Moroccan Magic: Dispelling myths in North Africa.

by Justin Coté

There we were, at a small airport in Northern Africa surrounded by uniformed Moroccan men with guns who had just flagged us down in our rented Toyota minivan.

“Where are you from?” the tall, militarily garbed man asked in perfect English.

“The United States,” I replied with the confidence of an abused puppy.

“Oh, excellent. Did you have a nice vacation, monsieur?”

“Yes, sir. This is a wonderful country. I can’t wait to come back.”

En Shallah (God willing). Have a nice flight.”

“Thank you very much.”

And that was it, our big run-in with the Moroccan cops. I’ve met scarier flight attendants.

Morocco, located on the northern tip of Africa and separated from Europe by the 37-mile Strait of Gibraltar, is a melting pot like no other. Africa meets Europe, Old World meets New World, Islam meets Christianity, East meets West, and the Sahara meets the Atlantic. To properly digest Morocco requires all of your senses to be ready for an onslaught of exotic spices; soccer-ball-dribbling children; dredging reef breaks; awesome food; and surreal, neighborhood-penetrating prayers in Arabic.

The country looks a lot like Baja California, with a sparsely populated coastline that is infrequently dotted with olive trees, cacti, and scrub brush. Coastal mountains, with caves carved out of the sides of them that used to house pirates and smugglers, reach all the way to the water in some places, creating huge sandstone cliffs that loom over pristine, undeveloped nooks and crannies filled with surfing potential. Rocky coves and long, flat beaches dot the shoreline where there aren’t kilometer-long right-hand point breaks. There are no round buildings in Morocco. Everything is constructed with geometric right angles, and although box-like in appearance, the architecture in general is stunning.

The food, much like the people, is a spectacular fusion of Arab, French, and African tastes. Dishes like lamb couscous, curries, and beef tangine (meat and vegetables cooked in a conical clay pot) headline most menus. Fruits and vegetables are grown in the less arid northern part of the country, yet are sold in every little desert village in beautiful displays of color and scent that nearly overflow into the street.

The trip, organized by TransWorld SURF lensman Dustin Humphrey and surf-flick legend Taylor Steele, was to be more than just the standard shoot-and-video-’til-you-drop type of deal. Along with Taylor, who was filming for Campaign 2 and another “secret project,” was his gorgeous wife Sybil and cameraman Todd “The Bod” Heater–a workout freak. After lugging his gear (which weighed over a hundred pounds) through sand dunes and standing in the sweltering sun all day, “The Bod” went to the local blacksmith and bought an iron rod he fashioned into a pull-up bar, busting out a hundred pull-ups after every day of filming.

It was nice to have ladies around. They made it so we watched our language, didn’t turn into total slobs, and when you’re in a group with a couple of good-looking girls, other “birds” (as our hosts referred to females) can’t help but have a second look, wondering what you got going on. Unfortunately, our mission wasn’t to pick up on chicks. We were there to surf, sample some Moroccan culture, and to prove that Muslims and red-blooded Americans can get along–despite our cowboy “president.”

Don’t Believe The Hype

The first thing anyone says about Morocco is to not shake someone’s left hand because they use it to wipe their ass due to a lack of toilet paper. Not true. Even though it was the John Wayne variety (toh as nails and takes shit from nobody), every toilet I used had paper.

We all thought we’d be surfing good, yet somewhat mushy, right points. If you told any of us we’d be snapping boards and pinned to the reef, we would have called bullshit on you. But as we came to learn, there is more to Morocco than long, perfect points–you just have to know where to look. “I thought we’d be surfing fun, rippable, point breaks, but kind of soft,” Shane Dorian said. However, after breaking two boards and getting spit out of countless barrels, he realized he was wrong: “I was definitely surprised to get waves that hollow.”

None of us were sure how, as Americans, we would be treated by the 95-percent Muslim population. Would the Moroccans hate us because we were from the “evil empire,” overthrowing autonomous nations at will? Would reports of Westerners versus Muslims prove true? The answer is no. With the exception of an old lady attempting to stone our film crew with football-sized rocks (not everyone likes to be photographed), the people of Morocco were generous, kind, accepting, and fun. Not once did we feel a bad vibe or any type of anti-American sentiment. Many people we spoke with had a relative or friend living in the States and expressed genuine interest in our well-being. The only American they don’t like is our president, George W. Bush, as evidenced by a short political conversation I had with a guy at a nightclub: “Bush bad, Clinton good.” He then offered me some hash (small wonder he’s a fan of Bill), which I politely declined … honest.

