Travel: Morocco (part 1) – The Beach of Essaouira

My Moroccan holiday had started in a typically frantic style. After getting next to no sleep the night before, I made my way to Luton airport and onto a 7am flight to Essaouira. I had originally planned a 2 hour camel trip, and to be picked up from the airport by the guide, although I had cancelled this the night before, predicting my sleep deprivation. I was glad of this, as I managed to take the day at my own pace, meeting an expat local at the airport who offered me advice and allowed me to share his taxi into the Medina.

I was immediately struck by the pleasantness of Essaouira. The road from the airport to the town winded tightly around modest looking orange houses, passing small farms and assortment of animals – goats and sheep mostly. The weather was warm, the sky blue, a welcome contrast from the grey London that I’d just left. I noted the sticky sweet scent in the air, perhaps a smell that permeates countries of warm, tropical climates. I noticed a similiar smell in Kuala Lumpur and Heraklion. Each of these places I’m sure have their own distinct aroma, but the Essaouira aroma for sure brought back memories of those places. Just stepping foot in a Mediterranean climate, and having my senses immersed for the first time in North Africa was a thrill.

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My British taxi companion, who owned a holiday home in the center of Essaouira, imparted valuable advice as we rolled into the Medina. I learnt the cost of catching a Taxi around the Medina, an affordable 7 Dirham (about 50p), as well as where the good drinking spots were found (which he indicated were filled with interesting characters) and that if I wanted a feed, the market at the wharf was best. There you get fresh fish of your choice and have it cooked in front of you. As a appealing as that sounded, I opted to first head to a bus depot and book my bus later that day to Marrakesh, which for 100 Dirham secured myself a seat on a comfortable Supratours coach.

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I then taxi’d straight to the beach entrance, where a mass of Camels were lazy spread out on the sand. As I stood surveying the beach, wondering which Camel was to be my ride of choice, a Berber guide came straight up to me, towing two Camels behind him. He asked me if I wanted a ride, to which I asked of he could take me to the castle’s made of sand. He indicated yes, and mentioned the Jimi Hendrix cafe, something I had a vague interest in seeing, in spite of the exaggerations of the amount of time Hendrix actually spent in Essaouira. Having researched about the culture of haggling in Morocco, I tried my skills out for the first and eventually agreed on good price for an hours Camel ride. I was a initially little wary that this would be the most quality ride, seeing as my Camel looked a bit past it’s prime. Cappuccino, as he was named, was also reluctant to sit down, the guide had to give it a small whip around the legs with his rope to encourage it to do so. The camel knelt down with a groan and in spite of my reservations, I hopped on the seat on the poor old creatures back. Cappuccino set off shuffling down the beach, with a friend Camel following behind, and my guide holding the rope in front. The experience was a slightly odd one, and while it was a  fun and slightly surreal introduction to Essaouira, I was happy I had chosen just the hour long ride, and not the 2 hour trek as previously planned. I did not make it to the Hendrix cafe, although I saw some nice sand dunes, and the guide was good enough to take photos for me. Perhaps If I return to Essaouira, I will chose a healthier looking Camel, to make the animal rights side of my personality a little less guilty.

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Now off the Camel, I tipped my guide for his extra help taking photos (and a music video shot), and proceeded to a beach side cafe for a beer, and to change into togs. Hurling myself into the North African sea, ignoring the slight chill, I spent a good hour rolling amongst the considerable surf. Many other travelers had the same idea, although most people I shared the water with were showing off impressive surfing skills. Essaouira, I soon learnt, has waves just right for surfing, hence the share amount of them out in the water. I took to body surfing, and met a couple of Danish blokes body boarding nearby. We exchanged brief pleasantries, before they took to the task of catching waves with much concentration. I bobbed around in the water a bit longer, appreciating the novelty of being in the North African sea, before returning to land.

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Back at the beach side cafe, I met a British man working from a camper-van in Essaouira –  he has traveled here to chase the sun and escape the British winter, and also his girlfriend who had just that day joined him. She recognized me from the airport, having had been on the same flight. The next few hours slipped away in a haze of beer and baileys, and before I knew it I had only 30 minutes to make the bus I had booked to Marrakesh. Not wanting to leave without seeing some of the port, I said goodbye to my new friends, and quickly ran to the nearest taxi I could find. Having made it to the port, in less than 10 minutes I ran to the sites I had been interested in – the location where they had filmed some of Daenerys Targaryen’s story in Game Of Thrones season 3. I had to give the guards 20 Dirham, as the port entrance was near closing time, but having quickly snapped the desired photos, I again grabbed a taxi and rushed in the direction of the bus depot. Somehow I made it in time, and with a few minutes to spare I boarded the bus.

On the road to Marrakesh, there are apparently goats perplexingly standing in trees. This seemed something to witness, though in part due to the sleep deprivation of catching an early flight, and also due to the drinks consumed, I soon nodded off. The tree standing goats would have to wait ’till my next Moroccan visit.

Next time – the chaos of Marrakesh, adventures to the set of Lawrence of Arabia, and how to fall for the most obvious of Moroccan tourist traps.

