Morocco Field Report 1: The haggles, hassles and hustles of Casa & Fez
Morocco Field Report 2: Belly Dancing Berbers & Barbary Apes
> Morocco Field Report 3: Rocking the Kasbahs and Girdling Goat Trees
Morocco Field Report 4: Boats, Cats and Castles Made of Sand
First day of 2007. Jess is sick as a dog. Not that I’m sure why dogs are considered the epitome of sick. But if it’s any consolation to her, we’ve arrived at the shores of the Atlantic and she is resting up on the lawn chair next to me, surrounded by Bermuda grass, seagulls and sunshine. Besides perhaps being the only city with the distinction of having 4 consecutive vowels in it’s name, Essaouira is strangely different than the rest of Morocco so far. [Googling now, there are actually words with 5 consecutive vowels: IOUEA is a genus of Cretaceous fossil sponges. BOIEAU is a town in Belgium. POAEUI Passage is in Papua New Guinea, and though some are repeating, BENI-OUI-OUI (yes-man) contains 7 consecutive vowels]. It feels almost like Northern California here. Almost.
But back to Ourzazate… Yes, we did have Italian food and it rocked. At this place called Restaurant Phoenix. I had gnocchi and it was as good as NYC if not better [though had gnocchi last night at Supper which is hard to beat]. But I continue to digress … back to the kasbah, finding our way back to the hotel through the dark passageways, tunneling through homes, open doorways where you could see people sleeping and eating, living by kerosene lanterns, a bit sketchy, guys lurking, loitering at every turn, asking us stuff we don’t know what. Retreated back to our adobe abode. Awoke to sunrise through our windows. Birds chirping and singing. Very peaceful. Had breakfast on the roof, though it was freezing. Coffee, orange juice (did I mention the orange juice rocks everywhere in Morocco?), baghrir (kind of like a frybread crêpey pancake) and hard-boiled eggs. Then we pushed off.
The main road went to Marrakesh. We took the southern route to Agadir. We were pretty burned out on cities, and had had enough in Fez to last us a while. Besides, you have to leave some things for later otherwise you’ll never come back. The road south was wide enough for one car, with gravel shoulders to either side, so every time a car came you had to move over onto the shoulder. But it didn’t matter as we saw maybe one car every hour.
Beautiful scenery, through the so-called Anti-Atlas, rugged, the rocks and soil were red and at times purple. Again, like Northeast Arizona or the badlands. Not many settlements besides old Kasbahs. We passed through some towns that were all boarded up and seemingly deserted. Maybe it had to do with the sheep festival (Eid ul-Adha), or maybe even New Years Eve, who knows. Coincidentally Eid ul-Adha happened to fall upon the last day of the western calendar. It normally doesn’t happen that way. But contrary to Ourzazate, where we were the day before with the orgy of sheep slaughter, rivers of blood and hanging entrails, here there was nothing but solemn silence. Maybe they were eating the sheep, who knows. We couldn’t even get gas.
We drove through flat landscapes, through more sleepy deserted towns that started with Ts, and had lots of Ns and vowels—Tazenakht, Taliouine, and then to Taroudannt, where we opted to stay rather than go the distance to Agadir. See, we wanted to be fresh for the goat sightings, and outside of Agadir was where rumor had it they were known to climb trees, and not just any tree but the argan tree. Somewhere before Taroudannt we spotted our first goats in argan trees. Of course we were all geeked out about it and stopped to gather evidence.
Yes, this happens. The goats in Morocco have learned to climb trees. It really is a surreal thing to witness, defying intuition, like seeing a fish riding a bicycle or flying monkeys. The reason they do it here is because there is not much to eat on the ground, and they’re nuts about argan. It’s the evolutionary path alternative to a giraffe—you could see some goats standing on two legs reaching for the argan leaves and nuts in the lower branches, and the more savvy ones learned to just climb into the low branches and the savvier ones even higher to the tops of the 30-foot trees. It was almost like they were getting intoxicated from the argan, being haphazard in their climbing and I saw two fall out of the trees. The goatherd reacted to our wincing when the goats fell with a shrug and a laugh, like the goats always fall out of trees, so maybe they are like cats. The goatherd was more fascinated with Jessica’s digital camera than our fascination with the goats and the argans.
In Taroudannt we wanted to stay at the Riad Maryam, but it was booked. We weren’t having much luck with the riads, I guess that’s something you have to plan ahead for. We did reserve our dinner there as it was highly touted, and you had to request the padilla in advance as it took a long time to make. We ended up at the Hôtel Tiout, which was a complete and utter shithole. When we pulled back the covers, the sheets were dirty with crumbs, tangerine seeds and pubic hairs, like somebody had a food-with-sex fetish ala George Costanza. The bathroom was moldy and smelled like an open sewer.
We wandered around town, really an inhospitable place. Everywhere groups of guys were loitering and harassing, saying shit to us, either to try to hustle us, or say crude remarks to Jess. If I turned my back for one second to take a picture or something, I’d turn back around and guys would be reaching out to grab her ass or grabbing their crotches and making lewd gestures. Complete animals. This one kid reached out to pretend to punch Jess as we were walking by, like what does that mean? Wish fulfillment or fantasy? Or just pent up repression that knows no outlet? They can’t act out such hostilities on their own women, so foreign women are their prey. And Jess was dressed head to toe in thick clothing, far less revealing than many Moroccan women. She had no head-covering, but neither did half the local women.
