In 1993, a decade before Anthony Bourdain's wildly successful No Reservations launched a squillion travel food shows, a ragtag group of marginally qualified noobs landed in Essaouira, Morocco to shoot the pilot for an ambitious travel food show.
In those days, I was an accomplished videographer. I'd been effectively hired from a pub chair in London after a serendipitous encounter with Trevor, the brainchild this project, the first travel show to focus on food instead of attractions and activities, and co-producer along with his fiancé Celeste. They needed someone with camera experience, someone who liked long-term travel and didn't require four-star accommodations. I was perfect for the job.
After months of preparation, and finishing the theater and literature classes I was ostensibly in London to complete in the first place, I flew to Marrakesh to meet up with the team. Trevor, Celeste and Steve—Trevor's childhood friend—had driven down to Morocco with most of the equipment a few weeks earlier.
I was miserable the instant I stepped off the plane in Marrakesh. There were many contributing factors to this bad first impression, not the least of which being that I was tragically hung over from the previous night's goodbye festivities with my classmates. (Irresponsible? Yes. Avoidable? No.) I managed exactly 75 minutes of sleep before I was up, still very drunk, to catch a 5:56 a.m. Tube to Heathrow Airport. A direct London-Marrakesh flight would have been a painless three-and-a-half-hour breeze, allowing for a life-saving nap, but, already budget-conscious, Trevor had purchased me a bargain bin ticket, with an agonizing two-hour layover in Gibraltar.
So, no sleep till Marrakesh for me. I should point out that I was still many years away from being the savvy, culture-hangry traveler I am today. I had been to Scandinavia a few times, which was effectively Minnesota except much cleaner and prettier. Otherwise, the most exotic place I'd visited was Culiacan, Mexico, where I spent three winter holidays in the late '80s and early '90s, partying with friends I'd met while they were exchange students at my high school in Minneapolis. If you're at all familiar with current events at the time, and Reagan's disastrous "war on drugs," you'll no doubt need to reach down and pick your mouth up off the floor. Culiacan was famously the base of operations for the vicious Sinaloa Cartel at the peak of its power, and there's no question that some of my friends' close relatives were involved in that world.
I have vivid memories of visiting "farmers" living in the biggest house I'd ever seen. "How can 'farmers' afford this mansion?" I recall thinking to my stupid self. My time in Culiacan, while unquestionably fun (I went three times, after all), was spent physically, messily adjusting to the unfamiliar bacteria, the questionable hygiene of the popular street food stalls, and general chaos of a semi-lawless, major Mexican city that wasn't then—and isn't now—on anyone's vacation short list. Judging by the neck-breaking double-takes of the locals, I may have been the only naturally blond person for a hundred miles.
Despite my ungraceful trial-by-fire in Culiacan, I still wasn't quite prepared for the dick-punching culture shock awaiting me in Marrakesh. For starters, I'd just left London's springtime climate, which is to say cold and wet and gray. Morocco was the polar opposite. My Norwegian-Minnesotan, cream cheese skin was sunburned in, like, six minutes. The squalid state of the airport bathrooms boosted my cider hangover to 11. And there was the expected, but nonetheless nerve-racking ordeal of getting through Moroccan customs without any of our expensive equipment being confiscated or incurring decidedly off-the-books "import fees."
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I had never been so happy to see anyone in my life as when I found Trevor, Celeste, and Steve waiting for me outside customs. This sentiment was brief. Trevor, not averse to torturing friends for his personal entertainment, took one look at me, and the almost visible hangover cloud engulfing me, and decided I needed a hearty meal. And what better place to get that meal than the loudest, most chaotic, scammer-infested place in the city—the central market.
But before that singular agony, Trevor had another bad idea up his sleeve. He decided we should use the occasion of loading my stuff into the Land Rover as an opportunity to repack the whole thing. This legitimately needed to be done, stat. After weeks on the road, the storage area looked like a teenager's bedroom floor on laundry day. But within 30 seconds of beginning this task, two dozen tiny aspiring hoodlums formed an unsettling semi-circle around the back of the car, hoping to receive (or snatch) a prize from the dumb foreigners who had bafflingly decided to spread all of their expensive belongings out on the ground in a busy airport parking lot. The more polite members of this horde were like a skipping record, pointing at various items and repeating "Monsieur? Monsieur?" indicating that they would like us to give it to them. These items ranged from a bare duct tape ring to our $5,000 video camera.
Accustomed to this scene from previous visits to Morocco, Trevor gave away a few useless items, which only encouraged the crowd, before airport security came out to chase everyone away. Two nanoseconds after security left, everyone was back with a few more friends in tow. Belatedly realizing that he'd facilitated a prime snatch-and-dash opportunity, Trevor gave up trying to neatly pack everything and proceeded to urgently hurl all the bags into the back door of the car while the rest of us stood guard.
