I stepped off the bus from Marrakech bracing myself for the locals to start badgering me.
"Excuse me, miss, you need hotel?"
"Can I help with your bag?"
But the barrage of hustlers never came. Whereas in Marrakech I had to thrice fend off local men trying to give me directions* during the short walk across the main square and over to my hostel, in Essaouira no one accosted me. As the wind from the Atlantic ruffled my shirt (which in Marrakech had been perpetually stuck to me with sweat), I breathed a sigh of relief.
While exploring the medina that afternoon, I noticed that, save for an occasional "Hello, bonjour," the shop owners seemed like they really didn't give a shit whether you entered or not. It's so much more enjoyable that way; being able to take in the surroundings rather than staring at the ground trying to avoid that fatal first eye contact which, in all other cities, will have the business owners yelling and gesticulating wildly for you to come in and hear all about the "special price" that awaits.
"Why would you go back to fucking Marrakech?" a hostel staff member demanded a fellow traveler trying to sort out his last few days in Morocco.
Essaouira has that effect.
For dinner that first night, a large group of us that had first met in Marrakech went to the blue-and-white shacks near the port and enjoyed a massive meal of fresh seafood grilled to order. After negotiating the price down to 65 dirhams per person (including salad, bread, drink, two large fish and four sardines), we sat in the semi-darkness of an old-fashioned gas lamp, picking our way through tuna and sole as they came straight off the grill to our table, while feral cats lurked in the shadows hoping we'd toss them some scraps. It was a delicious but thoroughly messy affair and at the end of the meal looking at the mounds of balled-up napkins and fish bones on each plate, we debated whether this would be a really awesome or really terrible first date.
I went back the following night with some other new acquaintances. We paid a bit more but got to try red snapper, tuna, calamari and shrimp as well. The host let us take turns being photographed holding live crabs and lobsters. Doesn't get more fresh than that!
*This is how the scam works. A local - generally a young guy in his teens - sees you with a large backpack or suitcase and asks if you need a hotel. You say you already have a reservation. Instead of going away, he asks where you're staying. It matters little whether you tell him or not, because he knows all of the hotels and hostels in the area, so will continue to walk a few steps ahead of you in the same direction. It sounds completely illogical that a person can lead and follow you at the same time, but that's exactly what happens all the way to the hostel where, at the door, he will stop short of following you inside but will demand money. The staff is used to this and doesn't intervene. So in the end you toss the kid a few dirhams just so he'll fuck off.