Friday, October 6, 2006

A Cautionary Traveller's Tale Saga of Woe with Unchristian Themes in Three Parts with an Edifying Moral for a Conclusion

Caveat: I don't use the word saga lightly. If you are still desirous of reading this epic journey, put on the kettle. Or better yet, pour yourself a gin & tonic. If you are a Muslim, do not read this until after sunset when you can make yourself a nice cup of tea.


Alas, I am back.

It is a trusim of travel that more often that not, one bad day can effectively erase all the salubrious effects of your sun-drenched hours of general wantonness and inebriation. Not convinced? Permit me to give you an example.

Part the First: Spain

There is a seemingly well-kept secret in Spain that the schedules for all methods of public transportation change on October 1st of any given year. Indeed, so well-kept is this secret that the scheduling amanuenses of both paper and on-line timetables are themselves not apprised of these changes in a timely manner, nor do they feel it incumbent to add an informative little asterisk to their schedules with a footnote that says “dates & times effective until September 30th”. So should you check the online timetable for any of Spain’s major bus line on, say, the 4th of October, there is a good chance that there will be no bus waiting for you at what you thought was the appointed time. Combine this with the stultifying traffic that sits like a parking lot on the only 2 lanes into Malaga’s downtown core, and you might find 2 very disgruntled people realizing that their 11:00 connecting bus to Algeciras is nothing but some ephemeral illusion conjured up by those capricious transportation gods to taunt ill-advised travellers. Never trust a Spanish timetable outside of summer hours – never!

The subsequent bus to Algeciras was pleasingly without incident and we arrived in town just in time to watch the 2:00 ferry to Tangier give us its metaphorical finger as it slipped out of harbour. No worries, the bus station in Algeciras was now equipped with a ferry ticket office so should there be a 2:30 crossing, we could nab a ticket quickly. Nope, there was no ferry until 3:00 (and, grrrrrrr, it’s a slow boat) but that’s okay because, with tickets in hand, we could take our time getting to the port. Now at the port we are somewhar concerned at the dearth of passengers and employees in the debarkation lounge; indeed, there were none save us. We returned to the general ticket area and, knowing full well that unlike Spanish timetables, pixel boards never lie, we found that the boat on which we were booked didn't depart until 10:00. We will arrive in Tangier at 11 p.m and will have missed both connecting trains to Rabat. This made for a minor but effusive exchange of some rather blue language between me and Mr. Cat in Rabat.

We found the kiosk for our now-10:00 ferry and the attendant courteously assured us that we had been misinformed. A quick phone call confirmed that the ticket seller at the bus station had not been apprised of the changes to the summer schedule. (Repeat: Never trust a Spanish timetable outside of summer hours – never!). We noted that other ferry lines – as the pixel board assured us – had ferries running at 5:00 so we requested a refund and were told (surprisingly) that this was possible but that we wuld have to go back to the issuing agent. This made for yet another minor but effusive exchange of some rather blue language between me and Mr. Cat in Rabat. I decide It is decided that I should wait in the station with our prodigious number of bags of alcohol (& our 2 paltry knapsacks) while Mr. Cat in Rabat trudged back to the bus terminal. On his jubilant return we explored 2 options: a fast ferry at 5:30 that would get us in at 4:30 (Morocco time) and a ferry that departs from Tarifa (a geographical point closer to Morocco) at 5:00 that would get us in at 3:30. The latter option would necessitate taking a bus to Tarifa.

Confused? – don’t be.

We boarded the bus to Tarifa (movement, even on a bus, is always preferable to inertia) and spent our last hour in Spain watching, or rather listening, to the giant windmills that pepper the hills from Tarifa to Algeciras whisper to us “stay, don’t go back, stayyyyyyy.”. By 5:00 we were drinking the first of our last legal alcoholic beverages as we forlornly watched the coast of Andalucía slip away. To add insult to injury, the duty-free was poorly stocked. Could this day get any worse?

Part the Second: Morocco

Making fabulous time and not looking like the hashish-bearing mules that we really are, we passed easily through Customs. On the way out of the port, I suggested that we ignore the torrent of offers hurled from cabbies and check the bus times before engaging a taxi for the train station. The CTM office is at the port’s entrance and – yes! – a bus leaves at 4:45 so we reject the 5:30 train. I inwardly smile at the thought of arriving in Agdal before 10:00 but alas, I will be smited for my hubris. I always am. In front of us was a group of women buying their tickets from a gentleman seated behind the counter. Their conversation was the usual mixture of French and Arabic which meant that I could comprehend about 25% of it. At best. On a very good day. As we looked on, the gentleman behind the desk doled out the Alpha female’s change in coin. She looked at it and quite calmly advised him that he owed her more for she had paid with a 200 dirham note which I readily corroborated. The gentleman slammed his fist down on the desk, screamed something in some obscene dialect of Arabic, got up, heaved his chair into the counter and left the vestibule. We all looked at each other in disbelief, not quite knowing what the problem was. Had his cash drawer jammed, had his computer crashed, was he just an asshole, was he having a less than karim Ramadan?