It was at the same nightclub where Dan Malloy and I became culturally enlightened. We were blown away at how many girls were at the club and how scantily clad they were. It wasn’t until one of them asked Dan for a cigarette and a hundred dirham (the local currency) that we figured it all out–these were “ladies of the night,” and their presence and pleasure wasn’t free. Being the moral guys we are, we took off, passing the Mike Tyson look-alike at the door, who apparently has another job title besides bouncer–it’s called a pimp.

Self-described “bad wingman,” 26-year-old Dan Malloy, was throwing 40-foot, offshore-wind-assisted fans on every turn. Unbeknownst to many, he has an amazing voice and rips on the guitar. Dan is a professional traveler who is fazed by nothing, especially shallow, rock-strewn waves. Don’t tell him a wave is unsurfable, because he’ll tell you, “It just needs a bit of tide.” The reason he’s a bad wingman is because all the chicks can’t stop looking at him, leaving his buddy to fend for himself. After the trip, Malloy was off to Ecuador to coach the Jamaican National Surf Team at the World Games, where his team finished a respectable twenty-first.

I always thought when prayers emanated from mosques, everybody stopped what they were doing and got down on their hands and knees to pray facing Mecca. Wrong again. During the five daily prayers, when loudspeakers blare, “Allah is great, praise Allah” in Arabic, people in the streets went about their business, seemingly oblivious. The prayers ricochet off of the stucco buildings in the neighborhood and penetrate every crevice possible. At first the 5:00 a.m. prayer woke us up, but after a while it was hard to tell if they were in dreams or real–either way, the prayers were very soothing. Later on I was told the prayers are more of a nod to a higher power than a strictly regimented prayer session. That’s Morocco for you–a moderate, modernized Islamic society.

The Grassy Knoll

Skunk and Denny, our hosts/guides, had kept the wave under wraps for two years–and for good reason. Situated in a horseshoe-shaped bay, the Grassy Knoll, a six-hour drive south of Agadir (our base camp) toward the Sahara desert, was a complete surprise. A cross between The Box in Western Australia and Backdoor Pipeline, our ripping British hosts had found a serious wave. At low tide, the reef became exposed and the wave unrideable. However, with a little water over the rock-shelf-type reef, it turned into a perfect, draining right that had us scrambling to put on our wetsuits as fast as possible.

“It was kind of like Teahupo‘o on a big day, you know–the same shape, but it was only four feet,” said Shane of the staircasing slabs. Because he ruled it so hard, Shane was granted the honor of renaming the break. He came up with “The Grassy Knoll” after getting rolled on the reef and discovering it had a grass-like texture to it that made impacts forgiving and nearly carefree. According to Shane, he began to have dreams about the wave and would wake every morning wondering what was going on at “The Knoll”–it was that good.

Thirty-one-year-old “Sugar” Shane Dorian was the first one up every morning and psyching on the waves the whole time. Surfing with Dorian pushes everyone involved past their personal limit. And if there’s a heavy wave coming toward you and Shane is around? “You go,” says Mike Losness. “Shane definitely pushed my surfing. It’s pretty cool that he was riding my board, too” adds Mike. (The only downer of our trip–Shane’s boards were stolen after leaving a door ajar–whoops!) Accompanying Shane was his beautiful wife Lisa, who with the help of Sybil Steele (Taylor’s wife) bought nearly every handbag in the country. Shane’s surfing, a mix of power, finesse, and positioning, was probably the best ever witnessed on these shores and had people freaking out atop the bluffs overlooking the various locales we surfed. Says Dan Malloy of Shane’s surfing and blissful life on the Big Island, “He’s the perfect example of what happens when you apply yourself.”

The only locals, besides a donkey and a few wandering camels, were Berber fishermen. They’ve carved out caves to post up in during their jaunts to the coast, and one, Abdul, kindly offered us mint tea, ironically referred to as Moroccan whiskey (there’s no alcohol in it), a beverage everybody drinks in this country where alcohol is primarily reserved for tourists. An ancient and badass race, Berbers have successfully thwarted invaders of their land–such as Romans, Portuguese, and the aptly named Vandals–for over 3,000 years, yet remain hospitable and friendly toward visitors. In fact, it’s a core belief in the Muslim religion (which most Berbers practice) to be hospitable and kind toward guests.

