A Trip South: Part Deux

The rest of my trip south was a set of contrast between worlds. There were contrasts between the developing and less developed worlds, between old worlds and new ones, and between populated and deserted landscapes.  Morocco’s coast, like so many coasts, is a mixture of landscapes, ecosystems, and peoples. I am here, in part, to get a sense of those coastal contrasts in the hopes that I can use whatever insights I gather to help the US, and America’s Gulf Coast.

A coal fired power plant under construction near Safi

South of Safi, we came across a large coal-fired power plant that was under construction. This structure was massive, with multiple steam towers, and power lines than extend from the plant to the center of the country. I am used to seeing large energy infrastructure along the coast- it’s all over Louisiana. People often energy infrastructure by the coast, because fuel is heavy. Oil and coal are much easier to transport by water, keeping them by the coast keeps costs down. I don’t fully understand the rationale for this plant- Morocco is proudly one of the few countries on route to meet its Paris accord targets. And as a place with ample sun, and a proximity to Europe’s large population centers, it could be a renewable power exporter. On the other hand, wealth and power in this world are so often tied to energy, and it can be difficult to argue with people from less developed countries who want the same standard of living that many Americans have.

An hour or so later we stopped at the town of Souria. It’s a small town, maybe 10 blocks wide and 50 blocks long, filled with numerous, nice looking houses. But this day, the town is vacant. Samira tells me this place is packed during the vacation months of July and August, and deserted the rest of the year.

The town of Souira

This seasonality seems extreme, it’s not as unusual as it sounds. Cocodrie, Louisiana, where I work, is filled with, “camps,” rural vacation homes that contribute to a bustling community during the summer.  But during the academic year, when I often go walking after work, the place is vacant. There are plenty America beach towns where the population doubles- or more- during the summer.

We were running a bit late and past due for lunch when we stopped at a small bay at the edge of the coast. The bay is little more than a protected spot of coast where a few large rocks block the waves, creating a harbor. It’s not big, but its enough that blue sardine boats- about 30 or 40 feet long- regularly use it. We looked at the small permanent structures there- which provided sheltered for the fishermen, and had holding tanks that held octopus and fish. We asked about food. (Really my host asked about food- my Arabic is nonexistent.) They had a hot pot on lentils, and were able to grab a fish for us. It was long and looked much like an eel, but with a mouth that looked more like a fish. During breaks from eating lentils, I watched as they cut it lengthwise, split it into steaks and throw them on hot oil. It was a little bony, but otherwise delicious. The price was modest, and the sustenance made the afternoon’s walk easier.

A beautiful place, but not a lot of freshwater


By the harbor there was a horse and buggy- waiting there to pull the boats out of the water. Up on the cliffs, I enjoyed the view of this rugged coast. Waves crashed along the cliffs, and big blocks of sandstone in half in the water reveal that this is an eroding coast. Survey markers help confirm this. Samira, the lawyer, tells me that government owns all the land within six meters of the highest tide on the spring equinox, and some of these markers are much less than 6 meters from the cliff line. We talk about whether the governments land will move inland as global sea levels rise. The United States defines the legalities of the coastal zone differently, but rising waters changing property lines is a problem people back home are facing too.

Waiting for boats to come to port

While there are few people out today, this coast is not deserted. There are many spacious and beautiful houses here. I am told that they are largely owned by Europeans, who want a place to escape the cold. It’s a wonderful idea, except that there’s no freshwater. Samira tells me that the wealthier owners import water on trucks from the south. The less wealthy ones find that too difficult, and sell the villa to another visitor looking for a vacation home. By the time we came back, the fishing fleet was coming in to port. A guy had showed up with a tractor, and the horse was less busy than we expected- but not totally unemployed.

By the port is Essaouira

On Tuesday we made it to Essaouira, which is a delightful town. There is a port at the front of the town where fishermen display and sell their recent catches- sardines, octopus, flounder and much more. There are men selling fresh oysters on ice, which for the record, were delicious.

The port sits next to the old city, again, constructed with Portuguese influence, tough apparently the Phoenicians originally settled it centuries before the founding of the Roman empire. Essaouira’s old city one looks more like a castle- with tall ramparts, and large stone wall, bordering sea. Inside, the place is a wonderful maze of vendors selling fabrics, bags, and art. There are restaurants too, some quite nice. Street musicians play amplified music- much of it American songs from the 20th century. The beach nearby is filled with sunbathers, kite surfers enjoying the shallow windy environments, guys roaming on the dunes in ATV, and camels crossing the beach.

At the fish market is Essaouira

Within the old city, there an old Jewish quarter too. The quarter is mostly deserted- many left for Isreal in the 1950s, and more left after the 6-day war. But Moroccan Jews are not forgotten. The quarter is being restored, and the king’s top advisor is a Jewish man from Essaouira.

Essaouira, by the sea
In the mellah, the old Jewish quarter

Some of Essaouira is clearly for tourists. But, today I’m a tourist. Like a lot of New Orleanians, I have mixed opinions about tourists. I avoid Bourbon Street at all costs. I’ve watched Magazine Street, which I live next to, swell with boutiques that serve mostly visitors. I also have many friends who work in establishments that serve tourist, and know that tourist tips can help pay bills. I’ve seen plenty of out-of-towners pay the cover charge at a club in New Orleans to hear a group of incredible musicians play. Visitors can be an important part of the economy. Compared to extractive industries, cultural tourism is relatively benign on the environment. What is the right balance between it all? That’s a question beyond my expertise, but on this sunny day by the coast, it’s a question on my mind.

Throughout this day, I looked out at the ocean, and the waves beating against the shore. Just out to sea, there are other parts of the fortress, accessible only by water. I thought of the other old cities and structures I’ve seen on this trip seen. Globally, many other culturally significant places are near sea level. The Jefferson Memorial is next to the tidal basin that is lined with Washington DC’s cherry trees. Big Ben stands watch over the tidal Thames.

As sea level rises, what happens to these coastal landmarks? What happens to our history when it floods? I’m not the first to look at Essaouira’s castles and wonder when they will drift into the sea, Jimi Hendrix lived here. However, as our ocean rises I wonder, will that eventuality come too soon?

Castles made of sand

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