Friday, March 4, 2011

The Hunt for the Gare

I walked into Morocco following my memory of a Google map I'd looked up the night before. The rain had left muddy the wide, main boulevard that led from the border, and so I walked along the potholed sidewalk instead of traversing the street, which I'd usually do, since I try to avoid climbing curbs and stairs when wearing a heavy backpack.

Lessee, train station should be just down there and to the left.

There were two train stations in the town of Beni Nsar, or Beni Ensar. (Arabic doesn't have standardized English-equivalent spellings, so it's just phonetic.) One was, according to the Moroccan trains website,) "Beni Nsar Port" and the other was "Beni Nsar Ville." The Port one, according to the Google map, was close enough to walk to from the border.

But I try not to be too stupid, so I stopped and asked a Moroccan man in front of a coffee shop.

"Pardonnez, ou est la gare?"

"Du train?"

"Si. I mean, oui. Train."

"Taxi." He waved his hand to indicate a large distance. A second man, next to him, sagely nodded.

Just then a third man, with somewhat bloodshot eyes and James Dean-style hair (in gray), leapt out of the coffee shop.

"Non, non! Train ici!" He pointed around the corner to the left, where the map had indicated.

The three men then had an animated discussion that seemed to end in agreement. They motioned me up to the left, indicating that "Oh yeah, the train is there."

I followed their instructions, which exactly matched my memorized-map. The wide street I turned onto was line with new buildings, advertising money-changing services and travel deals. I crossed the end of the rail line, located behind a large fence, and stopped, puzzled. Ahead, perhaps another kilometer, were the giants lifting cranes of a seaport. Everything seemed right, except that there was no train station. At least the rain had stopped.

An ATM presented itself, so I got some Moroccan dirham—realized too late that a bunch of large-denomination bills wasn't going to be that helpful, like presenting fifty-dollar bills for a pack of gum back home—then headed back, reversing direction and crossing the tracks again. I went into the next building I saw, which seemed to be official. At least, it had an open door and a Moroccan flag on display.

I approached two men at the reception desk. One of them wore a uniform, which seemed promising.

"Ou est la gare?"

"La gare? Du train? Deux kilometers. Two. English?" He waved his hand to indicate a long distance.

"Oh. Can I walk?"

One of the men replied yes, but the other looked at my luggage.

"No. You should take a taxi. It is only ten dirham. Catch it right over there." He walked me to the door and pointed at a gathering of petit taxis. (In Morocco, little taxis take passengers within town, but grand taxis—Peugeots or Mercedes—travel long distances and cost more.

Defeat. I thanked the nice government officials and caught a taxi.

"Gare du train, s'il vous plais." I said it with confidence, as if I had some notion of where I was going.

The driver nodded and set off. Partway there, I realized I didn't have any small bills to pay the fare. Shit.

But it worked out. When we pulled up to the brand-new, sparkling Beni Nsar Ville station, I offered him my one-euro coins—two of them. That's twice the fare in dirham, so the driver was quite happy with this. And as a bonus, I didn't have to carry euro change around anymore.

I walked into the station and was surprised to see that the gare was bare. I mean, really bare. Like it had just been finished yesterday and no one had moved in yet. The kiosk had no occupants, the counters were mostly unoccupied. There was a security guard, bored on a bench, and one ticketing agent, chatting on his phone behind glass over a counter.

He hung up when he saw me, and enthusiastically undertook my case. Here was a good chance for me to remember the French I'd taken in ninth grade. I'd unfortunately not gotten around to picking up a Lonely Planet French phrasebook in my rush to get through everything at the end of my time in NY/NJ. I was going to regret that repeatedly as I traveled on.

"Je vais a Marrakesh. Un billet, s'il vous plais?"

Eventually, we established that I could have a sleeper on the overnight train to Casablanca, connecting there to Marrakesh. There were no couchettes (shared four-berth compartments) on this train, but there were private rooms.

"May I have one?"

"Of course."

He made a few calls. "The Internet is down." I heard him ordering my ticket, and then the phone cut out. He called again. Near the end of the process, his cell phone battery ran out. He reddened. He removed the battery, clipped it into a charger, and plugged the charger into the wall.

"We wait."

We waited.

After a few minutes, a friend of the ticket agent dropped by. A process was initiated, in which the friend's phone was dismantled, and the SIM swapped out with the ticket agent's SIM. The agent finished the booking process on his friend's phone, and then they swapped back.

I had my ticket.

For four hours hence. I've arrived early so as to have the best chance at booking a sleeper. But the station had no services—no left luggage, no kiosk selling water, nothing but a few toilets. So I sat, bored, appreciating the situation of the security guard and ticketing agent, who sometimes sat together staring at the wall, and sometimes apart.

And eventually, when I got onto the train, I knew I'd be helpless. Where was the right car? Who worked here? I'd been through this on Moroccan trains before. In time, I'd find my cabin and nestle into my tiny closet, alone, warm, and safe for the night.

But first, one more thing.

"I tried to leave from Beni Nsar Port..." I'd told the booking agent.

"Ah, the station that only exists on the Internet." He'd given me a mischievous grin, but no further explanation.

The mystery of the reputed Gare of Beni Nsar Port shall remain a mystery.

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