman. He's originally from Oxfordshire, but now lives in Bournemouth on the southern coast. Mike is studying product design at university, and has been in Spain studying Spanish for the summer. When I asked him what's been the most interesting thing he's ever designed, he laughed and said he once designed a collapsible surfboard. Mike agrees with me that there are not nearly enough Scandinavian girls travelling here in Morocco.
Finally, Dane, Natasha and myself accompanied another tout to a two bedroom apartment just five minutes walk from both the beach and the medina. It was a neat little place, with a double bed in each bedroom, two long sofas in the lounge, and plenty of floor space throughout. Again, the price jumped by forty percent once we stepped inside. The landlord Ani, the biggest man I’ve seen in this county, was determined that the apartment would fetch him 700 dirham a night during the festival, but we had set ourselves a limit of five hundred. Over a fairly tense half an hour we managed to haggle Ani and his wife back down to a very reasonable price of 550 dirham a night. (There’s ten dirham to the Euro, sixteen to the pound, eight to the US dollar, six to the Aussie dollar. You do the maths.)
Tully is an unusual name. She was christened Natalia, but even her parents call her Tully. Her parents will be glad to see her when she gets back to Sydney in July. Tully's been in London for the last fifteen months on a working holiday, and is ending her overseas adventure with a few months around Europe and Morocco. She had been a little concerned about travelling Morocco alone, and was hoping to meet up with a travel partner while she was in Europe. Lucky for her, there was a fellow Aussie also looking for company.
Tully was in Granada, hoping to find a traval mate for Morocco, and along came Nina, another Australian. Nina says she's from Perth, but Tully and I know that no-one really lives in Perth. For Nina, this is just a one month holiday around Spain, Portugal and Morocco. She quit her job at home, and rented out her house. Of course, I'm trying to encourage her to keep travelling. Hey, that's my job.
Once we’d agreed on the price- on behalf of our friends- the atmosphere instantly eased. We sent the tout back to the bus station to collect our friends. He said he could arrange a man with a wheelbarrow to bring our luggage along for ten dirhams. That sounded fine to us, so we kicked off our shoes and sat down in our new home. Ani’s wife went upstairs to fetch tea and Ani sat down and started telling us rude jokes. He called for his daughter to bring down some Moroccan biscuits. His daughter Sanna was gorgeous, a student teacher and fluent in English, which is very unusual not only for Morocco, but particularly amongst Moroccan women. When my friends saw the way I was looking at young Sanna, they made me promise to “keep away from the landlord’s daughter” reminding me that giant Ani could probably crack coconuts with his bare hands.
Dane went ahead and paid big Ani for the four nights we’d be staying. The plan was that we would all pay Dane back on a day to day basis, according to how many people were sharing the apartment each night. A couple of us- myself included!- didn’t plan to stay the whole four days at that stage. Another of our friends Ariel had come to town on a different bus, and we figured we’d bump into him sooner or later. I wondered if Kevin was in town, and some of the others were also expecting to meet up with friends who might be glad of a cheap place to stay.
Natasha, Dane, Bhu, Mike, Tully, Nina and I went to explore Essaouira. We made our way to the medina, where a huge outdoors stage promised a concert. Inside the walls another big stage was set up at the end of a large open square, and as we wandered the maze of small streets and shops, we stumbled across another small stage in the middle of a shady treed courtyard, surrounded by carpet shops. We walked past rows of shops selling intricately crafted timber furniture, and out onto the ramparts of the city, overlooking the rocky shore. The wind was almost blowing us off the ramparts, and I was silently thankful for our decision not to camp on the beach.
All of us fell instantly in love with Essaouira. The whole town emanated a relaxed, seaside air. Shopkeepers were too relaxed to leap up and grab us as we passed, instead nodding gently and smiling a gentle “Ca va” or “Bienvennue”. The range of products available in the myriad of small shops was equal to anything I’d seen in other cities, and many stores had prices marked, a welcome relief for the haggle-weary traveller. The narrow streets of the medina were clean, and the smell of barbecued brochettes and grilled fish filled the salty air. Music stores on every street boomed with a loud reggae beat, or the wailing and clashing of traditional Gnawa music. Store owners and local kids were drumming an dancingf to the beat. Pedestrians couldn’t help but break into a small dance as they passed. When we sat down for a cup of coffee near the main square, it was agreed unanimously that Essaouira was our favourite city in Morocco.
