Monday, November 2, 2009

Jumping into Trains

11 a.m. That is the time I should have left town in order to catch the train from Rabat down to Marrakech at 1:45 p.m. Lynn will be on the train already, and I’ll join her for our trip down south for a pottery workshop.

No problem, plenty of time. It wouldn’t take much time for me to finish packing my bags. The only other thing I had to do was swing by the electric company to get my new meter installed (it is a whole other story of why I need to do this on this morning, and not too interesting). I was told to be there at 8:15 a.m. in order to catch the man who does the installing. I’m an early riser; I’ll make sure I’m there at 8.

I get there at 8:10, there are a few people in front of me describing directions to their houses to the man behind the counter. My turn is up and I initially baffle the man by speaking Arabic instead of French. I describe the location of my house, he isn’t quite sure where it is but some other guys overhear and help me find a landmark with which he is familiar.

“I’ll stop by sometime this morning.” I hear, a sinking feeling in my stomach. This is going to be like waiting for the cable guy, isn’t it? I almost tell him I need to leave my house at 11, but I sense this will be fruitless. It’s like trying to tell a rain shower to stop by your garden on schedule.

No problem. I go back to my house and finish packing, making sure the house is secured. I’ll just wait until 11 and then leave if he hasn’t shown up. Of course this would require going back to the electric company and explaining that I do actually live where I say I do, I just couldn’t wait around for him, but I will be there this next time for sure.

11:01 a.m. a knock at the door with both my landlord’s voice and the voice of the electric meter man. I open the door as they are sizing up the spot where the meter is to be installed. It won’t be installed until later, he just wants to see the spot. I first need to take some paperwork by the electric company and pay for the meter.

Okay, no problem. I’ll just grab my bags and pass by there on my way to the taxi stand. We converse for a few moments in front of my door. The electric meter man thoroughly amused that I can speak to him in his own language. He hands over the papers I need to take in. I load myself down with my packed bags and head out for the electric company once again.

When I arrive at 11:17 a.m. I notice everyone in the building is in front of one window, the one I need. A short note about lines here in Morocco, people don’t really get in a single file line. Usually people are crowded around the counter, the most aggressive people getting attention first. There might be an attempt at a line with papers and ID cards lined up on the counter if you’re lucky.

I assess the situation, looking for where to get in—maybe it’s a fast moving line. “You need a folder for your papers.” I turn to the man addressing me. “Don’t you see everyone else has folders for their papers. You need a folder so they won’t mix your papers up. Go around the corner to the bookstore and buy an folder.” I try to protest but I feel it might be easier to just buy the folder.
I come back with a folder a few minutes later and study the tangled mass once more. This time I notice one of the women that had been going to my jewelry making classes last spring. She is a petite, and nearly swallowed up by the crowd. She notices me and wiggles her way out. I greet her and ask her how long she has been waiting. “Since 8 a.m.” she replies. Not a good sign.

At this point I’m strongly considering cutting my losses and making a run for the train. I speak with her about how she and her family are doing and the latest news, and then ask, “What should I do? I need to catch my train.” I shift with the weight of my bags, which have been drawing curious stares.

“We’ll make sure you get your turn soon.” A woman who’d been overhearing our conversation says with a smile. Two men take my folder and make sure it is placed in the line of folders on the counter. The line inches up with some speed and surprisingly my turn is up before too long.

The man behind the counter takes my envelope, glances at it and sets it aside.

“Tell him what you need. His name is Hassan. Knock on the window!” Various members of the line have suddenly decided to help me and urge me on. “Knock again, he didn’t here you. Tell him that you have to travel. Tell him you have a train to catch.”

I’m not normally an aggressive person, I knocked timidly and using my most polite language I ask about my folder and my need simply to pay for a meter.

“The man smiles at me and holds up a stack of folders, of which mine was just added. “Do you see? I have all of these before you.”

“Tell him you need to catch your train, you have to travel. Knock on the window again!”

I feel myself fighting my dislike of being the self-centered line-butter and my need to catch a train and the voices urging me on.

Hassan gets up with my folder and walks into the back room. I wait for him to emerge for 5 minutes. Eventually he returns and sits back down, working on something amidst a continuous stream of requests shouted out by different members of the crowd, some who had just walked in. Throughout this time I’d been frequently glancing at my watch and calculating the possibilities of still catching the train. There still may be hope, maybe.

