On a stormy afternoon in December 1932, a ship leaves the port of Long Beach, California and disappears into a curtain of rain and fog. The boat, a ramshackle 100 foot yacht, veers and pitches over rough seas while a small group of people gather on her port side. They hold tight to railings and listen while a man shouts through the squalls, delivering a eulogy for the dead man at their feet.
At the centre of the little group is a tall, blonde woman dressed in a military style uniform. Behind her black veil she wears an expression that is hard to read: part grief, part anger, part defiance. A few hundred yards away, men aboard another ship watch through binoculars, supposedly monitoring activities, but in fact looking at the statuesque blond whose name and face are on the front page of newspapers around the world. Despite her fame, however, no one knows much about her. How old she is, where she comes from, her relationship to the dead man. Some say she’s driven around the world and has discovered tribes in the Amazon. Others claim she’s a communist revolutionary, or a Hollywood insider, or that she crossed Africa, scaled mountains, survived jail and kidnapping, escaped civil wars and works as a spy. In fact, she is more than all of this. Her name is Aloha Wanderwell. She is one of the greatest explorers of her age.
During her twenty-odd years Aloha has tackled more change and faced more peril than all of Hollywood’s swashbucklers combined. Adventure has been her way of life, her driving passion. Even now, in the cold wet grey, she understands that a larger world is out there: Brazil’s buzzing jungles, India’s colour-sick streets, the sultry cabarets of Paris, the wild dances of African tribes, the cathedral forests of Vancouver Island. These are real places and they live inside her like friends.
Captain Farris’s voice is booming. He reads a passage from Joseph Conrad and then a bugle rings out the taps. Someone is sobbing. The flag is lifted and the sea grass coffin slides down the plank and into the dark waters. There’s a splash, a wash of bubbles, and then nothing. Just a heavy sea and a life vanished. Aloha chokes down her emotions and wonders about what’s next. She could quit, could just go home – except that she has no home. For the last decade at least, home has been the open road, the idea of what might be just over the horizon. Home as a fixed place has not existed for a very long time, perhaps not since her childhood, 1,100 miles north on Vancouver Island. It was eighteen years earlier, before she’d circled the world. Before she’d become famous. Before the US Government started tracking her. Those carefree days before another man’s death had changed her life forever…
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I’m not usually one to keep an eye out for omens, but as our bus neared the Moroccan beach town of Essaouira I couldn’t help wondering what the scene might portend: Standing like cardboard cut-outs in the upper branches of a large argan tree were no less than seven goats. Yes, goats. In a tree. I pressed my face to the glass and convinced myself that such a thing could exist. It must. Certainly the goats seemed unimpressed to be 15 feet in the air, munching leaves in the full blast of midday heat.
Our bus pulled into a dusty station on the outskirts of Essaouira (say, “Essa-weera”). The guide books had promised a picturesque town full of souks, ancient buildings, and dramatic seascapes. Judging by the view from the bus staion, however, we’d be lucky to find a clean place to sit down. With bags slung over our shoulders, my travel partner, Kim, and I trudged through an unremarkable district: small whitewashed houses, palm trees in a dirt yard by the dirt road, electrical lines strung haphazardly between crooked poles, and ramshackle cars careening down streets or abandoned in yards and alleyways.
Tree climbing goats, Jimi Hendrix and crumbling seaside castles. Essaouira, Morocco is as strange as it is beautiful.
But just as I was beginning to think that reports of Essaouira’s beauty had been greatly exaggerated, we reached the main gate of the old city: a deep, bricked archway crowned with triangular capped battlements. Beyond this arch no more cars were allowed, and as we passed through several succeeding arches, time seemed to peel away until we were part of a crush of hooded men and veiled women milling through streets overflowing with wood carvings, textiles, stonework and leather goods. Overhead, tall white buildings with vibrant blue shutters obscured all but the very tops of palm trees which grew at the centres of hidden courtyards. We wandered through the pedestrian filled streets in a kind of dazed wonder, as though carried by the current of a slow moving river, drifting deep into the medina, or old town, where most of the hotels can be found.
As an up and coming resort town, Essaouira is full of four- and five-star accommodations, but it is precisely because of its growing popularity that getting a room in these hotels requires a reservation, at least during high season. After a few attempts, we settled into comfortable, unpretentious lodgings near the 16th century Portuguese ramparts that line the western edge of town. On my way down from the room I asked Ali, the 16-year-old son of the hotel’s owner, what he thought was best about Essaouira. Ali straightened up from the mop he’d been leaning over.