It was many and many a year ago,/ In the kingdom by the sea,/ That a maiden there lived whom you may know /By the name of Annabel Lee.–Edgar Allen Poe
Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world/I’ll always remember you like a child, girl. —Cat Stevens
Last weekend I discovered the writing retreat of my dreams.
My heart, churning like the waves beneath my rooftop terrace, was stirred, then calmed…pacified, then pounded… by the power and beauty of the ocean. I am so thankful for a four-day break and a panoramic view of Essaouira, a seaport city with a rich history of surviving and thriving.
Excitement mounted last Friday as I climbed seventy-three winding, tiled steps from the Medina’s ground floor to Number 7 of Jack’s Apartments.
I’ve always loved studios
and found this one with its balcony by the battlements perfect.
Although the fog shrouded the sea, I could hear the waves crash and see the seagulls sweep the ramparts where Orson Welles filmed Othello. It was a scene Shakespeare-worthy, and I’m sure I caught a glimpse of Hamlet’s father’s ghost in the mists. In the 60s this town attracted Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens, music legends; more recently it lured HBO myth makers to set Game of Thrones Season 3 here.
Essaouira, formerly known as Mogador,
was established as a settlement in the 6th century by the Phoenicians. It has been the conquest of Roman, Arab, Portuguese, and French rule.
The “Port of Timbuktu” has weathered not only pirates but also the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755, natural disasters that partially prompted Voltaire’s Candide. For more on Essaouira’s past and present, go here. Today it is an artists’ colony and home to the Gnaoua and World Music Festival.
The coastal town introduces itself gradually, inviting visitors to meander through shops without the pressure to buy as in the Marrakesh Medina. Choosing this place where winds howl louder at the windows at night than at Wuthering Heights released in this romantic melancholy musings.
On my first extended break since moving to Morocco, I was given the time and space to slow down, relax, breathe, grieve… and return stronger for it.
On Saturday and Sunday after drinking coffee in bed while watching waves, I climbed to the rooftop where my only distraction from writing was my imagination. I spied Annabel Lee’s “kingdom by the sea”—a castle rising from the ocean. I saw cats curling around canons on the ancient city wall, and like Pablo Neruda, I, too, felt “The Poet’s Obligation” to share this seaside adventure with you.
It began with reinforcement of a lesson I’ve been trying to master my whole life– lose the illusion of control. Move onto a Plan B, maybe a Plan C, but first relax and let Plan A go.
I’d tried to buy a return ticket in Marrakesh –twice—because friends told me finding a bus back on Sunday, the Eid-al-Adha, might be difficult. I chose the beach, two and a half hours from Marrakesh, to escape sheep slaughtered on my apartment’s rooftop, then hung to bleed on neighbors’ balconies.
The Feast of Sacrifice is a sacred holiday for Moroccans. My students’ families gather together to kill, cook, then feast on sheep in thanksgiving. They believe once Abraham proved his willingness to sacrifice his first son, Ishmael, God spared the boy and provided a lamb for the sacrifice instead. They believe Ishmael, not Isaac, was the chosen one. I eat meat but did not want to see the sheep killed so I thought I was safe in an apartment hanging over the sea. I was anxious to get there but needed to secure my return ticket.
Following Supratours’ instructions to get one upon arrival, I rushed to the booking line. The kind French couple I met earlier that morning interpreted the message of the agent I feared. All tickets were sold out. I could take a taxi back Sunday or possibly find another place to stay Sunday night (my studio was booked). Hoping I could find a room for a third night, I bought a return bus ticket for Monday. I’d focus on first things first.
Walking out of the bus station, I looked for the shop where I was instructed to pick up my room key. I’d be staying at Jack’s Apartments, a property we call a “mom and pop” place at home. The sons of this mom and pop attend my school, and one is in my class. Seeing only the walls of the Medina and unsure of where to go, I struck a price with a man I assumed to be a cab driver offering to take me there. As he put my suitcase into a pushcart he explained cabs cannot drive into the Medina, so he took off and I followed through the gate, then down dark alleyways and tunnels through the Old Town. Counter-intuitively– having been taught to never follow a strange man to a strange place–I hurried to keep up as locals stared. Of course he took me to my destination where I was told a Sunday taxi could be arranged for 700 Dirham/$80 US dollars. Since that was the price of many rooms in town, I decided to try to find a vacant one and stay a third night.
But that first afternoon rather than scramble for a room for Sunday, I went to the seafood stalls, fresh catch squirming, chose a crab, cringed when its legs were snapped off, saw it cooked, and ate it.
As I paid the bill, coworkers called inviting me to Beach and Friends, an outdoor restaurant near the camels.
For the next two afternoons it was the group’s base camp for windsurfing, horseback riding, sun bathing, and lunch.
I was glad I’d run into them as I checked in. Turns out they were staying in the B and B next to mine–we’d realized how close when we waved from rooftops. Friday I left the beach to stroll through shops in the Medina, then met them for dinner at Taro’s. I loved the fish, the live band, the lanterns lighting the rooftop, and being included.
On Saturday morning there was good news and bad news. I booked a room and breakfast for $80 at Miramar by the Sea.
But below my balcony on the ramparts, a boy had tied a sheep. He kissed it and tended to it all day and into the next morning.
On the terrace near my balcony, another lamb bleated, pleaded, and stared at me likewise.
I decided to take off before noon on Sunday, the time I’d heard the killing would happen.
To take my mind off it, I focused on a group of girls, happy sentries, sitting and sipping wine on the wall below waiting for the sunset.
One scampered up the watchtower as a friend snapped her new profile picture.
They reminded me of my girls by the surf of South Beach and of my family on the lake late in the afternoon, of loved ones who sent me off in a big way and continue to support me weekly, even daily, on this new journey.
Sunday the sacrifice happened earlier than expected. I heard screaming from a building behind me, and as I locked my balcony to grab my bags, I saw what I was running from– the sheep on the ramparts was now spread in pieces across the stone.
After dropping my bags at the new hotel I ate lunch across the street at Cote Plage. Salsa music played and the restaurant was full of families and couples. I remembered what a coworker said when I told him I was leaving the US. “Being able to travel will be great, but I wouldn’t want to do it without someone I love.”
I spent a couple of hours on the hotel’s beach alone. The Atlantic was beautiful but across it were family and friends I miss everyday I’m in Morocco. The sea broke me open as did the Caribbean when I went to Puerto Viejo solo. Beauty does that. I hope Rumi’s right…that wounds let the light in. The salt water was healing.
I’ve been told by a lot of people I’m brave. To be honest, using an ATM alone scares me. So does signing up for the Smart Traveler services and then reading precautions for Americans abroad. But most of all, wondering what the future holds scares me because I don’t want to travel alone…live alone… forever. I guess the brave part is doing it anyway.
On the ride home today it again felt right to be in this strange land here and now. When Cat Stevens began singing “Wild World” from the bus driver’s radio I felt it was my song. And I’m not alone: I carry my loved ones in my heart as sure as there is One who has always carried me.
“The Poet’s Obligation”– Pablo Neruda
To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to who ever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weigh of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its corona
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.
So. Drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my consciousness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the sentence of the autumn,
I may be present with an errant wave,
I may move in and out of the windows,
and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves,
asking “How can I reach the sea?”
And I will pass to them, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself,
the gray cry of sea birds on the coast.
So, though me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.