Walk with me. I think you might want closed toed shoes for this outing. We can leave the sandals for when we go to the beach. It’s best to bring layers. When you wander around the streets in the Essaouira Medina it can be a bit chilly; being in the shade and all. A wind can pick up as well. But once you get out into the open, that sun can really bake you. The temperature feels like it changes by about 10 degrees based on whether or not the sun is on you. There. That’s perfect. That scarf you bought looks great and will be a welcome cover in a bit.
There are some things you should know before we set out on our wander around Essaouira.
1. The ground can be a bit slippery. Shop owners habitually wash down the sidewalks in front of their shops and there are fountains all over the place where men wash their feet, people fill up water bottles and others clean their fish. This tends to keep surfaces wet and slippery.
2. Beware the bike and moto riders. They come down the street slow enough, but whew sometimes they cut it very close. Oh and there’s also a lot of heavy carts carrying breads, tools, stones, suitcases, anything you like, making their way through the alleyways.
3. There’s going to be a lot of people who just sort of seem to be hanging about on corners, in the middle of the street, you name it. Most are likely associated with the shop or café you are undoubtedly walking in front of, but others really are just standing about. It can cause a bit of confusion if you are trying to look at something in particular, or are just suspicious of people who just seem to be doing nothing but watching other people.
4. Watch out for cats! Really it’s just a courtesy to make sure you don’t step on their tails. They really love to stretch out and sleep in a patch of sun and have been known to take up the entire center of the road.
I think that’s about it. Let’s go. You’ll notice the streets are sort of organized by occupation. Where we are walking right now seems to be “tailors row”. Each shop has doors that open into a tiny closet sized space where men are sitting in the back or a corner working some sort of device that manages their thread. I have no idea what this device is called, but we’ve seen several of them. They have bike chains that move the spools back and forth and assist in unwinding the thread as the tailor uses more and more in his work. It’s fascinating to watch the machine at work from outside. It seems disembodied as you cannot see who or what is at the other end. Watch out for your head! They’re plying their thread and yarn. If you look hard enough you’ll see little hooks hanging from the awnings or sticking out from poles. Sets of men with work together to lace long lines of thread up and down through these hooks and they use a little hand-held winder for plying the thread. Sometimes the thread is so fine you can’t see it and will walk your forehead right into their work.
Now we’ve made it to the produce area. Back here you’ll find stacks and stacks of olives, harissa, and preserved lemons. As you walk by take a deep inhale of the salt and spices used in the olives. If you’re lucky, you’re standing in front of the herb guys and you’re also inhaling intense mint and rosemary smells. Mint is everywhere and it really helps block out some of the less appetizing smells you might encounter. Yes, that is absolutely a chicken you hear back there – there are many back there actually. Peek your head around. See how the crates of hens are stacked on top of each other? There are so many hens and baby chicks for sale. I think they stay here all the time, well, until they’re sold anyway. There’s lots of eggs for sale as well. There are several stalls of live hens for sale and then several more selling more produce items. Everyone seems to be selling the same things, though quality seems to differ greatly. The eggplant/aubergine over there look much better than this guy. Though, this guy’s tomatoes look riper. You can go stand to stand and pick whatever you fancy. The target price the other day seemed to be about 2 MAD for anything. The olives were a splurge at 6 dirhams for sure.
I’m sure the bottoms of your shoes are covered in wet and herbs by now. No don’t look! It’s best just to think about all the places your soles have been and remove your shoes before walking into the house. We learned this in SE Asia and haven’t been able to turn back to wearing our shoes indoor since. If you don’t have slippers to use indoors, you can buy any number of shoes here. There are tons of leather mules and slippers and, uniquely in Essaouira, shoes made from raffia. I don’t know how any of these will hold up, but they look like they would last a bit and would be perfect for wearing around the house. That guy over there looks like he’s about to beckon us to his shop. “Look, Look” is always the starting phrase.
