Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Castles in the Sand

Castles in the Sand
Originally uploaded by cornasdf.
I slept most of the ride to Essaouira. I woke periodically to take in the scenery. I was mostly woken by some little shit with a drum toy, aren’t there parents here? How is this acceptable? The landscape was semi arid and, as I mentioned in the last installment, similar to NM. The bus was nearly an express with just a few stops for people and an ‘intermission’ stop (at the Kasbah, no rocking for us though). It still took about 3.5 hours before we crested a hill looking down into the surf town of Essaouira.

There are a couple of rumors about Essaouira. One is that Hendrix’s song ‘Castles in the Sand’ is written about a rock formation just off the beach. Apparently, Hendrix and other of his contemporaries liked to hang out here. Hendrix bought a hotel at some point. There is some debate as to whether the song is really about this rock but the rock does look like a castle melting into the sand. I guess I could investigate but I am going to prefer to believe the rumors for now.

We got off the bus at the station to the familiar clamor of people vying for your money. This wasn’t really any worse than any non affluent town but we were still a bit bruised from Marrakech. We looked into passage back to Marrakech for the next day and found a 5pm bus to be the best option. We bought tickets and started out towards the beach.

Not wanting to deal with the taxis, we decided to try to walk to the beach. Of course, the bus station wasn’t on the map we had so we were pretty much guessing the direction. Judging from the seagulls, we were pretty sure the ocean was just over this large defensive wall. What we weren’t sure of was whether the city was north or south of us. We spied an opening in the wall and headed back to look down the beach in an attempt to see what we could find. The smell got worse and worse as we went farther back. This quickly developed into the worst smell I have ever ever ever smelled. I disregarded it at first and pushed on to get to the edge of the abandoned building so I could peer down the beach. 3 children were playing in this building and this smell. They came up to us asking for dirhams. One of the boys had an oozing hole in his head. Between them grabbing on me and the stench, I realized it was time to go. I was dizzy from the nasal assault. Indeed, for at least an hour, my nasal passages felt burnt out and for hours the memory of the smell would return. I felt like it had invaded me. Later in the day, when we passed the fish market, I realized that the root of the smell was rotten fish. I don’t know if there was a big dump of fish guts back there or what but it was rough.

We kept wandering into a gradually more and more crowded areas. It definitely seemed we were going the right way. We decided to stop at a hotel and ask how much so we had some idea of what we were getting into. The riad owner was quite nice. Of course, at this point, we had no idea that he was actually nice, just another smiling Moroccan offering something. The room was pretty cheap, had a bathroom and had a beautiful rooftop terrace with a view of the beach. We decided to just park there and be done with it.

After dropping our stuff, we headed out to the beach. The beach was nice, wide slope of sand though there was some garbage around. Lots of people around, playing futbol and relaxing. There were even some women in bathing suits. Must be tourists.

We walked the length of the beach, maybe a mile. Our destination was toward the castles in the sand, seemed as good of a destination as any. We passed the windsurfers and kite surfers. That kite surfing looks fun. We passed a camel stand, I assume they were there offering rides but they didn’t press us after we said no the first couple times. There were probably 20 camels and horses hanging out. They were well out of the main beach area, a destination unto themselves I guess. As we approached the castles, we realized that they were protected by a moat. An inlet of ocean water formed an effective river around the closest land to the rock formations. I had thought to ford it but it was actually a bit bigger than I initially thought and proved to be an effective deterrent.

We wandered back down the beach. This town was pretty nice. Had we not been bruised by Marrakech, this would be a very nice place.

Back to the hotel for a bit of rejuvenation before we headed out to see the sunset. I had hoped to find a place to eat dinner and see the sunset. We found one rooftop bar that was pretty nice but super expensive. Drinks were over 10$USD. It was quite a nice vibe up there though. I was ready to bite the bullet and eat there but apparently they only bring food up to the first two floors, not the terrace. Go figure. At least they had olives that were good. They may have been the first good olives I have ever had actually. We wandered on, past the fish market with its myriad of seagulls swarming above. This is when I realized the root of The Smell. They had a junior version hanging around the fish market but it was far less overwhelming. More of a Karate Kid to the other area’s Bruce Lee of smells.

