Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Last weekend there were two holidays, which created another four-day weekend. Monday celebrated The Revolution of the King and the People – on August 20, 1953, France exiled the King (grandfather of today’s King) after he refused to disavow nationalists. There was a spontaneous uprising that eventually led the way to independence and the King’s return from exile a few years later. Tuesday was the birthday of the current King, Mohammed VI. He turned 44. The four-day weekend was for me an opportunity to travel to a place too far to get to on a Saturday overnight – in this case, Essaouira.

In the Phoenician days, the islands off the coast were the attraction, with seashells used to make purple dye for royal robes. Now those islands are protected because a rare bird (Elanora’s falcon) nests there. In the 18th century it was a free port for Europeans and their Jewish agents engaged in trans-Saharan gold, ivory and slave trading. Designed by a European engineer, the streets are wider and straighter than in most Moroccan towns. In the 20th century, it was used by Orson Welles in the film “Othello,” and there’s an Orson Welles Square in his honor. It was also a hippie haven; Jimi Hendrix had a home here. Essaouira is probably best known now for the annual June Gnaoua festival, a music extravaganza; Gnaoua is a combination of African, Berber and Arabic music, with strings and drums and costumes and dancing. When I was there, it happened to be “mini-Gnaoua,” where bands not established enough for the big festival played each night; the prize-winner would get a slot in next year’s festival. It’s also known for its wind – the Atlantic there is a magnet for windsurfers and kiteboarders. And it has nice jewelry, though I didn't really look at any on this trip.

I took the CTM from Azrou to Marrakesh. CTM is the national bus line and it costs more than the souk buses– for that you get buses that more or less stick to a schedule (though it arrived in Azrou an hour late), don’t make too many stops, don’t make long stops, have assigned seats (in this case, front row) and are air-conditioned. I think I prefer the train for a Saturday night overnight to Marrakesh, just because with the train I get there a little earlier and have more afternoon, but since I had a four-day weekend, I thought it would be nice to sleep late and roll down the hill to the 8:00 CTM rather than buy out an early taxi to Meknes for the 7:29 train. Plus, after the sauna on the way to Tangier, the air-conditioning was welcome. Paula, from Environment, traveled with me. She doesn’t read on transport, and I had been looking forward to reading, but it was nice to have her company, and over the course of the ride I had a chance to read, we talked, we dozed, and we looked out the window. I met one of my stagemates at a rest stop, going in the other direction for the weekend – that was fun!

When we got to Marrakesh we met up with a health volunteer from Paula’s stage and went straight to the Essouaira grand taxi stand. We were all eager to get going, so we each agreed to pay two fares so that we could buy all six spots and just get there. And by the time we did, it had taken all day. One of the local health volunteers met us at the taxi stand – over the course of the weekend I ran into a bunch of first-year health and environment volunteers, who had all decided to converge on “Essa” for their first post-homestay treat. Many volunteers choose to stay together in an apartment, sleeping on whatever furniture is available, cooking group meals, and watching DVDs. I had made a hotel reservation in a riad, given the holiday weekend. And as badly as I slept in Tangier, I slept well in Essaouira! My room was quiet and comfortable, my hotel right off the main street of the medina. I got a restaurant recommendation from the local volunteer (the group was not mobilizing to eat anytime soon) and had a chicken Caesar salad (!), and then went to the main square to listen to some of the festival music.

Saturday I had a disappointing breakfast in a café recommended in my book – can’t win ‘em all – and I decided to head to the beach. The wind was pretty stiff, and when my stagemate Gavin texted that he was available to meet, I gladly turned around. His site is a very small douar (Moroccan word for a country village) about half an hour away; he was in town because his artisans were participating in a craft fair outside the ramparts. In his site, he has no running water, so he bought a donkey for his daily trips to the well; I would have liked to meet “Uncle Rico” but after seeing Frank’s pictures I feel I know him. I’d like to feel I’ll get back there to see his site too, but it’s far; I don’t want to think I won’t get back there but I wonder if I will (this week, Gavin sent pictures of his new additions, two live turkeys, a.k.a. Thanksgiving dinner). We went to the craft fair, where I bought some straw baskets made by his artisans – the baskets are very nice, and Gavin has been working on product development and on finding new markets – he’s a little far from other people in our group, but he has a great product to work on, industrious artisans open to suggestion, and a location half an hour from Essaouira! I also bought some of the wood products that Essaouira is famous for. You can get some of the very same items at the Azrou artisana, but I tried to find things that I can’t find at home (such as hair sticks), and I like buying directly from the artisans.

