>Morocco Day 4: Night Train to Tangier
August 1, 2007–Marrakech to Chefchaouen
It’s a lot less romantic than it sounds.
The way it works is this: with the help of a porter, you find your car, your compartment, and your berth, which is a narrow foam mattress covered in flaming red Naugahyde. At one end of the bunk, there’s a Barbie-sized pillow and, underneath that, a folded sheet that seems recently washed, despite a Rorschach of stains. You make your bed, and you lie in it. For about 11 hours.
We get on board at a little before 9 p.m. and do our best to wedge our luggage into the space that’s available at the far end of the compartment. The task is complicated by the fact that someone from another compartment has already used ours to stow their overflow luggage. At some point, a woman appears and, making small sounds of complaint under her breath, hauls away the largest piece of luggage, whose bulk is reasonably near that of a hotel mini-bar. That makes things a little easier, if only because it means I don’t have to share my bunk with my duffle bag.
We get underway more-or-less on time, and the situation begins to seem potentially survivable. The man in the bunk below me says his prayers, eats his meal out of a small pannier, prays again, and promptly gets ready for bed. Less than 10 minutes later, the electricity goes out in our car (electricity failure runs like a leitmotif through the entire trip). With the door to the compartment closed, the air quickly becomes oppressive, but the corridor isn’t much better. Of course, it’s pitch black, so there’s no reading, either.
That goes on for a while, until, in a harrowing flash, the fluorescent lights blaze on again. The man below me immediately begins yelling in French and Arabic that we have to turn the lights off in the compartment: indeed, the controls are just above my right ear. When I do, we’re left with what they whimsically call a “reading lamp,” whose intensity is roughly equal to the number of lumens that would be produced by someone holding a lit kitchen match at twenty paces. I twist myself into a semi-fetal position in order to hold my book smack up against the light source, angling the pages slightly so that I can see them. That doesn’t last long, and I eventually give up and decide to sleep.
During the night I wake up a few times, but only when the train stops, which it seems to do for long periods. I can never tell if we’re at a station or in the middle of nowhere (there are no windows in the compartment). The movement of the train, despite my foreboding, is actually soothing; it’s like falling asleep in the back seat of your parents’ car on the way home from your grandma’s house.
Around six in the morning I wake for the last time as light flutters into the compartment from beneath the door. I dress and go into the corridor to watch the countryside slide by. For a while, we follow the coast, and I catch glimpses of the North Atlantic, and then we turn inland into a sere, clay-brown landscape marked by junked cars, dilapidated housing, and dirt paths tamped into the earth by the passage of numberless feet. The eye searches for anything green, growing, but in vain. It reminds me of the borderlands between New Mexico and Mexico: desert, noun and adjective.
We pass the Gare Tangier Ville, the new, modern station constructed outside town to service commuters in the growing urban sprawl and, about two kilometers later, we pull into the old railway terminus, Gare Tangier Morora. Not a moment too soon, because I’m already starting to feel ominous rumblings and unpleasant cramping … down there.
As soon as we’re inside the station, I head for the bathroom, where I hang out with a lot of other grumpy people for about 20 minutes before giving up. It’s early in the morning, and some folks are literally taking a bath at the washstands. The floor is flooded, and the urinals are out of order, so everyone is squishily standing in line (let’s call it a “line”) for the four stalls with doors. At some point, a huge crowd of French boy scouts arrive in their bright red shirts and sleep-stupid faces and essentially demolish whatever order had been created at that point among those of us who’d been waiting for a while. I can’t be sure whether they’re simply hugely inconsiderate or too dopey to notice that they’re cutting in line, but they’re French and they’re teenagers: You do the math.
Out on the sidewalk in front of the station, I find M. “We need to get into the medical supplies,” I say portentously. We’re more prepared than the Boy Scouts, that’s for sure: Band-Aids in three sizes, gauze and adhesive tape, a pair of scissors, sun tan lotion, sun burn lotion, antibiotic cream, hydrocortisone cream, antifungal cream, Tums, aspirin, ibuprofen, nimesulide, backache pills, mosquito repellent, foot powder, Tian He plasters, Q-tips, probiotic capsules … and loperamide. That’s right, friends. Call it Imodium, call it Diarstop (like the Italians), call it Diarr-Eze (like the Canadians), or call it Salvation-In-A-Blister-Pack. I gotta have it, right there on the sidewalk in front of the Tangier train station, and I don’t mean maybe.
M opens up his suitcase and I knock back a double dose.
What’s next on the agenda is getting to the gare routière in Tangier, where we will allegedly find a bus to Chefchaouen. Here, as in many, many things, the Lonely Planet guide is frustratingly vague. Outside the train station, there is something that might be taken for a bus stop, along with two lanes of taxis: petites taxis in one row and grandes taxis in the other. We’re asked approximately eleven thousand times if we’d like a taxi, but we’re waiting for the bus, get it?
Only the bus doesn’t come and there’s no one to ask and it’s freaking hot and so we take a taxi after all. Twenty dirham. A steal.
The gare routière, like bus stations perhaps the world over, is a sinister and filthy place. I’d pretty much rather die of biliousness than use the bathroom here, but fortunately my Imodium is already kicking in. We go into the ticket area which resembles, more than any other thing, an ant hill. A very loud ant hill. There is no signage in either English or French, but by trial and error we find the company that goes to Chefchaouen.
