30 November 2011

Day 48: Essaouira...Part 2

After a good night's sleep we wander around the medina once again, looking at the various items for sale. There is nothing more we really want to buy, although it is interesting just to watch people as they go about their everyday lives, women doing their shopping for meat and vegetables, beggars meandering through the crowds on the lookout for a generous soul, children chasing each other in and out of puddles newly formed by men cleaning their shop fronts with buckets of water, dogs sleeping in the middle of pavements under the hot African sun. One word to describe this scene - LIFE - and it is here in abundance!

View over the town

Looking out to sea from the Skala (fort)

The medina

Everyone comes out for a stroll late afternoon

cleverly painted boat

Blue fishing boats at the port

We've decided today to take a look at the fishing port as Essaouira is renowned for its huge trawlers and small fishing boats which between them catch enough fish to be shipped all over the country of Morocco. This is indeed a busy old place. We meet a fisherman named Hassan who has been fishing in these small blue boats that line the port for about 40 years now, and he takes us on a tour of the port explaining what is happening as we see it. We are very privileged as he takes us to the areas that tourists never see - he explains to us the different types of nets used for catching different fish, he tells us about the joys of eating Conger Eel in a tagine, how the hooks are baited before leaving the port and arranged around the outside of boxes so as not to get tangled up...but most importantly he explains how the port is the heart and soul of Essaouira and how in recent years investors wanted to make the port into a marina rather than a working port - this proposal was fortunately declined. Later we watch the trawlers coming in. Hassan tells us when they are still quite a distance away that the catch is good - he knows because of the depth of the boat as it glides through the water and by the sheer number of seagulls that follow the boat to the shore. Listening to Hassan and watching the scenes before me reminds me of Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea' - this man too is a seasoned fisherman who know the trade like the back of his weather-beaten hand. Then he shows us the large boats that have recently been battered by storms. Armies of men are aboard, some welding, many with hammers - all trying to ensure that these huge vessels will be fit once again for duty. There is no fancy machinery, just plain hard graft from these men day after day. They know this is their only chance of a livelihood.

Trawlers and small fishing boats

Catching crabs

Mending nets

Life at the port

The oldest boat in the port

Lazy dog lying on the nets

Waiting for the trawler

The trawler coming in surrounded by seagulls

Locals sell some of the fish

...seagulls watch...

fish heads await the seagulls

...fighting for the spoils

fish are packed in ice and loaded on lorries for shipping

After a very interesting day out where we have gained a new insight into the fishing industry in Essaouira, it is time for an early night.

Unfortunately, Mart is suffering from a bout of food poisoning so we're heading off home this morning, a little earlier than anticipated. A walk along the lovely sandy beach beckons but he is just too ill, so reluctantly we decide we will just have to come back another time...it's a hard life! On the way back, however, we manage just to get one photo of the renowned Argan goats, so called because they climb the Argan trees to eat the nuts. I am amazed to spot this scene at the side of the road. As we stop the car, a little girl comes running to us holding a baby goat in her arms and asking for money - she is obviously used to doing this, and of course people give her money. We are just about to do the same when I suddenly realise there's something strange about this scene - you never see goats just standing on these trees, they are always eating the leaves and nuts - but these ones are just standing there staring at us. It dawns on me that the goats have either been tied to the tree or are in fact stuffed ones and not real at all! Cheeky Moroccans, some of them will do anything for a few dirhams!!!!

Real or stuffed? You decide......

Day 47: Essaouira...Part 1

Have been watching the weather forecast closely for the last week or so - not that it's been very encouraging - in fact we've had really bad weather - rain, high winds, storms - but today, it promises, is the day it all changes! On the basis of that we have booked two nights B&B in the coastal town of Essaouira.

It's about 10.30am by the time we leave and after a few hours of travelling we reach the sea. I love the sea. Somehow it invigorates me and gives me a deep sense of calm and joy. As we approach Essaouira we stop at a viewpoint and are immediately accosted by a young man who dangles keys in front of our eyes. I forgot that this is often how people book apartments here - they just turn up and somebody is always at this stop-off point offering keys to apartments for rent. We have already booked a room in a riad (traditional moroccan house with an inner courtyard), so we head off.

Within 15 minutes we arrive at the riad and are greeted with a traditional glass of mint tea, closely followed by being clambered all over by a tiny white kitten and slobbered upon by a huge dog, not dissimilar to a Boxer; Snoop is his name! We are then shown to our room. Nobody here speaks English, so I grasp the opportunity to practise my French. Our room is tiny but adequate for our needs - and we did only pay 70 euros total for 2 nights! I'm just surprised to see that we have no door to the bathroom - a French thing, I'm told.

