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June 13, 2008 Closeup on tranzits and taxis

I don’t know if I’ve explained clearly about the two major forms of transportation in this region, tranzits and taxis. (There are buses in the bigger towns, and trains in the biggest cities, but none come through Berberville.)

Tranzits are … how to describe … OK, I feel like the flying fish who tries to explain cows to the other ocean residents. This description may not make a lot of sense…just use your imagination and give me the benefit of the doubt: I’m really not trying to be confusing.

Let's see if a picture helps:

Tranzits are like a cross-breed between a sixteen-passenger van and a short bus. They have five “rows” (using the term generously) as well as a big seat next to the driver. They don't all have the same design - the one belonging to my favorite driver has big, wide, well-padded bench seats - but most that I've ridden are designed like this: The “rows” have a central aisle that runs along the long axis of the tranzit, flanked by seats that are about halfway between a school-bus bench and an airplane seat. Except that they are open at the lower back. Really, they’re like padded park benches, in their design. Somewhere along the way, someone decided to fit a few more seats into the tranzit by engineering a wooden plank that locks into the sides of the benches, creating a middle seat.

So you’ve got five rows that seat five people each. Of course, since the aisle is used for seating, it can be tricky when people get on and off; they tend to clamber over the wooden planks, so whoever is sitting there has to cram somewhere else briefly, and then dust off their seat. Also, the benches could seat two children comfortably, but are snug (ahem) for two adults. What tends to happen is that the benches fill up first, then the middle seats, and whenever somebody gets off, people readjust themselves along the row.

When I’ve been in the second or fourth seat (aka not the window seat or the aisle plank seat), and someone leaves, I tend to push out into the aisle a fair bit, so that I’m ultimately sitting about half on the aisle plank and half on the seat itself. Four people can fit pretty comfortably across a row. When there are five, it’s…crowded. People either twist themselves so that they are narrower (I do this a lot – the ole lean-on-one-hip-at-a-time trick) or lean forward against the seat in front of them, so that they have shoulder and arm room. It can be frustrating when someone gets off and people don’t readjust their seats, leaving three people crowded together and one person with (comparatively) acres of space. (It’s especially frustrating when I’m in the middle of the three, and the other two are men.)

Oh, and the fifth “row” is different from the first four in that it just has a plank on one side, and is open on the other, so that latecomers can cram in, standing up. It’s a bit like a subway in that respect; people who live on the ends of the line tend to get the seats, and everyone else has to stand…and, like the subway, when it’s a popular time to ride (like, say, on the last tranzit westwards after Souq Day), people are crammed in like cattle on a factory farm. The really really latecomers, or the people who want to get on somewhere other than an endpoint of the line, sometimes end up on the roof. Peace Corps forbids Volunteers to ride in an open-topped vehicle, which means that we’re not allowed on the roof, but it’s not uncommon to have two or three Moroccans up there on a busy run.

I believe that the tranzits are independently owned and operated by the drivers, but that may not be accurate. They function that way, though; if you are friends with a driver, you can just send him a text message and he’ll reserve you a seat, pick you up at a special place, etc. If you don’t reserve a seat by texting the driver, you can leave a message with someone who works near the tranzit station (I use Ali, the shop owner next to the tranzit stop in Berberville), and he’ll pass the message along with the tranzit arrives. If you haven’t reserved a seat in advance, you need to get to the station reeeally early, because unreserved seats are given out on a first-come, first-served basis. That’s here in Berberville, anyway. At the other end of the line, SouqTown, the tranzits sit in the station for several hours before departure, so you just walk down to the station (which is only a couple short blocks from the town center) and leave something – a bag, a jacket, a shesh, etc – on the seat you want.

Grands taxis
These got their name from the French, so grand means big, not “grand” in an American sense. They’re nearly always Mercedes sedans, with big bucket seats in the front and a big bench across the back. Grands taxis don’t have a schedule; they go when they fill up. And “full” means six seats paid for – two in the “shotgun” bucket seat, and four across the back. Mercedes builds large cars, but fitting four adults in the back of a sedan is…well, it’s uncommon in America, where we celebrate our “personal space”. It’s easy to understand why Peace Corps advises female volunteers either to sit next to another woman or else pay for two seats, and thereby get the shotgun bucket seat all to yourself. If you don’t do one of these two things, you’re going to end up pressed against a man for the duration of the trip. I’ve been there, and it’s far from the worst thing in the world, but it’s not ideal.

Grands taxis serve as shuttles between the medium-sized cities of the bled (rural parts of Morocco). If you’re in one, and you want to go to another, just go to the maHta taxiyat – the taxi station – and listen for a minute. The drivers will shout the name of the city they’re heading off to. They’ll keep shouting, every minute or so, until they’ve filled up the six seats, and then they head off. In order to make a grand taxi leave more quickly, I’ve been known to pay for two seats – which, again, gets me the shotgun seat all to myself – or, once, on field trip, I banded together with the other four passengers to each chip in towards the price of the sixth seat. If you don’t hear anyone shouting the city you’re heading to, find the person holding a pad of paper and a wad of cash. This is the guy in charge of the maHta taxiyat. Tell him where you want to go, and he’ll steer you towards the taxi that will be headed there, or tell you that you’re the first one and so you’re in for a wait. If lots of other people want to go to the same place you’re going, well then yalla! (let’s go). If it’s an uncommon destination, or just a slow time of day, you could be waiting an hour or more.

Grands taxis have some advantages over buses – they usually leave more frequently, and they move faster because they make fewer stops. (Buses tend to pick up everyone on the side of the road until they’re overflowing with passengers, and then let them off wherever they want to go, which means that they stop a LOT. Like city buses in DC, without the advantages of “bus stops”.) On the downside, grands taxis have limited luggage space, and they follow no schedule. (I’ll skip the obvious joke about the likelihood of the buses following their schedule – anyway, like so many things, it depends; CTM buses and Supratour buses are very punctual, and souq buses often are.) I haven’t yet decided whether I prefer buses or grands taxis when I’m traveling. If I have a mountain of luggage (like when I moved to Berberville), the bus is definitely the better alternative. If it’s just me and a small bag, it’s pretty much a coin toss. Buses are cheaper but take longer; grands taxis are fast but follow no schedule.

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