We ended up watching the sunset from a square on the water which was quite beautiful. After wards, we tried to walk down the beach to th e surfer bar but it was closed when we got there. Doh!

Back up to ‘town’, we found a really nice restaurant off a small square. Decent prices, good food, a very nice place. I took a card, if I manage to find it, I will post recommendations about the restaurant and the hotel. Finally had some couscous. Also had a taster’s choice of yummy nut/honey/pastry things. Various types of baklava basically but with different nuts. Yum.

Didn’t find much in the way of night life in the town so we just headed back to the hotel and hit the sack.

Awoke the next morn and wandered down to the beach for breakfast. We found that the café we had lunch at the day before seemed to be the only thing open. No breakfast (or any cooked food) until 12 though. Ahh well, we had some teas and juices and pain au chocolat to hold us over. I dig the berber whiskey, but I like mint in general.

We ended up passing most of the day sitting on the beach watching the activity and talking/debating. Tough life, I know.

Eventually, we decided to head back to the hotel and see if the advertised massage was available. With such short notice, and we had already checked out of the room, we couldn’t get that one. He did find a friend to help me though. It was like 200 dirhams (25$) for a 1+ hour massage. I was initially skeptical but he mentioned that it was a traditional hamman massage and the price wasn’t too daunting. I decided to give it a shot. Unfortunately, I have forgotten my guide’s name, I should have written this earlier.

I left everything valuable with zach in the riad and went down the alleys with this guy. He spoke a bit of English but conversation was strained. He led me through back alleys to the hamman. It wasn’t the most direct route to the destination but it was the local route, avoiding the main shopping roads. Reminded me a bit of getting around in Taos.

The hamman episode was quite an experience. We entered a small door that I would never have called out as special, except perhaps by traffic. Inside is a dimly lit basement/tiled cave. We walked in to the first room and there were a couple men sitting around minding stacks of buckets. Really they just seemed to be hanging around there as my guide did all the work. We went into the next room which as a fully tiled room with a bench around. This was the changing area. Absolutely no nudity. It was all men at this point. Apparently, the women do this ritual in the nude but men wear shorts. Even when changing into the shorts, you wrap a towel around your waist and change under it.

After changing we went through a small wooden door. The door was weighted to close by hanging a half full plastic bottle on a string above the door. When pushed open the bottle would move with the door but its weight would force the door shut. Simple but effective.

Immediately beyond the door was another tiled room. Some light filtered into the dim room through an obscured window. Having read a bit about the hammans, there is supposed to be a cold, hot and very hot area (or cold, tepid, and warm in the bad ones). I assumed this was one of the cold or warm rooms, it turns out it was both with different water sources. We ducked through a low archway into the next room.

This room was darker, having an even smaller dirtied window above us at ground level. The wall and floors were tiled. In one corner there was a small fountain with a pool of water below. This was the very hot area. The water was a little cooler than a hot bath, pleasant and hot but not burning. There were pairs of locals washing each other. Some would just wash each others backs but some would wash each other fully. Still absolutely no nudity, you washed yourself under the shorts.

My guide pointed to one end of the small room. He poured a bucket of hot water down on the floor and directed me to lay there. This part was definitely not for anyone squeamish about cleanliness. I ended up laying on my stomach on the ancient floor with my forehead pressed against the tiles. He produced a rough sponge from his wash bag and proceeded to scrub me down. Having a bit of sunburn, this was a painful. After the exfoliation, he gave me a massage. I can only thing of this as a manly massage. Painful at times, very deep, lots of stretching me in different ways. It seemed very much a warrior’s massage. Quite good, laying on the floor, as uncomfortable as it is, does allow for more mobility than a massage table.