We heard his foul utterances before he reappeared, this time with another gentleman in tow. They both looked at whatever is hidden away from our view under the counter: a computer, a ticket printer, a cash drawer, an image of Mohammed (pbuh) that had mysteriously appeared on a post-it note. The new gentleman shrugged, our gentleman responded by screaming again. For good measure, he got up and kicked the counter. He wore nasty shoes. Not only were we taken aback, but we stepped back. Perhaps this gentleman needed his dates and glass of milk now. Ramadan does bring out the worst in some people. Gesticulating hysterically, he disappeared again. When he finally returned, he had with him our second gentleman and a third who, if he were an actor would be condemned to play the role of Village Idiot in every performance of his career. As he was
clearly not a thespian, I suspected that he was in fact the Village Idiot, or possibly the janitor. Either way, he appeared to have lacked any technical skills. He drooled and his few teeth were brown & spotty (not that you can't be an electrical engineer with less than stellar oral hygiene skills). All three peered at whatever was under the counter as if some previously unknown life form had just materialised before their eyes, sprouted wings from its head and took a huge crap. Gentleman #1 continued his obscene invectives while the other two looked on blankly and scratched their heads in unison. Gentleman #1 eventually broke ranks and began to pound the counter again and then gave it one more rather thunderous kick with his nasty shoe and disappeared.

“Right,” I said. “Off to the train station”

With that, we left the CTM office (with not a few burning thoughts about Gentleman #1’s next performance appraisal and whether the ladies ever got their tickets and correct change) and entered Tangier proper in search of a taxi. Did I say taxi? – I meant an elusive taxi. As it was slowly approaching fitr (the breaking of the fast), the port city’s ubiquitous taxis were, well, decidedly less ubiquitous. One might even say nonexistent. Perched on a street corner, we watched despondently as fewer and fewer taxis (all full) sped by in their rush for a bowl of harira soup. Finally a grand taxi stopped and offered to take us to the train station for the unbelievably low fare of 20 dirhams (for the two of us!!) – so unbelievably that I was a little surprised and a bit disappointed that he hadn’t robbed us and slit our throats on the way.

With train tickets in hand, we sat on the floor of the train station and waited. It had been an aggravating and rather long day but this wasn’t so awful – we’d get into Agdal by 10:00. As it turned out, we only had to share our compartment with one other traveller – a consummate snorer who insisted on displaying his talents to us the moment the train left the station. The train sped off into a gorgeous sunset when the lights & air conditioning went out. And on. And out. And on. And out. At one point, the lights flickered on & off 6 times while I was reading the same sentence. In a brief moment of light, an attendant came by offering us dates to break our fast, which we accepted knowing that we wouldn't touch them. A food cart whizzed by our door and we began to entertain the hope of real food being served in the not so distant future. We would not see the food trolley again for several hours.

For the next 45 minutes of this exceptional sound & light show (on, off, on, off), the periods of darkness were punctuated with shadowy figures racing down the corridors with flashlights, hoping to fix the malfunction. Alas, the only engineer who proved to be on board was the one driving the train and our conductors were clearly not up to the challenge of changing a fuse. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Our hunger got the best of us and Mr. Cat in Rabat broke open the dates. Finally, the train was hurled into complete darkness – oh, but no so complete. We learned that – what an educational experience this has been – nothing is truly darker than an unlit train hurtling through an equally unlit tunnel at night. Would one of the travellers in our car be found dead when we exited the tunnel? Was Hercule Poirot on board? We hoped so.

On we sped into an African night bereft of light – pitch dark except for the full-ish moon which was intense enough to illuminate my book but not so bright as to render it legible. O heartless moon! As we passed village after village I could not help thinking back to the overnight train I had taken many years ago from Cairo to Aswan – what the locals sardonically called the hawaga train, as it was the only train that (at least in the early 90’s) a foreigner (or hawaga) was allowed to take non-stop from one end of the country to the other. This was in response to the growing unrest and terrorist activities emanating from extremist groups in Middle Egypt. The Egyptian government, in its infinite wisdom, thought that foreigners would be safer if they were all grouped together on one train and in the same first-class cars as they passed through these hotbeds of violence. Before you contradict their omniscience, they added an extra degree of safety by turning out the lights as the train hurled through Middle Egypt – because apparently, that would have fooled those brainless terrorist cells.

I was scared shitless.

But not on this night. I was just annoyed, not least of all because the food trolley has not returned but the darkness and the gentle swaying of the train was lulling me to sleep – oh! the gentle swaying had stopped. We were not moving. We were sitting on a siding. In the dark. Waiting for another, more important train, to pass by. But no need to get exasperated – 35 minutes just whizzes by when you can’t read and you’re starving and you know that the food trolley can’t be far away.

Suddenly the lights turned back on and the train chugged tentatively forward. Within 20 minutes we were at Sidi Kacem, a connection for passengers bound for Fes. We sat. We were plunged once again in darkness. For a reason not apparent to us at the time (or any time for that matter), our train chose to make Sidi Kacem its home for the next 45 minutes. Trains came and went, we sat patiently off to the side, forgotten, in darkness, unloved. Finally our train erupted with a not very assuring fart, the lights flickered on, and we’re off to Rabat. Perhaps because we were now about 1 ½ hours late, our engineer set the train to Warp Factor 5 and we flew through the night, arriving in Agdal and only 45 minutes late
(although a pessimist might say a full 16 hours after leaving our hotel in Spain).

A sign at the station advised passengers waiting in Agdal that our train was late, which in French is en retard. More accurately, our train was just retarded.

I would have kissed the ground had it not been strewn with garbage.

Part the Third: the Moral of the Story

Gentle reader, it is my intention that this humble travelogue should serve as a cautionary tale to those escaping the sin-laden wiles and unreliable timetables of Spain in the pursuit of spiritual succour in a Ramadan-imbued Morocco. The careful reader will see that it is, in fact, a how-not-to. The more astute reader will surmise that it is more prudent to just stay in Spain. But the truth is that I’ll make the same crossing and the same inane series of connections & misconnections again. And again. For in reality, there are only 3 buses, 1 ferry, 1 taxi and 1 train that separate me from the sand, sun, and sangria of Spain.


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