Don’t be shy. If there’s anything you want, just bargain for it. It seems to be a favorite past-time here. We’ve been told to start at 40% from the asking price and go from there. Always keep a smile and don’t be harsh. This is how business is done here. It’s super uncomfy for me too. I actually hate it, but it’s what’s done. If you don’t get to a satisfactory price then just go to the next shop. There’s always someone else selling the same thing and may be willing to do so for less. Yes, it can be really uncomfortable to walk by all these shops and be “welcomed” and asked to “stop my friend”. Usually you can say “no thank you” one or two times and that should end the requests. They may continue to yell after you but I haven’t had anyone follow me or make me feel threatened. It is different when you are a woman by yourself though. I noticed that when I’m with Zac, we are propositioned far less than when I am alone. Also, when I’m alone I have far more people (usually men) trying to guess where I’m from. It seems to be a past time for them. They’re never right though.
Yes, it can be difficult to walk around here. Between all the tourists and all the merchandise for sale that’s spilling out from the shops onto the walkway. And the aforementioned bicycles, motos, carts etc. you have to be nimble and make some quick moves.
Ohhhh, so sweet. Look over there. There are two kittens curled up sleeping on each other. Mostly the cats are well looked after and the locals seem to care for them. It seems rather tough out here though. We’ve seen some really battered kitties – eyes seem to be a big problem for them. I’ve been wondering why the right ear of most of the cats is cut. I think it means something about shots or something else. I originally thought maybe it meant they’ve been spayed or neutered, but there seem to be too many pregnant cats with cut ears for that to be the case. The dogs don’t seem to fare as well. They are looking a bit mangy and sort of roam around aimlessly. Whew. That one is super dirty and his hair is matted down. I want to help these animals but haven’t seen an animal clinic the entire time we’ve been here. Also, not sure it’s a good idea to pick any of these animals up.
Oh, these ladies? Yeh, they sit all day in front of the shop and “grind” argan oil. I’m a bit jaded about the process really, because you can see the women just sitting there and then they see someone approaching and they start to turn the wheel on the little mill in front of them. It’s too bad really because it is an interesting process. Argan oil is really big in this area and they market a lot of it. We’ve been told to be really careful with where you buy it though, because some shop keepers have gotten clever and will mix the tiniest amount of argan oil with a cheaper less quality oil (maybe something like sunflower or vegetable oil) and sell it as pure argan oil. It takes a lot of time and nuts to get the oil and it’s quite expensive. There are a few women’s cooperatives that do the work of making the oil, and nothing of the nut seems to go to waste. It seems like they’re doing good work for these women – creating livelihoods and providing opportunities for the farmer’s – but I just have such a thing with the marketing and “demonstrations” of it. It just seems so false.
Now we’re getting into the wood carving and rug area. I’ve been told Essaouira is the region if you are interested in wood carving. They’ve been working the craft here for centuries and are really quite amazing at it, but not sure what one does with some of this stuff. I guess it’s just decorative. I was told the north has much better wool than here, so I’m not super interested in stopping and looking at any of the carpets for sale. They have all the normal Moroccan styles, but I’m going to wait for the north to see what we find.
God, now we’re into the more everyday junk. There’s no artisanship here; just stuff people need everyday. Oh but we forgot about the spice people. Yeh, there are lots of spice sellers here. Herbs too. My favorite are the ones with the hand written signs that give a brief idea of what the herb mixture is used for. There seem to be an awful lot for creating amorous behaviors in men. A few for women, but definitely more for virility in men. There are a few classic Moroccan herbs to be found (outside of those for an erection) like Moroccan saffron, cumin, black cumin, you name it you can probably find it here. We’ve been told the Moroccan saffron is better than “all the others” and is relatively inexpensive. It does smell really good and makes a bit of a lighter color than Iranian or Spanish saffron, but not sure about the claims. At any rate, it’s best to buy it when they have to pack the container for you. We’ve been told many times they’ll put the good stuff on top of existing containers and then put inferior quality on the bottom that you can’t see.
For sure, this can be overwhelming. There are gobs of cafes to stop at when we’re ready. Maybe even watch the sunset from the terrace. Let’s grab a sfinge (doughnut) and wander a bit more. Once we’re done with that we’ll head back home for a rest before we talk about where and what we want to eat for dinner.