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Travel: Heading to Morocco – Unorganized and Ill-prepared

Two nights ago, I impulsively booked flights to visit Morocco this weekend – this will be my first time in Northern Africa, and I’m both excited and a little nervous. I’m travelling first to the small seaside of Essaouira, where I plan to see the beach, the harbour walls (used as a set for Daenerys Targaryen’s story in Game Of Thrones season 3), and then partake in a Camel trek across the beach to an area where famous hippies such as Jimi Hendrix purportedly adventured. I will then bus to Marrakesh, where I will join my Kiwi companion and hardened adventurer Stefan, where we shall explore the streets and secrets of this famous city. I hope to watch Stefan attempt to haggle with local traders, and will most likely be amused at his attempts not to be ripped off. We also have a day-trip planned to the Atlas Mountains, where some of the classic Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. I’ve previously written about my appreciation of both camels and David Lean’s classic film about T.S. Lawrence, and seeing both these things in person will be quite a thrill.

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I would hardly call myself experienced at this traveling business, having really only started exploring this side of the world recently (such as my brief trip to Greece), so there are a few things that I am a tad anxious about. I have already been warned from many of my friends who have already visited Morocco, that you’re bound to be ripped off by local traders in the markets. I’m not great at hard bargaining, and I expect I’ll pay more than full price if I attempt to enter into haggling situations, so I may avoid shopping if I can. Crime seems to be a bit of an issue, and apparently if taking photos around busy areas, I could risk having to pay a charge to any traders or opportunists who I happen to snap. I’m not sure how much of this is true, and how much is people being cautious.

Adding to my worries, here are a few more quotes from the UK Government travel advice page:

“Morocco has a poor road safety record. In 2013, nearly 4,000 people were killed and over 100,000 injured as a result of traffic accidents.”

“There is a high threat from terrorism in Morocco.”

These quotes obviously don’t fill me with confidence, especially as I plan to catch a bus from Essaouira, something I’ve not yet organized. But to travel to a country of such cultural renown, a site of importance for the hippy generation, the background for many famous films and with it’s own rich historical background is obviously very exciting. So provided I can sort my plans out and calm my nerves, this should be a great holiday.

Will my coming weekend in Morocco be a brilliant trip, or comedy of errors?  Watch this space to find out.

Travel Details:

Flight #1 – London to Essaouira, Easyjet, £37.50 (booked five days in advance of travel)

Flight #2 – Marrakesh to London, Thomson, £59

Accommodation – Riad Amin (Marrakesh), shared twin room, £50pp 4 nights

NZIFF: Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)

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The Cannes 2014 favourite gets it’s first (and only?) cinematic run in New Zealand as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. Sissako is only of the few African born directors making narrative cinema that is gaining such an interest at an international level, so I was curious to see what his cinematic voice is like, having not seen his previous films. Sissako, although born in Mauritania, spent much of his childhood in Mali, his fathers country. In this film he focuses his lens on Malian people, specifically in North Mali and Timbuktu, the historically significant city (with a long history of being notoriously difficult to get to, many colonial explorers dying attempting to cross the Saharan desert) which is often confused in western minds with a metaphor for a distant place. But Timbuktu is filled with real people and real struggles, and Sissako successfully translates these to a fictional narrative (based partially on real events) showing the human side behind the Tamasheq-speaking locals and the Arabic-speaking Islamic extremists who’ve invaded their community.

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The core of the story is a drama about a couple, Kidane and Satima who live peacefully on the outskirts of the city, tending to their cattle and raising their daughter. But an argument over the murder of a favourite cow, called ‘GPS’ leads to the father Kidane accidentally murdering a fellow farmer. Separately to this is the story of the civilians living inside Timbuktu, being kept under the strict rule of gun toting Islamic extremists, who’ve banned everything from music to playing soccer and enforced the wearing of the hijab (traditional muslim headscarf) on Timbuktu woman. These new laws are met with defiance from many of the locals, one woman refusing to wear gloves to do the work she has been previously doing with bare hands her whole life, or a group of kids playing an game of soccer with an invisible ball just to get around the regulations. These scenes are staged dramatically and make life in Mali seem very relatable. We are shown the extremists as they try to convert many around the city but struggle to find a level of Islamic conviction they seek. The hypocrisies of the extremists are also made evident; the gun toting militants ban simple pleasures and yet communicate with each other via smartphones and frequently bend their Islamic religious teachings to fit any agenda.

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The cast at Cannes

Although the story is a tragedy we are equally shown the light and relatable aspects of life in Northern Mali, and humor is found even in the darkest aspects of life amongst this type of extremism. What is apparent are the human stories that we are never given when watching news reports on Islamic communities in Africa or the Middle East. We are most usually told only about the murders and bombings, or the various invasions, but not taken inside the lives of those affected by these political groups. We see Malian people singing, socializing and trying to keep their lives going in spite of the changes forced upon them by the ideals of a few. We get to know the people, such as the farmers Kidane and Satima or the unique personalities inhabiting the city. We also get to know the militants, and are given opportunity to equally pity their situation.

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is also photographed beautifully; there is striking imagery, for example one key scene is is played out in a long take from a extremely wide angle, highlighting how the events of these peoples lives take place against the harsh conditions of the desert. The invisible soccar game is also particularly memorable, and plays out with only music and no sound effects; a montage of what having fun is life within the constrictions of inflicted extremest rule in africa. Any brutality in the film is dealt with sensitively and without exploitation. This is delicate, considered filmmaking, on a culture that rarely, if ever, gets an opportunity to tell it’s stories on a world scale.

Watch a excert: