Archive for the 'Blunders' Category



Vomit Ride Through the Heat-Land: Part II

Grand taxis outside the bus station

Grand taxis outside the bus station

We groaned our way along the highway, rocking and swaying with every dip in the road. The air-conditioning had completely given out; I was grateful to be sitting by one of the few curtains, blocking out the mid-day sun. I shifted around the cheap shawl I had covering my bare arms and realized I was sweating so badly the blue dye was wearing off on my sticky arms.

I devolved into lamaze breathing. Well, no, not really—but I did employ the breathing technique I learned in yoga class to release heat: exhaling with a “hah,” like you’re fogging up a mirror (or a steaming bus window). Burning it up in a power lunge or cramped to hell on a sweat-bomb bus, it really does help. It also took my focus of my increasing nausea, not at all abetted by the chorus of gagging and spitting surrounding me. Despite having passed all those littered landscapes, I felt immensely grateful for plastic bags.

Others around me weren’t so lucky. The poor boy left crouching in the stairwell—some kind soul had supplied him with some newspaper to sit on—had been puking more or less constantly the whole ride, now approaching 3 hours. He’d been provided with an arsenal of plastic bags, a supply he apparently exhausted. That’s right—I saw his desperate face, checks full and eyes searching, then heard the sound of splattering on the stairs. A chorus of shouts erupted; the tout appeared with a fist full of newspaper and women waved robed arms in an effort to fan away the smell. It didn’t help much—in the heat, the vomit pile festered, wafting odiferously through the bus carriage in rank waves.

Any minute now, I told myself, we’ll get to Agadir. It wasn’t my destination, only a little more than half-way along, but a big transfer point. Hopefully the stop would be long enough for someone to hose down the floor.

We careened past a cliffside, a gorgeous view that I could almost enjoy through the misery. We passed construction cranes and cinderblocks outside Agadir, a package holiday town more akin to Miami than Morocco. Traversing a tangle of traffic, we pulled into the bus station. Doors sighed open and people pushed towards the front stairs to disembark.

Most of the passengers weren’t staying on for the rest of the ride, so I took advantage of the time before the next batch of grim faces boarded and got myself a primo seat: closer to the front, on the unsunny side, under the blowingest vent I could find. I smiled to myself, privately pleased that I had endured the trip without vomitting. You’re tougher than you think, I congratulated myself. I felt validated,  rewarded by the best seat on the bus.

We sat for awhile. This didn’t surprise me; most non-first-class buses don’t maintain timetables, just wait until the bus is full—or overly full—before departing. A new round of unsmiling people trickled on, along with the usual tissue, jewelery and snack sellers that enter through the front doors, shout the names of their goods as though you couldn’t see what they were, then exit through the back doors. Additionally, a sullen woman with a dirty scowl distributed those Xeroxed scraps of paper, telling her story of hardship, to each passenger; as per usual, she made her way back down the aisle, recollecting the papers and giving an even dirtier look to anyone who didn’t give her a couple coins. Though the paper was hand-written in jagged Arabic and I could have feigned ignorance, her bullying expression inspired me to give her some change.

No one, I noted, was coming to clean up the back stairs. I sighed, taking solace in my good seat and that fact that the worst heat of the day had passed.

The tout poked his head through the open door and pointed accusingly at me. “Tiznit?” he bellowed. I felt all eyes on me. “Tiznit,” I echoed with a nod, confirming my final destination. He gave one hard nod and disappeared.

He came back a couple minutes later, placed his hand surprisingly softly on my shoulder and launched into a choppy French explaination I couldn’t begin to understand as he ushered me off the bus. “Tiznit?” I asked feebly, pointing at my well-earned seat, fading as I stepped down the bus stairs. “Oui, oui, Tiznit,” he replied as he dug my dirty backpack out of the luggage compartment, hoisted over his shoulder, and walked me over to another, scrawnier bus. He tossed my bag into its luggage compartment, patting his hand firmly against the dented side of the bus. “Tiznit!” he assured me, and then was gone into the scurry of bodies and glint of steel that filled the station lot.