I felt sad for Natasha. Just before we set off from Marakesh, she had brought forward her departure from Morocco. She hadn’t really been enjoying Morocco as much as she’d hoped, and with her return to Canada fast approaching, she decided to spend her last few days with friends in London instead. Natasha would have only two nights in Essaouira. It was a decision she was fast regretting, as she found herself in such a tight group of like minded travellers, and as Essaouira quickly endeared itself to every one of us.
Night fell and the music started. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it so much. African music has never been a real passion for me, but watching these guys perform live was an entirely different experience. The strange combination of instruments, the frenetic drumming, the wildly energetic dancing, and the everpresent clash of the little handheld symbals characteristic of Gnawa music. Somewhere a glockenspiel joined the fray, and even a didgeridoo, albeit briefly. Someone told me they’d seen Ariel, and a few minutes later I glimpsed him through the crowd. He was happy to join us in our apartment, he didn’t have anywhere booked for the night. He said he’d been speaking to Kevin, and sure enough it wasn’t half an hour before I found myself two rows behind Kevin in the crowd. He had paid for two nights in the nearby Hotel Majestic, but said he’d like to be part of the fun in our little multicultural apartment after that. Staying at the same hotel were Sophie and Esther, the two English girls that Ariel and I had met in Ouarzezate. They also liked the sound of our crowded apartment, so now we were up to eleven people!
Remember Ariel? We met in Ouarzazate a week or so ago. Ariel is American, born in Israel to Uraguayian parents. I don't often meet people who travel in an even less structured way than myself, but Ariel is undoubtedly one of them. He has been on the road for nine months, and has no real plan as to when he'll be heading home. When we caught up with Ariel in the crowd last night, he said that if we hadn't found him, he was just going to go ahead and sleep on the beach somewhere. His parents don't really understand what he's doing. "What do you mean, you don't know where you're staying tomorrow night?" they ask him when he phones home.
Kevin, the Welsh guy I rode into the Sahara with, is also in Essauoira. He's decided to join the fray. He had been staying in a hotel here, but decided our Big Brother house would be more fun. Kevin is starting a round the world trip, but has to stay close to the UK for the moment, as he has a friend's wedding to attend in July.
Kevin was in the company of two stunning young Moroccan girls, Nadia and Sanna, two sisters from Casablanca. Apparently, he’d just met them in a café- why does that never happen to me? Now, one guy with two girls is a recipe for nothing, so I volunteered my services to hold the attention of one of the young ladies. Sanna became my dancing partner, and apart from the fact that she’s thirteen- no, fourteen!- years younger than me, and that we don’t share any common language apart from about twenty words in French, I felt that we were getting along quite well. But those of you who know me, know that I just don’t do dancing. That night I was doing my best, tapping my feet and even clapping to the music or swinging my hips now and then. Sanna was noticeably unimpressed by my moves and either didn’t understand or didn’t appreciate my attempts to explain that although my outward appearance didn’t reveal it, I was dancing like a madman on the inside. I left Kevin with the two girls, and retired to the nearest café, where I bumped into Bhu, Dane and Mike. Ariel turned up looking for Kevin, so I pointed to the section of the crowd where he and the Moroccan sisters were, and suggested that Ariel might like to show Sanna some of his dance moves. As Kevin was quite taken with Nadia, Ariel became Sanna’s date then for the rest of the festival, except for the occasions when he just couldn’t be bothered. At those times, Dane stepped in and kept Kevin company. I should point out that the boys’ relationship with the girls wasn’t as sleazy as it sounds, or as you might imagine. Their dates consisted of coffee, window shopping, hand holding and dancing. This is Morocco, remember.
Although the medina itself was a labyrinth of small streets and dark tunnels, the main area was quite compact, consisting of a dozen or so blocks, packed with cafes and craft shops. It was difficult to walk more than a couple of blocks without running into another member of our household, or some traveller you’d met elsewhere around the country. Over the coming days, Essaouira became like our own private backyard, albeit a backyard that we shared with tens of thousands of other people. We would set up a series of potential meeting times during the day, and in between we’d each do our own thing, in small groups or alone. I think it was on day three that our small band gained another member. A few of us were sitting in a cafe near the beach, and our friend Caroline went to take some photos of the sunset. She was particularly proud of one shot she'd taken- of a guy with a long plaited beard, sitting on the sea wall. When she showed us the shots on her digital camera, Tully and Nina screamed with excitement. The bearded guy was a friend of theirs, who they met in Fez. They ran off to the sea wall, and returned with their friend Vince in tow. Vince was paying 250 dirham a night in a nearby hotel, thankful that he’d even found a bed since the first ten hotels he’d approached were full. Our invitation to join us for about forty dirham a night was too good for Vince to pass up.
