What I Learned by Almost Drowning in Front of a Moroccan Graveyard. A Scuttlefish Feature.
by Owen James Burke
If a graveyard leering over a filthy, desolate and rocky surf break isn’t foreboding enough to keep you away, nothing will. Within a couple of hours these mild seas would build to double-overhead (12 feet +) and I’d be alone, fending for myself. Photo: Owen James Burke
Burning a hole through the setting sun with her worried gaze, she could see nothing. She began to sob out loud right there on the beach at the edge of a graveyard, how cruelly and poetically ironic.
Above: the beach and surf along the bank of the river Bou Regreg, Rabat, Morocco. Photo: Owen James Burke
Where was I? All that I could grasp was darkness. A large set of waves had come in just as it was getting too dark to see. I was caught inside over the jagged urchin-laden boulders along the southern bank of the river Bou Regreg in Quartier Hassan, a tiny, remote corner of Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, though you’d never know it. Only a handful of the city’s million-some-odd inhabitants dwelled this far out, where the ocean and the winds that frenzy it are feared more than they are revered. Rabat’s hardly known as a surfing city, and the few people who had been out earlier in the day had now made for home. Not even the fishing fleet were out, a sure indication that it was a stupid time and place to be if there ever was one.
She began to pace the beach, the back of her throat closing up. As the sun dipped behind the waves, so did the light of course, along with her hopes — or anyone’s — of finding me alive.
A sudden recognition of my perilous surroundings flushed over me as a wall of water built up and towered above me, and like a dark curtain it masked what little daylight was left on the far side of it.
I had taken notice earlier that day that a swell was filling in, but only by watching the waves grow throughout the day. How big it was going to get was pretty much anyone’s guess since we had no smartphones, television, radio or internet. I’m sure somewhere in that town we might have found a weather report, but we hadn’t bothered.
Back on shore, not only was she having to come to terms with the possibility that she’d lost her travel companion; she was a short, pretty blonde-haired, blue eyed American girl in an Arabic country who spoke not a lick of either Arabic or French.
To say that she was falling apart at the seams would have been a deep understatement. She’d never really been outside of the United States, much less Colorado. Now here she was on holiday traveling through a tense developing African nation with a 19-year-old boy whom she’d only just met in Portugal and barely knew in the first place. At the sage advice of some well-traveled surfing friends in Lisbon, we’d had to put a ring on her finger and cover her long blonde locks with a shawl just to walk around anywhere but the most rural places — night and day — and the moment we stepped off the ferry in Tanger, a man grabbed her arm and tried to pull her away right outside the medina walls. She received the same attention in the market in Marrakech, and later in Rabat from two men in our hotel who, even at her direct request, would not stop touching her. No, she wasn’t falling apart at the seams; she was approaching a disastrous meltdown.
I, meanwhile, was just a little too far inside when the largest set of waves of the evening came thundering in. I paddled as hard as I could to make it out past the breaking wave, but I knew I was caught, and ultimately only succeeded in putting myself into the impact zone under the guillotine of a wave I’d never even consider surfing, let alone taking on the head. Too late for second thoughts; this thing was going to swallow me. Whether it was going to spit me back out or not was another matter.
I took a breath in preparation for what would prove to be my longest hold-down of my life.
I suppose it wasn’t so much the idea of drowning that scared me — people who’ve ‘drowned’ and been resuscitated have reported it not having been too bad, peaceful even. I was more concerned with the seafloor beneath me: jagged boulders, sea urchins and whatever ungodly bacterial or chemical matter that was being puked out by the adjacent river. So far I’d seen garbage of every varietal up to and including industrial waste. Had I collided with the remains of another human being, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
As I began to dive toward the bottom in a pathetic attempt to subvert the wave’s intentions for me, the lip grabbed me head-first in what felt like pure effigy. I imagined it coldly mocking me, ‘Silly Infidel, how dare you? You put yourself in my way and now you pay.’ Subordinate in ever way, I was picked up and for a moment, I felt the sensation of weightlessness, like going off a high dive or a cliff into water, only without the assurance of a deep pool of water below. Whatever lay below me, I relaxed and pled with the universe that — if it happened — it would be mercifully quick.
My 19-year-old self had been acting senselessly, with complete disregard for anything but my own personal and momentary entertainment; there was no arguing that. But at the time, possessing the sense of invincibility and typical self-absorption of any 19-year-old, I had no such consciousness. Here I was with this poor, sweet girl who’d just taken up surfing and had little to no clue what she was doing in Morocco — with me no less, who callously and cluelessly suggested she come along on a whim. And here I had not only gotten myself into the most dangerous situation of my life, but more importantly, of her life as well.