It is 5 years since we've been to Essaouira and the changes are noticeable. No longer do old men sit outside their shops greeting visitors with a 'Bonjour' or 'Halo, Eengleesh?' Now younger men wearing jeans and T-shirts spend time on their mobiles and do not even look up as visitors approach their shops. This is the next generation of shopkeepers. Some things, however, much to our delight, are still the same. The town is still traffic-free and is not usually included in package holidays, thus it attracts mainly independent travellers or back-packers, giving it a laid-back feel, quite the opposite of the hustle and bustle of Marrakech which swarms with tourists day and night...also, its mellowness could possibly be due to it being a coastal town with the calming influence of the sea, or the copious amounts of hashish smoked here over the decades! It may of course also have something to do with the fact that in the 60s this was the place to be; Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley used to hang out here, and ever since fans and followers have come to see the town and have prolonged the Hippie vibe. Whatever has helped to form the town's laid-back reputation, it is certainly still a 'must-see' for those who like to explore Morocco.

The medina

The present city of Essaouira was only built during the 18th century, though it existed long before with the name of Mogador. Now it  is a UNESCO protected site. It is a fortified city built by the Portugese and surrounded by strong walls with ramparts. These ramparts are our first stop as we begin to explore the town.

All along the walls well-preserved cannons point out to sea, and it is easy to imagine enemies attempting to invade being warned off by the sight and sounds of these giant weapons of destruction. It is also easy to see why Orson Welles used this area as a backdrop for his film Othello.

Ramparts with cannons

In the line of fire

From this elevated position the views out over the Atlantic ocean are stunning. We watch the waves as they crash against the rocks close to the shoreline, and look out to the islands beyond. There are two sets of uninhabited islands that form Les Iles Purpuraires. The smaller set of islands are home to a bird sanctuary filled with gulls and Eleonora's falcons, the larger Mogador Island houses the ruins of an ancient prison and looks very atmospheric, almost as if it could be the setting for a horror film or thriller...

Waves crashing against the rocks

Bird sanctuary

On our way down from the ramparts there are little shops set in the walls selling all sorts of items made from local materials such as thuya wood and soaps.

Shops built into the walls

As we make our way along the edge of the main square and look out to sea we can see men sitting on rocks, their clothes laid out to dry - these are the cockle pickers who have spent hours wading in the sea looking for these shellfish so as to sell them on for a few dirhams - a lot of work for so little money.

Cockle pickers at work

One of our missions this weekend in Essaouira is to find strings for Sadik’s Guembri  (musical instrument) so he can once again play in the market square. He said previously he was going to make some, but that didn’t happen, so we said we would look out for them in Essaouira for him as music plays a large part of the scene here.  We have now found just the shop where these strings are likely to be found – it is called Bob Music and has a large picture of Bob Marley in the doorway. As we enter the tiny shop, a friendly man appears from out of the midst of the many instruments lining the walls and floors of this space. He begins to tell us about all the different types of instruments he has in his shop from traditional drums to Moroccan castanets (Qarkabeb) and a variety of stringed instruments – including guembri – and he insists we listen to some Gnaoua music, pointing out the use of the various instruments. He has such a passion for this music and is keen to tell us about how traditional instruments are in recent times often mixed with more modern instruments like guitars to form what they call ‘Fusion’. He also invites us to come back to Essaouira for the world-famous Gnaoua music festival in June 2012. After listening to some of this ‘fusion’ music, we leave his shop armed with CDs and Sadik’s strings, and a little more knowledge about traditional music in Morocco and how it has progressed.

Bob Music

After a walk along the lovely crescent-shaped beach it is time for an evening meal, so we head off to Riad Al Madina, the famous haunt of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, which also has a good reputation for its food. This is a beautiful riad with a central courtyard filled with plants and we are welcomed in by a friendly and courteous waiter who cannot do enough for us. Mart goes for the Goat’s cheese starter (which he regrets the next morning) whilst I have the vegetable soup – both delicious – then we have chicken and raisin tagine followed by ‘White Lady’ which is vanilla ice cream with a chocolate sauce. All in all, a lovely meal in a beautiful setting – what more could we ask? 

Riad Al Madina

Mart on the beach

We head back to our riad along the tiny narrow alleyways of the medina, torch in hand to light up the paths – we don’t want to trip over the very uneven pathways or fall down the pot holes (of which there are many!) Soon we are tucked up in bed, hoping for a good night's sleep and ready to explore further tomorrow.....

