Beware of street excavations.....
Step out of the taxi and fall down the evil hole!..................
These pictures were recently taken at the taxi rank, Place Orson Welles, Essaouira, two large holes had been dug out on the pavement adjacent to the taxi rank and then abandoned without any safety considerations for pedestrians. This problem is widespread throughout Morocco, and although it may not be too much of a danger for travellers during the long daylight summer, the shorter winter days and long dark evenings would present danger, especially if the street overhead lighting was dim or, as is often the case, non-existent during unexpected lighting failures, caused by corroded underground and overhead power cables.
I always make sure I pack a reliable pocket torch when walking around at night, some of these holes are deep, with sharp pieces of rusty steel reinforcement rods poking upwards, waiting to skewer the unwary!
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Beware of juvenile thieves!
Eleven years ago, I was living in Essaouira, and my favourite place to relax and soak up the sun was the beautiful deserted north beach, which stretches as far as the eye can see, and beyond.......
One day, I was returning from the beach, and close to the access road, Avenue al Aquaba, a young boy approached me and asked for one dirham, so I rummaged in my jeans pocket, extracted a coin and handed it to him. Suddenly, another four boys appeared from behind some rocks and demanded money, I started to walk away but they surrounded me, and each taking turns, tried to snatch at my pockets, intent on robbing me. I had to produce my lock-blade pocket knife and threaten them, this had the effect of backing them nervously off at a distance, but did not disperse them.
Fortunately, a couple of local fishermen appeared over a rocky outcrop and shouted at the boys which immediately frightened them off, and they ran away. I thanked the fishermen and quickly made my escape.
I discovered later that these boys were street urchins from the peripheral bidonvilles (shanty towns) at Casablanca, their families recently resettled in the new housing estate, Lotissement Skala adjacent to the beach, while the slums were being demolished.
Ironically, at this exact location today stands a new police station, occupied by the khaki-uniformed para-military police.
After the experience of this unpleasant incident, which could easily have turned ugly, because of my determination not to be robbed, I now travel with a long walking stick, and only carry enough small change to buy an ice cream and cold drink in the supermarket, Aswak Essalam, beside the police station, but I still feel comfortable with my utility knife, which is only used to open tins of tuna fish and fruit.
This warning could also apply to almost any locality in Morocco, the European financial disaster has resulted in a significant drop in tourist numbers, essential to many local economies, and the signs of deprivation and desperation are evident everywhere.........
When I told our housemaster that I was going to Essaouira he proclaimed how different the city was compared to Marrakech. He told me it was very "pacifique". Most travel reports I read said the same thing: Essaouira is a world away from Marrakech and there's almost no hassle. Well that's not entirely true.
In fact the first day I arrived I experienced more hassle than three days in Marrakech. First we were surrounded at the bus stop. Then on our first walk down the promenade we were approached by beggars, craft merchants, shoe shiners and purveyors of sunglasses - and they didn't want to take no for an answer. It wasn't quite the relaxing evening I'd been hoping for.
Once we settled in and stopped looking like the newly arrived the hassle seemed to vanish. The medina was no trouble at all and the merchants there were polite and restrained. Everyone in Essaouira is used to tourists, and the locals seem genuinely friendly and open to foreigners and their strange ways.
Essaouira has a pleasant micro-climate that averages around the mid-20s all year. The stiff wind that often blows in from the Atlantic has an additional cooling effect. Just because it is cooler than elsewhere in the region, that doesn't mean the sun isn't shining, and this far south it's very strong.
In winter there's the additional problem of the sun being low on the horizon. That means you'll get burned in places that don't usually see the sun (especially on the face) and you'll spend a lot of time shading your eyes from the sun. So bring sunglasses, and if you are sensitive to the sun expect to get burned even in winter.
The wind can be very strong and can have a significant cooling effect, meaning you might want to wear a jacket even when the temperature is above 20 degrees. The wind can also catch the sand on the beach and deposit it in your eye, so again sunglasses would be useful. You can understand now why there are so many sunglasses salesmen around the beach.