“340 dirhams please.” I quickly hand over the bills. Another trip to another back room costs another 5 minutes before and he returns to sit behind the counter. I’m waiting for a sign to leave, and receive not even a glance in my direction.

By this point I’m still being urged to speak up. My polite requests have turned to quiet pleadings and statements of my departure. “I have to go, I’ll come back next week.” I squeek out with all the power of a mouse.
“You can’t leave, you need your receipt! They have to know you’ve paid.” I’m told repeatedly.

My watch is pointed at noon, my travel calculations put this as the absolute latest I can leave to catch the train. Suddenly Hassan looks up and directs me to another window. I walk over, sweating from the wait of my bags and anxiety. I feel the crowd’s eyes following me. I wait for another 30 seconds and the receipt is in my hand.

“That’s it.” Hassan’s voice is like a gun shot at the race track. Suddenly I’m not just catching this train for myself, or Lynn, but for the entire electric-company-line team. I spot an unloading taxi pulled up right in front of the building. My hope and determination rejuvenated I hop in and am carried away to the taxi stand.

I get there just in time to see a full cab pull away. A movie in my head plays where I run after it and plead with passengers to sell me their seat, but the taxi heads towards Rabat without me as I wait in another cab for it to fill up. 10 minutes later we too are ready to go. I consider telling the cab driver of my train and if he could make sure we get there in good time, but before we take off a man walks up and hands over the paper. He says something about what to say to the police if the driver is pulled over. It sounds a bit shady so I decide not to cause any trouble. If we speed we’re more likely to be pulled over, and I don’t feel good about encouraging a driver to speed anyway.

The entire drive I feel each slow truck and stop light, each fortuitous turn and pass. So close has our time come to my either catching the train or not catching it every move makes a difference. We pull into the taxi stand in Rabat and I hope out like a rabbit to catch a petit taxi. I find one going my way, only to hit traffic, and then maneuver around it. I calculate my fare before the meter. When we pull up I throw my change at the driver and bolt for the ticket station.

At the ticket counter the line is fortunately light. I enquire about the train to Marrakech, which yes, is here right now. My hands are barely visibly trembling as I pass over the bills. Ticket in hand I run to the platform.

My phone starts to ring but I don’t have time to pick it up. I race down the stairs, arriving to find an emptied platform. I answer my phone.

“Where are you? I think I’m towards the front of the train unless we dropped some cars.”

“Did you just leave the station?”


“Okay, I’m not on the train. I’ll have to catch the next one. I’ll talk to you later.” A sudden burst of disappointment and relief at my race having reached a conclusion. I failed my need to be on time for things and I failed all those kind people still likely back in that line at the electric company waiting their day away. I would catch the next train in two hours and spend the long boring ride alone. It is certainly something I can handle in any case.

To recuperate I went to my favorite Rabat treat, the falafel place nearby. I took my bags off my back and sighed, the adrenalin rush leaving me exhausted in its wake.

While waiting for my falafel to arrive I search for something to read and discover a little “Travel” quote book given to me by my friend Claire. I always carry it in my purse next to the miniature sock-monkey, my constant travel-partner, but rarely crack it open. I gravitated towards it suddenly needing something to relate to my situation.

On the first page I flipped to I find a quote to catch my eye, “All his life he [the American] jumps into the train after it has started and jumps out before it has stopped; and he never once gets left behind, or breaks a leg.” –George Santayana

Lies! I wanted to shout out, but I just laugh to myself instead. There is a kernel of truth there. I doubt my Moroccan neighbors would have been as ambitious to get their electric meter installed the morning they were going to catch a train. My real train that morning was the line back there at the electric company. I jumped in at the last minute with the expectation of taking care of business and nearly left before I had everything in order. All the while being carried along safely and as quickly as possible by the kind, considerate people of my town.


Snacks from the cruise buffet said...

What an experience. I've had a few of those myself [though I think I've always lucked out caught the train]. It feels like being part of a big dance of musical chairs and wondering where you'll be when the music stop.

Claire Berman said...

I'm sorry to hear that my travel quotes book did not provide you any comfort in your hour of travel need. :) But I was touched to hear that you carry it around with you all the same. What an experience - the description of the lines you had to battle are certainly familiar to me! But at least you had some good falafel to comfort you!

Sarah said...

What an awesome picture of community! Look at all the amazing "strangers" who wanted to see you succeed.
And look at you, speaking to locals in their native tongue! What an accomplishment!
We think of you often, and already look forward to sampling all the Morroccan recipes you have learned along the way!