We dropped everything at our hotel and headed for the market. I was dangerously near a nervous breakdown before I saw food. The market was a degree of bedlam I'd never experienced before. Even well-rested, at peak hydration, I probably would have been stupefied by the sensory overload. We waded through a small army of people asking for change, at least one real-life snake charmer, and no fewer than 23 people offering to sell me drugs ("Hash, coca, weed?" was their all-purpose opening line) while we walked from the Land Rover to an open-air table in the heart of the market. As we sat on a nail-protruding bench, I announced I was suddenly happy, thrilled even, about the body aches and fatigue from the tetanus shot I'd received several weeks earlier—perhaps I could get another one tomorrow for good luck?
I probably imagined it, but I swear there was a glint of evil glee in Trevor's eyes as he ordered for me: a whole fish, head, tail and scales included. It was the kind of exotic, full-immersion meal Future Leif would run barefoot across hot pavement to eat, but 1993, culture-shocked, cider-poisoned Leif was not impressed. In fact, 1993 Leif had absolutely no idea how to go about eating it. In my delicate, brain-damaged state, I would've probably believed Trevor if he'd told me to grab it by the tail, tip my head back, lower the entire fish into my mouth, close my lips and pull out the skeletal remains like in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Back at the hotel, gin and tonics were mercifully poured, and I passed out in my roach-infested room. Twelve hours later, I was enjoying the kind of miraculous recovery that only a nearly indestructible 23-year-old can manage after a punishing day of hungover travel. Even so, I was relieved when Marrakesh was in our rearview mirror before 11 a.m. Three hours later, we arrived in Essaouira, where we'd spend nearly four weeks preparing and shooting the pilot for R.A.W.
Essaouira—a port city on Morocco's coast—was considerably smaller and much less overwhelming than Marrakesh. Besides being a major fishing hub, the city is famed for its excellent year-round wind surfing conditions, said to be among the best in the world. It's where Jimi Hendrix was inspired to write "Castles Made of Sand" after a visit in the mid-'60s, and its greatest claim to fame is that Orson Welles chose the city as the filming location for his film adaptation of Othello. The locals were obviously thrilled; there's a park dedicated to Welles near the beach.
Unlike Marrakesh, Essaouira had a distinct North African feel. The call to prayer, blasting from speakers placed around the city five times a day, was a constant reminder: We weren't in England anymore. This custom was unknown to me and no one bothered to warn me, so a small amount of pee escaped the first time it rattled my brainstem at what felt like 2,000 decibels. If you haven't had the experience, the sing-song call to prayer starts out with "God is Great," "I bear witness that there is no god except the One God," "Hurry to the prayer," and so forth for about two minutes. It's quite beautiful. But if your nerves are still frayed from a bad day in Marrakesh, and you're still a relative travel noob, and the neighboring country (Algeria) is embroiled in a worsening civil war, one might ever so briefly think it's a warning that a wayward missile is about to hit before one speed-walks back to his room to change his underwear.
After fishing, woodcarving was the big trade in Essaouira. It seemed as if there were wood-carving shops behind every third door in the medina. The preferred medium is the distinctively odorous thuya wood. Every corner of Essaouira smelled like a brand-new wood-paneled office—except the fishing docks, of course, becaus...fish. Before we skipped town (and "skipped" is absolutely the most accurate way to describe it), I cashed in some of my weekly salary on a chess set, including pieces; a small all-purpose box; a secret treasure box that could only be opened with five consecutive, hidden tasks; and some sandals. Total price, USD$20. Apart from the sandals, which I wore to near-disintegration, I still have those souvenirs on display in my living room today.
The house/apartment/WTF? we rented was a three-level affair, with the top two floors jutting out of the roof of a three story, multi-unit building in the medina. Those upper levels had the distinct feeling of being snapped on long after the building itself had been completed. It was definitely not up to code (even in Morocco), but this extreme renovation transformed the space from a one-room efficiency, likely rented to a half-broke local, into a two-bedroom unit with a full kitchen and private rooftop terrace that could be rented to tourists. As an added perk, our terrace overlooked the terrace of a neighboring hotel, where French women often sunbathed topless. Coming from the relative modesty of Minnesota, where the baggy fashion of the early '90s left pretty much everything to the imagination, and having not yet visited dozens of beaches on mainland Europe where I was desensitized by legions of bare boobs, the urge to break out a lawn chair and binoculars was powerful. But dignity and manners prevailed... the occasional quick glance notwithstanding.
Our terrace also had a tremendous view of the Atlantic Ocean and the ramparts below, complete with 32 vintage Spanish cannons from the 1700s, poised to smash any bad guys approaching by water. On the other side of the terrace was a view of the whole medina. Scanning the rooftops of the aged, North African architecture, one could almost imagine they'd traveled centuries back in time, assuming one squinted enough to blur out the satellite dishes. The medina, as in most cities, was a tangle of narrow streets with sand-colored, three- and four-story buildings, some of them actively crumbling, often with bright blue window shutters and doors.
