Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ramadan & Christmas in Morocco, Part 2 of 2

Christmas Eve, Sahara Desert
Note: Part 1 of “Ramadan & Christmas in Morocco” can be read here: 
It sets the experience in time and context and contains terminology and background information pertinent to Part 2 below. 

The rain and cold in Casablanca continued for days. We decided to leave the city earlier than planned for Marrakesh. Like my visions of Casablanca being the city of romance, I also had notions of what Marrakesh would be like. On some level, I expected it to resemble a Grateful Dead concert. The pictures in my travel guide showed the central square covered in colorful food stands and bright lights with people dancing. It looked like a festive place to celebrate Christmas. 

Challenging travel conditions continued on our long bus ride to the magical city enshrined in the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song, “Marrakesh Express.” Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes/Trying to make the train to clear Moroccan skies/Bugs and pigs and chickens call/Animal carpet wall to wall/Would you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express/Would you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express/All on board that train/. Fact was there was no sunset in our eyes and the “express train” was an old bus. Within the first thirty minutes the rain started to pour again and the window above our seat dropped a continuous stream of water. Girls tend to get their way: FBF (former boyfriend) swapped seats with me shortly thereafter. 

One of Many Food Stands on the Square In Marrakesh
When we rolled into Marrakesh I felt the magic I expected. I soon met a man named Aziz who offered to take us to the Sahara Desert. I said yes without asking FBF. He was leery; regardless we left for our journey through the Atlas mountains the next morning (December 23rd) in an old-style, mid-1970s Mercedes Benz with Aziz at the wheel. The temperatures rose and the sun shined brightly and for a few hours I allowed myself to relax and absorb the Vitamin D that my body craved. Late afternoon brought a jolt as the mellow drive turned into a manic car race on a winding, single-lane mountain road. Two inches off either side and the Mercedes and its passengers would tumble thousands of feet in the Atlas Mountains. The genuine fear of death smacked hard for the first time in my life. FBF thought Aziz had flipped a lid and I thought he might be taking us hostage. He shouted angry words in Arabic to other drivers, us, and the world in general. When the car finally skidded on two wheels in front of a village cafe it all made sense. Break fast. Dozens and dozens of men milled in the streets and on the cafe porch waiting for the mosque to sound.

Aziz (right) and His Friend

With the sun setting, Aziz and a young man from the cafe drove the Mercedes Benz to the end of the road and straight into the Sahara Desert to camp for the evening. He pulled out a makeshift tent and the chicken bought that morning from the floor of the trunk. “I will NOT eat that filthy chicken” pulsated through my head. Before long, Aziz siphoned gas from his car to fuel a small stove. With each ingredient he added to the tajine pot, Aziz mumbled “preparation chicken, preparation carrots, preparation bread” and on. All I could think was “Preparation H!”
Aziz knew limited English and French and his friend spoke only Arabic. Most communication was conveyed through gestures and laughs. When I tried to tell where we were from, drawing a map of the U.S. in the air and other tactics, the young Berber man finally had a bright look on his face and said with clinched teeth and a tone of voice that I will never forget: “George W. Bush!” Our vacation followed the 2000 presidential election and the Bush-Gore battle for the White House. In fact, unknown to us, the official winner had been declared back in the States just days before. 

Early on Christmas Eve morning, we mounted our camels (they had been tied to the back of the Mercedes and followed us in the desert the night before) and went on an exploration guided by a Berber man that seemingly appeared from nowhere. Without a doubt the Sahara ranked with the most awe-inspiring natural wonders that I had ever experienced. The vastness of the space was a fabulous exercise in insignificance: the land mass is roughly the size of the United States. By noon, I had stripped every piece of clothing except undergarments because of the blinding sun and suffocating heat. Soon Aziz had us on the way back to Marrakesh arriving at the hotel by early evening. We spent Christmas Eve night on the square, eating our way from stand to stand and drinking orange Fanta while dreaming of a beer in a country that bans alcohol.

Christmas Morning
When the mosques sounded at 5:30 on Christmas morning to break the fast, we ventured into the square to watch the sun rise and the bustle of activity surrounding another day of Ramadan. We Christmas shopped in the covered Medina of Marrakesh, eyeing all the vivid colors of the foods and crafts. 

