As I'm sure I've mentioned before, I go to the nearby city of Taroudant every week or two, usually on Mondays. While it's not a major urban hub the likes of Marrakech or Rabat, with their multicultural restaurants, big-box stores and westernized culture, Taroudant offers a wealth of things I can't buy in my village. Cashews (protein!), fresh-squeezed orange juice, real cheese, tortillas. Restaurants and cafes where itÕs acceptable for me to sit outdoors in public, whether with other volunteers around the region or armed with my iPod, my book and my journal.
If I"m not in a hurry, I like to take the 'tobis ~ the rattletrap, decades-old bus that runs between my village and the city. Four dirhams (less than 50 cents) each way, and the 26-kilometer (16-mile) trip can take up to an hour as we stop to pick up and drop off people at villages and isolated roads along the way. The number of seats on the bus doesn't matter; if people want to get on, everyone makes room.
The bus was half empty this week when I climbed aboard. My host father was there, always smiling and solicitous (How are you? Have you adjusted? How's your health? How are you?) I sat a few rows behind him, on the opposite side of the aisle, behind the driver, having learned from the Berber women to pick the side the sun won't hit during the ride. When the ticket taker comes down the aisle, he hands me my slip and tells me my host father has already paid for me, a treat I cannot refuse.
The bus is still half empty, but a man tries to take the seat next to me. I ask him to sit elsewhere, indicating the many empty seats, saying, I'm a girl, I'm alone, I'm a good girl. Trying to follow the local cultural expectations, but all I get is a guffaw as he leaves to snicker with whatever man he settles in next to.
Again and again this scene is repeated as more men board, until I am burning with embarrassment, trying to melt into the window frame, disappear into my iPod. Why do I bring this upon myself? The rules against sexes mixing seem to fly out the window where public transport is concerned, anyway. All I'm doing is bringing extra attention to myself. As if I don't have enough already. Finally the seat opens and I gesture urgently to a woman standing nearby with her toddler son. Whereas men have no problem plopping down next to me, women tend to be initially very suspicious ~ but usually end up very chatty after I make the first effort. So it was today with Khadija and little Mohamad, who insisted on riding standing up on mama's lap so he could see out the front window.
Hours later, I board again, to a far different dynamic. The bus is crowded like I've never seen it before, yet the ticket-taker (a different one, this afternoon) recognizes me and ushers me on board. I stand in the aisle with about 20 others, trying to protect my precious bag of strawberries, trying not to squash the woman in the seat next to me when I must make way for yet another passenger squeezing through. The dynamic is convivial. This isn't quite the chicken buses of Central America ~ I've yet to see actual livestock brought on board ~ but it's a melange of human sizes and scents and sweat, plastic bags and string-tied cardboard boxes, painted-over windows and mismatched fashions.
A standing position opens front and center, next to the driver, and I jockey into the much-needed breathing room. The driver and his assistant know me and ask after my health, my family;'s health, whether the rains flooded my home. I feel safe enough to pull out my camera and try (unsuccessfully) to capture the full effect of the 'tobis. I ask the ticket-taker if he'd take my picture, saying I know I'm a crazy American but I want my mom to see what my life here is like. He doesn't understand; an old man nearby repeats what I've said, with far better pronunciation and sentence structure, and he snaps the picture just as I point at my interlocater, saying Nichan! (Exactly!)These are some of my favorite days.
My day in Taroudant.