Sunday, August 2, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 39. Essaouira to Marrakech

“Freedom, freedom at last” I thought as the wind blew against my cheeks and the land flew past by me. Well, “flew by” is a relative term, because the scooter I rented had a top speed of 30 mph. Still, it was the perfect vehicle to cure me from the restrictions of group travel. I started south, parallel to the beach, but after a while the road took to the coastal hills, and I reveled on the arid landscape, dominated by thorn bushes and dwarf trees. It really feels like Africa out here. I made stops at the beaches of Sidi Kaouki and Iftane, where local entrepreneurs rent camels to stroll along the beach (but there were precious few visitors), and local shops are ready to rent you a surf board. I believe these beaches were very popular with hippies and the surfing crowd in the 60’s, when Jimi Hendrix made them famous with his song “Castles Made of Sand” (locals claim that he visited Morocco twice, one of them before he wrote the song).

From there I headed inland, to visit the small hamlet of Ida Ou Gourd. My goal was to see the remains of the sugar cane plantations that played an important role in the 17th and 18th century trade out of the port of Mogador. The sultan had a profitable exchange with Carrara, Italy, whereby the sultan exchanged, kilo by kilo, sugar for marble. Since there is a lot of Carrara marble in Morocco the sugar cane plantations must had been enormous. Alas, nothing is left of them nowadays, unless the odd tumbling wall could be ascribed as being a ruin of the sugar mills. The valley is fertile compared to the surrounding arid lands, however, so Ida Ou Gourd has become the in place for villas of the upper class (it is too bad that all these villas are behind 12-foot walls, because you can see from the top of the trees that they are surrounded by beautiful gardens). The hamlet itself is the meanest, ugliest, and dirtiest I have seen! I should add here that overall Morocco is a very clean country, where sanitation is made a priority and where the municipal services work really hard at keeping the cities clean. Let the wealthy be the ones that ignore the municipal services of the valley they have taken over!

Back in Essaouira we collected our luggage and took the bus that was to bring us to Marrakech. It was a 3-hour bus ride, and when we got off we all felt the blow of a very warm afternoon. The hotel is great, however, and by the time we got out to visit the central plaza the cool of the afternoon had already set in. The central plaza of Marrakech is all a tourist can dream of: Colorful, exotic, and (thanks to Ramadan) not overly crowded. The problem, as I learned 20 years ago, is that every seller and street performer is out to make some money off the goofy tourists, so some of my peers got badgered by the snake charmer, the water seller, or the fruit vendor for a tip after they had laughed taking their photos. The owners of the market stalls, on their part, may had been weak from a month of fasting but still knew that they only had one chance to make money out of us, so they were at their charming best to draw us into their stalls, only to turn into veritable selling demons once one of our group had fallen into their clutches.

Happy and tired we were getting ready to the painful negotiation with taxis, when one of our number (we were five altogether) talked a horse-drawn carriage to take us to the hotel for a mere 100 dirhams. It was a fun, careless drive, and we have arranged for the carriage to come tomorrow afternoon to take us for a city tour for a very reasonable fee.

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