The English girls Sophie and Esther have just arrived at our Essaouira apartment, bringing our numbers up to ten, bringing the cost per person down to 55 dirhams each, and taking the title of 'baby' from Dane, since the girls are only nineteen years old. Ariel met them in town this morning, and when he told them about our cool little apartment, they promptly checked out of their hotel and dragged their backpack over here. I first met Sophie and Esther in Ouarzazate the same day I met Ariel. The girls have been teaching English in Er Rachidia since late last year, and will now be the group's official translators, since they're fluent in Arabic- and Arabic seems to open doors here more than French. I'm happy for Mike, because now he has someone to share discussions about Eastenders, Coronation Street and the perfect cup of tea.
So the house has another housemate, Vince from Cork in Ireland. Vince is in Morocco for a few weeks break, before he starts a new job, his first real career job, he says. Vince is a real laugh, and I reckon he'd be even funnier if we could understand anything he said!
All of us had stories of scammers and husslers we’d come across during our respective travels around Morocco. None of us had experienced any situations where we’d felt in danger, but all of us had been tricked or ripped off at least a few times, to varying degrees. The consensus was that these touts, false guides and conmen were a blight on everyone’s Moroccan experience. This was where Essaouira was to really stand out. In the five days that we spent there, not one of us- nor any other backpackers we spoke to- had any negative experiences with the locals. I guess the only exception to this was Ariel, who found someone’s fingers digging around in his pocket during one of the concerts. But that would happen in Australia, America, England or anywhere. For a concert this size, it was surprising that there wasn’t more of it.
The whole atmosphere in Essaouira was peaceful and happy. Dreadlocked rastas rubbed shoulders with well heeled European tourists. Moroccan girls in their traditional headscarves, danced next to sweaty unwashed backpackers. Old men stood with tiny children sitting on their shoulders, clapping and smiling. Next to a palm tree, a young teenage girl danced while her mother watched over her. Shopkeepers sat in front of their shops watching the passing crowd, mostly too comfortable to bother getting up to hassle you as you browsed. Even the concerts themselves seemed to go off without a hitch. Any jostling in the crowd would always be accompanied by a chorus of sincere apologies, and over the five days I could count on one hand the number of drunks I saw. On the first night, we witnessed the most prolific vomitter I’ve ever seen, and on the last night, I was almost bowled over by a drunk who lurched out of a shop doorway, glanced off me and promptly fell heavily onto the ground, where he stayed. In any similar sized event in a western country, that level of inebriation would be the rule, not the exception. Alcohol just isn’t part of the culture here, and it was interesting to see that people just don’t need to get hammered to have fun. Even the eleven of us barely managed to make our way through the twenty-four cans of beer that I had gone to great lengths to procure. That’s got to be a record!
We had the great fortune to meet some wonderful Moroccans at the festival. Nadia and Sanna joined us for coffee or dinner or dancing every day. Tully and Nina met a few young guys in the crowd, and on the third night of the festival, Mike, Nina and I joined them on the beach for some music and laughter. Halim and Ewness were singing and playing guitar and a couple of their friends accompanied, or simply tapped their feet in tune. The next night, after Bob Marley’s old band The Wailers closed the four day festival, Halim and Ewness invited all of us back to their rooftop for a jam. That night was the highlight of my Essaouira experience, and in fact and in fact on a cultural, personal and interpersonal level it was a high point of my travels so far. Halim, Ewness, Kalid, and Felix- and their two huge friends whose names I never caught- played guitar, drummed, and sang. Felix taught a few of us how to play drums, and Bhu and Vince both took turns on guitar. Kalid kept precise percussion by clacking two cassette cases together.
The feeling of being invited to these guys’ home, with nothing in it for them but the experience of sharing their lives, was typical of what this website is supposed to be all about. As I looked at the faces of my fellow backpackers, it was obvious that everyone was feeling similar sentiments to me. This was the perfect example of international hospitality. These guys had invited us into their lives with no thought of personal gain, for no reason other than to enjoy each other’s company, and experiences like that are worth a thousand photos of the Arc De Triomphe.
