He was offering cakes, small dry round things which looked pretty unappetizing, but that wasn't what he was really selling. After the tray had been presented and I'd waved it away, with a flash of his hand he opened his palm and whispered urgently, “You want?”
There, in a tight dark ball, was a lump of hashish. In earlier times we might have done the deal, but these days . . .
Well, I had the prospect of something less exciting but more enjoyable ahead of me. Watching the night fall across a sapphire ocean.
As dusk approaches, tourists and many locals in Essaouira -- an old walled port city on the Atlantic coast of Morocco – amble down to the large square at the foot of town or take up positions along the high sea wall.
A few hawkers, some ostensibly selling cakes, follow the tourists, but even they seem less than committed at this magical time when people line up to watch the sun sink dramatically behind the horizon. The sky here glows with pinks and blues filtered through the saline air and Essaouira has long drawn artists because of the unique quality of its light.
And it is at sunset, when only local fishermen unloading boats or gutting their catch seem indifferent to the natural beauty, that the sky fills with changing colours.
Once in Los Angeles at a seaside restaurant I recall every sophisticated diner stopped eating at this time and, when the final sliver of butter-gold sun disappeared, people applauded as if the thing had been stage-managed by Hollywood for their personal delight. It was weird.
In Essaouira, there is more a silent feeling of shared beauty and afterwards people drift away, couples of all ages hand-in-hand under the romantic spell of the protracted moment when the bright flat blue sky of day turns slowly black.
Essaouira – considered one of the thousand places to see before you die by the authors of the best-selling book of that name – gives up its charms gently, and even in the market along the broad thread of Zerktouni and de l'istuqual avenues which bisect the city there seems less haste than similar streets in, for example, Marrakech just three hours away by car.
Essaouira is where Orson Welles shot some of his famous Othello in the early 50s – including the gloomy opening sequence -- and he is commemorated by a shabby park bearing his name between the old city wall and the strip of magnificent beach which draws international wind-surfers and kite- surfing types.
Although the markets are alive with colourful cloth, exotic produce, pyramids of vividly coloured powdered herbs, ocean fresh fish, trinkets and paintings-paintings-paintings everywhere, it is wind which brings many people here – and also keeps others away.
Essaouira can be lousy with wind. There are days at a stretch when you can't sit on that broad beach, but you don't know that until you leave the protection of the city walls.
Yet we got lucky. The week we stayed the breath of breeze was just enough to keep us cool. So we sat in oceanside restaurants watching men try to tempt passersby into camel rides along the dunes, the few kite-surfers grappling manfully with their huge sails which could catch enough uplift to send them aloft, and hawkers offering those dry cakes and whatever else they had in the ball of their fists.
The pace was slow, the food all excellent and cheap, and the experience priceless.
We had ended up in Essaouira by chance. My eldest son living in London didn't want to to celebrate a milestone birthday in that damp city and suggested we meet in Marrakech. But that was just the start.
His partner had found a beautiful but cheap riad – those sensibly inward-looking houses built around a central courtyard – in Essaouira where they had been previously. After a couple of days in bustling Marrakech we went to the coast.
The battered wooden door down a lane the width of a cart gave no clue to what was inside.
Riad Atlantic was bought by two English women – Rosie and Lisa – in 2005 and much renovated over the following years. It soars four full storeys around a central shaft open to the sky, has at least four bedrooms (I may have missed one or two), a large kitchen and lounge on one floor, a separate lounge around a fire on the entry level, and – best of all perhaps – a massive rooftop split over two levels. This was where we ate breakfast beneath a clear blue sky or lazed on loungers looking across the rooftops of the city to the mountains in one direction and the Atlantic in the other.
All this for a nightly rate not much more than the tariff in a New Zealand motel.
In the mornings we bought fresh bread, coffee and fruit from the market not five minutes walk away and then got drowsy in the sun until we felt guilty for missing whatever might be happening elsewhere.
Some evenings before or after sunset we would settle in at a rooftop bar or restaurant to relax even more, and one night spotted a sign which modestly read “Earth Cafe” with a crude arrow pointing to a small square.
The Earth Cafe was proudly vegetarian, ridiculously small and staffed by a 12-year old boy who greeted us, his only customers, warmly. We ordered freshly squeezed juice and various tagines and treats from the menu on the wall.
After the boy brought our drinks he scooted out a side door and bolted down an alley. That was the end of our dinner, I guessed. Five minutes later a cheerful woman, his mother perhaps, arrived carrying bags of fresh produce from the market. She'd bought the ingredients for what we ordered and busied herself in the tiny kitchen.
The food was delicious and the experience beyond price.
Essaouira just kept delivering them. The young woman who waved every time I passed her ice-cream shop because I'd bought something on our first day; the old barber in a tiny shop of worn leather chairs, faded photographs and a mass of cables to run his ancient clippers who trimmed my beard one hair at a time as he took pride in his work; the “bad boys” hanging around the pool hall who listened to pounding Arabic hip-hop but managed to break a smile and a nod . . .
And friendly, multilingual Muhammed who offered cakes and nothing more, and the following day walked well out of his way to continue our conversation which had begun about the lack of wind but wended its way into his remarkable life story as a Berber from the mountains.
Essaouira is a small, safe city of large and pleasant surprises. It has drawn artists, musicians seduced by the sound of the Gnaoua people and travelers for centuries. Beat poets and Jimi Hendrix came here, and I'm glad to be among those who have delighted in it.
And the memory of those sunsets lasts longer than whatever buzz the cake-seller might be offering.
There are many more off-beat, odd destination and mainstream destination travel stories at Elsewhere starting here.