21 November 2011

Day 40: Djemaa El Fna...Part 2

As we walk across the Djemaa El Fna (pronounced J'maf na) my eyes rest on a little old man who is sitting crossed legged on the ground, his only 'cushion' being a folded cardboard box. His dirty white babouches are placed by his side ready to put on  over his holey socks when he's ready to leave. He is playing some form of stringed instrument, scratching a bow along the strings to make music - not very tuneful music, but music none the less. (I later find out that the instrument is called a Rebab. It is a heart-shaped body of wood covered with a membrane made of buffalo bladder, and has just two strings that are plucked to make sound.) He is more than happy to pose for a photo or two - and we are more than happy to give him a 'gift' for the privilege. It never ceases to amaze me  that somebody will sit here for a full day just to earn a few dirhams and still be cheerful!

Five men all dressed in flowing white djellabahs and black beaded caps come into view. These are men from the Gnawa tribe, descendants of Ghana, whose music is deemed to be deeply hypnotic. They play oversized heavy cast iron castanets and large drums, the sound of which reverberate all round the Square and underpin all other music that can be heard. The men take it in turns to dance to accompany their sound, twirling around whilst crouching low to the ground, each one trying to out-do the last one with even more twirling and jumping. Meanwhile the drums and castanets get louder and louder, faster and faster, almost sending the dancers into a frenzy. Then it all slows down and the caps are passed around the crowd who have gathered, in the hope that the people watching will be generous.

Another little old man sitting on a dirty bit of carpet has seen the camera in Mart's hand, and now wants a slice of the action. We have seen this same elderly gentleman sitting in the Square for years now - every time we come he is sitting in the same place, playing the same worn-out violin as if it were a bass, twirling it around with remarkable dexterity after every few slides of the bow across the strings and singing along tunelessly in accompaniment. He knows that he is no competition for the Gnawas or the other musicians performing in the Square, but he does his best all the same in the hope that people will be kind.

There is a bell ringing loudly across the Square and a man in a colourful costume appears, offering people a drink of water. He is a traditional Water Seller. One might be forgiven for thinking that he has hired a costume just for the benefit of ripping off the tourist, but in fact Water Sellers have been frequenting the Djemma El Fna for centuries. For a dirham or two they pour water from their camel leather bags strapped across their chests into brass cups to quench the thirst of the crowds, or, as is more popular these days, they pose for photographs. However, their original duty of selling cups of water is still in demand by the locals. This first Water Seller we meet is very elaborately adorned and is keen to show off his leather bag studded with silver and gold. His hat reminds me of the a lampshade on and old style standard lamp with its dangling tassles. He is very jolly and as he grabs me for a photo with him he smiles broadly with yellow stained teeth. Instead of saying 'cheese' as he poses, the words come tumbling out 'tagine, tagine, lovely tagine...smiley smiley tagine'. We can't help but smile broadly ourselves.

Not to be outdone, lo and behold another two Water Sellers appear. Their costumes are not as lavish as the first, but probably more authentic. One has the brass cups hanging around his neck and two of them, we notice, have actually been used.

This is certainly a day out for Water Sellers. A little later as we are about to set off for home yet another Water Seller approaches us. This time, however, all he wants is for us to give him change for a Euro that he has obviously been given as a tip. We gladly give him ten dirham in exchange - and he insists we take a photo of him as a thank you for this - 'gratuit, Monsieur' he says repeatedly, ' for free, for free.' A lovely man with very distinct facial features is posing for us for free - now that's a first in Marrakech!

19 November 2011

Day 42: A local walk

Just going for a walk around the local area - can't believe how quiet it is on a Saturday afternoon. I can count the number of people we pass on two hands! At one point we walk through the area where the market is held every Tuesday, but today it is empty except for a single goat wandering in and out of the empty stalls (which are just roughly constructed from pieces of bamboo tied together in a haphazard fashion). The goat stares at us, then turns and walks away, bleating. How did it get here? Why is it here? Why is there only one here and not more? The mind boggles. It is quite eerie walking through this place today when it is devoid of any activity - usually it would be oozing with life, the sound of animal noises competing with each other along with the shouting of the stall holders, the smells of lunch being cooked on open grills wafting through the air, seemingly thousands of people and sheep banging into each other as they go about their business. But today there is Nothing....

The site of the market

A solitary goat

We head along various paths which give us a view over our town and the mountains beyond, and then head back home through the fields adjacent to our home. I'm sure we can hear wild boar in the bushes...but it turns out to be some local lads having a laugh at our expense! Maybe one day we'll get to meet one - not face to face hopefully! As we enter the field at the bottom of our garden, we see the tractor which overtook us on the road. Said has arranged for a man to bring his tractor and plough attachment so the field can be ploughed ready for sowing seeds to be harvested next Spring. There is no ground frost here and winter is very short, so seeds are  planted in January/February. Now is the ideal time, therefore, to till the soil. To our surprise, there are many Egrets seemingly chasing behind the tractor. Said explains that when the soil is ploughed, it brings with it many insects to the surface on which the Egrets then feed. All new and interesting information to a city gal like me.

