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December 15, 2008 Snow Struggles

There’s a flipside to the upwelling of joy that snowfalls always bring.

And it has to do with driving.

The same properties that make sledding and skiing possible also make the roads dangerous. Morocco has snow plows – lots of them – but blizzard conditions make roads impassible.

I’ve read the Little House series, and remember Laura Ingalls Wilder’s descriptions of blizzards so bad that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your eyes…but I don’t think I’ve experienced one before. I probably still haven’t. I was in a tranzit, so I couldn’t actually test it out with an outstretched hand, plus the white-out only lasted for a few minutes. But for those three or four minutes, our trusty driver was snow-blind as he crawled along the road he’s driven each way, every day, six days a week, for years. For the first hour or so of yesterday’s four-hour trip from Berberville to Souqtown, it was just beautiful. The roads had been plowed, making a black asphalt canvas for the art created by powerful winds buffeting a light dusting of snow. Patterns of snow and wind danced across the asphalt in an ever-changing tangle of streaks and whorls and puffs. It reminded me of one of my favorite childhood toys, a clear disk enclosing blue and white dust that I rotated for hours at a time, mesmerized by the swirling chaos.

Our tranzit left mid-morning, and was the last one to make it out of Berberville. They shut the road down after that. They had already shut down the road to the north. So all day long, passengers heading to Europe or the Casablanca airport were coming in from the south, expecting to roll through my sleepy souq town with only a few minutes’ pause…and ended up stranded for hours. Every hotel room in town was filled, early, and then the hotel owners began asking people if they’d mind sharing their rooms’ floors with other would-be guests. I’ve never seen SouqTown so crowded.

This morning, two of my friends got caught in the mess. One was headed to the airport in Fes, the other to the airport in Casablanca. Their buses were scheduled to leave at 8am. We went out at 7:30 to make sure they had seats. One had gotten her ticket the day before – in fact, she’d been on the bus the day before, and had been turned back an hour north of SouqTown – so she had no trouble. The other had planned to buy her ticket this morning. That might sound procrastinatory in the US, but is perfectly normal here. Many bus stations won’t even sell you tickets more than a few hours in advance; it frees them to change the prices with supply and demand, and makes it easier to keep count of the seatholders, to guard against overcrowding a bus (though that still happens). She couldn’t get a ticket, though; every seat on every bus was claimed. At 8:00, the road was still closed, but we ran into a friend of a friend who offered to help us out. He is Moroccan and had worked in transportation until a few months ago, which gave him two big advantages in trying to finagle a seat. He said to wait until the buses were about to pull out, and then he’d make his play. (Like I said, it’s normal to do things at the last minute here.)

8:15 rolled around, and not only had the 8am buses not departed, they hadn’t even started warming up their gigantic diesel engines. A quick check of the grand taxi station revealed that they weren’t going out, either; the road was closed, so nobody was going anywhere. 8:30 came and went. 8:45. The friend headed for Casa had allowed herself over 36 hours to travel, but my Fes-bound friend had only 11 hours to make her flight. Fes is only 5-6 hours away, normally, so she thought she’d allowed plenty of time (especially since she’d tried to get out **yesterday**), but she was starting to get nervous.

9:00, the road is opened. Our Moroccan friend works his magic, and standing room is provided for my ticketless Casa-bound buddy. (Of course, she buys a ticket, for full price, but still stands for hours.)

Long story short: Casa girl made her flight. Fes girl did not, but caught a ferry the next morning and still got to Europe. Both ended up routed hours and hours out of their way to detour around the blizzards blanketing a third of the country.

My parents had planned to come to Morocco for Christmas. It was hearing stories like this that made them change plans; now they’re coming in the summer.

Good decision.

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Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps