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I’m sitting backwards, squashed up next to a man in a leather coat on one side and the wall of the compartment on the other. I’m reading a book, hoping to forget and therefore escape any nausea brought on by the swaying and rumbling. The train is crowded and I’m lucky to be sitting down, although being a middle-aged white woman helps; people are more likely to offer me a seat. My head is beginning to ache and all I know is that we’re somewhere between Ain Sebaa and Rabat.

My third train trip of the day. Train service between Morocca’s largest city, Casablanca, and its capital, Rabat, an hour up the coast, is frequent and inexpensive, but Casa has many stations and direct service to the one you want is rare. I’d arranged an appointment for late morning so that I could catch a direct train, one that I hoped wouldn’t be too crowded, but I wasn’t very optimistic that the afternoon train home on a Friday afternoon would be anything less than jam-packed. As it turned out, I was right.

I’ve taken my share of train trips in Morocco, even though I haven’t lived here very long. My first trip in Morocco was in Spring 2005 when we were living in Mauritania and went to a conference in Southern Spain. We flew to Casablanca, then took the train to Tangiers and the ferry to Spain and then a bus to Malaga. Our journey took longer than the conference! That train trip was my first glimpse of the Moroccan countryside and I stared, fascinated, at glimpses of green hills covered in orange poppies, fuzzy sheep scattered here and there. It was so different, so much more colorful, than the desert that was then my home.

When Donn and I visited to check it out before moving here, we took trains between four major cities; Fes, Rabat, Casablanca (called Casa for short), and Marrakesh. We rode first class because that guarantees you a seat. Train travel can be a little stressful because the stations are not always well marked, and so you are constantly trying to figure out if this is Sidi Yahyia or Sidi Kacem, trying to get a glimpse of the name on a sign whisking by. The sign is legible about half of the time. If you are sitting backwards you are completely out of luck, as the signs are only printed on one side. As you leave the station though, you can read the signs and relax; either you were correct in staying on or you just missed your stop, but either way there’s nothing you can do about it now.

The family took the train to Tangiers when we went to Spain. We bought 5 first class tickets for about $30 and were rewarded with an entire compartment to sprawl out in. It was very nice.

When we’re just popping down to Casablanca, we take second class. So on Friday morning, I descended the escalator through the construction and down to the brick, open-air platforms. When the train came, I was thrilled to get an ideal seat; forward facing, by the window. The train was desperately overheated, and even the elderly Moroccan women who ended up sharing the compartment were complaining, removing excess scarves and putting their feet up and chattering away. When I got to Casa, my cheeks were bright pink from overheating. What a day to wear the pink blouse!

Coming back, I should have missed the train but I didn’t. I had forgotten to factor in the additional 45 minutes needed to find a taxi on a Friday afternoon, but it was all right as the train was running late, lucky for me. It was supposed to be direct to Rabat, but at Ain Sebaa the train stopped and we all got out and stood on the platform until another train arrived. The train was full and the platform was full and one might have wondered how all those people could fit onto the train, but we managed. I was offered the last seat in a compartment that looked packed, and I squashed in cheerfully, my briefcase between my legs. Those standing in the aisles put their cases in the racks above our heads.
Rabat has two stations and I wanted the second. We stopped at the first for a very long time, so long that I considered just getting out. When the train finally started up again, I saw an older woman without a seat. “I’m getting out at the next stop,” I told her, and gave her mine. I was towards the end of a car, but the corridor that way was blocked by people sitting on their cases. I turned to go the other way, and threaded my way between business men and families and a group of uniformed officials who’d boarded at the last stop. When I was fairly near the door, I had to stop. I could go no farther; in front of me was a solid mass of people.

I’m not claustrophobic, just American, so this mass of people was unnerving. Train stops aren’t that long; I began to imagine being stuck on the train, trying desperately to get off in Rabat, being helplessly carried off towards the next stop, beyond town. It had been a long day and I was already late; I wanted to get home, feed my family, watch a DVD in our Friday night tradition.

The train slowed as it entered the station and I subtlety leaned into the woman in front of me. Happily the door opened, and a narrow queue of people filed out, squishing our way between the food cart and several people who were staying on. I took a deep breath of fresh air and caught a taxi home.

January 2009

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