Monday, October 25, 2010

On the Road

Some of my favorite moments in Morocco having taken place in the inherently overcrowded vehicles that make up Morocco's public transportation system. Ironically*, it has also been the source of many of my discomforts and frustrations. I guess that's life in a nutshell. But before I recount some of those stories here, I will give you a little bit of background information.

Unless you own your own car (I know a grand total of two people who do), you are forced to rely on the amalgam network of public transportation vehicles:

Petite taxis are used for getting around within cities. They are color-coded by city, and while some charge a flat rate to go anywhere in town, others use a meter. Look out, though, because in Marrakech and some of the other touristy cities, they will try to tell you it is broken and demand an exorbitant price. Always settle on the price before you get in.

Grand taxis are used for getting from one town to the next. They legally cram six passengers into these sedans (four in the backseat and two sharing the front passenger), but I have traveled with as many as 14 in the wagon-style (use your imagination as to how exactly this worked, but I will tell you there was a pubescent boy sitting on the left side of the driver.) Grand taxis generally only cover certain “territories”, so if you want to take a longer trip, you may have to “taxi hop.” This means that you take one taxi to the edge of its territory, and then you catch another one and take it to the edge of its territory and so on until you reach your destination. You catch grand taxis at the taxi stations, and they won't leave until six passengers all wanting to go to the same place have arrived. Depending on the day and time, this can take a while, so I always bring a book.

Transits are large van-like contraptions that are most commonly used to bring people from the more remote mountain villages once a day. Souq (market) days are especially interesting because of the much higher demand, and it isn't unusual for a transit to wait to leave until not only the entire inside is crammed full, but the roof is also swarming with people, vegetables, chickens, sheep, mattresses, and any number of other wares hanging on for dear life. Don't worry, though Mom, I have never ridden up top.

Souq buses are local buses that drive all over the country making stops whenever someone claps their hands to get off or flags them down from a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere. These generally compete with transits for being the most colorful way to get around, and therefore tend to be my favorite. They are also nice for medium length trips (between 1-4 hours) that cover the territory of several different grand taxi stations because you don't have deal with getting on and off like you would if you were taxi hopping. They are also generally more physically comfortable than grand taxis because you get your own seat, even though you may have to sit next to a kid “sharing” his personal music with everyone around him by blaring it from his cell phone. You might also be surprised to find that the old Berber woman across the aisle is carrying a box full of live pigeons, or that baby chickens are wandering up and down the aisle looking for their mother.

CTM buses offer a more urbane atmosphere and make regular, usually fairly scheduled stops in major cities. Since they are a bit pricier, they tend to be full of tourists and the Moroccan elite. For long trips (more than 4 hours), I usually spring for these because of the savings in time (no random stops) and headache that can result from multiple hours of competing personal stereo systems.

Trains are the nicest and fastest option, if you happen to be in the more developed north and going from one big city to another. Some are older, but the newer ones feature A/C and are quite comfortable. Since I live in the south, though, I rarely get to use them.

Because of the communal and often cramped nature of the business of getting around, I find that humanity is more exaggerated. This includes the good sides and the bad sides, but perhaps because I tend to walk on the sunny side of the street, I think the former is more prevalent. The following events took place some time last summer on souq day in the next town closest to us just after we moved into our own house:

We decided to paint our house. The previous volunteer, bless her soul, painted the salon a pounding fluorescent pink that just had to go. So, we hopped into a taxi to the next town where the nearest hardware store was to pick up some paint and a few other household essentials. We bought a pair of low, round wooden tables that are common here as well as a few vegetables before making the final stop for the paint. As we were selecting the colors, it began to rain. Then, it began to pour. After huddling with other similarly stuck people under the meager awning for several minutes, we decided to make a dash for the taxi stand. We scuttled as fast as we could carrying a 66 lb bucket of paint and two wooden tables before ducking into the back of an already crowded grand taxi. It was steamy with the warmth of our bodies inside and the coolness of the summer storm outside, so the driver kept having to remove the pink towel he had draped over his head to wipe the windshield. The two old women sitting in front of us apparently hadn't finished their shopping yet, so the driver went around to the various places where they had errands and would dash out into the rain with a shopping list before returning to wipe his forehead and the re-steamed windshield. Meanwhile, all the passengers, us included, were chatting merrily. The last stop was the bakery, and when the driver returned with several bags full of freshly baked bread, the women passed chunks of the steaming loaves around to all the passengers, apologizing for the delay they caused. The rain forced us into even more cramped quarters than usual, but it also made everything seem more vibrant—the smell of the bread, the feel of the moisture, and the sound of the water tinkling on the metal roof. It all worked together to make this one of the most human moments I've experienced here in Morocco.