I wondered what the neighbours could be thinking with fourteen people drumming, strumming, singing, clapping and laughing, right outside their windows. When a flying tajine pot hurled from an adjacent rooftop crashed onto the tiles next to us, I got the impression that the neighbours had had enough. The fourteen of us crammed into the musicians' tiny rooftop room, where the festivities continued at the same volume, out of reach of ceramic missiles. When Halim did venture outside to retrieve his cigarettes, he took the precaution of wearing a saucepan on his head. None of us wanted to leave, but like all good things, the evening had to come to an end. The sun would be up in a couple of hours, and it had been a big day. Halim and a couple of his huge mates walked us to the walls of the medina, and we arranged to meet them the following evening.
When we met the next day, it was dinner time and we were all hungry. It was potentially our last night all together, before some people started breaking off to continue their travels. We thought it only fitting that we enjoy a decent last supper together. And this is where it gets funny. In fact, if Bhu was telling this story, he would be wetting his pants by about now. With Nadia and Sanna in tow, and also Halim, Ewness and their friend Kalid, we made a group of about sixteen. We’d walked past a few nice looking restaurants, but they were all just a little more expensive than we’d anticipated. We didn’t think it was very fair to invite the Moroccan guys to join us for dinner, and then make them eat at some place they couldn’t afford. Finally, I asked Halim if he could recommend any place.
“What sort of place you want?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Just somewhere cheap, I guess” I told him, and he smiled.
“Ah, you want cheap? Follow me.” And the group of us followed Halim and his mates as they busteld through the dark lanes. At the end of a narrow street, dim light from a small doorway beckoned us. Inside was a tiny kitchen, and two long tables with wooden bench seats. On the cooker were three old blackened pots. We filed in and took our place at the first table, much to the open mouthed astonishment of the chef and the two old men at the second table. The chef showed me what was available; one pot was full of yellow beans, one had some sort of meat stew and the last one a lentil mixture, was almost empty. Choosing from a menu was a decision that we were relieved of. Each of us was served a plateful of beans and meat stew, and baskets of warm bread were set out along the table. That was when we inspected the strange looking pieces of meat in the stew. I asked Halim what part of the animal this meat came from. The stomach, he told me, and then he looked concerned. This kitchen had been his recommendation, and he’d feel terrible if we weren’t happy with the food. I assured him that it was fine, that anyone who didn’t like trip would just push it to the side and eat the lovely buttery beans. That was all of us!
After we’d eaten our beans and devoured a second order of fresh bread, there were a dozen plates on the table, each with a small pile of tripe neatly arranged on the side. Tea was ordered, and Bhu beckoned for me to step outside with him. As soon as we’d stepped through the doorway, Bhu creased over with laughter. It took him a while to tell me what he was laughing about. I’d been sitting at the opposite end of the table from him, and it seems I’d missed out on something. He’d been sitting next to Kevin and Ariel and the two Morrocan girls, Nadia and Sanna. Apparently, a backstreet bowl of beans and tripe wasn’t what the girls had expected when they accepted a dinner invitation from a Welshman and an American. Bhu said that the looks on the girls’ faces, and the tone of the conversation between them- even though in unintelligible Arabic- was hilarious. That became a standing joke between Bhu and Kevin and Ariel- “You guys sure know how to show a girl a good time! Champagne and caviar? Why would you, when you can treat them to an eighty cent bowl of tripe and beans!”
The next night was our last night in Essaouira. With the exception of Nina, we all called an early night, and sat around in our apartment talking and finishing off the last of our carton of Flag Special beer. We’d had to move upstairs into a smaller one bedroom apartment, since our original pad had been prebooked. That meant Sophie and Esther had the only bed, Mike, Dane, and Bhu slept on the bedroom floor, Kevin, Ariel and Tully slept in the tiny loungeroom, and Vince and I bunked down on the kitchen floor. There was just enough space left in the hallway- next to our eleven backpacks- for Nina. As I fell asleep that night, I smiled to myself, knowing that I had been fortunate to experience something really special, honoured to have these people in my life, and to have become part of theirs. The next day, we all parted ways and continued on our individual travels, but the memories of Essaouira will stay with me forever.