I stepped disheartened onto my new bus. The seats were scattered with a couple forlorn looking faces. They looked like they’d been there awhile; from the number of empty seats, I didn’t anticipate leaving any time soon. I flopped into a sun-baked vinyl seat and scowled. Through the window, I watched my sense of victory lumber away on the previous bus.

It was an hour before we left the station. Night fell pinkly and hazily between the palm trees and pebbles outside the window. Exhausted, I surrendered to a neck-jerking broken sleep; I woke just as a row of lights was growing closer.

Instead of a bus station, I was deposited on the side of a half-deserted road. Some teenagers hooted at me as I hoisted on my backpack; I gave them the finger and crossed the street to the Teleboutique. I had to call my hosts—at last, I had arrived.

Vomit Ride Through the Heat-land: Part I

1009173272_3ef7bfbbe6Yesterday I had the most authentic Moroccan experience of my trip so far. It wasn’t in a medina, it wasn’t at any monument; it wasn’t outside of a mosque or inside of carpet shop. It wasn’t in some exotic spice souq, or even with a witch doctor.

It was knees-to-chest, sweating obscenely, holding my breath and trying not a vomit in a catastrophic cauldron that careened its way through the countryside. That is to say, it was on a bus.

There’s two kinds of buses in Morocco: the first-class and the “other.” My previous two bus rides had been on the plush, first-class CTM company. The guidebook doesn’t just recommend CTM; it virtually doesn’t list the times, prices or destinations of other companies. In most cities, CTM’s buses depart from their own seperate offices, far from the chaos and heat and exhaust-laced smell of rotting ass characteristic to most bus stations, not just in Morocco, but around the world.

CTM accepts credit cards and assigns seats; their desk workers speak English. These are not the buses of screaming children or those checkered mesh bags fraying at the plastic seams from the weight of all some old lady’s worldly possessions. These are the buses of laptops and exquisite scarves, polo shirts and heavy gold rings. And independent travelers with Western standards and a low tolerance for long-distance discomfort. Together, we bound competently down the highways, stretching our legs and basking beneath the gentle blow of air-conditioning vents.

Once on board a CTM bus, you usually make a stop at the big messy main bus station before departing a city. In Tangier, I parted my curtain and peered out at the shouting, scrambling insanity of the real bus station. Jam-packed buses, a jumble of children’s bodies and grim faces pressed against tinted glass, heaved and wheezed and lurched haphazardly through the lot, shouting touts hanging from still-open doors. I have to say, I felt kind of like a chump from my kooshy assigned seat in a half-empty bus. At least once on this trip, I told myself, I’ll ride a real bus.

I intended to fulfill this brazen commitment on some short-distance route—45 minutes, an hour tops. Just, you know, to feel like I’d done it, gotten a taste and promptly gotten out.

The problem is, CTM runs infrequent services to only a few destinations, especially towards the south of the country. In my great haste to flee dishearteningly over-touristed Essaouira, I weighed my options: languish at the bus station and continue to get hassled by hotel and taxi touts for two hours while I wait for the CTM bus, and then have to make a connection mid-way through my journey, or hop on a direct “other” bus leaving in 15 minutes. Comfort flew out the window as I climbed the sticky stairs of the second-class bus.

I found an empty seat towards the back, and observed. This was the bus of acne and deep wrinkles, missing teeth and stern expressions. Children didn’t get seats, were left to swim on the laps of their parents. Upholstery was browned; I could feel the springs through the thinned seat fabric. A tout with a scar on his chin and impossibly stained fingers came off and on the bus, taking money, scribbling crude tickets, counting seats. I was grateful for the wobbling vents that blew a little air down from above my seat.

As the seats filled and the horn honked, people continued to pile on. The tout appeared with a stack of plastic stools; he strained to tug them apart and, after some shouting and coordination, placed them in the narrow aisle. Women were given stool seats first, then men; an adolscent clutching a book and a plastic bag was left standing. As the bus began its lumbering, the tout yelled at him to get down. The boy curved himself into the back stairwell—we slid past the officials at the station gates and were on our way.