After the massage, we got up and went to the warm end of the other room. This was just for normal washing. My guide washed me down with a bit more massage in the warm water. When I asked him about his soaps and lotions later, he was very proud to point out that they had no perfumes. I got the feeling that this was very important to him. Thinking about it, I believe I read that it is hard to make a soap that doesn’t stink without masking the smell in perfumes. After all was said and done, we rinsed with the cold water to bring our core temperatures down.

We headed out, changed, and made our way back to the hotel. Quite an experience, I think I should make it a goal to try different massage styles around the world.

I found Zach at the riad. We gathered our stuff and headed for the bus station. The bus stopped at the Kasbah. I got off this time and wandered into the shop. I guess my French accent is getting better. The shop keep came up and said “bonjour’. “bonjour, ca va?” I replied. He responded he was good and asked me how I was, “comme si, comme sa” (so so) I replied. Then he took off into French and I had admit I was lost. With French being a primary language here, I was pretty happy to get that far. He of course, smoothly switched to English but didn’t really hassle me after I said I was just browsing.

Neither Zach nor I could really face the idea of going back to old city so we hopped off the bus at the stop before, in new city Marrakech. We found a modern hotel for about $50US/night. We dropped our stuff and went out to find some dinner. This was a whole new Marrakech. This was a modern city with a North African twist. About a billion times nicer than old city, we sat outside and ate dinner on a large street. I tried the camel (tastes like beef) while we watched the locals stream by. My god, there are a lot of beautiful women there.

I realize, in hindsight, that our main mistake was staying in old city. With how obnoxious the airport was, and after heading directly into the obnoxiousness of the Medina, I didn’t get there was a ‘not shitty’ part of Marrakech. Had we stayed in the new city and visited the old city as a tourist attraction, it would have been much nicer.

We weren’t through yet. We thought our flight left at 10 but it turned out to be 10:50 so got to the airport nearly 3 hours before our flight was due to depart. It was a good thing though. This part was even more unorganized than coming in. As soon as our flight started check in, we jumped in line. We were pretty close to the front of the massive queue that formed as they leisurely checked us into the flight. After waiting through that queue, there was a queue to get into the customs area, and then a huge queue in customs. We had to fill out the same stupid landing card and sit there while he typed everything in and didn’t ask any questions. By this point, we are getting worried about missing our flight. Even with the 3 hours in the airport, we barely made it through customs before boarding time. After customs, I was worried about getting through security. I was carrying a big water bottle and I had an ‘illegal’ bottle of sun screen in my bag (we had paid 10$ for the small bottle, I was going to wait until they made me throw it away). I would have dumped the water but saw no garbage cans to do such. As customs was only trickling people through, security had no line. I was scrambling to put my phone and camera and stuff in my bag for the x-rays but the guy waved me off and motioned me through the metal detector. I, of course, set off the alarm but he quickly patted my chest once in a mimicry of a search and waved me through.

I ended up having 5 minutes to run through the duty free. I picked up some weird fig liquor. It is Marrakech in a bottle. When you take a sip, it tastes terrible, then there is a part that isn’t so bad, kind of good even, and then it tastes terrible again. Marrakech in a bottle.

Once we finally got on the plane, we were delayed for an hour because there were 129 people on board and they only expected 128 or something. We all had to be rechecked for boarding passes. Eventually the airport manager guy came on and started yelling at the crew saying that 128 + a baby is a stupid distinction, the count is 129 now get out of my airport.

And you would think the travels would be over then. Coming into Luton, we were getting really low and there was still no runway below us. The pilot actually had to give a big boost of engine just before we touched down to catch the edge of the runway. Then the bus to the train station had a driver with a primadonna moment when he started telling people he wasn’t moving until more people used the luggage racks. Ahh well, eventually, we made it home. Coming back to the first world was my birthday present and it was a good one.

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