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4/12/09 Egg-straordinary Travel...

Happy Easter! (To those who celebrate it, anyway.)

I had an Easter egg adventure unlike any I've had before or am likely to have again...

The story starts with a strike.

Drivers have been striking for almost a week in the larger cities, but it hadn't reached my little village as of yesterday, so I didn't really worry about today's planned trip to SouqTown.

(I'm meeting with my counterpart tomorrow, to discuss upcoming work projects and so I can give him information about past Peace Corps sheep counts and a CD of photos from my visit to the infokiosk up near Algeria.)

I'd planned to spend the morning reviewing the photos and burning the CD, then have a big Easter lunch with my sitemate (the only other person in a hundred km who will be celebrating the day!), then take the last tranzit of the day down to SouqTown.

The last daily tranzit is at 2:30, but there's occasionally one at 4, so I'd figured I'd ask around and then plan my day.

I hadn't fallen asleep until the wee hours, so I was very unhappy to be awakened by my buzzing phone at 8:30. I was even less happy with the message, from a friend who was staying over with my sitemate: The tranzit strike has spread. No tranzits leaving Berberville today. I've found a ride leaving in a minute - want to ride down now?

I blinked at the phone, tried to remember what day it was, and eventually got everything sorted out. I threw a few things into a bag, grabbed my laptop so I could burn the CD in SouqTown, ignored the nagging feeling that I'd forgotten something important ("It's only an overnight trip, silly, how important can it be?"), and ran down to jump on the ... egg truck?

It looked like a tranzit from the outside - all oversized vans look pretty much alike - but inside, instead of rows of seats, I saw a hollowed-out space holding nothing but stacked-up egg flats and a few seated men.

Turns out the ride my friend had scored for us was in a big van owned by the local egg salesman. He was bringing his load of chicken embryos from Berberville to SouqTown, stopping off in the next town down the road to sell some at their souq.

So I climbed in, and hunkered down on the floor of the van. Next to me were 6 stacks of egg flats, each piled about 15 flats high, each flat holding about 3 dozen eggs. I was far too sleepy to do the math, but that's a LOT of eggs.

When my friend and I climbed on, there were three men already sitting on the wheel wells of the otherwise empty back section of the van. My friend slid in next to one of them, and I took the floor. As we rode, more and more people climbed aboard, pushing me closer and closer to the precariously piled eggs. It made me nervous.

And then I remembered what I'd forgotten: the stack of documents about aoudad, the Barbary sheep, which I'd promised my counterpart. Hundreds of pages of research on the animal, reports from previous Peace Corps Volunteers who studied them, maps of the sheepcount observation platforms... This was a decidedly bad move.

I dozed off, and woke up to find everyone climbing out. We'd gotten to the town holding souq, where the driver intended to wait for four hours. My friend and I wandered through the souq for a minute...and then we saw a tranzit.

An actual tranzit, not a tranzit-shaped egg truck. We went over to find out what was going on.

Turned out that he was the only tranzit driver making his run. He was headed up to Berberville, then would turn around and ride down to SouqTown.

I quickly realized two things. One, I could have slept another three hours and still gotten a ride into town, on the 11:30 tranzit (which this was). Two, I had a chance to go home, grab the stack of documents, and bring them to tomorrow morning's meeting.

So I did.

I said goodbye to my buddy, who still planned to roll down the mountain with the egg guy, and hopped onto the tranzit. The jumper said, "Oh, you're going to ride up just to guarantee yourself a seat on the way back down?" I hadn't even thought about that added perk, but I nodded.

Turns out that was invaluable. The tranzit, being the only one of the day, was PACKED on the way back. Absolutely stuffed to the gills, including people riding on top and even hanging off the back.

But it did have a 15-minute stopover in Berberville, so I left a few things on the seat to save my space, then ran home, dug out the papers (buried among other Peace Corps documentation, magazines, etc), threw them into a bag, and ran back. I saw that the driver was still getting his de rigeur cup of tea, so I paused at the hanut to pick up some bread and cheese.

Then I climbed onboard, and saw the throngs. I was suddenly supremely grateful that I'd reserved my seat (as well as one for my friend, who had texted me to let me know that the egg guy had changed his mind, so he needed to ride on the tranzit with me) - otherwise, we'd have had to ride illegally, on top, or else skip the trip entirely.

I felt a bit like a rich tourist, having a whole two-person seat to myself while everyone else was jammed together. Then the khalifa of my village climbed aboard. Morocco has 4 executive branch officials where the US only has two, mayor and governor. From the bottom up, Morocco has moqaddims, khalifas, caids, and governeurs. (The last one term they borrowed from the French, obviously, but the other three are Arabic.) So this guy is important.

When he saw me, he immediately took my hand and shook it repeatedly, then held it while we exchanged all the phrases of the greeting ritual and while he asked about the other PCVs in the region. I wasn't sure whether he was hoping to impress the others with being on such good terms with the tarumit, or whether he was trying to help me out by showing that I'm on such good terms with the khalifa. It was probably mutually beneficial. :) He mentioned that he was only riding to the village 15 km away (which is also under his jurisdiction), so I invited him to share my seat, explaining that it was reserved for someone who wouldn't be joining us for 30 km.

As we rode, I asked him about the strike, and other issues of local politics. The 15 km flew by, and then we said farewell. And suddenly I had the only empty seat on a tranzit with people literally hanging off the rails. I told the several people who moved to take the seat that I'd reserved it for someone joining us soon. The woman who took the seat assured me that she'd be getting off before we got to my buddy's site. And she did. And the man who replaced her graciously got up when we got to my buddy's site. But before my friend could climb in, a woman dropped into the seat and promptly ignored everything I said. She wasn't feeling well, though, plus she had a baby strapped to her back, so I felt really bad explaining to her that the seat was reserved for someone else. Fortunately, my buddy chivalrously let her keep the seat, which was good since she gave zero indication that she planned to move. Or that she could hear me (or the five people around us, including Mr. Gracious, all of whom thought it was tacky of her to take a reserved seat). The woman sitting behind me said that she'd be getting off in just a couple minutes, and said that my friend could take her seat. I thanked her, then offered her some of my loaf of bread. I also offered some to the woman next to me - I don't think there's an exception for seat-theives in the Moroccan Hospitality Laws - but she didn't want any.

After stopping every few minutes for the 140 km trip, we finally pulled into SouqTown 4 and a half hours after we'd left Berberville. I'd left home before 9am and gotten into SouqTown after 4pm, breaking my previous travel record by a couple hours. Seven hours of travel to go 140 km. (Or, in fairness, since I doubled back, 200 km.) That's an average of 30 km/hr, or about 20 miles an hour.

Only the first hour was actually in the company of the Easter Egg Eggstravaganza, but the memory of those towering shells will stay with me for a long time to come...

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