The next story takes place on a winding mountain pass that goes up and over the High Atlas mountains from Marrakech to Ouarzazate. The view it offers is one of the most spectacular you will ever see—that is assuming you are not vomiting your guts out from car sickness. It's no wonder that the pass is called Tishka, which means “difficult.”

Since the Tishka offers enough potential challenges, I usually spring for the plusher CTM bus ticket. However, by no means is the ride comfortable. Although some people have no problem with the 4.5 hour ride, I, unfortunately, am not one of them. On this particular instance, the bus is full, and I am traveling alone. The seat next to me is occupied by a 30ish man dressed in a traditional jellaba and white scull cap indicating that he has taken the religious journey to Mecca required of all Muslims who are able. His mustache-less beard indicates that he is particularly devout. Other than a brief formal greeting, he says nothing to me. As we twist and wind our way through the breathtaking scenery, I close my eyes and try to focus on falling asleep. About 2 hours into the journey, the hairpin turns become even more folded in upon themselves until one can hardly believe that a bus is able to go around them. My nausea is creeping in. People around me begin to vomit into plastic shopping bags. The sound and smell is not helping my efforts to hold myself together. The man next to me also seems to be struggling. He reaches for a red book lettered with elaborate gold Arabic calligraphy and begins to read aloud. Whatever your religious beliefs, an oral recitation of the Q'ran is one of the most beautiful and peaceful things. I am not Muslim, and I don't understand a word (well, I know Allah—God), but it doesn't seem to matter. The effect is almost instantly pacifying. The Q'ran is written in verse, and the cadence of the original Arabic sounds like a song even when it is just spoken. My neighbor reads aloud for almost an hour, by which time my nausea has passed. I am fairly certain that if it weren't for those rhythmic words, I would no longer have had possession of my meager breakfast. At the end of our journey, I quietly thanked the man next to me. He looked down and humbly responded “bla shukran a welajeeb,” which roughly translates to “no thanks are needed because it was my duty.”

This next story takes place in a transit leaving the village where I live. As I mentioned before, they cram as many people into these things as is possible. I mean, things get really cozy. By the time I got in, there were already 19 other people in the van. So, we're riding along, and everyone is laughing and talking. The driver, for some reason, decides that he wants everyone to pay in advance (usually we pay after we arrive). So, since he's driving, he asks this random passenger to collect money from all the other passengers. This is a big ordeal because he first has to figure out how many people there are (not obvious because some people are on laps and on the floors. There are even two guys in the trunk.) Anyway, once everyone settles down and pays up, he asks, “okay, did everyone pay?” There is silence for a couple of seconds, and then out of nowhere, we all hear a loud “baaahaahha”. Apparently, there's been a sheep in the trunk with the two guys the whole time, and he wanted to make sure he was accounted for**.

These stories recount just a few of many adventures I've had using the public transportation system in Morocco. There are countless others—one time a stranger bought me a sandwich because he thought I might be hungry. He didn't know I had already packed one. Another time, a van swerved in front of the souq bus I was riding, forcing the driver to turn sharply and stop to avoid a collision. The van zoomed off, but nearly every male on board immediately got off and ran after the van shaking their fists. It was almost two hours until they all wandered back unsuccessfully and we were able to continue on our journey. Almost every time it rains, there are flash floods that create temporarily impassable rivers across the road. So, everyone piles out, takes pictures with their cell phone cameras, and mills around for however long it takes for the river to subside (usually less than an hour) or the driver decides to turn back. As I mentioned briefly, I feel like the hodgepodge system of modes of transport and forced physical proximity of strangers who happen to be thrown together creates a sort of amplified humanity where anything can happen. Almost every time I go somewhere, there is a feeling of “we're all in this together.” I think this feeling typifies much of life in Morocco, and I feel lucky to be a part of it!

* I am always nervous to use the word “ironically” because so many people bitch about how everyone else always misuses it. They then give some definition or example of how the concept is misused (the most common is the song “Isn't it ironic?” by Alanis Morisette, which apparently, despite the title, contains no examples of irony whatsoever). I confess that I have heard so many literati give conflicting definitions of irony that I have no idea who is right, and so I usually avoid using it. However, in this blog entry, I believe I am at least close to what some people would consider the correct usage, and I could not think of another conjunction.

** Side note about sheep and goats: they sound exactly like a person trying to sound like a sheep or a goat.

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