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Morocco

In ways a different world entirely

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Jane flew into Casablanca, via Paris, from her home near San Francisco. Inside her carry-on backpack nestled half a dozen small shampoo-style bottles, each filled with a single martini — presumably the appropriate blend of gin and vermouth.

Their purpose was to provide — at least in the early days of her two-week Morocco tour — a civilized late-afternoon tipple.

Importantly, this trip fell during the lunar month of Ramadan, when alcohol is particularly difficult to get in this Islamic country. So when drink time rolled around, the retired social worker — good spirited, unreserved, and not, it must be noted, a problem drinker — would make her way to the hotel bar or restaurant area and demand a glass filled with ice.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast between dawn and dusk, and when Ramadan falls in mid-summer, as it did this year, that span of abstinence runs from about 5:30 a.m. to 7:45 p.m. It's a long stretch to go without food, water (yes, water), cigarettes and other forbidden easers of human tension.

And Morocco was hot — very. While daily temperatures ranged from the low 30s to mid-40s, it reached 51 during our stay in Marrakech, according to our tour guide.

Throughout the country work slows, incomes suffer, tempers flare. When I tried to get a taxi on a particularly oppressive afternoon in Marrakech, a handful of drivers almost came to blows for the opportunity to earn the meager fare.

Our small tour group — Jane and myself, and four Australians — were following a well-travelled circular route from Casablanca through Rabat to Fes, into the eastern desert, back through the M'Goun Valley to Marrakech, and out to Essaouira on the Atlantic coast.

And the repressive reality of Ramadan affected how I saw things. Casablanca, while filled with too-often neglected art-deco architecture and metal work that appeal to me, appeared tawdry. Fes's celebrated 1,200-year-old medina felt like a crowded slum. And in the medina of equally historic Meknes, north of Fes, we flitted through an open-air market where all I could see was the fact that the the food on display — from fresh meats to honey-soaked pastries — was hovered over by swarms of large black flies.

It was only in out on the desert — where we travelled by camel to overnight in tents (although we slept outside, given the heat) — that Morocco revealed, to me at least, her beauty. I also appreciated the central M'Goun Valley — a mountainous area where abandoned mud-walled fortified houses, and the newer homes to which the locals have relocated (singled out by the satellite dishes on the roofs), emitted a gorgeous earthy, even pinkish, hue.

Jane had come to Morocco on a carpet quest. Her goal was a specific type of Berber carpet that she'd researched back in the States. She knew precisely what she wanted. At shop after shop, she rejected a seemingly endless stream of what looked to me like highly attractive options. At a showroom a the oasis city of Tinghir, I felt so badly for the hapless merchant that I bought a small carpet — neither needed nor really wanted — in a misguided attempt to ease his misery.

During Ramadan, most restaurants open only after a call or signal (like a loud buzzer) from a mosque that reports that the sun has dropped below the horizon. Then it's time for the Muslims to do some serious eating. That means that foreign visitors — and, defying common sense, there were lots of us, including Europeans with small children — must wait an additional hour or so, until the locals have dined.

So we ate around nine, and if we were lucky we could order a beer and maybe a bottle of wine (in most places, a pretty inferior product bottled in Meknes).

But around 5 p.m. Jane would go after for her glass with ice. Most often a hotel barman or restaurant staffer would react dismissively, even angrily — barking, "No, no — Ramadan." But Jane would persist, taking her rejected demand on to the hotel manager, who occasionally relented.

One afternoon, in a garden hotel in the modern city of Ouarzazate — somewhere along the spectacular Highway of a Thousand Kasbahs — Jane was handed a single chunk of ice too large for the glass. In trying to jam it in, the glass broke. Not knowing what to do with the broken glass, we left it half-hidden in the garden.

The only obvious exception to the widespread lack of daytime eating-places was in the tourism-driven city of Essaouira. Here, in the early afternoon, non-Muslim visitors crowd into a narrow plaza lined with open-air restaurants for a cold drink (mostly non-alcoholic) or lunch.

Oddly, these patio cafes sit directly across from a mosque outside which, at mid-day, hundreds gathered to pray. The result is the odd juxtaposition of mostly scantily clad foreigners flagrantly indulging in their victuals, while fasting Muslims are bowed in prayer on the paving stones a few feet away. To pass through the plaza, one had to negotiate a narrow path between these two realities.

Our driver Yusuf, dressed in fashionable T-shirts and cargo pants, regularly went off to pray. Similarly, our local guide to Fes, wearing a traditional jellaba, left us haggling over leather goods to take in a half an hour of worship. Our mostly unhappy tour guide Khaled, while not obviously religious, said (with implied regret) that if any of his fellow Muslims showed signs of breaking the fast, he or she would be ostracized.

Having exhausted her supply of martinis, Jane, like the rest of us, made do with the occasional beer. Then on our final day back in Marrakech, Khaled directed us to a suburban supermarket from which Jane emerged with at full-size bottle of Beefeater London Dry Gin.

Back in the hotel, she and I plied what I later learned was an embedded jigger from the neck of the bottle with the corkscrew I carry in my suitcase, and happily settled down for a final glass of gin—neat, no ice.

The following day I flew to Amsterdam, while Jane remained in Marrakech for a final day of carpet negotiation, before heading back to California. I couldn't but wonder what happened to the rest of the bottle of gin.

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