If you solve enough problems, you get to go home
An excerpt from Great in the Small
For the most part, I’m pretty laid back. This really comes in handy when traveling. You never know when flights could be cancelled, maps could be out of date, or other surprises could appear. Being able to stay calm and solve one problem at a time is a skill.
Then again, it’s an acquired skill, and travel really helps sharpen it.
While I don’t stress out a whole lot, I think everybody has their own way of experiencing anxiety that’s unique to them. I tend to get more anxious over big-picture things, like how quickly time can pass. In order to make the most out of each day, I often end up putting a lot of pressure on myself to get a whole lot of things done.
What I’ve learned to do whenever I get anxious about whether or not something will work out, I’ve found that it’s really helpful to think of another time in my life where, in spite of problem after problem, everything worked out fine in the end.
Oftentimes, I end up reminding myself of Morocco.
After spending a week with Tim in London, I decided to continue my “Summer in Europe” across the Mediterranean in North Africa. My cousin Nathalie had been living there for a couple years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Nathalie and I were close, and I talked often about wanting to go visit her while she was there. Her first year was a whirlwind… she was first stationed in a tiny village with about seventeen different names. She was then relocated to the much larger city of Fez. I figured that since I was spending a summer in Europe it would be a perfect time for me to go visit. I sent her a message and she confirmed- it was Ramadan, so a lot of Morocco’s daily activity had slowed down to a fraction.
I took one of Europe’s budget airlines from London to Marrakesh, which would have been about two hours from Fez by train. Nathalie would meet me there in the mid-evening.
Things did not go that simply.
My plane touched down at the Marrkaesh airport and this is where my challenges began. I stepped off of my plane, and into the marbled terminal. A long line greeted me going towards customs. I got in line and filled out one of the cards with all my information: name, passport number, address… well, I never got Nathalie’s address, so I skipped that part.
When I got to the counter, apparently skipping the address part wasn’t okay.
“You’ll need the address where you’re staying,” explained the lady at the counter.
“Okay, um, I’m staying with my cousin in Fez,” I responded. “Is it alright if I call her from here?”
I stepped aside to make the phone call, but as soon as I tried to switch on my cheap travel phone, it died on me. No batteries. My American phone also wasn’t an option, as it had died while I was in London. Tim helped me purchase a used iPod Touch, which allowed me to do many of the things my phone could, but it couldn’t make calls. It too, was out of batteries.
I started scanning the terminal for outlets, pulling out my phone’s charger. I tried out one outlet, and it didn’t work. I tried another, and decided to try and ask an immigration official if I could use one inside their office to make a call. As I tried to look for one who was free, the lines at customs grew thinner and thinner.
The lady who was working might have realized how long this could go on, because she called my attention.
“Sir!” she called out.
I came forward.
“You just go ahead,” she stamped my passport and motioned me onwards.
I walked through the rest of the terminal, exchanging my sixty British pounds for Moroccan dirhams at a kiosk along the way.
Outside I found a taxi, who told me it would cost 200 dirham, about twenty bucks, to get to the train station. I figured he was overcharging me slightly, but I went with it, not really in the mood to haggle.
When I got to the train station, the place was packed. There must have been a dozen and a half women standing in front of me in line, and it looked like they may have been one big group, but it was hard to tell. I waited for nearly forty minutes before I was summoned forward.
“Sir, where would you like to go?”
“I’m so sorry, that train is all sold out.”
No way, I thought. That was the last connection to Fez. I looked at the small, dusty train station and thought, this isn’t exactly where I want to spend the evening.
I remembered something Nathalie told me. The first night of Ramadan was one of the worst nights to travel. Many Moroccans made their way to hometowns to observe the period, which meant that it was a bit like trying to travel in the U.S. on the day before Thanksgiving. A few things started to race through my brain. I didn’t want to sleep at the train station.
Also, I needed to get ahold of Nathalie, who was expecting me in a couple hours. If only I could reach her by phone, she’d probably be able to tell me what to do.