It's a small, provincial town and despite the tourist crowds opening times can be problematic. In particular there are few restaurants open all day, and you can find yourself struggling to find your restaurant of choice. There are always some snacks, shops and touristy pizza places open, but most of the best restaurants seemed to shut at 2pm and stay closed until at least 7pm.
Travel with Small Kids
Essaouira is far better developed than Marrakech and the medina was pretty easy to navigate with a pram. The pavements along the beach area also very good, except on a stretch where they are building a new promenade. But by the time that's finished it will be smooth pavements from the top of the beach to the bottom. The traffic is also much lighter and less aggressive, making crossing the road a lot easier - one driver even stopped for us at a zebra crossing!
Wash your hands all the time, especially before eating. Take some antibacterial wipes with you, or carry an antibacterial hand gel.
Morocco is a developing country and many people end up with some kind of stomach problem here, although usually it's nothing more than upset stomach. Having said that our family took different approaches to the food, my wife eating whatever she wanted, me taking the ultra paranoid approach, and my son somewhere safely in between. None of us got sick. The only rule we did follow was no fish (especially shellfish), only drinking bottled water, and doing a bit of research on any restaurant we ate at (preferring ones that the locals eat at).
The rule they usually advise is: cook it, peel it or bin it. I started the holiday with the idea that if it's burned it can't hurt me - nuke it basically. But by the end of the trip I relaxed and was even eating salad. For the ultra cautious you should also avoid poultry products, including chicken and especially eggs, unless they are thoroughly cooked, I would never eat fish, and nearly every food poisoning account I read about in Morocco involved fish or shellfish. Fish is obviously a very popular dish in this seaside town, so you might not want to miss out, so research your restaurants carefully.
With tap water you should always boil it and check the bottled water to make sure it hasn't already been opened. Sometimes you can find your bottled refilled with tap water. Many people also brush their teeth in bottled water, and the ultra paranoid will keep water out of their mouth in the shower too. The problem with water is that even if it is good and clean, there can still be bacteria in it that you aren't used to and will give you a stomach upset. So if you aren't planning on staying for more than a holiday there's not much need to get your stomach used to the water.
My advice is to play it as safe as you feel comfortable, but don't let the fear of food poisoning ruin your holiday. Think about what you are going to eat - don't let yourself miss out on something amazing because it's a bit of a risk, but also why risk it for something that isn't all that special?
Essaouira isn't known for its crime, but any beach can be a tempting place for a casual criminal. Leaving your belongings behind on the sand is obviously asking for trouble, but also be careful walking by yourself or in quieter areas, especially at night or near dark. The medina, and the stretch of beach going south is the busiest and safest.
Most of the criminals probably come from outside, and the big events like the Gnaoua festival attracts a lot of them with reports of crime rising during that time. So be extra vigilant when the crowds are in town.
What to Wear
On the beaches of Essaouira the local men strip down to their shorts and play football, the local women take off their shoes. It is a pretty conservative society, but they are used to tourists wearing little on the beach. It's probably best not to wander around the town in a bikini, though.
I found cash was generally preferred in Essaouira, but some places took credit cards. There were several ATMs from where I could draw my money from abroad, two of which were on the street leading out from Bab Sbaa, at the end of the beach nearest the medina. Basically find the clock tower and walk out the gate from there towards the beach.
Essaouira - DONT LEND MONEY!!!!
A quick note to those of you who are honest and somewhat naive.... Unfortunately there are a 2 guys working together at the beach targeting female foreign tourists and in some cases "borrowing" money from them only to be told they have no interest in paying it back. I lent a considerable amount (3600 MAD) to help a guy with a kite surfing instructors course in which he didnt do. The story I got ranged from " my father was an alcoholic and spent all the money the family had" to "i crashed the rental car and am in serious trouble". His mother apologised that her son had lied and ripped me off and promised to get the money to me at months end. She has since advised she would prefer to use it to aid the building of a house in a little village near Cap Sim / Sidi Kaouki. I have been there several times, taken them for dinner, away on group trips....you would therefore imagine these particular people had some respect firstly for themselves, their families and possibly us the tourists however it would seem not. It is really sad these 2 guys in particular are giving the others a bad reputation.
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