They’ve got a ticket window that gives onto the bus terminal, and beyond that you can see into a sort of office where some seven or eight people are standing before a short counter. I wait at the window for a while as various, hollering people shove in front of me, then I decide to try my luck inside. There, I discover that the office is open on the back end as well, and there are also people trying to buy tickets from that side. One guy is there to deal with all this. One, calm-as-a-cucumber guy. As far as I can tell, he isn’t even sweating.
I get our tickets and head out to M, who is guarding the luggage. I’m already completely over the idea of going to Chefchaouen, plus there’s the question of whether my little … problem … will maintain its present stability during a four-hour bus ride. Still, an itinerary is an itinerary. We head out to find the bus. Nothing is written anywhere, but a kind passenger explains that the bus for Chefchaouen always arrives at Berth 2. Good to know, except that none of the berths has a number. After about a half hour, I spot a bus out in the parking lot that has a Chefchaouen sign in the window. We go to check it out, but before we can ask, the driver shoos us away. “Not yet, not yet.” So we stand there in the sun until the bus moves, which it finally does. Right back to where we’d been waiting in the first place.
The passengers all but trample each other to get on board, and M, who is still in charge of the bags, finds out that it’s going to cost another 15 dirham to stow them in the baggage compartment under the bus. But why the hell not? It’s only money, and Morocco will have its due.
We find two adjoining places to sit in nearly the next-to-the-last row. It is very hot. The seat is frozen in an uncomfortable, semi-reclined position, and the arm rest, permanently disabled, swings down below the level of the seat, rocking gently with the motion of the bus. The ride itself is some kind of B-movie cliché. I don’t know why, but I keep thinking of those “vacation” movies with Chevy Chase. We’re the queer version of the Griswolds, with a corpse tied to the roof and armed and hostile goatherds awaiting us just around the bend.
At some point, the woman sitting across the aisle from me gets sick and vomits into a black plastic sack, which she ties up and tosses under the seat in front of her. Evidently feeling a bit better, she eats an apricot, winging the pit into the aisle when she’s done.
Entering the home stretch of the journey, between Tetouan and Chefchaouen, we come across a broken-down bus by the side of a lonesome road. Our driver stops, and all the passengers from the dead bus climb onto ours. Apparently there’s a law against operating the bus unless everyone has a seat because, just before we’re waved through one of the Moroccan Royal Gendarmerie’s innumerable road blocks, the driver hollers something in Arabic, and all the standing passengers crouch down below the level of the windows to hide.
One of the new arrivals that we’ve just picked up finds a seat right in front of us, and he immediately turns around to strike up a conversation. He is, in a word, unsavory, but he’s got the whole Hola, amigo, hey! Spagnol? Frances? Englesh? Italienne? rap down perfectly, and it emerges that he is absolutely determined to be our guide in Chefchaouen.
By the time we get off the bus, ten or fifteen minutes later, he has become a permanent appendage. He “helps” us find a cab at the Chefchaouen bus station—which consists of opening the door when a cab pulls up in front of us at the taxi stand—and then he climbs into the front seat and starts chatting with the driver.
The tourist part of Chefchaouen is up a very steep incline (in fact, the whole town is nestled against the side of a mountain), and for his trouble, we are treating our new friend to a cab ride up the hill. You can’t really drive inside most parts of Chefchaouen, so the driver leaves us at the entrance to the medina. We’ve got a map, but it’s not entirely clear where to go. Moreover, the fact that we’re even looking at a map (as we discover on numerous occasions) makes us fair game for “guides” and “helpers” of every description.
Our man, though, is on the job, and assures us that he’ll take us right to our hotel. He begins leading us up and up and up through the town’s winding, narrow, and extremely steep streets. It would probably be charming if I weren’t sick, hot, dehydrated, and really, really, really not having a good time.
Later, we discover that our hotel is a short tramp up one single street that leads off to the left of the entrance to the medina. It isn’t even a particularly steep street. So why did we have to do all that walking with luggage in tow? Maybe to prove to us that we needed his services after all and, thus, to justify a better tip. Me, I had already decided that ten dirhams was absolutely the most he was getting out of us, even if we had to walk to Fez and back.
We make it to the Riad Dar Terrae, though I’m lagging at least 50 meters behind. The place is extremely pretty and extremely blue, but all I really care about is the bathroom. I need a toilet, a shower, and a nap. In between the latter two, I could also use a double G&T, but finding alcohol in Morocco is like trying to find a member of the Italian parliament who hasn’t been indicted.
We’re barely settled onto the bed for our restorative, post-ordeal lie-down when the reggae music starts up down at the front desk. Bad, nasty, reggae music. Real loud. When I go out to ask them to turn down the music, which they very kindly do, our “guide” is still there, hanging with the two young guys, one Moroccan and one Spanish, who manage the place. Everyone’s getting happily stoned.
Don’t we want to get stoned, too, our friend asks, full of hope. Wouldn’t we, more to the point, like to buy some dope? We would not. I’m civil, but barely.
As I’m at last dozing off, I wonder: Would I find this all groovy, fun, and folkloristic if I were twenty? I mean, we’ve sampled the people’s transportation (and god knows, we’re down with the people), and now we’re being offered the chance to get our buzz on with the locals and, like, get into their heads and shit.
It’s a big, fab adventure, right?
No. What it is, is too damn real.