Back at the hotel we found Aziz waiting for us. He extended an invitation to join us at his home for an evening meal with his family, acknowledging that he knew it was Christmas day. The gesture reminded me of something that I read in my Lonely Planet travel guide: “Moroccans are friendly people and open-minded tourists will likely get invited to a private residence.” Aziz and his family warmly welcomed us for the evening’s feast and the mutual feeling of an experience shared ensued among us all. As Christmas night came to a close, FBF kissed me goodnight. Here in Marrakesh we had luxuries lacking in Casablanca: two single beds and heat in the room. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ramadan & Christmas in Morocco, Part 1 of 2

In December 2000 I discovered the other Casablanca--not the movie but rather a bustling, third-world city celebrating Ramadan. My visions of romance and an exotic land of cafes, gin joints, and beautiful people faded when I laid eyes on my now former boyfriend (hereafter referred to as FBF, not to be confused with BFF) at the Casablanca airport. Eight months had passed since he left to serve in the Peace Corps in West Africa. Over the next three weeks in Morocco, I would learn that personal hygiene is relative but when he greeted me I was unwitting to this fact. FBF smelled and looked like a man of the bush! “Couldn’t even shower and put on clean clothes to woo his woman”rumbled through my head.

Morocco is a popular travel destination for those who enjoy unique culture and adventurous conditions. December and January are the coldest and the rainiest months of the year. Most people would not choose to be in Morocco in December. And the maraschino cherry of it all? Twice every 30 years Ramadan coincides with Christmas and we were there for it! Ramadan, lasting 29-30 days, is the Muslim holy month. Ramadan traditions include the fasting of food, water, cigarettes, sex and other worldly pleasures from sunup to sunset each day. It is a time of sacrifice, prayer, and mindful reflection. 

It didn’t take long to figure out that Casablanca was not a Hollywood stage. All delusions of romantic trysts dimmed when FBF took me to our boarding room. I stared in disbelief: one single bed, a sink, and concrete floors. “Where’s the bathroom?” seemed a logical question and the answer prepared me for my Moroccan experience. He led me down the chilly hall, pointed out a group shower, adding that the hotel does not provide hot water. Then I saw the bathroom stall. A filthy ceramic hole and a faucet with a small bucket of water greeted me with a sneer. No toilet paper in Morocco--it is customary to wipe with the left hand and eat with the right. The bucket was there to rinse hands and catch the water from the spigot above. 

Choosing not to cold shower it, we took to the streets of Casablanca. Everywhere I turned men butchered live animals (chickens, fish, goats, and an occasional cow) to offer for sale. Despite the seemingly filthy conditions, I couldn’t help but guess that the process was less germ-ridden than U.S. meat factories. When a man purchased a slaughtered and plucked chicken, probably still warm with afterlife, and carried it barehanded down a narrow street I had one of many lessons that industrialized does not always equal better. Back in Missouri, I could only dream of meat that fresh.

Men worked and socialized in the streets during the day while the women, at home, prepared an elaborate meal for that evening’s break fast. It took me awhile to realize that they weren’t talking about breakfast. The mosques across Morocco play their haunting and beautiful sound (listen here at about 5:30 each morning and evening, alerting all that the day’s fast either had started or ended.

With few restaurants open due to the holiday, my first dinner purchase included bottled water, dry crackers, a banana, along with multiple packages of kleenex for bathroom use. In less than 24 hours, any thoughts of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s affair had dimmed yet I couldn’t help but look to the future. With our long bodies squeezed in a single bed I whispered in FBF’s ear: “We’ll Always Have Paris.”

Some highlights of our time in Casablanca include:

The Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, is one of the two mosques in the world that allows non-Muslim visitors. It opened in 1993. The tour was a very aesthetic and spiritual experience and I felt privileged to be there especially during Ramadan. The mosque was designed under the watchful eye of King Hassan II who said, "I want to build this mosque on the water, because God's throne is on the water. Therefore, the faithful who go there to pray, to praise the Creator on firm soil, can contemplate God's sky and ocean."

I Spy a Tall Blonde (FBF)
It was hard to lose each other.
We encountered an unexpected mid-day gathering in the streets surrounding a local mosque. King Hassan II and his entourage drove to the town square procession-style and shared in a noon prayer with his people. The next morning with the rain cleared, we enjoyed the first glimpse of sunshine in days. I found myself relaxed in a Moroccan sort of way as we wound our way through some Casablanca souks and plotted our Christmas excursion over hot tea and crackers. 

Stay tuned for Part 2: Camping, Camels, and Survival in the Sahara Desert on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Marrekash.

The link to Part 2:

Monday, December 12, 2011

"To Trim or Not to Trim"

"To Be or Not to Be," declared Hamlet.

