Monday, August 22, 2011

Of Buses and Trains and Help from Strangers

I’m on the road again. Back to Rabat for a routine follow-up on some medical tests, then to a village in the Grand Atlas to visit a couple of other PCVs. I wrote what follows after my last trip (“I Become a Tourist”). I hope I do better on my own this time – though needing help always presents an opportunity to meet someone. At least I have the advantage of traveling to familiar territory. But then, I also ahave the unfamiliar situation of traveling while fasting. I’ll tell you all about it – with photos – in my next blog.

Transportation is often an adventure in its own right here and my recent trip was no exception. On the ten-hour ride to Azrou, the bus’s sound system blared a reading of the Koran non-stop. I don’t know if the driver was a religious zealot, or if it was company policy, but I have made a note of the bus-line so that I can avoid them if possible in the future. It’s not that I have anything against the Koran being read, but it was so loud, it was difficult for me to concentrate on the book I wanted to read.

I did see my first nomads on that trip. Over about a 30 km stretch through rolling hills, I saw thousands of sheep, huge flocks, along with a few donkeys, grazing the hills, and every quarter mile or so a tent compound. I was surprised at how various the tents were. Some very large, professionally made (usually black), others pretty rag-tag, often patched or supplemented by blue tarps, as if running the gamut from villa to shantytown.

Cart of Prickly Pears - lHindia - visible everywhere lots of
people gather this time of year
One of the things I like about long bus trips here are the rest stops. At some point the driver pulls over, turns off the engine and hops out. Everyone else does then, too, and spreads out looking for food and bathrooms. When the driver’s ready to go (usually in about a half hour), he starts the bus and honks the horn a few times. When you hear the horn, you best get on the bus, because no one calls the roll to see if everyone’s there. On the way to Azrou, we stopped at a town called Rich, which had a decidedly frontier feel to it. On my way home, we stopped at Taddert, high in the Tichka Pass. It was my second time there. I recognized it from the bus ride my third day in Morocco, from Marrakesh to Ourzazate. It’s a town strung along two sides of a mountain road. I think these stops are its main industry.

In both Rich and Taddert, there was a cart with lHndia (prickly pears). It’s the season for this succulent fruit. They’re cheap, 2 for a dirham. They're shaped like little hand grenades. The vendor deftly lops off both ends, then slices down the side and peels back the prickly cactus skin and holds it out to you so you can pick up the juicy inside. While you’re devouring that in two or three bites and getting juice down your chin and hands, he peels the second one for you.

My trip home involved taking the train from Rabat to Marrakesh, then a bus to Kalaa M’Gouna. By the way, the trains here are nice, fast, and on time. They also don’t stay in the station very long. They stop, people stream off, people climb on, and then they’re gone. It’s something I noticed while waiting for my Marrakesh bound train Tuesday morning. It made me a little nervous because I had my backpack, a large duffle, and a box with my new printer. I was traveling 2d Class, so there was no such thing as checked baggage. I felt awkward and bulky.

I got on what turned out to be a compartment car. There were no seats available in any compartments, so I found myself along with quite a few other people standing in the narrow aisleway hugging the wall with my duffle and box and having people sqeeze past me. I thought, “Am I going to have to make this whole ride out here?” But a guy next to me, perhaps reading my thoughts, said that after the next stop, there would be room in the compartments. And, sure enough, there was. I settled into a compartment with three women and a boy of ten or so stretched out asleep on the seat opposite me. I had just settled in when the conductor came by and told me I would have to change trains in Casablanca.

“Great.” I thought, “just what I want to do – wrestle these bags off and onto another train.” Again, I was a little nervous, knowing how briefly the trains stopped. I must have thought I was on the Marrakesh Express, because after about 45 minutes, a length of time I deemed sufficient to get us to Casa at the speed we were going, people started moving toward the end of the car. I decided I’d better get ready, too, and pulled my duffle and box out of the compartment and queued up at the end of the car. When we stopped, I hustled off. Only then, as the train was pulling away, did I look around and see that I was not in the middle of big, bustling Casablanca, but somewhere out in the country.

Trying not to panic – what of my connection in Casa? What of my bus connection in Marrakesh? – I looked around. I said to a guy near me, “This is not Casablanca, right?” In a more cynical culture, that would have just a elicited a pitying look. Or a laugh. But he just said, “No, Mahmoudiya.” Noting all the people on the platform, I asked, “Is there another train soon?” “In about 5 minutes,” he said. “Going to Casa?” He nodded, and I understood him to say, “It’s the next station.” In 15 minutes the train arrived. He helped me get my baggage on board, and we stood at the end of the car. After about 15 minutes, we came to another station. “Here?” I asked. “No,” he said, “the next station.” Somehow, though, some people on the platform got into the conversation, saying yes, I should get off there, because the next train through was bound for Marrakesh. So, at my good Samaritan’s urging, just as the doors were closing, I hopped off. Again, I found myself at a country station.

About 25 minutes later, the train arrived. My new good Samaritan (the one who’d urged me to get off), helped me with baggage and situated me in a standing area at the end of the car. Again, as at Rabat, there were no seats. We stopped in Casa briefly, then pulled away again. A well-dressed man next to me said that after the next station I would be able to find a place to sit. Sure enough, as we approached the next station, a number of seats emptied as people queued up at the end of the car. The well-dressed man walked into the car and staked out a place for me. I went in and placed my pack in the seat then went back and wrestled my duffle and printer into the aisle, found places for them in the overhead, then flopped into a very comfortable seat.

I spent most of the ride reading The Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux’s account of his overland journey from Cairo to Capetown. At one point I started talking with the woman next to me, whose cute little 5 or 6-year old daughter kept coming up from another row and talking with her then dancing off. After a while the young woman across the aisle from me said, in English, “What language are you trying to speak?” (Note the “trying”.) I told her Tamazight. Then she told me she was from Toronto, a Canadian-Moroccan here for the summer visiting her mother. I asked her if she was going to Marrakesh, the main station. She said, “Yes.” “I’m following your lead then,” I said, and told her about my getting off at the wrong station before Casa. When we arrived at Marrakesh, I looked around and saw that there were two station buildings. I asked her if she knew which was the main one, that I had to transfer to a bus. She pointed at one and, lifting her eyes, said, “That’s the bus station.” Raising my eyes, I, too, saw a rather large sign saying “Supr@tours Bus Station.” “Good thing I have you as my guide,” I said, then, thanking her, hustled off to the station. I have no idea whether I ended up on the right train to Marrakesh, but as it turned out, I arrived with 25 minutes to spare…with a lot of help from Moroccan strangers.


  1. Good for you, Jim. I know traveling like that in a foreign country can be intimidating, but also fun. Especially if you're on your own. And burdened as you were with baggage, that can be a little nerve-wracking. But you made it!

    That question of "what language are you trying to speak" had to be embarrassing.

  2. Oh, I'm painfully aware of how limited my language skills still are.