Tractor and Egrets

Looking for insects

Said's next job today is to chop the tree he felled this morning into pieces so we can have wood for our wood burner. He does not use a chainsaw for either the felling or the chopping - but simply an old grubbing mattock (not even the correct hand tool) which he uses to hack away at the tree trunk. Again we are reminded how easy we have it back home! He coaxes Mart to have a go - but after a few whacks he's had enough and leaves it to the expert.

Mart has a go

Leaving it to the expert!

Now we have our stock of wood - should it be needed - and are ready for winter. I almost wish it was colder so we could try the woodburner out...but not quite!

Day 40: Djemaa El Fna...Part 1

Plaque commemorating UNESCO status

How can I put into words the spectacle that is the Place Djemaa El Fna? This is the large square in the old town of Marrakech around which the community lives and works. It has been granted UNESCO status to protect it as a 'Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity'. This means that it is recognised as a place that is special in its portrayal of Moroccan traditions such as storytelling and in its provision of musicians and performers who exhibit their culture, and it is officially recognised that these traditions which have been displayed here every day for centuries must be allowed to continue. It is, therefore, a very concentrated hive of activity both day and night, for the locals and tourists alike!

Always something going on!

We have been here many times over many years - but the spectacle never fails to amaze us! As we walk along the main road leading to the Square (this is what everyone knows it as), we can see rows of calèches lined up to our right. These are the horse-drawn carriages that will take people around the various parts of Marrakech - at a price of course. The man who drives each carriage calls out to passers-by 'Calèche, calèche', waiting for that one 'yes' that will secure him an hour's work and the equivalent of a tenner in his pocket. Many people take him up on his offer as it really is a comfortable and interesting way to see the walls of the old city or the palmeraie region, or even to hitch a ride into the new town. But we're not interested today, so we move on. Leaflets are plunged into our hands advertising spas, massages and other such beauty treatments - but quickly withdrawn as we indicate that we live here - after all, these cost money to print so they mustn't be wasted! A tout walk alongside us, attempting to convince us that we need a guide to show us the 'Berber Market' (which doesn't actually exist), but we shake him off with a firm 'La, shokran' (No, thank you) despite his continued insistence that we are very nice people and England is a lovely country and he has a brother who happens to live in Birmingham and we may know him....yeah, yeah....

Calèches all lined up and ready to go

Some are prettier than others

Beautiful horses

As we draw near to the Square we begin to hear the loud drumming that dominates all, and see that up ahead there is intense activity going on, though from this distance we cannot see any detail. We just know that soon we will be caught up in it too.

We make our way around the edge of the Square (which is really not a square but an irregular shape!) until we reach the Café de Glacier and climb the steep dark steps up to the terrace, our favourite place from which we get a bird's eye view of what is happening in the Square below. One can of course cut across the Square, but in doing so you risk the unwanted attention of a whole gamut of entertainers who will hassle you for your money. From the safety of the terrace above and sipping a glass of mint tea we look down on the activity below. Where to look first? It is a veritable feast for the eyes. There are people everywhere; they look like an army of ants as they scurry in every direction.

Part of the Square

My eyes are attracted to one of the men who has a Barbary Ape attached to his wrist by a chain. The monkey does not seem unhappy as he turns somersaults, dressed in his green t-shirt and trousers.

Cheeky monkey!

A Moroccan woman dressed head to toe in black walks past and is suddenly accosted by a different monkey who jumps onto her head and then into her arms. She is a little taken aback, but poses for a photo whilst her two little boys clamber to reach the monkey themselves. Then, of course, she must give a 'gift'.

Can I hold it, mum?

Another unsuspecting tourist

The drums seem to have taken a back seat for the moment and now I can hear the flute of a snake-charmer. I spot him just below where we are sitting - I can only actually see his modern trainers as they stick out from under the ubiquitous large green umbrella which all the snake-charmers seem to have - must have been a job lot once upon a time. Now, however, they are all in various states of decay. But the sound is definitely coming from here. There is an older man sitting on a dirty old mat beside the flute player, banging a drum with his hand, two snakes seemingly watching him. He is one of many snake-charmers I can see today, each with their own style of attracting custom.

Here's lookin' at you, kid!

Le charmeur de serpents

You play, I'll dance

The one that got away

I glance across sadly at where the Argana Cafe/Restaurant once stood; now it is unrecognisable, a shadow of the lively place we used to frequent before that very sad day, April 28th 2011, when a man made a decision to plant a bomb here. Seventeen people lost their lives that day, and Marrakech lost one of its most popular meeting places for locals and tourists alike.

The Argana

To be continued...