I thought through things and went into the waiting area at the lobby. Then something popped into my mind. Outlets! I scanned the small room where one person was waiting, watching TV, and another was asleep on some chairs. There was an outlet open. I plugged in my phone and waited, trying to count upwards to a hundred a few times to make sure there was enough battery to make a call. My eyes drifted towards the TV, which was playing local news in Arabic.
Finally enough time had gone by to make my call. I picked up the phone and dialed the number Nathalie gave me.
“I’m sorry, you do not have enough credits to make this call…” began the operator.
That was absolutely not what I wanted to hear. I had just stocked up on prepaid minutes before leaving, but for some reason, it wasn’t working.
What to do now, I wondered. I could ask one of these strangers if I could make a call… but I don’t speak their language and that might be kind of shady in a train station. I wonder if there’s a kiosk around? Maybe I could purchase a Moroccan phone card…
Then it hit me. Ever since she began her Peace Corps service, Nathalie was almost always logged on to Skype. And even though I didn’t have a working phone, I did have a device that could go online. The iPod Touch! It would probably be easier for me to find wi-fi access than to figure out the phone cards.
Again, I had to charge this device. I plugged it in and waited again, wondering how many Arabic news segments I needed to watch before it was ready. Finally it hit thirty percent. Good enough, I thought. I looked where I could go to get wi-fi, when I noticed a small café connected to the train station.
On the café door was a sticker with the wi-fi symbol. I didn’t celebrate just yet. I’d been in places where people will just put any sticker on any door. But I didn’t have many other options so I went in to take my chances.
I walked in and the café worker approached me.
“Hello,” I asked, “is the wi-fi free or do I need to purchase something?”
He grinned and nodded slightly, “café? Meal?”
Right, I figured. I wasn’t very hungry, so I responded “café.”
“Black? Sugar?” he asked me.
I didn’t care much either way, since I just needed the coffee to use the wi-fi. “Black,” I answered. “So, what was the password?”
“Café? Meal?” he asked again.
“Café. But the internet password?”
“Café? Meal?” his expression changed to one of confusion, as did mine.
Finally he took out a piece of paper, wrote something, and handed it to me.
Of course, I remembered. French was widely spoken in Morocco, a former colony. Mille was French for a thousand.
The password worked! Using the iPod touch, I got online and looked for Nathalie on Skype. She was there, as I thought. I called her and she immediately picked up. I already felt like James Bond for making it this far with my limited resources.
“Nathalie!” I exclaimed pretty happily.
“Hey, where are you?” she asked.
“Marrakesh… so guess what…” I began to fill her in on all the details.
“Okay, wow. I totally forgot to tell you how tricky it could get with Ramadan. Hang on and let me call a friend who works in Fez a lot. He’ll know what to do.”
I hung up and waited for her call back. The café owner never brought out my coffee. He also didn’t charge me. I didn’t care so much now that I’d gotten ahold of Nathalie.
She called back and gave me a new plan.
“Okay,” she informed me. “There’s another way to get between Marrakesh and Fez, and I’ve never taken it. Only the locals would, but it looks like our only option. It’s called a souk bus.”
She explained to me what these were. Local busses that went in between major cities. They only left once they were completely full of passengers, and passengers could get off anywhere they wanted that was somewhat on the way. This meant at times passengers would tell the driver to let them off in the middle of nowhere.
“It will be cheaper, though,” she explained. “A ticket will be about 200 dirham.”
I had about 400 left. I also would need to take a taxi to get to the souk bus station.
“My friend Israel will be passing through Marrkaesh. Look for a Puerto Rican guy with hipster glasses in a couple of hours. Oh, and one other thing–“
She then told me a piece of information that would make the rest of the night very confusing. Apparently Morocco’s time shifts ahead one hour on the first day of Ramadan. The confusing part is that on the first day, people observe the time change somewhat arbitrarily throughout the day rather than in unison. This meant that it could have been six or seven in the evening, depending on who you asked. Either was possible.
I hailed a taxi to get to the souk bus station. I told him I only had 60 dirham so I could preserve my money. It worked and I made it there.
