On Thursday, 2 April, we left Rabat for the long trip to reach our new site; our home for the next 24 months. I use the words “long trip” in jest, as it would only take us about an hour. Other new volunteers would travel most of the day, stop for the night (overnight travel isn’t permitted by Peace Corps in Morocco) and then complete their journey the following day. We left for the train station, a short walk from our hotel, bought tickets and waited on the platform.
As we waited, a gentleman approached us and asked if we had first class tickets (we didn’t) then wished us a good day and a good trip and moved on down the platform (this conversation was in Darija, though, so this translation is partially based on assumption).
There are many warnings to be aware of possible criminals in Morocco. However, the reality of the situation is that any criminal activity is vastly overshadowed by the presence of many kind and friendly Moroccans, like this one on the train platform. These are people that want to practice their English with us, welcome us to their country, meet a foreigner, or just be nice. Yes, there are people that yell things at us (most of which we, thankfully, still don’t understand). Yes, we get stared at… And yes, we need to be aware of our surroundings. But it’s all easy to ignore when I greet a stranger in the street with, “Salam” and he responds with a huge smile and returns my salam, asking how I’m doing.
We waited a short time longer after that brief conversation on the platform before the train arrived. When it did, the door to every car was quickly surrounded by a cluster of people moving as close as they could to enter the train… all at the same time as people are attempting to depart the train. We looked for the smallest and least chaotic cluster (there wasn’t one) and then proceeded to cram ourselves and our 3-bags-each through the door and up the stairs. We did make it onto the train, but got no further than the door before the crowd stopped. A man next to us turned and told us, in English, that the train was very full and there was no more room. At this point we were not actually in the compartment of the train car where the seats are, but instead in the space at the end of the car between the doors, by the bathroom. We were crammed into this space with 10-15 people while the door closest to me didn’t seem to work, and remained open. We managed to find a space to put our bags and then “settled in” as the train pulled out of the station.
A few people left the train at the next station, but more squeezed in. I made myself comfortable on one of the steps and watched the view out of the still-open door.
The ride was not unpleasant, only an hour, and we soon arrived at our destination. I grabbed my bags and jumped, carefully, out the open door in front of me onto the tracks below. As I waited on the platform for my wife to depart the other side of the train, I heard my name called. I had been in our new town for only a few short minutes, yet already someone was calling out to me? I turned to find two of our new students yelling my name as they departed the same train. (2 weeks prior we had visited our site for about 4 days. They very clearly remembered us; a good sign?) They were returning from the university in a larger city, nearby.
We were glad to meet them for several reasons; friendly faces, they speak English, and they were insistent upon helping us carry our bags. When I say insistent, by the way, I mean there was no way they were going to take no as an answer. It was not in the realm of possibility. This willingness to help seems to be part of the culture of Morocco. Off we went accompanied by our new students.
We arrived at the “nedi nesswi”, the women’s center where our host mother works, to get the key to her house. It was a warm day, though not nearly as warm as it is in Southern Morocco where many of our friends are living, and we were a little tired from carrying bags. Our host mother could clearly see this and insisted on us coming inside for some water. What we didn’t realize was that “inside” meant going into one of the classrooms… I sat down, drank from the mug of water offered to me, spilled much of it into my beard and onto my shirt and pants, then looked up to see 60 eyes belonging to 30 four-year olds staring at me (while Tom and Jerry cartoons played on the TV in the corner).
I tried breaking the awkwardness of their silent stares with a big smile. Nothing. I tried a thumbs up, then two thumbs up. Nothing. If you’ve ever seen the movie Dumb and Dumber (if you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and go watch it right now!!), you might remember the big gulp scene.
Lloyd leaves the convenient store and sees 2 guys hanging out in front with “big gulp” cups.
“Hey, guys. Whoa, Big Gulps, huh? All right!… Well, see you later.”
This is the awkwardness I felt as the kids sat, turned in their chairs toward us, staring. Just staring.
After leaving that fun situation, slightly replenished with water and slightly wet from spilling it all over myself, we headed to our new host family’s house. This left us about 2 hours to drop off our bags, clean ourselves up, take a quick nap, and head to the dar chebab for our first classes. Yes, 2 hours after arriving in town, we started work. Other new volunteers have to create classes, encourage students to attend them, or even find a way to unlock the doors to the dar chebab. We have classes already running that we are stepping into. I think it’s a good problem to have.