Sidi by the Sea

This story appears in the Summer 2013 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.

Glimpsing the cracked tiles, sun-bleached character and almost total lack of commerce, a cynical eye mat say that Sidi Ifni is a town that has not only seen its salad, but has blasted through the main course and the dessert, only to realize that it doesn't have enough money to cover the tab. The romantic mind, on the other hand, sees the pounding break of the Atlantic on caramel sands, observed by the mostly vacant Spanish plazas that overlook the mighty sea from rocky cliffs far overhead, and will spot a simpler way of life, free from the confines of the chaotic, steady pace of Morocco's larger cities. It's somewhere in the middle where the magic lies.

I arrived in the middle of the night, well on the mend from a Sahara-induced case of desert flu, to a town that tugs on the senses.

Growing up on the Gulf Coast, I was drawn back to childhood by the first hotel I stayed in — a lovingly maintained but rundown little inn called “Suerte Loca,” or “Crazy Luck.” My small room, surrounded on four sides by concrete walls (save one door to a communal terrace where a lone wetsuit had been laid out in the sun by some surfer to dry) was barely large enough to contain its double bed and sink, and smelt of cinder block that had taken decades to absorb the scent of the ocean, a stone’s throw away. Downstairs, the proprietor and his wife, a pair of Spanophilic Moroccans, wore the uniform of the content – the loose jeans and baggy sweaters of those who had given up hope of ever working in an office again, regardless of capability. Though their kitchen required one order at least two hours in advance, I didn’t have the luxury of time, given my late arrival. Regardless, there were a few menu items at the ready — in the shadow of a small juke box (stocked with Bob Dylan and Ella Fitzgerald, the soundtrack of this town) and a smoke-stained pool table, I noshed on a lightly fried whole fish, and a smoked octopus salad (I got the impression that seafood is one thing this town does very well).

After the eight-hour bus ride out of Marrakech, sleep was welcome. Upon waking, my gameplan was set: breakfast and a trip to the other side of town (a 10-minute walk) to visit the Hotel Bellevue. I had heard that this was the place to stay in Ifni, but despite repeated attempts, their phones seemed to be down. Not knowing whether they were even still open for business (their last review on TripAdvisor dated back more than six months) I ventured out.

Seeing the town in daylight for the first time gave me a unique perspective. Walking out the door, one is immediately drawn to the architecture — very deco, (built by the Spanish, who settled in the area decades ago, when deco was the zeitgeist, ) very white, and very blue. Almost every building in the city shares this color scheme, to some varying degree, from a time when urban planning was not a consideration, but unified aesthetics were. A heavy mist hung in the air, held in place between the heaving sea and the mountain range that borders the town. Suerte Loca is at sea level, but it rests at the base of a series of ornate, weather-worn, terraced plazas — walking spaces that overlook the ocean, and rise with the bluffs to the city’s center square. Even from my distant vantage point, a squinted gaze up the slope revealed a view of my destination: an uncharacteristically yellow outcropping, suspended over the edge of the bluff, 100 meters above the crashing sea.

Sidi Ifni

Walking up the promenades, I noticed a few things: a) this place is absolutely, tear-jerkingly, why-can’t-the-whole-world-be-like-this gorgeous. b) I can’t quite tell what color of blue all of this used to be painted – it’s faded to a pleasant periwinkle. c) everything — from the streets, to the tiles, to the staircases, to the buildings, to the people, to the tables in front of the cafés — is cracked, uneven, faded and misaligned, and everyone’s kind of worked around it, and d) nobody really gives a damn. It’s their quiet little town, thank you very much, and if you don’t like it, that’s okay, but you can go somewhere else.

I’ve seldom encountered a locale so content with its place in the universe. Sidi Ifni is the hideout where the protagonist lays low in spy novels. It’s the romantic get-away where the rich girl and the poor fisherman's son fall in love. It's where the world's most entertaining drunks gather for high-faluted conversation in myriad languages, drawn in by some kind of strange radar. Hemingway would have shat himself.

I walked into the hotel, into the wood- and tile-lined lobby.

I looked scraggly, admittedly. I hadn’t bathed since the morning before, and I was down to my last shirt. I asked the proprietor if he had a room available — the only criteria we had in mind was an ocean view in a place that wasn’t a total shithole. He eyed me carefully. Even in a town accustomed to backpackers and surfers, there are still occasional outposts of snobbery. He told me to look at room 44, that the door was open. A lovely room, with a double bed, a toilet, a shower, very clean, and a partial view of the sea. I stepped back out into the hallway and eyed up the last door in the corridor, one that looked like it butted up against the edge of the building. '46.' I went back downstairs.

“Looks nice. I’ll take it... But is 46 available?” “Yes,” he said, “But it’s more expensive.” “OK...” I said. “How much is room 44?” “200 dirham.”