The tout continued collecting fares and writing tickets as we lurched through the taxi- and scooter-swarmed streets—not an easy task on an old bus with poor shocks and an aisle full of huddled bodies. To get the job done, he balanced his feet on the edges of seats and literally climbed over people, his crotch in this lady’s face, his elbow in that guy’s chest, his entire torso smashed against my already-sweating body. He clutched a fistfull of bills, carefully folded between each finger, and with each new fare, made an almost tenderly careful note on a worn piece of paper.

We left the city center and began up a steep hill. The bus struggled, slowed to a speed scantly faster than a donkey cart. The effort cut out the faint blow of air-conditioning, and arms raised to fiddle hopefully with vents. The boy next to me unscrewed the top to a pocket-sized perfume bottle, pressed it against his nostril and inhaled. The tout distributed black plastic bags—vomit bags, I suspected. Beside me, the boy tossed a jacket over his head, leaned against the window and was gone.

Less than 15 minutes after departing, the adolscent in the stairwell began politely hurling with a liquidus sound into his plastic bag. I could make out, displayed proudly on the top of the windshield, just the last words of the bus company’s name: “Fadl Allah.” I jokingly translated this to myself as “pray to f%^*ing God.” The boy in the stairwell caught his breath and discreetly tied the handles of his bag together.

We made our first stop, and much shouting and shuffling ensued. The tout had the disembarkers already climbing over the aisle-sitters before the bus was stopped. We paused only momentarily; those getting off were left on the dusty roadside, struggling with heavy bags. Stools were cleared for vacated seats, and a new slew of stern faces took their squatting place on the plastic as we bumbled back on the road.

We fell into a determined quiet, just the struggle of the bus, soft conversations and the gentle gagging of vomiters. The scenery was pebbled and stark, branches bent cryptically; with the vent back a’blowing, I was almost comfortable enough to fall into a ragged sleep.

Bonjour guapa, you want sex?

No way did I flatter those boys with a photo. Here's a busy street in Meknes instead.

No way did I flatter those boys with a photo. Here's a busy street in Meknes instead.

In Fez and Meknes, I finally got a taste of the street harassment all the guidebooks warn of. It was still a lot tamer than anticipated, a multilingual assault of adolescent bravado more than an actual threat. Though the intention spans the confines of language, it’s easiest to brush off these comments when they’re in French or Spanish. It’s a little like having monkeys hurl feces at you; it sticks less when you don’t know the actual words being said.

But those boys are a cunning lot, and have managed to master a few key phrases in English: “massage”, “sex”, “fuck”, and most telling of all, “you like me?” Just to be safe, they like to mix it up, covering all linguistic bases, just to make sure their intention is entirely communicated.

The harassment comes nearly exclusively from one group, teenagers in Western clothing. Adult men are by-and-large very respectful; if anything, they want to sell you something, but I’ve had far more pleasant exchanges with adult Moroccan men than not. The young guys dressed in traditional jellabas tend to just ignore me, which is A-OK; same with the poorer young men, who just want to shine my dirty sneakers or sell me some tissue. It’s the 12-18 year olds in faux Western clothing you’ve gotta watch out for.

They hang in packs, pushing and nudging and teasing one another. They’re a kind of pathetic lot: thin and self-conscious, somehow lost in their t-shirts and blue jeans, short hair over-gelled and haphazardly spiked. They are consumed by this proposterous posturing, seeming at once to resent and idolize Western culture. They desperately strive to emulate it, can’t quite get it right; their cat-calls and gross comments feel like a plea for acknowledgment, validation. They want so much to be taken seriously, to be something other than what they are—and in that way, I suppose they’re not unlike any other ill-at-ease teenager. I can relate to the insecurity, know so well where it springs from, and I almost feel sorry for them when I see them all there, so sadly absurd in their metallic G Star Raw shirts and bedazzled-pockets denim.

And then they say some dumb shit, and I don’t feel so sorry for them anymore.

It’s a pain in the ass, for sure, but it seems to be something that comes with the territory, part of what it means to be born female in this world. It can wear you down—I may or may not have snapped and thrown a banana peel at a man in Venezuela once—but I’m sure as hell not gonna let it stop me from seeing the world, from being in it as fully as I can. I’m just gonna cover myself in thick-ass skin, maybe a tarp or something. You know, so the feces doesn’t stick.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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