While we didn’t have much in common and I don’t speak a lick of the Berber language, we talked about fishing and the waves in broken French while sipping mint tea in Abdul’s cave. Although he didn’t get too excited about the surfing going down, he became quite animated while telling me about the massive bass he caught the day before, indicating it was as long as his arm and weighed over ten kilos. Apparently some things, such as fishing tales where the fish grows over time, are universal and unimpeded by religion, geography, and language.

Marrakech

It would have been wrong for us to come halfway across the world and not check out something Moroccan besides barrels and camels. So it was decided–we would follow the hippie trail to Marrakech, four hours inland from our quiet, seaside village. To get there we had to pass by the 13,000-foot Atlas Mountains, where we saw snow-capped mountains butted up against the mighty and–due to an environmental phenomenon called desertification–growing Sahara desert. From there, the contradictions kept flowing.

Marrakech, a former capital of Morocco, was a popular retreat for hippioward the Sahara desert, was a complete surprise. A cross between The Box in Western Australia and Backdoor Pipeline, our ripping British hosts had found a serious wave. At low tide, the reef became exposed and the wave unrideable. However, with a little water over the rock-shelf-type reef, it turned into a perfect, draining right that had us scrambling to put on our wetsuits as fast as possible.

“It was kind of like Teahupo‘o on a big day, you know–the same shape, but it was only four feet,” said Shane of the staircasing slabs. Because he ruled it so hard, Shane was granted the honor of renaming the break. He came up with “The Grassy Knoll” after getting rolled on the reef and discovering it had a grass-like texture to it that made impacts forgiving and nearly carefree. According to Shane, he began to have dreams about the wave and would wake every morning wondering what was going on at “The Knoll”–it was that good.

Thirty-one-year-old “Sugar” Shane Dorian was the first one up every morning and psyching on the waves the whole time. Surfing with Dorian pushes everyone involved past their personal limit. And if there’s a heavy wave coming toward you and Shane is around? “You go,” says Mike Losness. “Shane definitely pushed my surfing. It’s pretty cool that he was riding my board, too” adds Mike. (The only downer of our trip–Shane’s boards were stolen after leaving a door ajar–whoops!) Accompanying Shane was his beautiful wife Lisa, who with the help of Sybil Steele (Taylor’s wife) bought nearly every handbag in the country. Shane’s surfing, a mix of power, finesse, and positioning, was probably the best ever witnessed on these shores and had people freaking out atop the bluffs overlooking the various locales we surfed. Says Dan Malloy of Shane’s surfing and blissful life on the Big Island, “He’s the perfect example of what happens when you apply yourself.”

The only locals, besides a donkey and a few wandering camels, were Berber fishermen. They’ve carved out caves to post up in during their jaunts to the coast, and one, Abdul, kindly offered us mint tea, ironically referred to as Moroccan whiskey (there’s no alcohol in it), a beverage everybody drinks in this country where alcohol is primarily reserved for tourists. An ancient and badass race, Berbers have successfully thwarted invaders of their land–such as Romans, Portuguese, and the aptly named Vandals–for over 3,000 years, yet remain hospitable and friendly toward visitors. In fact, it’s a core belief in the Muslim religion (which most Berbers practice) to be hospitable and kind toward guests.

While we didn’t have much in common and I don’t speak a lick of the Berber language, we talked about fishing and the waves in broken French while sipping mint tea in Abdul’s cave. Although he didn’t get too excited about the surfing going down, he became quite animated while telling me about the massive bass he caught the day before, indicating it was as long as his arm and weighed over ten kilos. Apparently some things, such as fishing tales where the fish grows over time, are universal and unimpeded by religion, geography, and language.

Marrakech

It would have been wrong for us to come halfway across the world and not check out something Moroccan besides barrels and camels. So it was decided–we would follow the hippie trail to Marrakech, four hours inland from our quiet, seaside village. To get there we had to pass by the 13,000-foot Atlas Mountains, where we saw snow-capped mountains butted up against the mighty and–due to an environmental phenomenon called desertification–growing Sahara desert. From there, the contradictions kept flowing.

