Paying it Forward in Essaouira (Morocco)

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While visiting Essaouira (Morocco) I had the opportunity to pay it forward and share a meal with someone who was likely much hungrier than I was.


Leaving Marrakech, Morocco

Everything is going too fast, I feel time slipping through my fingers like fine sand through the neck of a hourglass – God, I hate traveling for a matter of weeks, I need months, years, I need a life time…

It took me a lot of convincing, me arguing with myself nightly, trying to break the spell and leave the chaotic charm of Marrakesh and wander westward, towards the coast. I changed my hotel reservation 6 times, 3 times in one day, acting like a mad, or lunatic, woman and this a mere week before turning 40. I wondered if my 40ies crisis was early for our rendez-vous. It is eventually an argument with a stranger asking if I wanted hashish for the 6th times that day that convinced me it was time to go, chaos was getting to me, that or I was starting to gain somewhat of a “ballsy” confidence to pick arguments on a street corner just because I am completely annoyed at the constant offer to buy drugs. In either case, time to go.

I have hundreds of beautiful pictures of Essaouira, of its citadel and hundred blue dinghies and boats, captured from all possible angles and dangerously slippery vantage points, but it is this single picture that reaches out to me.


Essaouira, Morocco – Day 2

I had been wandering the port and citadel of Essaouira for several hours, taking pictures as if my life depended on it, getting myself stuck into all sort of unrecommended corners and atop of walls, trying to get shots from different vantages.

After nearly falling in the water, standing on a algea-covered slope which I could not, for the life of me, climb back for what seemed an eternity, or at least long enough to get my feet wet with the rising tide. By me writing this, one can assume that at last, I found myself safe above sea level, my feet sloshing inside my boots, the legs of my jeans sticking to my skin up to my knees. As I was now chilling (and drying) with a cigaret between my lips as if nothing had happened, my camera hanging loosely against my hip, allowing time for my pulse to gradually find its normal rhythm, the appetizing aroma of grilled fish drifted by, filling my senses and awakening a hunger I did not realize I felt a moment before.

The smell and my hunger nagging at me, I hopped onto my feet and began to follow the invisible yet perceptible trail, quite likely leading to a meal. Hundred of steps and a staircase later, In the shadows of the fortified wall standing between ocean and the port of Essaouira, 3 men are grilling fresh fish. Around them, sitting or standing, on tables or chairs are people, cats and seagulls, all sharing the space and food in a perfect, hunger-driven harmony.

“Madame…” a man says as he nonchalantly and quite gently waves a cat off a chair. “Would you like – (name here some fish I’ve never heard about)?” With a smile and a glance at other customers’ meals, trying to put a “face” on the fish he spoke of, I accepted the offered chair.

I lift a hand closer to between us and ventured with a glance up at the young man, peering at him, through the tiny distance described by my thumb and forefinger. “I am not sure, do you have small fishes?… I mean nothing big..” “Bien sur madame…” he acquiesces.

I settle into my chair, watching the young man walk away, a content smile curling my lips.

A moment later, before I could fully take in my surrounding, the man returns, shocking me with a basket of bread and a salad, both big enough to last me a week on any normal circumstances, “Voila Madame…”

I have no time to recuperate and before I can think of protesting, another man stops by my table, with another “Voila, Madame”.

Consternation. My attention flicks first onto the newcomer and then onto the plate he places before me.

“Sardines, petit poissons” he declares triumphantly, the words slipping through proudly smiling lips.

I can’t help but stare wordlessly at the plate. Staring right back at me, with lifeless eyes, are not one or two sardines, but a full – and counted- dozen of them.

“How in hell am I suppose to eat all this.” is really the only thing I can think of, and yet, remembering my manner, I kept silent and managed to muster a composed smile and show due gratitude, complimenting the generous portions by saying, rather stupidly, “Beautiful! Never saw sardines the size of my arm before!”

In fact, the only sardines I ever saw all fitted -neatly- into a can the size of my hand…

The men dipped their heads, “Bonne appetit, Madame” and gone they were, headed to help other customers.

Hesitantly, I reach out for a fish, fingers splitting flesh from bones, as I survey my surrounding, watching the people at neighboring tables, observing the seagulls fighting for some scraps discarded by the grilling men, catching sight of a cat as it discreetly leaped onto a chair next to a table.

