Sunday, October 13, 2013

Buses, Trains and Taxi-mobiles : Vignettes from the Road

A life of transit. This period in Peace Corps can be defined strictly as the passing of time in a bus; staring out the window as you reflect on the previous day and prepare for what lies in front of you. Autumn has been a season lacking in cider, but surprisingly full of new cities, new beds, new cafes, new surroundings, and new passengers. The reaction of family and friends is the same, "you travel so much!" In reality I commute between workshops, medical appointments, trainings, events and festivals. Home becomes 'home base' and holds more of my clothes than my memories. Road cuisine is lacking: a blur of egg sandwiches, ramen noodles, peanut butter and cereal interspersed with take away pizza. Mundane as it may be, here are stories from this weekend's thirty hour rush from Rabat to Tazarine.

Story One: Man Love (Rabat to Marrakesh, 4 1/2 hours)
I rolled over to check my clock, 5:45 am, not quite the full night of sleep I envisioned after 14 hours of travel and a draining and emotional day in Rabat. The first train to Rabat departed, time to get a move. Packing my bag with the supermarket goods of the first world, a terabyte flashdrive I would lug to the desert and the minimal clothing I sported on my three day trip, I quietly left my room and headed to see the damage at the train station. Less than a week prior to l'3id lKbir or 'The big holiday,' this trip would be akin to unplanned travels a few days before Christmas: expensive and packed. After a quick breakfast of eggs, bread and coffee across from the train station, I hopped on the 7:45 am train and was lucky enough to snag a seat in a compartment just 30 minutes into the trip.

This compartment was the perfect combination of ages and sexes to ensure that cultural norms were observed. Jellaba-wearing middle-aged men sat next to women bedazzled in short sleeves and bright colors, I felt right at home. An hour before we arrived in Marrakesh, the compartment emptied. Hoping this meant leg room and no surprises, I relaxed into the window seat and shut my eyes. When I awoke fifteen minutes later, the compartment was occupied by half a soccer team, aka, seven Moroccan men in their early twenties sporting gelled hair and soccer jerseys. The odds were not in my favor. Tensing up for the ride, I readjusted and double-checked my choice of clothing; thank goodness I had chosen the baggy shirt and long pants...better not to be noticed. In the States, a single woman's presence may encourage good behavior and perhaps gentle jousting over who can win her affections; in Morocco, we are gazelles for the lions to play with.

Through the shadow of my sunglasses, I inconspicuously examined the two young men seated across from me. In typical Arab fashion, their proximity to each other was borderline suffocating. 'Mourad' was increasingly shoved into the window as 'Mohamed' threw his arm around him and mindlessly played with bits of the curtain rod. With their noses lightly grazing and Mourad gently caressing Mohamed's chest, their entanglement can only be described as post-coital. Physical affection between men is normal in the Arab world, but as the scene unfolded my level of claustrophobia increased. Are we there yet?

Unbeknownst to me, another man had entered the scene and immediately demanded my attention. Waving his arms about, he mimed that I must take off my sunglasses and headphones. Foolishly hoping that he had important information to convey, I reluctantly relinquished my privacy. 

Man: "Hello, do you speak English?"
Kyla: "Yes"
M: "Do you speak French?"
K: "Yes"
M: "Where are you from?" (still in English)
K: "The States, where are you from?" (in Darija)
M: Question ignored, "Americans are friendly"
K: "Oh good."
M: "Do you live in Fes or Rabat?"
K: "Neither, I live near Ouarzazate"
M: "Oh, Ouarzazate, Tamazirt (Berber language)"
All the men in the compartment mumble 'Tamazirt' multiple times, proving knowledge of their first language.
M: "The train is late, we will arrive late to Marrakesh"
K: "Yes, thank you, I know" 
M: "You are most welcome to Morocco" Now you may return to your business since I have proven my English skills and interrupted you for no reason. Random man exits compartment.

I may sound harsh, but the extent to which personal space and privacy are ruthlessly invaded still surprises me. After the man's departure, my headphones immediately return. Without turning my music on, I listen to the inevitable conversation. The young men, unable to speak English and unsure of my linguistic abilities, throw around 'buzz words' which they know I understand. The game has begun. For the final stretch of the trip certain words are spoken more clearly than others; "Obama," "Syria," and "Ouarzazate" to name a few. Why? Because I am alone, because they are bored and because they can. An otherwise harmless group of young men remind me why I own an ipod. Thirty minutes to Marrakesh.

Story Two: Riding in Buses with Boys (Marrakesh to Ouarzazate, 5 hours)
Stumbling off the train a free woman, I went in search of food and a toilet (some things don't change). Devouring a snickers bar powered me through the expected frustration that both the CTM and Supratours bus companies tickets to Ouarzazate were sold out for the next five days. A helpful bus driver guided me to the 'local' bus station (aka souk or market) and gave me a friendly wave as I exited. Big smile. One omelette with bread and a few olives later, I walked over to terminal 22 where a bus would presumably be leaving the station at 2:30 pm. Terminal 22 held a number of surprises including a French man who politely introduced himself; in my 'Morocco' mindset it was initially difficult to smile, stand near to him, or stop wondering what our fellow passengers were thinking about but thirty minutes into the wait I rediscovered the Western woman in me and could interact like a human being again. Host mom always told me not to talk with strange boys in public.

