Several years ago I accepted a job in Madrid, Spain. As my first Christmas approached, I realized I didn't have enough money saved for the trans-Atlantic flight home to Utah and my family. I didn't want to intrude on the family Christmas celebrations of my newfound friends, nor did I want to spend a lonely Christmas, surrounded by reminders of an intensely family oriented holiday.
A colleague suggested the idea of a trip to Morocco. Morocco lies just a short boat ride from Gibralter on the southern coast of Spain. In an Islamic country I wouldn't be surrounded by reminders of Christmas. There would be no celebration. I decided I would not need reservations because crowds would not flock to Morocco for Christmas. Visions filled my mind with the "Arabian Nights," bustling marketplaces, exotic music, belly dancers, elaborate mosques and "Rick's Cafe Americain" from the movie "Casablanca."When our office in Madrid closed at noon for Christmas Eve, I hopped into a car with one of my co-workers from Cadiz, on Spain's southern coast. He was going home for Christmas. We arrived a few hours later, and my friend took me to catch the bus that would transport me to the ferry. After a bumpy bus ride, I boarded the boat with my small duffel bag and sailed past the pillars of Hercules (Gibralter and its rocky counterpart in North Africa).
The Mediterranean was a little choppy, and the ferry swarmed with Moroccan men who worked in Spain. They had been given the rest of the week off because of Christmas and eagerly awaited the return home to spend a short vacation with family in their native land. During my first trip to Africa, the air was filled with excitement and anticipation.
As I left the boat in Tangier, several young men accosted me and offered to be my guide. "You want taxi?" "You looking for hotel?" I was obviously the only American on the boat. I tried to ignore their questions as I walked the short distance to the train station. Finally, one young man stopped me with a threatening challenge: "You don't like Arabs? Look at your long nose. You look Jewish. You must be from New York. Why don't you talk to us?" An ethnic conflict, based on an erroneous stereotype, seemed about to erupt. I continued to walk toward the station, saying nothing.
I entered the train, seconds before it departed. My feelings of intimidation grew as the intercom announced something in Arabic. I didn't understand a word. Other unintelligible announcements came in rapid succession. I couldn't make out the names of towns on signs as we passed them. The squiggly, flowing lines of the Arabic alphabet were strange and ominous. Everyone in the train appeared to be Moroccan.
Asking out loud for someone who could speak English, I found a Moroccan passenger who kindly offered to tell me when we reached the station where I needed to change trains. After a couple of hours, we arrived and I boarded a second train bound for the famous city of Fez.
Night was beginning to fall. Fez was the end of the line. I relaxed as I realized we would soon arrive, with a couple of hours to spare before midnight on Christmas Eve.
I awakened with a start when the train jolted to a stop in Fez. I climbed down the steps from the train car and started for the modern, business section of the city. "At least there," I thought, "the hotels will have people who speak the administrative language - French." My broken French would suffice to ask for a room. "Since this is Christmas Eve, I'm going to splurge and stay at a five-star hotel," I told myself.
I went to the luxurious Hotel Fez and asked for a room. "We're sorry," they told me, "but it's full." I left and went to another place. I got the same response. Everywhere I went, the answer was: "C'est complet
Then I searched in the ancient medina, with its winding, confusing streets. Although temperate in winter, Morocco was cool at night. My duffel bag seemed to get heavier as I walked. The answer was the same everywhere I stopped.
Finally, in desperation, I decided to go back to the train station. On my way, I returned to a government-owned hotel I had already visited. "Maybe they were holding a room for someone who didn't show up," I thought, without hope.
When I entered, the man at the desk held up his index finger and waved his fingertip back and forth. Too tired to try and think in French, I reverted to my native tongue: "I know you're full, but why are all the hotels booked?" In almost impeccable English, the desk clerk answered, "Every year at this time, many tourists come in groups from England. They are mostly single, retired people and they reserve all of our rooms in advance." I thanked him and left. My neat travel idea had lost its originality.
I entered the train station and sat down on the ceramic tile floor. There were no chairs. Some people sat among large, burlap bags they were taking to other markets. Dogs and tethered chickens wandered among the bundles and people.
I looked at my watch and saw it was shortly after midnight. "Now I know what it's like," I thought, "to find no room at the inn."
The next morning, Christmas Day, I awakened to the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayers. From my hotel room window, high above the train terminal in the capital city of Rabat, I looked out at the sunrise. I remembered the relief I had felt just two hours earlier, when I arraived back in Rabat and finally found a bed in that strange, Near Eastern land. While running from Christmas, I had come face to face with my own version of the manger story.
Steven L. Staker
Steven L. Staker is a taxation and estate-planning attorney in Bountiful. He is the author of several articles for legal publications and is currently working on two books, one about a pioneer woman and the other offering legal and tax advice.
His hobbies include travel and furniture-making, which he says is his current "passion."
The experiences related in the story occurred while he was employed by the international business law firm Uria & Menendez in Madrid, Spain. The events described reinforced his desire to study other languages and cultures.
Staker attended BYU, the University of Utah and New York University. He is proud of his accomplishments as a former Deseret News Sterling Scholar Awards winner.