I arrived at the souk bus station, and it was chaotic. Ticket hawkers stood at the front, yelling the names of cities.
“Rabat! Rabat! Rabat! Tangier! You want to go to Tangier!”
As I walked in, one of them stopped me. “Where are you going? You need ticket?”
I ignored him and walked passed, figuring he was a scammer and inside I would find real ticket windows.
I got in and I didn’t, only closed shops and a lot of people moving about. I approached a guy wearing a uniform who looked official, but who was less aggressive than the other vendors.
“I want to go to Fez,” I told him.
“Okay,” he replied and then he led me to the original ticket salesman when I walked in.
“You can sell me a ticket to Fez?” I looked at him right in the eye.
“Yes. I will take you to the waiting spot.”
“Okay, take me there, and I’ll buy a ticket.”
He led me to an area inside the station where a few other people were waiting on a stoop. Another guy looked at him and started talking. I gathered that he was looking for an update on a ticket he had sold him earlier, and the salesman was telling him that the bus hadn’t yet arrived.
I bought a ticket from him for 200 dirham. I paid attention to the people around me and noticed they were also going to Fez. I tried to memorize their faces. At the very least, they’re going where you are. I told myself. When in doubt, follow them.
“The bus will be here at 9:00pm,” he told me. It was eight. “I will be up front here, I will get you when it was time.”
The other passengers were still asleep, but I wasn’t completely sure I hadn’t been ripped off by this guy. I sat and waited for some time. In about twenty minutes I got up to find the guy again. I ran into him by the entryway.
“You wait there, bus comes at nine.”
He led me back.
About twenty minutes after that I went out again to check on him, and he noticed me.
“You are okay, you are okay. Bus comes. Nine.”
I continued to keep tabs on him. At least he hadn’t disappeared.
Finally nine came around. No bus, and no ticket seller. It took me longer to find him this time around, but when I finally did, I asked him.
“No,” he shook his head, pointing at his watch. “Twenty-oh-eight.”
Oh great. The ambiguous time change meant we would be at this for another hour.
About fifteen minutes later, I paid my friend, the ticket vendor, another visit. When I got back, though, I noticed somebody staring at me through black, thick frame glasses.
“Philippe?” asked the stranger.
“Hey, are you Israel?”
“Yes, Nathalie’s cousin?”
I was super relieved to see and meet Israel. He was only passing through and needed to get back to the village where he was stationed, a bit outside Marrakesh. However, he looked at my ticket, and talked to several people at the station. For a while, he misunderstood and almost had me get on a bus out back, but soon the situation was straightened out.
Thirty minutes later Israel was gone, and I was back with the other passengers still waiting by the stoop. I had a lot more confidence, however.
Ten o’clock, or what the ticket seller called nine, came around. Nothing happened. I looked for him and couldn’t find him. Finally about twenty minutes later, he showed up.
“Okay, come!” he summoned our group.
All of us were led outside to the courtyard in front of the bus station alongside the road.
And so we did. I wondered if a bus would come down the road to get us. I saw one go by, then another. No stops. My one token of confidence was that I was with the same familiar faces that I had been with the whole time. Finally, after about half an hour, a bus arrived. It was seemingly unmarked, except for a small sign in its front window that listed Fez along with some other cities.
The ticket seller had again disappeared, but I wouldn’t risk losing this bus while trying to find him. Everybody else got on board, so I figured I’d do the same.
The bus set off for Fez, what would be about a seven hour journey. After riding for an hour, I realized, hey, I’m in the middle of Morocco. Where exactly, I have no idea. I’m going somewhere, though, hopefully to Fez. I might as well get sleep while I can. Not much else to do.
I woke up five hours later and remembered the situation I was in. It was now starting to get bright outside, and I could see the vast open areas of desert. I kept my eyes peeled for a sign, hopefully one that would say where we were and if was possibly going towards Fez.
After a few minutes of staring, I got my wish.
Fez. 250 km.
