Tan Wee Cheng's Journey Through  Morocco, Land of the Furthest West

5 Mar: Essaouira

Taking It Easy In "Windy City, Afrika"

Essaouira, the "Well-Planned", as it means in Arabic, first became known in history as far back as the 7th century BC, when Phoenician sailors visited its offshore islands for the exquisite purple dyes - that's the origin of the islands' name - Purple Islands or Iles Purpuraires.  The Portuguese came later, establishing the fortress of Mogador.  The Portuguese coastal empire in Morocco soon collapsed and in 1765, Alawite Sultan Sidi Mohammed III commissioned a French architect to design a city for international trade, so as to compete with the rebel port of Agadir.  And that created the Essaouira as we know today - its port, ramparts similar to that of St Malo, a grid network of streets, etc.  It also came to be known as Essaouira, the "Well-Planned".

Essaouira is an important fishing port, but it has also become a favourite of backpackers, many of whom come here just to relax or wind-surf - as the region is well known for its strong winds and powerful waves.  Its massive ramparts, little streets with craftsmen, friendly people and extremely laidback atmosphere, have combined to make it increasingly an attractive side-trip destination for numerous resort holidays makers based in Agadir as well.

For me, it was a slow day compared to the rest of my trip.  I woke up rather early (which has become a norm on this trip) and wondered around on its empty streets.  The ramparts were beautiful and I was the only one there.  I didn't even have to pay the entrance fee for it was too early for any ticket seller to be around.  Apart from seagulls and a vicious cat, I was alone, watching the strong waves beating against the fortress walls.  Fishing boats were returning with their catch, followed by a trail of scavenging water-birds.  There, I watched the sunrise.  The first light, combined with the elements of land and sea, had created a symphony of colours.  It was a wonderful sight.  I was tired, but glad that I was there to witness it all.

I wondered around town.  Soon, shop owners were setting up their wares, as they do everyday of the year, and tourists are beginning to get up for breakfast.  A few backpackers have arrived with their heavy load, probably from a tough overnight journey from inland Morocco, tired but determined to quickly find a place to dump the luggage and take a hot water bath.  I have done all that.  For me, the holiday was ending soon, and it's time to slow down a bit.

I dropped by the museum, which was smallish and a little disappointing.  I shopped for souvenirs and bought a few Fatima's Hands, an Islamic talisman against evil - the shopkeeper is probably wondering whether I am setting up a Hand-Of-Fatima museum.

When I returned to the hotel for a short rest, Abd Alik pressed me for an answer on the camel meat.  He also had other suggestions, all of which would sound innocent to the uninitiated.  Here's some of them:

· Going to Sidi Kaouki, the legendary wind-surfing spot - he'll rent a taxi for me.
· Going to the Hamman, or "Turkish Bath" with him - he says
massage would cost "merely" DH 150 - LP guide tells you that it costs only DH 10 to 15.
· Watching the falcons of Purple Islands - he will arrange boats for DH 1500 (US$150 !).  LP guide says the falcons will only be here from April onwards. In any case, I wouldn't be a fool to pay DH 1500 for a boat ride.  With that, I might be able to buy a boat or two.

Also unknown to him, I had made some enquiries about camel meat - they can't cost more than DH 50 per kilogram - so dear old crook Abd Alik's quoting me five times the market price !  I made the usual excuses about only wanting to make the decision later.  "Well, I will wait for you here at 3 pm," he said, confident that I would fall into his trap.

"Inshallah, you may see me here.  But don't bother to wait if you don't see me," I replied.

Cannons - bomb the enemy !
The sign at the Artisant Centre reads: "Don't stay here"  What a way to do business !
Friendly backpackers, Samir and Carlos, from France

And so the day went, with me slipping mint tea in the cafes and having small talk with carpets sellers, who by then, are convinced that I no longer want to buy anything, and hence stopped any aggressive sales pitch.  Instead, they showed me their best carpets - the not-for-sale ones, their heirloom, the museum pieces, as they put it.  More mint tea, and a few snacks occasionally.  Jokes and friendship exchanged.

Soon, it's 5pm and I returned to the hotel, hoping that Abd Alik had gone home after his shift.  There he was, indignant that I did not take up his attractive offers.

"Hey, you don't trust me !  I know it, you think I'm a bad man !  I'm not.  I'm only trying to be friendly, treating you as a friend.  And you think I am trying to get your money !"

I said nothing, merely smiling at him.  It's amazing how many times this game had been played again and again in this country.  I am at peace with myself and all.

The rest of the day was spent wondering around Essaouira's streets and chatting with two friendly French teachers, who played guitar in Essaouira's square.  That night, we left Essaouira together, taking the overnight express bus to Casablanca.  The holiday's ending soon…

6 Mar: Casablanca - City of Romance - no more

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