Morocco is better served as a communal dish; the details which amuse me are made infinitely better when I can share it with someone else. The souk bus station is a dirty mash-up of men sleeping under buses, sheep hoarded into moving vehicles, guys in plastic sandals yelling the names of cities and honking buses vying for the next passenger. Quite a feast, but not for the faint of stomach. Around 3:15 pm the bus finally arrived; we fought to get our luggage underneath as the bus randomly reversed and accelerated at a moment's notice, nearly running over a few of the weary passengers. Moroccans shoved to get in the front door - par for the course during holiday travel. Spotting two seats, we rejoiced in our good luck until I discovered the massive bag of vomit which had exploded underneath the window seat, making its' leg room unusable, not to mention a little rank.

I must have pulled the short straw. With my knees glued to my chest, the bus started to drive towards the exit. As we slowly rolled towards the road, vendors and beggars meandered on and off the bus to sell their goods, ask for donations and recite the Qua'ran. The man with no arms and minimal teeth won the award for the saddest story, although the crying teenager put on a good show as well. As we say in Morocco, may God make it easy for them.

Cruising out of Marrakesh by 4 pm, my foreign friend dozed off while I searched around for a comfortable position, preparing for a five hour trip through the vomit-inducing route known as the Tishka pass. I've honestly never made it through this trip without a fellow passenger becoming ill. There is a common belief  in Morocco that drinking milk and eating yogurt will help with an upset stomach. Prior to travel you observe men chugging 1/2 liters and small children sipping their dannon, knowing full well the dairy fairy will make another appearance during the trip. Following the boy scouts' motto, 'always be prepared,' I carry an extra plastic bag, a scarf to cover my face and a change of clothes ready for the worst case scenario. A vomit-laden floor was a small price to pay for an otherwise uneventful ride over the Tishka.

Story 3: Malnourished Man Hips (Ouarzazate to Tazarine, 4 hours)
Another night of insomnia. Waking after six hours, I decided to take my breakfast and be on my way. Aching and exhausted I hailed a petit taxi and made polite conversation about the upcoming holiday with the driver. As we pulled into the 'grand taxi' station, I gave him a good ole fashioned God blessing and went on my way. The Grand Taxi stand in Ouarzazate has stolen the better part of my soul; there are days when I have spent over four hours waiting for the taxi to fill up. Like most transport spots in Morocco it is full of beggars, leering men, flies and direct sunlight. This time I get lucky, in under 45 minutes our taxi is full and we zoom off towards my final destination. While the upcoming holiday makes travel busy, it also means that buses and taxis have enough passengers. Shorter waiting times makes for a happy Kyla, even if a little shoving is involved.

Once inside the taxi, the six male passengers immediately inquire about my nationality and language. As the obedient and pleasant foreigner, I respond and make a few quick jokes. Their lighthearted questioning only last for a few minutes before they turn up the radio recitation of the Qua'ran and delve into discussions about the increasing prices of food and fuel. Grand Taxis are often the most expensive form of transport since they carry the smallest number of passengers. Unfortunately they can also be the least comfortable depending on your fellow travelers. If are you unlucky enough to have the 'bitch' seat in the front row, the driver will be ramming the stick into your butt every few minutes as he switches gears. Awkward for everyone involved. The backseat often makes my legs fall asleep or my knees throb depending on the leg room, especially when I have to sit forward in the vehicle to allow for the hips of the more robust passengers. A false sense of intimacy is produced after a 50 year-old's massive breasts are pressed up against you for the better part of a day. Are you my mother?

Counter-intuitively, I love a grand taxi full of young men. Those malnourished boy hips provide the perfect space in the backseat. No need to contend with big jellaba momma's child-bearing, 'I eat to feel joy' hips when teenage boys are in the mix. In addition, the passengers are typically attentive to the behavior of everyone in the vehicle. It's less likely that a man will try and get 'fresh' with me when there are so many witnesses.

Rolling through Agdz, the halfway point of my journey, I asked the driver to stop for a few minutes. "Do you need medicine?!" I politely explained that I had to drop off a package to a co-worker, which the driver interpreted as nonsense. Regardless of his comprehension of Darija (he was clearly speaking Tamazirt and unfortunately my grasp of this fourth language is fuzzy), the tiny old man stopped the vehicle and told me to hurry. During travel, Moroccans frequently run their errands as well as the errands of family, friends and random men on the street. It's not abnormal for a bus driver to stop on the side of the road to purchase apples or a few bags of flour. Taxi drivers typically have a few packages or letters to exchange as they speed in and out of towns. In the desert where transport is infrequent, Moroccans use every opportunity to get things where they need to go.

After an uneventful final leg of my journey, I stumbled into my apartment less than four days after leaving it. Nothing has changed during the brief passing of time, just a little extra dust on the floor. Quickly unpacking and stripping off my layers, I prepare a quick bowl of cereal and collapse into bed. Happy to be back to home base, aware that I will pack up and leave again in 48 hours. So goes this season of transit.

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