Morocco: Trying Not To Buy A House in Essaouira (Again)

Morocco: Trying Not To Buy A House in Essaouira (Again)

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Today we leave the peaceful and tiny kitten filled Les Jardins des Lilas set in the midst of the madness that is Marrakech medina to catch a bus to the seaside. The rain is gone. The sun is out, the sky is a particularly Moroccan shade of blue and we’re on our way to Essaouira or ‘Home’ as it was once destined to be (I am building intrigue here, can you tell?).

A final taxi ride to the train station to catch the bus (yep) made me thankful that I hadn’t checked my blood pressure (I need to keep an eye on it due to the kidney disease). Today was not a good day for blood pressure. As a person who experiences a lot of anxiety which relates to things that are not really worth worrying about, it made quite a refreshing change to be actually genuinely terrified about something concrete and real. How do these people not kill each other? The taxi driver seemed to love the constant within a whisker of serious injury life he had. His almost continuous use of the horn and derision of anyone travelling with less speed and more caution delighted him. Must be the mint tea, which is loaded with more sugar than is good for anyone (serious note: Morocco, like many other nations, has a serious diabetes problem).

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The Supratours coach to Essaouira costs 80 dirhams, takes 3 hours and is driven by another candidate for Shittest Driver Of The Year Award. As Keith said: ‘This man has received more phone calls during this journey that I do in a month’. And he wasn’t hands-free, although, bless him, he did try to untangle his headphones whilst overtaking a truck at 120km an hour. Credit where its due. Here he is. Untangling. In the outside lane. Shame you can’t see the truck.

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He subsequently gave up and returned to hands.

Apart from the fear of death, its a great ride west to the coast. The snow capped Atlas mountains run alongside for part of the way (camera on phone couldn’t do it justice) and then the landscape flattens right out.

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Since my last visit, they’ve built a motorway with a toll. What this means is that no one uses it. Completely empty. Pity the poor fella at the toll booth. What does he do all day?

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I have mixed emotions about coming to Essaouira, but as I also have alexithymia (look it up) I don’t know what they are (autism joke). The next bit is a bit of potentially dull and self indulgent back story, so please skip off if you just want to know that if you order jus de pommes in Morocco, you get apple milkshake rather than apple juice and it is bloody lovely. The same applies to jus de bananes but not jus d’orange. They also offer avocado juice but I’ve never been brave enough to see what turns up. Why don’t we do apple milkshake in England? It could catch on.

Anyway, the back story: I first came to Morocco in 2001, a few weeks after the 9/11 bombings, a time when Arabic countries were not the most popular of holiday destinations. I’d been fascinated by Morocco for years and always wanted to go, but money, kids and bravery had got in the way. My sister in law and I got a cheap package deal to Agadir, just used the flight and set off on buses around Morocco for a week. She was a seasoned worldwide traveller; I was a wimp who’d never been further than Torrelmolinos. Sounds perfectly feasible so far, but there is a back story to the back story. During the few months prior to this trip several major things had happened in my life: my mum had died (second parent), my marriage had ended, I’d ended up living in a tent at the age of 33 with my two children and I’d had a bit of a breakdown at the top of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (with hindsight this was undoubtedly the result of the accumulation of previous events) which was due to affect me in many ways for the rest of my life so far (panic attacks, agoraphobia etc.). In short, every piece of certainty in my life had disappeared. These cheery events were to form the basis of my first and last Edinburgh Fringe comedy show in 2013. It was funnier that it sounds (‘The thinking person’s Sarah Millican’ – Three Weeks review). The autism was a distant future discovery waiting to happen.

To cut a very long story short, I came to Morocco (fairly tanked up on Diazepam in order to get on the plane – at this time I needed it to get on a bus, get in a lift or go to the cinema), went to Essaouira, loved it beyond measure, and feeling extremely strongly that due to everything that had happened, I needed a tiny corner of the world that no one could take away from me. I couldn’t afford one closer to home (single parent, renting, working part time in a college), so here it was gonna be. I planned to move here when my kids had grown up. It felt possible, affordable and weirdly, somewhere I felt I could fit (some fabulous bonkers expats end up in Morocco). I brought my brother and his wife over and convinced them that this was a good thing to do, I took out a bank loan (credit was easy in those days) and so between us we bought the house for £16,000 in Essaouira medina that was going to be my home one day.