“OK. How much is room 46?”

“300 dirham.” There was a bit of emphasis on the “three.”

“OK. 300 a night for room 46?”

“Yes. But it’s very big. And more expensive.”

“Can I see it?”

After some barked words in Arabic to the bellhop, he took me upstairs. Apparently, it’s the best room in the whole hotel — a full, 180-degree view of the Atlantic Ocean. To the south, a lighthouse and an old sea-bound, Spanish garrison that needed exploring. To the north, a cliff-lined rocky coast that I heard offered good beach hiking. To the west, a sun that sets every night, and to the east, a sun that rises, piercing the haze. The bedsheets didn’t match, and the shower was a bit of a deathtrap, but I did the math and took another look at the view. $36 a night? Sold. A few minutes later, I returned to the reception.

“Perfect. I’ll take it.”

“Hmm. Room 46? Tonight?”

“Can I book seven nights?” I pulled out a wad of 200 dirham notes.

“Hmm! Yes! We can do seven nights! But it is not clean – come back in one hour?” He seemed very chipper all of a sudden.

“OK.”

Walking back, I was smirking something fierce as a call to prayer boomed from the peak of a nearby mosque. What an odd place to spend a week. What a wonderfully odd place.

Sidi Ifni

When Molmot (one of the first people I met in Sidi Ifni) was a kid, about 16 or 17, he made friends with an American family. They were from Alaska, and when they returned home, they sent him a letter. The address he provided them was that of his father’s store. When his father came home one day, he said, “Molmot, you have a letter — from Alaska.”

Even with his weather-worn face, a façade that had been beaten and evaporated by decades of salt and sun (because this guy loves the hell out of some surfing), and with the salt-and-pepper in his hair; even with the time spent in Saudi Arabia on business, and the year spent in Paris, finishing off university, I saw the glint of the child who was so excited, still, to get a letter from some far-flung corner of the world. This is a fella, after all, who has spent the majority of his life in Mayberry. He has a nice little house on the water, a good job, and (as I observed upon running into him again, as he delivered a freshly killed rooster to the local poulterer) a couple of hobbies. He speaks good English, enough so to be a causal ambassador to those who pass through town.

Molmot was the one who told me where I could get a hold of a bottle of Chinese knockoff scotch; he was the one who recommended Café Nomad, a Bohemian hole-in- the-wall that may actually be the single best restaurant in the world; he’s the one who got us a good deal on a rental car, introduced us to a whole cast of eccentrics, pointed us in the direction of the only (working) ATM in the city, and in all, told us the secrets Ifni keeps close to its chest. When I was at a loss, he would magically appear on his scooter and invariably, we would drink ourselves stupid in the sand until the wee hours. He wanted nothing in return, just company and conversation.

On my last night in town, after a week of doing practically nothing, we were on our fifth beer, a cheap but decent brew from a country that isn’t big on drinking, and had gotten around to comparing notes again.

“Where is your family from?” he asked.

“Well, from Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany.” “So you immigrated there, too?” He had just come off a few minutes of kindly asking why my young country is so weird about immigration since, as he put it, everyone there came from somewhere else.

“Yeah. A long time ago. We called it the land of opportunity.”

We shared some similarities about our countries. He said that Morocco is similar to America — that if you want to work hard, you can determine the extent of your own success — freedom is a bit more far reaching, I’ve found, than we commonly give it credit for. We made fun of Europe for a couple of minutes, and shared a few more laughs.

Before we parted ways, we talked about Sidi Ifni one last time. He said that Ifni is getting bigger — that there are new buildings, and that everywhere you turn, the sound of cranes and jackhammers can be heard — that houses are getting built, and that despite appearances, a lot of tourists are attaching this place to their radar. In 10 years, Molmot predicts, Sidi Ifni will be different — bigger, more polished, more friendly to the cautious visitor. The periwinkle of the cement stations will be returned to an original naval blue and the chipped tiles of the promenades will be restored to a semblance of originality and spit-sheen. This made me sad.

I remember my own home as a town where the lackadaisical came to play. It was a place where cinderblock shacks dominated the beachfront, and where the tallest manmade structure was a dumb, ritzy, sort-of-luxury hotel, content to live under its own definition of grandeur until the outside world came along and showed it what-for. I see Sidi Ifni as a reflection of that old place and I ache, deep inside, at the thought of it trodding down the same, easy path. I could see the honeymoon suite quintupling in value; the seafood shack becoming commercialized; the surf shop going corporate; the pizzeria becoming, God forbid, a Papa John’s. Why does everything have to progress? Why does everything have to become more than what it is? I asked Molmot, and he couldn’t say.

“You can come back for a swim,” Molmot said consolingly and out of context. He knew that our bus was leaving first thing in the morning.

“I’d like that,” I said, as I downed the last of my beer. “Next time.”