We explored the Kasbah, but we were just so tired of the harassment that we went back to our crappy room and played cards. We returned to the Riad Maryam for our New Years Eve dinner. It was incredible, this open courtyard with tables in the arcades, pillows and plants. This fluffy mutt of a dog had taken a particular liking to us and was at my side or on my lap the whole time. The owner’s family seemed to all be there, his older daughters, all decked out and hair curled, with their friends all in their tight jeans playing with their cell phones. There were these musicians performing in the lush gardens. They seemed more West African, drums and bronze clappers, playing tribal rhythms and chanting and dancing. They were wearing these black decorated robes and headdresses with cowries and fake dreadlocks. Yes, fake dreads. Not sure what that was all bout. We neglected to bring our cameras thinking we just wanted to relax at dinner.
We started with harira, which we’ve been having everywhere and absolutely love it. Harira is the mother of all soups. Matter of fact, to drop another Seinfeld reference, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Soup Nazi is Moroccan. [He’s Iranian] Like tajines, harira varies from place to place, and this one was particularly velvety, and more fishy and creamy. Then we had pastilla, even better than the ones we had in Fez. It was of pigeon of course, though there was also a diced up white substance that Jess swears was sheep brain, and in retrospect the cause of her sickness now. Having had my share of sesos in Mexico, I couldn’t disagree, as it had that vaguely familiar bland but salty taste, and the consistency of hard tofu. The pastilla was huge, more than enough for two, something we hadn’t realized when I ordered it and Jess also ordered a tajine as well, which was also huge. We felt terrible and obligated to gorge beyond belief.
Afterwards we walked home through the sketchy streets of Taroudannt, in the last hours of 2007. Early the next morning Jess was majorly sick, from both ends. The disgusting hotel room didn’t help. I felt sick just being in that room in that shithole town. So we split. Poor Jess. Every so often I’d have to pull over and find a bathroom or pull over on the side of the road. Of course the kids would come out of the woodworks whenever you stopped, but this time when they tried to ask us for money or peddle their wares they were in for a rebuttal!
I was on my own for the goat hunting as Jess couldn’t bare to keep her eyes open. We did see a few on the way to Agadir, but most of them were between Agadir and Essaouira. But it’s kind of hokey and staged—there’ll be these kids waving their hands and pointing to the goats in the trees to try to get you to stop. You’d give them 10 dirhams to take a picture (over a dollar) and they would ask for more, and all these other people would come running out of the hills arguing that if you gave them money, why not give them money, and their friends would say the same thing, and they would just keep coming, so it was like you had to jump out, snap a picture and keep going. Whatever they saw in your car or on your person they’d ask for. Give me this give me that. You’d literally have to get in your car and lock the door, but even still they’d reach their hands through the open windows. I had this technique down where I’d step out of the car, standing on one foot and have the other foot still on the brake pedal, taking a picture.
For a stretch in this argan filled valley, there were kid goatherds everywhere, with their goats in the trees, flagging you down to stop, as if the primary means of having goats was no longer for milk or meat, but to chase into the trees for tourists to take pictures of. Reminded me of when I was in Komodo after the day-trippers left and came across this town of hungry people and goats everywhere and when I asked why they didn’t eat the goats it was because they sold the goats to tourists to feed to the Komodo dragons. Everything you want to witness for yourself in this world has repercussions. By seeing it you destroy its natural beauty and it becomes a spectacle at the cost of those who are nearby to profit from it. It’s like going “wreck-diving” where they purposely crash ships, instead of using them for what a ship is for.
Agadir is a very industrial town, with a lot of huge apartment complexes and stadiums that have the Olympic symbol on them and somewhere someone said Africa was hosting the 2012 Olympics, which I’d never heard anything about [googling now, it’s London]. Maybe it was all built for a failed bid, and then left unfinished. Mile after mile of vacant, half-built apartment buildings.
There was this surfing beach outside of Agadir that was pretty nice, it was like suddenly happening upon San Diego, except with camels on the beach and away from the water was rather drab and dusty. We headed north to Essaouira. Jess was completely out of it. There were fields upon field of argan trees. The oil from argan evidently rivals olive oil and is quite a delicacy. We tried it and it was a bit nuttier than olive oil. I guess the way it works is that the goats eat the leaves and nuts of the argan, but they don’t digest the nuts. So the Berbers sift through the turds for the nuts, and crack open the nuts to get the oil. Here’s an interesting article on it.
We headed north to Essaouira through more argan fields filled with goats. And now here we are. We splurged and got a nice room at a hotel (Hôtel des Îles) with a pool, right near the entrance to the medina, and on the ocean. Relative luxury especially compared to the shithole we stayed in last night. Funny thing though is that the swimming pool is full of seagulls. There’s this one guy whose sole job seems to be to keep the seagulls out of the pool, and clean up their poop and feathers, but the second he turns his back they all come flocking back to bathe in the pool. There’s also a bunch of wild cats lurking in the bushes and on the roof. And Bermuda grass and the soft sound of doves cooing over the jabber of the seagulls. And most important, right now, is that it’s relatively sunny and warm compared to the Atlas mountains or New York, and there’s no street hustlers. A good day, the first day of 2007, to spend chilling. Maybe I’ll even write something.
>> onward to Morocco Field Report 4: Boats, Cats and Castles Made of Sand
(c) 2007 Derek White and Jessica Fanzo. Please just ask before using photos or words elsewhere.