t is early evening in Essaouira, Morocco. I climb the narrow stairway that winds the four floors of our guesthouse, Riad El Pacha, which was built in the eighteenth century to be the governor’s palace and converted to a small hotel in the 1970’s. The architecture is replete with the opulent details of a traditional Moroccan riad, and the view from the fourth floor looking down calls to mind a different era and embodies the meaning of the name of the town itself, “beautifully designed”. The walls are hung with vivid Berber artwork and lavish sparkling tapestries, woven in every color in the spectrum and with meticulous attention to detail. I can see the proprietor of the guesthouse on the first floor, sipping tea, and one of the workers resting on a bright cushion on the floor, quietly strumming a guitar.
I step outside onto the rooftop terrace and look out over the town and the sea at its edge, its buildings spread out in pastel like paper-mache creations, their implied delicacy accentuated by the fortress walls that enclose them. The sun is setting and the gulls that constantly circle the harbor are highlighted in pink, their grace in flight becoming emphasized even in their scavaging. I sip a local red wine that, while not exactly rivaling the Spanish tempranillos and garnachas I recently left behind and can still taste, does add to the tranquility and tastes of the earth, and dark currants and the thousands of dates we see every day at the souks in the medina.
Our entry into Morocco in no way foreshadowed the blithe nature of this moment on the terrace of the riad. Having spent some time in the stunning village of Mijas, in southern Spain just outside of Malaga, we decided to escape the torrential rain we had been experiencing for several days by hopping a boat to sunny Morocco…or so we envisioned. We caught a ferry from Algeciras to Tangier and were forced to wait nine hours for the night train to Marrakech (the closest city the train serviced to Essaouira) because, apparently, the buses were not running due to the excessive rain. This was Obstacle One. Obstacle Two came in the form of a “tour guide” who followed us around like a persistent itch for an hour, dragging us to his friend’s restaurant and trying to convince us to buy djellabas, the Moroccan hooded robes that reminded us eerily of Klansmen, demanding money at the end of the “tour.” Having been to Egypt and Turkey and having experienced similar scenarios, I was far from shocked, but when I’m cold, and my feet have been wet for eight hours, and I haven’t slept in two days I tend to lose just a little bit of patience.
Obstacle Three made itself apparent in the form of two vegetarians searching for a meal in a city full of teahouses that don’t serve food and a few restaurants that definitely served pigeon and beef, but we weren’t sure what else, the Arabic and French menus being of little help. We finally just bought stale cheese sandwiches from the train station for dinner. We were struck dumb by Obstacle Four when the salesman at the ticket counter informed us, very casually, that the night train would actually not take us all the way to Marrakech due to a flooded section of track, but only to Rabat, a city about halfway between Tangier and Marrakech, and that our train would arrive in Rabat at about 3:00 a.m.
There was nothing we could do at that point but purchase the tickets, so around 9:00 p.m. we boarded the coldest vehicle I had ever been inside, ate our stale cheese sandwiches, and shivered in our sleeping bags, fully clothed in hats and gloves for around six hours. We had encountered a Turkish hippie and a couple of Swedish girls at the train station in Tangier, and we met up with them again in Rabat. We all sat together swilling hot tea in the Rabat station to try to melt the ice that was forming around our very bones. At 8:00 that morning (five hours later) we got on a bus with the Turkish hippy to Essaouira and the Swedish girls stayed to catch a bus to Marrakech. The Turkish hippie (I’m not being insolent; he really was a hippie; his parents were Rainbow People) got right back off the bus and got a ticket refund when he saw the state it was in, and in retrospect, in the face of the largest obstacle of all, we should have followed suit.
The first thing we noticed when we stepped into the bus was, again, how bitterly cold it was. The second was that all of the passengers were sitting on large pieces of cardboard lain over the seats. This signaled us to look up at the ceiling, the fabric of which was drooped low by the burden of its waterlog. All along the aisle the ceiling gently rained, and we sequestered our own “seat covers,” and found the driest seats left on the bus in the next to last row. During the seven hours of agony that followed the deluge from the ceiling of the bus only worsened, the bus filled to capacity, and the flooding in the streets was severe enough that I saw another bus submerged to the level of its windshield in a ditch through my window as we passed.
In Essaouira we eventually arrived, checked into El Pasha, and collapsed onto our satin quilted bed. When we felt sufficiently rejuvenated we went out to wander the maze of the medina, built with the year-long winds that ballast the city in mind, winds that are said to drive men mad. In our case, however, the weather was sublime, the rains that had pursued us through a late autumn in Europe having finally fallen victim to our evasive prowess. The air was warm and the sun was shining brightly as we ate a late lunch at a beachfront cafe that could have been anywhere in coastal southern Europe if it weren’t for the groups of abstruse-eyed women passing in bright burkas and the camels we could make out from a distance on the beach, sunning themselves between tourist traps. Morocco is a land of thinly-veiled enigma, the burkas and djellabas aptly symbolizing the curtain that shelters the foreigner from the sometimes beautiful, sometimes malign secrets that lie beyond. The central medina is a perfect paradigm of this dichotomy, where the aromas circulating the souk are of leather and sweet incense mingled with hashish and the senses are both seduced and assaulted by the plethora of offerings. The wares being peddled are offered both overtly, like jewelry and delicately painted ceramics and the blown glass that sparkle behind windowpanes, and discretely, like whispers of drugs for sale on every corner.
We discovered one of Essaouira’s proverbial hidden jewels later that night when we ventured out for a late night dinner and were drawn by the sounds of music to an upstairs cafe on one of the small, winding side streets that contribute to the maze of the medina. It turned out that not only did they make the best vegetable tagine we had anywhere in the country with the added bonus of having wine and beer available (very rare in Morocco) they also had a phenomenal live band playing most nights, joined in their music itinerantly by members of the restaurant staff and guests dining. We found ourselves in a tiny, warm room lit only by burning candles and colorful paper lanterns, strewn with shimmering tapestried cushions and filled with the sounds of conversations in Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, and English whenever there was a break in music. The air was scented with cumin, cloves, cigarettes, and the ubiquitous hashish, copious amounts of which were being passed around the room contributing further to the conviviality of the gathering.
The band played everything from Arabic rock songs to Bob Marley to Jack Johnson, the voice of the singer achingly tender and undeniably appealing in his frank love of the music he was putting forth. He was Jimi Hendrix at twenty before he found disillusionment, with a handsome face and shining eyes and a shock of curly hair. The whole room chimed in for “Redemption Song” and cultural inhibitions were strewn aside as everyone in the cafe joined the rhythm of the thumping bongo drums and the harmony of the guitar and keyboard. It was the kind of occurrence I cherish most, both as traveler and as a seeker, one in which people from a number of far-flung places all over the planet come together to share something so unique that each one of them will emerge with the same shared memory.
With that experience fresh in mind I sit here on the roof of El Pacha, sipping a glass of Moroccan red and watching the sun set over an alluring city filled with wonder, rage, sculptures, woven carpets, fishermen, poverty, secrets, joy, drugs, illusion, and, yes, music. I contemplate the reason for traveling and if the words traveler and seeker are, in fact, synonymous. What I seek in life I have yet to completely elucidate, but I think I have found in Essaouira what I sought in Morocco. Far beyond simple sunshine and a sandy beach, it offered me a glimpse of the colors that shift beneath the surface, the soul that defies to be outshone by glitter and mirrors or concealed behind a curtain.
Julia Reynolds is a writer and bartender living on the North Shore of Kaua’i. When she’s not making mai tais she enjoys searching for empty beaches, hiking, and diving. She never gets “island fever” and feels happiest when surrounded by the ocean.