To cut a long story short again: fast forward lots of wonderful holidays, ongoing problems with the house, higher than expected building costs, more loans, crippling debt, huge stress, ill health, up for sale for 2 years, sold for a pittance, thought we would never get the money out of the country, more crippling debt. The money turned up randomly in bank account over a year after the sale, haven’t been back for 5 years. All too much to face.

So, apple milkshake.

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So, we’re here. This is Essaouira. An ancient fishing port and town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, long since been a hangout for kite and windsurfers due to the almost consistently windy and yet protected nature of the bay. I once went windsurfing here with a friend. We hired our wetsuits, handed to us by a gentleman in the shop and made the long walk across the sand to the sea. Someone took a photo: two people in wetsuits, one with a large ‘M’ on the back, the other with ‘XXXL’. Bastard. It was way too big for me. Honest.

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Inside the medina is a crazy bustle of life, but a laid-back, kind of friendly one (as opposed to the more cut-throat Marrakech version). It’s strange to be back in a place which holds so many emotions and experiences. I’ve changed, but Essaouira hasn’t; and nor has the way I felt about it 13 years ago.

Now, all I need to do is to check that they have a decent dialysis clinic and a requirement for autism training. In English. Then, we’re sorted. I’ve written books you know? Don’t you know who I am? Now where’s that estate agent?

Keith, why are you making that face? Do you have sand in your eye?

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Morocco: Bruce Willis and Umbrella Entrepreneurs

Morocco: Bruce Willis and Umbrella Entrepreneurs

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Keith on the Moroccan music piped through our riad: ‘Do they actually like it, or do they just put it on for the tourists?’

We just missed the International Film Festival with esteemed films from across the world being shown in various venues across the city, including an open air screen in Djemma el Fna, the famous main square in Morocco. As part of the programme, Die Hard 3 was shown in this screen, complete with guest appearance by Jeremy Irons. Missing the experience of watching several thousand Moroccans watching Bruce Willis with a backdrop of the Atlas Mountains and the Koutoubia, a 1000 year old minaret is something I may never recover from. Marrakech has a cycle lane. For anyone who has been here, you will know what a ludicrous concept this is in a city with rubble for pavements and a traffic system which allows mopeds to travel down alleyways barely wide enough for a person. Driving is terrible; its hard to work out whether you are safer inside of a car or out. I have difficulties crossing roads in the UK due to struggling to process all of the moving information quickly enough. Out here its a piece of piss; its a waste of time even attempting to work it all out, so I don’t bother: do as the locals do and just step out. I find this entirely liberating. Marrakech is also wheelchair accessible, although only for crossing one road as far as we could see, and each side of the road beyond this island is made of rubble. Someone somewhere ticked a diversity box on the day this paint came out.

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We also saw the local version of Costa. Charcoal burner, coffee pot and a bucketful of plastic cups. Coffee costs 1 dirham (about 7p). Most things in Morocco cost 1 dirham.  Another highlight of our day was being offered drugs. This is a regular event in Morocco and only goes to show that local client profiling skills are not very sophisticated. Keith and I are the least likely looking hashish buyers on the planet. Keith doesn’t touch anything stronger than tea and thinks cannabis smells like rocket and thus accuses every salad eating person he meets of taking drugs. We didn’t want any hash, but its always nice to be asked.

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It was another rainy day today and Marrakech was suddenly filled with hoards of umbrella salesmen armed with multiple parapluies. Even our riad got a bit soggy.


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How we laughed; we come from England, you think a bit of rain phases us? Ha! You’ve got to admire such a quick response to climatic change. Tomorrow the weather is set to return to its blue skies norm and all these young men will revert back to selling sunglasses and watches. Other such inventiveness was in the shape of this fella (towards the back of the picture) who walked up, sat down and got out a set of scales. One can only assume that either scales are beyond the budget of the average Moroccan or the average Moroccan has an exhibitionist tendency to desire being weighed in the middle of a packed street.

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We made two visits in between downpours today. One was to the beautiful Majorelle Gardens and the other to the Carre Eden Shopping Center (sic). Both peaceful and relaxing in their own way, if only because in both locations no one tried to ‘help’ us, being convinced we were lost. Just because we’re looking at a map doesn’t mean we’re lost. Well, we might be lost, but we might like being lost and not want to be found. I guess that may be a strange concept to some people, many of whom never have the luxury of a holiday and of happily getting lost. Life is too busy and too tough for such frivolities.