Even back then, tourism drove much of the retail in the medina—and, judging by exhaustive scrutiny of Google Street View 360 photos today, the effects of over-tourism on the medina's vibe have predictably worsened in the intervening 28 years. The apartment's interior did little to discourage the theory that the top two levels weren't in the architect's original design. The "steps" connecting the floors were only a few degrees of pitch short of being straight-up ladders. Traversing the various doorways in the house was also tricky, requiring you to simultaneously bend down under the low top of the frame and take a big step over the raised bottom lip, like walking through a submarine portal. Steve never quite got the hang of this maneuver. About once a week, we'd hear a loud thump from somewhere in the apartment, followed by a pained scream as he failed to bend over far enough to avoid head trauma.
I was too much of a travel noob to not be mesmerized by those ancient cannons lined up on the ramparts. Despite being hundreds of years old, and presumably heavily used at some point in history, they appeared to be in perfect condition. After a couple weeks in Essaouira, I started to have fantasies about wheeling one of those babies down to the square and blasting in the front door of one of the numerous people who had earned a spot on our collective shit list.
The list was not short.
Since the majority of the people in town who spoke English were the tourist hustlers and scammers, they encompassed pretty much our entire social circle. Once they realized we weren't going anywhere anytime soon, they chilled out on trying to milk us for money or favors and were content to be our local fixers in exchange for free coffee and meals. We were quite friendly with several of them, while we regarded others as suspicious and even dangerous.
One night at the cafe, Trevor and I were winding down with an after-work drink, when two of the guys we definitely didn't trust invited themselves to sit with us. Both seemed to be in an altered state that I couldn't quite pinpoint: too alert to be stoned, too steady to be drunk, but definitely tripping balls on something. One asked to listen to the music in my Walkman, which happened to be Rage Against the Machine. I warned him it wasn't for everyone, but he insisted on listening. Initially, he said he liked it, which surprised me. But after 15 minutes of awkward silence and stilted conversation, he went out of his way to lean in and inform me that, in fact, he didn't like my music. When he shared this information, there was a dead-eyed look on his face that made my testicles shrink down to raisins.
Seconds later, Aziz, a genuinely likable 10-year-old kid that hung out with us at times, walked up to say hello. The second of our two increasingly serious guests stood up and, without a word, slapped Aziz across the face harder than I'd ever seen an adult slap a kid—or an adult, for that matter—in my life. Trevor and I stood up immediately and moved to another table. Aziz cried and ran away. Honestly, I would have done the same thing. Since they weren't buying anything, the cafe's owner demanded that they leave.
It became quickly obvious, for reasons I never quite grasped, that there was a certain social advantage among the locals to being seen with us, but there were still a few jackasses who thought it was in their best interest to piss us off. Those were the people we kind of jokingly, but not really, plotted against while we drank at night. If things got truly ugly, we were confident we could have any one of them locked up at a moment's notice.
A day or two after we arrived, Trevor had a meeting with Essaouira's mayor. I don't recall if we requested this meeting or if we were summoned after news spread about our TV project. In any case, it was made abundantly clear at that meeting he either respected the potential tourism boost our little TV show might bring to his city and/or was afraid of potential bad exposure. We knew this, because Trevor asked if he could smoke in the office and the mayor approved vigorously, scrambling to hand him an ashtray. Trevor later glanced down and realized that the "ashtray" was in fact the mayor's pencil and eraser holder. We took it as a sign that we had the brass wrapped around our fingers, just as long as we made a show that complimented their town.
This high-level endorsement was probably the only thing that kept us from being fined or thrown in jail on several occasions: for public drunkenness, for badgering city officials to let us shoot scenes at tourist sites, for driving the Land Rover through a pedestrian square with me and the camera on the roof for a poor man's dolly shot, and for setting off approximately 1,734 firecrackers, bottle rockets, and other small explosives on one of our more reckless evenings.
On what I now imagine locals grimly refer to as "The Night The Drunken TV Maniacs Almost Burned Down The Medina," there was an audience of about 100 awestruck Moroccans in attendance. They sat around the Place Moulay El Hassan, the massive square just south of the medina, sipping after-dinner drinks on what had been a peaceful evening—before we ruined everything. Some people pulled their children closer and called for the check as the four of us staggered up with armloads of said firecrackers, bottle rockets, and small explosives and transformed the dry fountain in the center of the square into a war zone for approximately 15 minutes.
Then we weaved over to our favorite cafe and ordered a round of café cassés ("broken coffees") as the locals cleared a circle about 20 feet wide around us. The manager of the hotel next door to the cafe, where we stayed for our first few nights in town, came over and muttered something about World War III. We roared with laughter as he slowly backed away.
Leif Pettersen is a freelance writer, author, humorist, world traveler, and award-winning travel & tourism marketing professional from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has traveled through 57 countries and lived in Spain, Romania, and Italy. He's written two full-length books: Backpacking With Dracula, a history-heavy, Romania travel memoir revolving around Vlad The Impaler Dracula, and Throwing Up: Notes From 35 Years of Juggling, a memoir-driven deep dive into the world of elite juggling. Pettersen was a silver medalist at the 2014 International Jugglers' Association championships, loves chocolate, hates pickles, types with exactly four fingers, and can escape from a straitjacket. All photos courtesy of the author except where indicated.
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