Then Gavin took me on a little tour. First I wanted to see the blue fishing boats. I had seen photos of them at the Ann Arbor Art Fair last July, and while I was unable to duplicate them (the boats in the art fair photos didn’t have fishing gear in them – when I was there there were big plastic tarps and fishermen working) I took a bunch. We went to the Portuguese ramparts, where there is a hole through which the tourist-brochure photos are taken. I took one too, and I think I will attach it, even though it’s not centered. It’s a wonder that so many of my pictures come out as well as they do, given that in the sun I can’t really see what I’m taking a picture of. I’ll talk about the castle in the sand when I talk about Sunday – I didn’t get a centered picture of that one either (but if you look at that Global Voices article I mentioned a couple of entries ago, Cory’s blog has a nice picture of it!). I guess I have to go back after all, if only to take more pictures! Or maybe the mental picture will have to do. Another Essaouira image is one of seagulls – men clean the fish by the blue fishing boats near the ramparts, so you can get seagulls by the boats, seagulls by the ramparts, seagull and cannon or seagull through the hole! We also went to the cannons, all very picturesque, and through the medina; I walked Gavin to the taxi stand; I had a nice time with him one-on-one on his turf. I then met Paula and another environment volunteer, Emily, for sunset by the cannons and dinner. I then went back to listen to more music.

Monday morning, I found the right breakfast place, Chez Driss, perhaps the second-best patisserie in Morocco (the Escalade in Azrou is the best, of course). It’s an institution (since 1928 or so) and its advantage over the one in Azrou is seating. Saturday’s environment volunteers and a couple more came along – I am glad I met them during training – and I walked around the medina for a bit with them. They left to start for home; I wasn’t ready to. I took a long walk along the beach to the ruins of the former sultan’s palace, which seem to be slowly melting into the tide; it inspired the Hendrix tune Castles in the Sand. There were also horses and camels for hire along the beach; something to do next time? The wind didn’t seem so bad – until I turned around to go back into town. What a workout! I had lunch at a French crepe place (!) and took a last look at the ramparts and the ocean and then took a grand taxi to Marrakesh. I went from being chilled by the wind and the ocean breeze to feeling as though I was broiling in the taxi, and perhaps that led to my feeling under the weather – it could be the temperature differential or just the long, hard travel in general. When I got to Marrakesh I was tired, but wanted to take a little walk – and I ran into the environment volunteers who had left earlier, on their way back from Marjane! We hung out for a little while, none of us with any energy, and then went our separate ways. I met Rob the next morning, but at that point was not feeling well, so I didn’t have much in the way of breakfast, but it was nice to see him. I bucked it up for the train ride (which was actually fun – the women in my compartment were singing and drumming and dancing – the mini-festival continued! And I also had a chance to read) but when I got home I slept for a couple of hours, showered, and slept lots more.

This past weekend was a quiet one – I needed it, after the two packed holiday weekends! It was Amanda’s last weekend in Morocco and I ended up spending a lot of time with her. I made a chocolate cake in her honor, went to the hammam with her (what she wanted to do), and just hung out while she used my computer to jobhunt. When she left, we gave each other a quick hug – no long goodbye – as if I were going to see her later this week. One of Youssef’s brothers got engaged last week, and if she gets a good job, she may come back next summer for the wedding. Today I was looking at the State Department web site to help Youssef with his visa application – you really have to be in love with someone to do all the paperwork!

I also had a chance to go to Cedre Gourard, a big tree about 8K away. I had hiked towards it with one of the six-pack a couple of months ago, but turned around; of course, now that I have been I see that we were almost there, but I was ready to turn around when I did. The tree is one attraction, hiking is another, but the big reason to go is to see monkeys – now I know where to bring people. The monkeys probably aren’t always there, but a sighting is likely. There were a lot of them, running around, swinging from the branches, being otherwise very entertaining in their Barbary-Ape-ness.

And this past Monday I went to Fes to go to the dentist for a cleaning. He looked at my mouth and pronounced my teeth clean. I asked for polish and he told me I didn’t need it. I asked again and he did the bottom front. I then called the Peace Corps Medical Office to have them tell him that I wanted them all cleaned. Why is everything harder than it has to be? The rest of the day wasn’t hard though – I had scheduled a massage at the Palais Jamai! It was very relaxing. And I went to Marjane! Two Marjane trips ago I noticed corn chips but didn’t think that I needed them. Then I was talking with my tutor about what I might do in the U.S. on a Saturday (one of the questions on the Language Proficiency Exam) and I mentioned chilaquiles, a breakfast dish that all of a sudden I was in the mood for. So on the last Marjane trip I looked for corn chips – and didn’t find them. Found them in Fes and have made chilaquiles twice this week already! I also saw some second-year SBDs and YDs on their way to Close of Service conference in Rabat – two in Azrou as I was on my way to the taxi stand, four in Fes. One of them told me about other people who were in Fes, so before I went home I had some juice with them! Seeing all of those people made up for the struggle at the dentist. I know why people think Morocco is so hot though - they visit in the summer, when it is hot! This weekend Jen, the second-year SBD who is the chair of GAD, is coming to visit on the way back from COS conference. I like her and am looking forward to spending more time with her!

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