“To Tree or Not to Tree,” I responded. It was the wee, pre-coffee hours of Sunday morning.
Before my mind could turn from treeing to being, I hauled it to the basement for three large boxes containing tree, ornaments, and too much junk. Deep down, I dreaded this deed and chose a systematic and thoughtful method to the task. The ornament boxes would wait while I assembled the tree. It took a hammer and some muscle to bend the pieces to balance the tripod on which this tree stands. The only alternative would have been roping it to wall or furniture. The harder the task, the more determined my effort.
Sounds of Christmas music, with the snap, crackle, and pop of old family vinyl led me to a place of nostalgia and mindfulness. I found myself in a sing-a-long with Glen Campbell, Emmylou Harris, Elvis, and others. It buffered my relationship with the present for a short while. While advisable to always live in the present--out in the real world where all is new each day--a temporary escape strengthens my “now.” 
With the tree up and shaped, I delved into the ornament box with a growing enthusiasm. The Christmas Ball wiggled, knowing it always goes first. The only ornament with a permanent nail is a work of art created by my sister Mary. Notice the perfect needlepoint in the picture to the right. 
“To Keep or Not to Keep,” rattled my skull.
Four piles formed: ornaments from my youth; from college to present; basic colored balls to reflect the lights; and trash. Memories flooded and Ray Conniff’s take on “White Christmas” helped this be an easy and rewarding system. Every ornament on the tree tells a story: a glittery, octagon-shaped ball made from Christmas cards by my great-great aunt; childhood art projects though the generations; gifts from dear friends; reminders of vacations, loves had and lost, colleges and places I adore. “I'm dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know/Where the treetops glisten and children listen/To hear sleigh bells in the snow/I'm dreaming of a white Christmas/With every Christmas card I write/May your days be merry and bright/And may all your Christmases be white” sounded inspired. 
The antique round table that relocated for the holiday season folded down in size and shape to provide an extension to my tree that honors my little brother. Jim was a “Trekkie,” a proud and loyal Star Trek fan. Collectors leave Star Trek toys and items untouched in the original packaging. As a teenager Jim’s wall was covered with Star Trek spaceships, figures, and toys safe behind a plastic window and surrounded by a cardboard background. A punch hole in the cardboard allowed a pin to provide the necessary support to display.

“To Remove or Not Remove,” I questioned the boxed ornament.
With a wink to Jim’s spirit, I pulled out the ornament and set it next to its original box. After all these years, Commander Data deserved to come out of the box, I said. And I heard Jim’s response: a manly giggle. The lights ran out before reaching the top. Rather than run to Mom’s for another strand, I topped the tree with a white angel given to me by a friend years ago. The angel's been there before but this year it also reminded me of Jim. My friend loved him, laughed (and laughed and laughed) with him. Warm thoughts of an old friend and Jim’s bright smile illuminate things up there.
Christmas 2011

Monday, December 5, 2011

Brandi Carlile @ the Blue Note, Columbia, Mo.

Brandi Carlile at the Blue Note

Brandi Carlile’s spectacular voice, wicked guitar playing, and intimate stage presence on Saturday evening shattered my already high expectation for a smokin' hot performance. 
Following the opening act (Katie Herzig), the tall beauty appeared on the Blue Note stage with at least five guitars within her reach at all times. Brandi engaged the sold-out audience with the warmth of an old friend, reminding the full house that a concert is an experience that requires mutual participation. Opening with “Dreams” off her 2010 album Give Up the Ghost, followed by two additional original numbers, she stunned by stepping to the front of the stage to offer an unplugged version of one of her most beautiful songs. Forgoing microphone or amplification, she delivered a powerful version of “What Can I Say.” With this, Brandi had the crowd in the palm of her hand for the entire evening.
Throughout the show, Brandi weaved together strong material from all three of her studio albums, a few new/unreleased songs, and a handful of cover tunes. A string of storytelling tied each song to the next and built a rapport between artist and audience unmatched by most performers. She told of her lifelong dream of performing at the Grand Ole Opry and the thrill of meeting one of her musical idols, Wanda Jackson there. Before she covered Radiohead’s “Creep” we learned that it was her Mom who suggested she buy the band’s CD. When she shared a new song (“Christmas 1984”), the first time she performed it live, Brandi explained that not all Christmas songs need be joyous. Her message of avoiding the materialism that overtakes the holiday season was exquisitely delivered through the song. 
Brandi belted out her anthem “The Story” as the final song of the set. Hearing her words: All of these lines across my face/Tell you the story of who I am/So many stories of where I've been/And how I got to where I am/But these stories don't mean anything/When you've got no one to tell them to/It's true...I was made for you/, it felt as if she had shared the Story of Brandi Carlile with her new friends in mid-Missouri. The authentic singer/songwriter returned the affection, expressing gratitude and awe for her Columbia audience numerous times. She promised that she would return to the Blue Note to see “one of, if not the best audience” of her tour.
The encore offered a short mini-set, opening with two original ballads. She followed by plucking a lucky young man from the audience who joined her on stage to duet John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” with her. The night ended with a rousing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” an oft-covered song seldom performed by female singers. She nailed it. Of course.

Brandi Carlile in Parking Lot Following Concert at Blue Note 

Brandi Carlile sings "The Story" with her band at Austin City Limits, September 2011. Her performance at the Blue Note was a part of her first solo tour.