I figured at the rate we were going, that meant two hours until Fez. Just as I thought that, though, the bus stopped, to let off a man and his wife. We were in the middle of an open desert with absolutely nothing in sight. Nathalie wasn’t kidding about how the souk bus worked.
I wished I could call Nathalie, to let her know where I’d be. To figure out where I’d meet her. Then it occurred to me to ask the person sitting next to me if I could borrow his phone. I did have Nathalie’s number, after all.
I got his attention and remembered that I didn’t speak Arabic. Perhaps he knew French? I didn’t know French, but I did try and learn once and picked up a little bit from a few podcast episodes.
“Scusez moi,” I started, hoping my sentence wouldn’t be too incoherent, “Parlez vous Français?”
“Vous me permite parler avec vous telefón?” I guessed most of the words.
He handed me his cell phone. It worked!
I dialed and Nathalie was surprised to hear my voice.
“So where are you now?”
“No idea. But probably about two hours away!”
The time went by and I started to see more and more signs for Fez. I looked at the guy who let me use his phone. Now he was throwing up into a paper bag. Great. This guy had been a guardian angel, but now my guardian angel needed to puke. I was a little thrown off, but he did help me out with his phone, so I couldn’t complain. Nathalie would later explain that a lot of locals weren’t used to very long drives and got easily carsick.
Finally, we passed bigger signs and a grand fountain, and I was certain we were in Fez.
“Perdón,” I began to ask strangers in my attempt at French, “C’est la gare?”
They began to look at each other and confer. “Ou est la gare?” I repeated, really wishing I’d stuck with that podcast a little longer. Then I remembered that “gare” was the name of the train station in Marrakesh. If the bus station was called something else, I might’ve just created a new problem for myself with all these men trying to help me find the wrong spot. They were all very eager to help.
“Non,” I tried, “le gare du bús…”
“Gare du bús?” one repeated confused.
Sensing the lack of actual communication, the man next to me handed me his phone again. I dialed Nathalie.
“Hey Nat, I’m almost there,” I started. “Real quick, I think I have a bus full of people helping me get to the train station instead of the bus stop. Can you correct them?”
I handed the guy his phone back with Nathalie on the other end.
“Mon amí,” I introduced.
“Bonjour,” he started, but Nathalie’s Arabic was far better than anyone’s French on the bus. I figured he must’ve been thrown for a loop with all the language switching.
Finally, all straightened out, we arrived at the Fez bus station, and I bid adieu to my enthusiastic helpers.
The Fez bus terminal was crowded. I worked my way through a sea of people, as well as kiosks that would usually sell snacks, but due to Ramadan only sold newspapers. Finally, I caught her in the middle of the entry way. Nathalie.
“Wait till I tell you about my journey here!” I greeted her.
After a crazy journey like that, I still ended up where I needed to go. And I made it home with a really fun story to tell.
In the moment, it’s easy to panic and feel like everything is falling apart. But that experience in Morocco taught me to think of what an event will look like from a future perspective. The odds of me actually having not made it to Nathalie, and eventually back home to the U.S. were very, very slim. Of course the whole time I had no idea how I would get to my destination, I was just pretty sure I would, and that clarity of mind helped me make the decisions and discoveries I needed.
Now, in the middle of a stressful situation, I try to call a time out and remind myself that things have a really good way of working out in the end most times. This awareness is a really helpful one when shutting out distractions that keep us from being present.
These days, whenever a momentary workload gets overwhelming, that’s what I remember.
I think of all the times in college I stressed over exams and assignments. By now, I had already forgotten the majority of my professors’ names. And yet, while I had them, I worried so much about their classes. Sometimes the emotional weight our mind puts on things is disproportionate to what they’ll mean to us in the future.
I enjoyed the rest of my week with Nathalie. We went hiking in the mountains, and ended up befriending a villager in a remote area. Again the result of getting lost and things not going to plan, he invited us to his house and had us break the Ramadan fast with his entire extended family. It was the sort of moment I’d remember forever. All things that happen when we sit back and remember to remain calm and present, in spite of whatever.