Marrakech, a former capital of Morocco, was a popular retreat for hippies in the 60s and at one time a favorite hangout of Jimi Hendrix. It could have been the massive amounts of hashish brought in from the mountains that lured visitors to Marrakech–but for us it was the shopping. Many types of services and products from Africa and the Arab world can be found within the walls of the old city. Is your tooth bothering you? There’s a man in the medina (town square) who will pull that bugger out right on the spot and then display it on his table with a for-sale sign. While we were there, a man with his eyes completely carved out begged for money while shady-looking dudes walked by hissing “chocolate (illegal hash) … good price.” Veiled women shopped for produce and chatted on cell phones. Snake charmers tossed lethal vipers around our necks–and then charged a small fortune for the pleasure.

The snake charmers became our introduction to the ancient Moroccan art of bartering. It goes like this: As you enter the souk (marketplace), where sunlight flows in at staggered intervals through the irregular ceiling, you see a pair of camel-skin, genie-like slippers your lady will look fabulous in. The vendor notices your interest and guesses where you’re from (Americans and Japanese equal big dollars). The price starts off at 200 dirham (equivalent to roughly 23 dollars). Scoff at this price. Ask him if you look like you’re made of money. He’ll tell you he needs to feed his family. Offer him a ridiculously low price, perhaps twenty dirham, a bit more than two bucks. He’ll look at you like the infidel you are and suggest another price. This goes on until a price is agreed upon, and then you’ve got a pair of slippers guaranteed to please the missus. The same process works for knives, swords, carpets, clothes, and brass and silver goods. Products with set prices include spices, nuts, produce, and live chickens (butchered on the spot for three bucks), and the entertaining yet tiresome bartering process isn’t necessary. Some other interesting sites included seeing a McDonald’s restaurant with the McDonald’s sign written in Arabic, a sheik rolling up to a casino in an 80,000-dollar Porsche Cayenne with a full harem in tow, and Mike Losness’ favorite–king cobras striking at their laughing, toothless masters in the medina.

Points Of Perfection

Don’t go to Morocco if you don’t like rights, because the country is littered with them. Most traveling surfers wind up in Tagazoute, a dusty, one-lane town with surf shops; restaurants that serve mint tea and couscous; and narrow, winding alleyways that lead to small souvenir shops where you can pick up teapots, carpets, and use a telephone. In the Tagazoute area alone, there are at least six world-class right point breaks–and that doesn’t even count the numerous beginner and intermediate spots that dot the Baja California-like coastline. Boilers, the northernmost spot in the region, is right next to Cape Dhir, the westernmost point, and gets tons of swell. The name is derived from the remnants of a shipwreck that graces the lineup with its rusty and creepy presence. Minute-long rides are a normal occurrence here.

Mike Losness didn’t say a word for two days, then, with his deadpan humor, he morphed into a hilarious mix of Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell. Mike, who really excelled at the points, took backside surfing to its beyond-vertical limit: “At first I was nervous (surfing with Shane), but then you get to know people and get more relaxed. If I knew he was watching, I tried really hard.” The result of 23-year-old Mike trying harder was amazing–absolutely crazy backside snaps and freakish airs. He stands on his tail and just whips the shit out of his board, pushing it to areas of a wave most of us never venture to, qualifying him as one of California’s best surfers.

Boats, a less-surfed yet hollower spot than Boilers, was where we scored some of the best waves of the trip. “It’s better than J-Bay!” claimed Dorian after a twelve-second barrel. (Don’t be modest, Shane–we timed it that night on video.) Boats was absolutely perfect except for one factor–getting in and out of the water. With one tiny keyhole the entire length of the point, more than one board and body got smashed up by the boulder-strewn, urchin-infested shoreline that is prone to heavy surges of water. One unlucky fellow languished in the wrong spot for 45 minutes before his buddy helped him flail up and over the jagged reef. His wetsuit was shredded to pieces and his ego shot, but he came out okay nevertheless.

Killers, a big right at the bottom of a thousand-foot cliff and named after the killer whales that cruise the lineup, was according to Dan a solid eight feet. That’s triple overhead and bombing to you and me. While Dan and I sat a