Morocco: Getting There

I purchased a train ticket in Casablanca during my 14-hour layover and waited in the long dank tunnel with few other passengers. Birds, misplaced, or on their own purposeful visit chirped in the wooden beams above the rails. I wondered if, like the birds, I had flown into a new place and became disoriented by all the newness of it all. I stood on the tiled platform and waited in a humid silence for the train to roll up to the airport. Doors opened and then I was being whisked away in a flood of strangers, chattering and rolling baggage along the hall so quickly, the wheels on their bags over tile like rattlesnakes being shaken awake. The bags I carried carved their marks in my skin, making indentations in my neck and shoulders. A moment with the weight removed brought about a swift and stubborn stiffness in my upper body. My lower back felt compressed and sunken under the weight. At the airport in New York, I was told my bag would make it to Tangier and I would retrieve it there, but I had no idea where it could be now. What was the bag limbo of this long layover? Did it sit behind a desk until the plane loaded? Did it sit outside in the brief rain on a canvas cart? Was it revolving lonesome around an empty carousel waiting for my return? I supposed I would find out soon enough.

My next destination was Tangier. Then, in another two days a car would arrive from Tétouan to take me to my final stop, Green Olive Arts. The hunt for a residency began early the previous year when I decided to postpone graduate school applications and hone my skills by the determination of my own instruction. I was denied entrance to every colony until November, when Green Olive Arts, the residency in Morocco I applied to on impulse, contacted me to schedule an interview. I was accepted within the week and used the next five months to organize and prepare for May, the month I committed to set aside to write and travel. On principle, I don’t apply to residencies that charge a fee to their artists, but since it was the first one I had been accepted to, and would scratch the itch for exploration I had been putting off for years, I couldn’t find an appropriate reason to turn it down. I crowd-funded, organized a public fundraiser, wrote grants, and eventually raised all the funds I needed to travel to and pay my way through the residency program. Support came from everywhere, and although I began planning my journey with strategies in place to overcome the obstacles I anticipated, few presented themselves. I was funded, well-researched, and had a clear and unstoppable vision for what my month of creative output would look like.

On a whim in Casablanca, I followed a young man through the steady stream of rails and markets, lit by tempered sun from a cloud speckled sky. Our introduction happened in a small courtyard, palm trees with dead fronds like long unwashed hair stood sentry for the kids kicking soccer balls around. I had gotten off the train at a stop that looked somewhat metropolitan, and was slouched on a park bench no doubt looking dazed and bewildered. A young man sat at the other end and after a while asked me if I spoke French.

“English,” I said.

And to this, his response was: “Do you like ‘Game of Thrones?’” We quickly discovered a commonality between us and he offered to show me around the part of Casablanca I had accidentally happened upon. We drank kiwi juice, warm from the fruit stands, and rode the ambling light rail to a place with espresso where we could sit with our backs to the shop and people watch. After 20 hours of traveling, sitting knotted in uncomfortable chairs, I propped up my feet in a savory moment of total relaxation and drank in the new scenery. When the waiter came by with our coffees he tapped my feet off the chair I was using as a prop. He muttered something to my friend in Arabic, which he then translated to me: “I’m sure it’s normal in their culture.” My legs tangled back into the familiar crossed position and denied me a little longer the ease of rest after cramped and consistent traveling. Soufiane and I exchanged facebook information, because that’s what you do these days, and when the afternoon was coming to a close I re-boarded my train and rode to the airport.

My mind began to fade on the return train. I dozed with my head against the shivering window and found I had no control over my thoughts that threatened to mutate into dreams while my eyes could still be forced open. My bowels were full and tight, responding to every scrape on the tracks underneath as if they would burst like the skin of a plump sausage. I was out of it when the ticketing agent came through. I handed him the ticket for him to punch and waited for him to leave me alone.

“What is this?” At least I recognized those words in French. He flipped around the stub of my last airplane boarding pass, a similar size and shape as the train ticket he had asked for, but wrong for the journey. I dug out the correct document and he punched it impatiently. The man across the aisle looked at me through my thin and pitiful fog. The airport where I was to spend the rest of my long layover had loose rules about lines and customs. My second time going through gates, I flashed my passport and smiled as an apology when met with a question in French. It felt like an old acquired habit. Poorly designated or vague numbers on my boarding pass led me through the twisting rope of terminal one, only so I could be angrily denied access by a man who shouted in English, as if it were a swear, “Terminal two!” He leaned forward into my face, his outstretched hand wagging my passport like an object of scorn. More stairs and lanes, questions from me in English and answers from others in French finally led me to the correct gate. As I approached the lagging conveyor belt that represented Moroccan security, the two guards observed me with little interest and resumed their conversation. Fearing I was, again, predictably, in the wrong place, I waved my boarding pass and stepped through the scanner. One guard glanced at the time of my departure, still many hours away, then up at the pathetic wasted traveler with bad breath and snarled hair that I had become. “You know once you are in, you cannot leave,” he delivered in dry but passable English.

“Yes,” I sighed. “I know.”

I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, neglecting to use bottled water instead of tap water because I had not exchanged any money and could not purchase any. I tried to make myself comfortable in the airport chairs. Once or twice I fell into a strange and disrupted sleep, waking up to cloaked men and covered women staring across the room at my still obvious otherness.

After six hours, a man started screaming in Arabic amidst the flashing lights of the transport van outside the airport window. For a moment, everyone in the airport—or at least everyone who could not understand the man’s words, tensed up as if ready to act. I sat helplessly with my crumpled New Yorker and too much weight in my bags, not exactly ready to turn over the chain of cold steel chairs as a barrack if something unspeakable happened. His voice and anger escalated. Would-be passengers to Marrakech, Rabat, and Chefchaouen stiffened and took a step back toward security. Whispers rang through the room and I strained without avail to understand the foreign words. Three uniformed men in badges and flat hats moved in a brisk walk toward the angry intervener. This is not an American airport, I remembered, and for better or for worse this type of outburst was probably not uncommon to witness. An airport, especially one so far away from every custom and language and person you have ever known, is not a good place for surprises. My nerves settled when I overheard a peppery haired man on a different link of chairs at my gate say to his neighbor, “missed his plane.” Missed a plane. Only missed a plane.

I have been on two other planes in my life that match the size of the plane I rode from Casablanca to Tangier. When it was time to board, we all scuttled from the gate aboard a bus that wheeled us across the tarmac to the pint-sized aircraft that waited with stairs unfolded. Our time in the air was brief and noisy, the engines and propellers making a racket in the sky as we passed over midnight and into the next day. I put my head on the tray table and had bursts of vivid and unsettling dreams, images that had been denied the two consecutive nights I had gone without sleep. When I arrived at the hotel, I didn’t even turn on the light before I hit the pillow and slept straight on through the next twelve hours.

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