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November 1, 2008 Transportation Angel

I’ve met angels of all shapes and sizes during my stay here in Morocco. Some have really appeared at critical junctures to save the day…others were everyday heroes, stepping up to make my life a slightly sunshinier place. I met one of each today.

I was trying to get up to IST, aka in-service training. It’s the big six-month landmark, announcing that we’ve been Peace Corps Volunteers for half a year. There are training sessions, countless hugs from the PCVs who haven’t seen each other in months, and lots of big fun. (And the fact that ours happened to be five months in, instead of six, I suspect was caused by the confluence of Moroccan and American holidays clogging up the calendar for the next two months.)

Anyway, IST was held in a city quite a ways away from Berberville, and I’d gotten off to a later start than I’d hoped. I got to the tranzit station at 10ish, and discovered that the always-irregular transportation in this direction was, well, virtually nonexistent. Well, not exactly; there were four drivers, all happy to head north. But unless I wanted to buy out a taxi – getting a taxi kursa, as it’s known – I needed to wait for five other passengers. So I waited. And I chatted with the four drivers, all of whom were clustered in the same cab, for socialization and warmth. They mostly wanted to talk about the upcoming election. They tried to speak ill of the current administration; since we’re not supposed to engage in political conversation, I just smiled faintly and said, “He’s my President, and that’s all I have to say about that.” Or words to that effect. (Iga raysinu, safi, I believe I said. Tamazight is nothing if not succinct.) But we chatted about McCain and Obama…I learned the word for “election”…we discussed my work in Berberville and with Peace Corps…it was a good conversation. Oh, funny vocab factoids – in Arabic, “mikayn”, which is also how the Republican candidate’s name is pronounced here, means “nothing”, and “baraka” means “blessed”.

But I digress.

Around noon, we finally left Berberville. We got to the first stop on my route at 2:20. The tranzit from there to my next stop leaves every day at 2:00. So that was a problem.

It was also pouring down a heavy, icy, bone-chilling sleety rain…and I’d left my umbrella behind.

Oh, and the tranzit station is about a kilometer hike uphill from the taxi station.

So when I got to the tranzit station, and discovered that I was not only cold and wet – which I knew – but that I’d missed the only tranzit of the afternoon – which I hadn’t known – I was decidedly unhappy.

I talked to the café owner near the tranzit station, and asked him if there were any taxis heading my way (east). (East-bound taxis left from the same place as east-bound tranzits; the taxi station I’d come from only serviced north-south taxis. Why, I don’t know.) He said no, and that with such wretched weather, it was likely that no one would want to be traveling, so taxis were unlikely to show up.

I trudged back down to the north-south taxi stand. My ultimate goal was northeast…maybe I could go north instead of east. Although the next destination up that road was actually well north-west, and not really on my way at all. (Roads in Morocco make no effort to approximate a nationwide grid, like the American highway system does. They just go from city to city, and the towns are scattered pretty randomly.) So I got to the taxi stand, dropped my heavy pack (filled with books that I was returning to the Peace Corps library and/or returning to PCV friends who had loaned them to me), and ordered tea. A man sitting across the café offered to share his tea with me. Ordinarily, I would politely refuse such a request, as a way to sidestep sexual harassment scenarios, but for some reason I smiled, walked over, and joined him.

He asked me where I was going. “To the [Northwest City],” I answered.

“Well, there aren’t any taxis headed that way right now, but if you sit for a bit, something will come along.”

[Note: this conversation was all in Tam, and his accent was different from the one in Berberville, so the translations are approximate at best.]

I thanked him. The teapot arrived, and he poured me a cup. About that time, the driver from my previous taxi walked in. Who knows where he’d been, but he was now ready to wait for his taxi to fill up for its return trip to Berberville. He asked me what I was doing there. He knew I’d been hoping to go to points east, so…?

I explained that there was no way to get east, so I’d resigned myself to going northwest.

“What if nothing comes along to get you to [Northwest City]?”

“I don’t know,” I said morosely.

“What if you can’t get east, either?”

“I don’t know,” I said, even more plaintively than before.

He asked me both questions a few more times, prodding at me like a kid torturing a cornered kitten. “Are you going to go back to Berberville?”

“I don’t know,” I said again. My voice trembled, and I felt tears pushing behind my eyes.