There is plenty of information on the Majorelle Gardens elsewhere, but here are a few photos. It was established in the 1940s by a French artist and now belongs to a foundation owned by Yves St Laurent and kept for the benefitof the city. The colours of the plants, tiles and pots complement each other perfectly. Its a relief for the eye and probably the least chaotic and ‘scruffy’ place in the whole of Marrakech. It costs 50 dirhams (£3.50) to get in and is a shady oasis in the burning summer heat and a shelter in the torrential winter rain.

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The Carre Eden Shopping Center was an odd experience and one indicative of the huge disparity of lifestyle, income and opportunity that exists in Morocco. In the medina, water is collected from public taps and transport is via donkey. In the shopping centre there is Burger King, Dominos, Spongebob and adverts for £45,000 Jaguar cars. What is the Arabic for Spongebob, I wonder?

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We had to both confess that we breathed an audible sigh if relief at entering the familiarity of a European style shopping centre. Outdoor Marrakech is an assault on all senses, both social and environmental and we (especially me) struggle with that. Its brilliant, but tiring.The centre has a French supermarket which is both empty and expensive – the small trader is still winning in Marrakech.

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The main deal in Marrakech is the Djemma el Fna. By day a half empty concrete expanse populated by snake charmers, henna artists and monkeys which by night transforms into a bright, steaming street food market. The stalls are largely separated into skewers, chips and soup (tourists) and cow head and snails (locals). The bright bare bulbs of the stalls and the rising smoke from the charcoal fires make it very atmospheric.

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Sometimes, despite it all, nothing beats a room picnic, especially when it turns out that Pharrell Williams was in the house after all (he’s wearing a woven bathroom toiletries receptacle).

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Morocco: Return to Marrakech

Morocco: Return to Marrakech

Keith thought he saw Pharrell Williams in the Easyjet Bag Drop queue at 5am at Gatwick. I thought this unlikely. We wondered where he might be going. On this occasion, most of Gatwick consisted of single sex (posh) school skiing parties wearing identical hoodies purchased for the trip. I watch the teachers in charge of Other People’s Children in fascination and awe. They look so relaxed and appear not to be counting their charges every 30 seconds. Not once did I hear one shout: ‘Where’s Jenkins? WHERE’S JENKINS? Ah, there you are Jenkins. Where’s Smith? WHERE’S SMITH?…’. In my 27 years of parenting I have never helped out on a school outing. The responsibility of my own child has been almost more than I could bear.

So, we’re on our way to Morocco for a pointless 8 day trip. Because we can and because I’d run out of preserved lemons (about 5 years ago when I last came). Morocco and I have a lot of history, but more of that later. We decide to buy some neck cushions as we fall asleep a lot. Keith quickly exhausted all hilarity options involving neck cushions and a human head.

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Practical details: 8 nights in mid December. £80 each Easyjet flight, 3 nights in riad in Marrakech with breakfast £72, 5 nights in riad in Essaouira on coast £120. Bus (3 hours) from Marrakech to Essaouira £5, taxi from airport to city £4.50. Food is cheap as £1 a day or as much as you want to spend. Much cheaper accommodation can be found but we figure £25 for a double room with breakfast is something we can afford, and for that you can stay in some pretty fabulous places in Morocco.

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As my grandson, Ben, said when went to Portugal: ‘It’s a bit scruffy, Grandma’, I’d hate to think what he’d make of Morocco. Morocco is dirty, scruffy, utterly overwhelming and in your face, and I love it. Well, I say I love it but I can only handle being out in it for a couple of hours at a time before needing to scuttle back indoors for a lie down. But, then I’m like that with Worthing so perhaps its nothing to do with Morocco after all.

Today its raining in Marrakech, hence the cloudy sky from the roof terrace of our home for 3 nights, Riad Les Jardins des Lilas, which is in a particularly labyrinthine part of the particularly labyrinthine medina of the city.

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On our first outing we got lost. Then we made a classic rookie error of Being Lost in the Medina, which is Don’t Look As Though You Are Lost in the Medina. Like penguins in a sea of sharks we attracted the attention of a ‘helpful’ young gentleman who offered to show us the way. Experience says that this service will cost, but stupidly we did not agree this cost in advance. A faux pas which resulted in a minor disagreement of rates of pay for unofficial guiding services in Marrakech and some phenomenal fake offence taking by the young gentleman and some impressive (given my level of language ability) French indignation by yours truly. Adrenaline increases cognitive processing. Welcome back to Marrakech!

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Despite being annoyed at ourselves for losing at Morocco, we did manage to successfully purchase our bus tickets to Essaouira-by-the-seaside for 2 days time, so we’re calling today a draw.

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