Monday, May 3, 2010

Returning to Mirleft, Morocco

The road to the beach

Hakim, Max, Bashir. At the pool in Tiznit

Mirleft is a small town on the southern coast of Morocco, with a population of about eight thousand, half of which is concentrated in a small center about 500 meters from the sea. The remainder is dispersed in small clusters of houses in the surrounding hills and seaside cliffs. I first came to MIrleft in early October of 2009 on a chance visit from Marrakesh while I was in limbo on my way to Casablanca, waiting for a meeting with the Moroccan Swimming Association. Instead of describing why I returned to Mirleft again in late October after what became my short visit to Casa, and now why I’m back here five months later and planning to stay in this town for two months, I’d rather paint the picture of my first week in Mirleft and leave it to the reader to interpret why I love this place so much.

The town mosque

Boubkar and Mohammed drinking tea at my apartment

I spent my first night in Mirleft Hotel Abertih, a place I’ve stayed at before, and was warmly greeted by the receptionists that remembered me from the last time. Even before I put my bags in my room, a few of the friends made last year saw me arrive in a shared taxi and came to greet me with hugs and kisses. We shared some stories before I went to my room to sleep and recuperate from 18 hours on a bus. When I awoke, I simply went out to the main street in town and easily bumped into all the people I had met last October. Reuniting with these friends was a heartwarming experience, and everybody was friendly and excited to hear what I had been doing the past few months. They helped me find a small apartment to rent, which I’m still in now, and we made plans to go to the beach the next day. Aside from a lot of winter rains, the only thing that had changed in their lives was that a few of the younger friends physically matured much more than I could have expected, going through these grand growth spurts that had converted them into men.

At the beach with Bashir and Hakim

I had arrived on a Friday, so I was greeted by a great weekend at the beach. I took my rescue board out on both Saturday and Sunday morning, going for long paddles up and down the coast. Each afternoon I would hang at the beach and catch up with the locals, playing games on the sand and going for short swims in the waves. One night, a few friends came over and we cooked a great fish tajine for dinner. Other nights, we would sit at the local snack shop and eat a typical fish sandwich. Because Mirleft is so small, walking the streets you are greeted by everybody, and the familiarity of this town made me feel at home amongst family.

Checking out the surf.

Sunset view from my apt. window.

By Monday, I was fully settled in Mirleft and began to get more serious about a training schedule with Hakim and Bashir, the two Moroccan swimmers that plan on swimming the Strait of Gibraltar with me and the Spanish swimmers Carlos and Margarita in June. Throughout my time in Peru, I had stayed in touch with Hakim and Bashir, and our brief G-chats and sporadic emails were enough for me to communicate the necessary details of our projects progress. We got a pass at the local gym and created a training plan that includes time in the ocean as well as the pool. Likewise, we began to discuss how we were going to document our project, and of course, we’ve continued the detailed process of getting Hakim and Bashir visas for Spain.

Haha. If only swimming in the water were this easy.

Throughout my first week, I adjusted to the slow pace and peaceful attitude of Mirleft, conforming to the small but sufficient list of activities, the basis of which is, of course, the abundant ocean that is 500 meters away and the numerous friends that are all around. My second weekend in town, however, was full of activity. On Friday I went to Hakim’s house to eat couscous, the Friday tradition, and we spent the afternoon walking the quiet streets. On Saturday, I went to part of the wedding ceremony of Bashir’s sister, which consisted of a bunch of older men sitting in a circle in a small room, eating really good food and drinking really sweet tea. On Saturday night, there was a festival celebrating Berber culture and the coming of spring, with good live music, traditional dancing, and a few cool exhibitions, all connected to a shaky electrical grid that came and went throughout the night.

Men dancing in the Spring festival.

With Ahmed and the dudes. Ahmed takes care of some nice mansions and let's us leave our surf equipment and take showers there.

As I said before, things are peaceful and slow around here. I believe that this pace of life is dictated by the fact that this is a small town where everybody knows each other and the most consistent activity is to simply walk out your front door and talk with the people around you. This is mixed with a coastal surfer vibe, where what you do, whether that be fishing or surfing, is regulated by environmental conditions and so can never be fixed or exactly planned. Add to this the fact that this is a culture of insha allah, where any plans are subject to change given the will of god (or your will). None of this has facilitated a strict training regime for Bashir and Hakim, both of whom need to get serious about our upcoming swim, but we’re finding a balance between my American work ethic and the pace of life around Mirleft.

Hanging with the crew

It is great to be back in Mirleft, this time for two months, and I’m feeling really good about how things are going thus far. I’ve started to teach a course in English and Environmental Education at a local Berber cultural association, I’m talking with the town council about painting a series of murals, and am living in a small apartment nestled amongst friendly neighbors. I feel a part of this community and appreciate that people recognize that unlike many tourists who come here to simply swim in the lovely waters or take pictures of the veiled Berber women, that I am here to create, and give, and build, and share, and learn.

As for upcoming plans, Carlos arrives from Spain next week, and we have a whole set of activities in mind. For now, it is great to be back and living the good life in Mirleft.