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. 


  1. Sounds like quite an adventure! I'm too into creature comforts to ever go there now except through your writing here. Thanks for sharing.

  2. "Express train was an old bus." Sounds about right...I really enjoyed both of these posts. You really captured the sights and sounds. And I love how it ends! Great job, as always.