Getting out of the taxi from the bus station to our hotel in Rabat. Face blurred to protect the innocent. Photo: Owen James Burke
We were supposed to go to Essaouira, a very sedate coastal village, once a haven and former heroin outpost for authors Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs and the hippies that followed them there. Now it was predominantly known for its waves, but a transit strike threw an axe into that plan, and we ended up in Rabat, a place few travelers (and fewer surfers) stop, or at least plan to stop.
That afternoon in Rabat, a nicely but gaudily dressed man approached as we revised plans for our trip. He overhead us saying that we’d wanted to go to Essaouira and said that he was headed that way and would happily drive us. He had heard about the transit strikes, and he’d also gathered that we were strapped for cash. He even offered to put us up in a hotel before we set off in the morning. The very thought that we could revive our pilgrimage caused me to mostly overlook all of the clues that nothing good would come from this man’s company. We were young and stupid (at 26 today, I like to think I still am), but we were at least somewhat skeptical. We asked a dozen or so questions and it seemed that his story checked out. Looking back of course, we practically laid ourselves out on a silver platter for him. He told us that he’d been teaching in Belgium, living with his wife and daughter, and that there had been a terrible car accident… blah, blah, blah. At this point any seasoned traveler would have heard enough. But we were as seasoned as a bowl of plain oatmeal. Well, I can’t speak for her, but still.
I’ll never quite understand why my radar did not go off even when a complete Moroccan stranger offered to pay for our hotel room. Maybe I just wanted to get there so badly. I wanted to surf the edge of the desert and ride a camel past the house at the beach on which Jimi Hendrix supposedly wrote the song “Castles Made of Sand.” It was all so close but all SO wrong.
Considering the dirtbag way we’d been traveling, the both of us welcomed the opportunity of a big hotel room with an ensuite bathroom and a plush bed with clean sheets and a locking door — romance was not nearly so much on my mind as surfing the legendary point breaks of Essaouira and Taghazout was, but the thought of scrubbing off our accumulated bark was nice. We put our bags down with sighs of relief, but by the time we’d begun to get comfortable in bed, her relief had dissipated into a fit of fear. No, romance was not on the table that evening. Instead I consoled her, naïvely assuring that everything was fine, but she wouldn’t let up, and just continued to tremble with fear.
We had played through the afternoon after we’d met this guy, and for the first time I began to analyze him without taking my own agenda into account. There we were in a touristy square in front of the Hassan II Mosque, looking frazzled and distraught as could be — backpacks, surfboards and all — and along comes a character decked out in Armani exchange and gold with long curly locks and a hat only a pimp would wear. Okay, sure, red flag number one. But, I reasoned, people with a little money in a country like Morocco like to set themselves apart from the poor, working class. I’d seen perfectly legitimate people dress like fools just to flaunt their wealth before; maybe he was one of those. ‘Well, why did he follow us everywhere we went this afternoon, even after he’d gotten us a hotel room?’ She was posing the right questions. I puzzled over reasons as to why this strange man might have followed us and deduced that he either had to be extremely lonely, or he had his own design on us. On the one hand, he was socially unstable, and on the other, perhaps we were looking at being sold into some horrid form of slavery. As I reluctantly but carefully played through both of these scenarios — taking into account that this man had just bought us our own private room for the night. It became clear that this was not going to end well.
I finally agreed to follow her gut on this one. At first I was peeved; here I was only hundreds of miles from a place I’d dreamt of surfing for years, and this girl whom I’d brought along on MY trip was trying to turn us around. Not that I was accustomed to taking rides from strangers in foreign countries (or my own), but at the time I was so obtusely resolute that I’d probably have let Muammar Gaddafi give me a lift had he offered. All said and done, my last-minute burdensome sidekick turned out to be my guardian angel. Our little negotiation left us with only a few hours of sleep in that plush white bed, but Thank God she persevered over my stubborn will. We’ll never know for sure, but our final impression was that this man had every intention of putting both our rear ends on the market for a price neither of us would have been willing or able to negotiate. We left before he awoke, though we did leave a very polite note; thanks for the room, no thanks for the ride. We scurried down to the transportation depot and hopped on a bus at 6:20am — I still remember the time — the first one out of Casablanca, and stepped off in Rabat, the next major city to the north, and the closest place with any surf.