I gaze back at the table, assessing my situation and pondering my options: My hunger had waned a little and was now outrageously disproportional to the amount of food on the table. Now, I was raised to not leave food on my plate -and- I am in a country where the average person make considerably less money than I, and I doubt asking for a doggy bag is truly a viable option, considering that my hotel room did not have a fridge.

And yet, the thought of ingesting what now seems to be a bakery-size basket of bread, a garden-size salad and half the ocean’s fish population makes me break into a sweat.

The “Ah-Ha” moment came to me. The cat… maybe I can discreetly feed the cat…?

I shift on my chair to look for it, contorting right and left, looking up and down, under my chair, under my table with hope to find him lurking underneath. But a cat is a cat… nowhere to be found when you need them.

This is when my eyes skimmed upon a woman, in the background, at a distance, quietly sitting on the ground, under the sun, draped by layers over layers of fabrics in all colors and hues. She is not asking for money, she is not begging, and yet something tells me she is not having the time of her life, today, sitting there among the seagulls.


I get off my chair and head to the grill, purpose in my strides.

The man seing me coming greets me with a smile, “More, Madame?” A question for which I had to bite my lips not to laugh, and gladly, I was successful, and instead of bursting into laughter, I shake my head politely, “No, in fact, this is a lot of food for me alone” and with a slight jerk of my head, indicating the lonely woman, I ask, unsure what the answer would be but not wanting to offend nor them, or her, “Is it okay to share my meal with the lady over there?”.

His blue gaze travel from me, to her, and back onto me, “Of course, Madame, you are most welcome to do so…” he says most genuinely while he throws at the seagull a handful of fishes’ intestines.

I thank him with a nod and a smile.

I walk back to my table, and gather most of the “grocery store” waiting for me there.

Haunched over the feast in my arms, parting from the table, I have that unnerving feeling scratching the surface of my awareness. I lift my eyes, hesitantly:

Everyone is staring at me. I glance back at the grilling men from over my shoulder. They nod, lips stretched into reassuring smiles.

Cheeks slightly flushed, and without another look at anyone, I walk towards the woman, my winding path taking me through people and seagulls, chairs and tables and of course, that darned cat, and as people read my intents, some rose from their chair to add something to the armful load of food I am carrying.

A woman even parted with a bag, hooking it to my pinky as I trudged by her.

Loaded like a mule, I reach my goal, my own shadow melting into hers, “Madame?” I murmured to the lonely woman as I crouched down next to her.

She looks at me, eyes rounded in surprise at finding me so close and within her space. As she instinctively retreats, shuffling back and away from me, frowning, I take a step back and explain “Est-ce que je peux partager avec vous” I asked as I dipped my eyes towards the food I brought. She looked at the food, and then at me, and nodded, a frown still tracing deep lines on her brow. “Sit” and with that hissed command, I dropped my arse next to hers in that very same instant.

For the next while, we sat, we ate silently until I gestured I had enough food. She nodded and took the bag and placed inside it the loaves of bread. I watched her clean the plate, bowl and basket with piece of fabric and as she handed them back to me.

“Merci Madame.” she whispered, and for a tiny moment, she smiled. “Tout le plaisirs eat pour moi” I whisper back yet feeling somewhat uncomfortable by being called madame by this very madame. I got onto my feet, glancing towards her one more time before returning to the makeshift restaurant.

To my despair, everyone was still staring at me. I looked myself down, zipper is up, my jeans are almost dry. My conclusion: “I should look half normal” and yet… they were looking at me, smiling and nodding, some applauding. I was baffled.

As the man with the stunning blue eyes met me to take the plates from my hands, “I think you saw something that most here,” he pauses, gesturing a hand towards the other guests, before continuing, “as most here were trying to ignore… us included. I think, somehow, you made them feel better about themselves… Thanks for helping her, Madame.”

I don’t know what’s the moral of this story:
Don’t wait for people to do good to follow their path as it Might never happened and then you might miss an opportunity to make someone’s day better ?

Or perhaps the moral is to be careful when asking for a small fish in Essaouira, I don’t think they have small fishes!

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