“Are you going to stay here? There aren’t any hotels, you know.” I did know that, which was one of the reasons for the rising panic in my chest. The café owner up by the tranzit station had advised me to wait till tomorrow morning…but where could I safely stay??

“I don’t know!” I burst out. Maybe getting angry would keep the tears at bay.

“So what are you going to do?” he prodded again.

I started to cry.

“Why are you crying?” he continued relentlessly.

“Because I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M GOING TO DO!” I shouted through the tears.

He pointed to my tea host. “He’s the man you want,” he said. Immediately, my shields went up. The man I wanted for what?? Could I stay with him? Should I say with him? Was this one of those scams like had happened to my friend Ryan, whose tourist visit to Morocco had ended with him imprisoned in his “host”’s house, robbed of all belongings, his cash, his watch, even the sneakers off his feet? “He’ll get you east,” he said, confidently.

“You’re going east?” I asked my tea host.

“Not exactly, but I can get you going that way,” he said. (Actually, I later figured out that must have been what he meant. At the time, I understood about two words out of what he’d said, and was **really** confused as to what the heck was going on.)

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked him.

“Because you said you were going to [Northwest City],” he answered reasonably.

“Because I couldn’t get east,” I whined through fresh tears.

He said something I understood none of.

“So when are we leaving?” I asked him.

“As soon as you finish your tea,” he answered.

I swallowed the last sip and stood up. I still didn’t understand what was going on, but as far as I could tell, this guy would get me east. I figured he must own a camio (truck) and was planning to transport some merchandise eastwards. That would make my travel hitchhiking, which Peace Corps strictly forbids, but between the cold, the wet, and my general misery, I really didn’t care. If he could get me out of the rainy town where I’d feared I’d be trapped for the night, he was a hero.

…and he was. But as we walked the kilometer back up the hill, and chatted a bit, I figured out that he wasn’t a camio driver. I reconsidered the scraps of information I’d understood. Maybe he was a fellow traveler, heading eastwards with me.

A few mistaken conclusions later, he put me into an almost-full taxi heading east. (It was around a bend and over a hill from the tranzit station, which is why I hadn’t seen it before.) It had five people, and was waiting for the sixth. Me. I wondered if he was being generous in letting me take the space he wanted…but no. He’s the kurti for that rainy mountain town, which means that all of the taxi transportation falls under his supervision. I couldn’t have fallen into any hands better suited to getting me on my way to IST…and he just happened to be the guy who offered me tea when I was cold and wet.

I’m going with angel. J

Oh, and the ordinary hero? The fifth of the five guys already packed into the taxi. My left side was squished into the door, my right side squished against him. I’ve come to accept the squishing endemic in grand taxi transportation, and not always assume malicious intent on the part of the men whose bodies are pressed into mine… But when the Fifth Guy shoved into his buddies in order to create more space for me, I smiled at his thoughtfulness.

A little later, Fifth Guy said something in Arabic. I blinked at him, then said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak any Arabic, just Tamazight.” While I was getting that out (which I say almost daily, so it flows glibly off the tongue), he made a hand motion that clearly meant … something … about the amount of space between us. I’d known that I was getting the full 25% of the backseat that I was entitled to, but which I almost never actually get, so I said, “Kez shwiya?” (“Scootch over a bit?”) and pushed myself harder into the door, twisting up onto one hip like I nearly always do when riding in a grand taxi.

“No, no, I’m saying that *I* should scootch over a bit,” he explained, and was immediately as good as his word, shoving his buddies further over. I thanked him, but explained that there was no need – I already had a generous amount of space. “No, no,” he insisted, “We’re used to being crowded like this, but you’re not.” (And I actually understood every word he was saying! Always a fun feeling. Wllf is the very useful verb that means “to be accustomed to” or “to be used to”.)

“No,” I corrected him, “I’m used to it, too. I’ve lived in Morocco for eight months.”

That surprised him, and he asked me why…which led to another fun Peace Corps conversation.

But in all the dozens of grand taxi rides I’ve taken, I’ve never once had someone offer to make more room for me. And Fifth Guy did. Which makes him both exceptional and as perfectly normally gracious as Moroccan hospitality always is. I’m just not used to hospitality extending to transportation.

So one miraculous intervention, one perfectly ordinarily nice guy… And by nightfall, I was in a friend’s house, within half an hour of the IST city, enjoying good friends and good times.

Just another day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. :)

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