So there we were, thinking we’d just dodged a bullet. Before we got to the surf, we checked ourselves into a big empty hotel on the waterfront, overlooking a graveyard. It had sturdy old bones ornately decorated by an artist with a keen eye, but that was probably well over 50 years ago. The lobby was filled with aging, decadent furniture and resembled an opium den, and for all we knew it probably was. It seemed there wasn’t a soul in the place apart from the receptionist. On closer inspection, we found two middle-aged oddballs lurking in the shadows. ‘Again?’ Now my radar was on, and somehow I knew we were, yet again, in the company of the unsavory.
My younger self pouring Moroccan mint tea in a dirty, dingy, worn out old hotel lobby on the outskirts of Rabat. Photo courtesy of Owen James Burke
We sat down for some Moroccan mint tea (“Moroccan whisky,” as they call it), giving the men at least 100 feet of berth, not counting the score of chairs, tables and sofas between us. Of course they came and joined us anyhow. The tea was just what we needed, but with our new friends it wasn’t tasting so great anymore. We just wanted to be left alone. We cordially excused ourselves and went up to our room to put our wetsuits on, but just as we started up the stairs, so did they. I shoved her ahead of me into the room, and shut the door behind me. Seconds later they knocked.
“Will you have tea later?” they asked (they spoke some English, just enough to bother us).
“Maybe. We’re not sure,” I responded as ambiguously as I could.
Next they took to sitting by the door of our room, and any time they sensed movement, they made every attempt to hit up my blonde accomplice. I’m not very forceful by nature, but I told her that while we were there she wasn’t so much as getting up to use the bathroom without me.
Looking out over the graveyard at the surf, our hotel had a certain charm, what with the burnt paint from a curtain that had caught fire and the sink which clung to the wall by a single nail. Photo: Owen James Burke
We suited up, walked across the street, through the graveyard along the edge of the casbah, and onto one of the most polluted stretches of sand I’ve ever tracked across – undefinably strewn with masses of black, white and gray plastic. We were both glad we’d brought our booties, it’s too bad neither of us had the good sense to stay out of the water.
Above: Suited up in Rabat with my favorite board while living in Portugal, shaped by Semente. The very next night I’d be kissing the floor of that dirty hotel in thanks for being alive. Photo courtesy of Owen James Burke
In the evening, the locals got out of the water and the swells began to grow. Photo: Owen James Burke
And now here I was in this filthy, gray, garbage-ridden ocean. Just as soon as I was so gracefully lifted, I made a sudden, violent descent into a pit of murky uncertainty. All I know is that I braced myself. There wasn’t much time for thought, if any. The next moment I felt my back dragging and bouncing along the pointed boulders below, praying that my skull wouldn’t catch the next — the way an atheist does when he’s in trouble with nowhere else to turn but the natural, god-fearing instincts he was born with.
Above: a wave like this held me under for what seemed like an eternity and almost took my life. Photo: Owen James Burke
Finally I sensed the relief of pressure and turbulence and floated to the surface through a blanket of off-color sea foam. Never have I so welcomed a cool burst of wind and life-giving breath. Miraculously, I thought in my own mind, I’d survived; not in some valiant hubris or machismo, mind you, but with all gratitude simply for the phenomenon of fortune. To this day, I still can’t believe I’m alive.
There was no doubting my misstep, I’ll admit that ’til the day I die. Only after I caught a wave in — which I rode on my stomach to shore, did I see – and feel – the terror I’d caused another human being.
She was bawling uncontrollably and for a moment my ever-invincible, egocentric 19-year-old self insolently struggled to figure out why. I hadn’t even considered her in the minutes previous. She’d (wisely) paddled in at sunset; we’d been warned of sharks in the area and God only knows what was going through her mind. Here sat this young girl, completely out of her element, alone on the beach in the dark in Morocco, wondering how she was even going to alert search and rescue. Wondering how she’d ever let herself get so far from home.
She didn’t speak. She just continued to sob. I held her as I came to know full-well just how much my by-the-wind pleasure-seeking and disregard for anything but myself had rattled her. I’m a bit careless when it comes to my own life; other things just seem to have so much more inherent value to me than safety, which to me is a weightless word, only applicable to school children, crossing guards and disillusioned parents. But to think I’d taken account for another and nearly relinquished the responsibility summons a guilt I’ll probably never live down, and a lesson learned, no doubt.
We still haven’t spoken since Morocco, and I can’t say I’d feel even remotely just in blaming her. — OJB
Tangier, on our way out of Morocco. Photo: Owen James Burke