I stood on the platform of the train station in Casablanca, huffing and puffing like a climber running out of water on a long trek. My Oakley backpack on which I had suspended ten days of my life suddenly was heavier as I expended more air catching my breath than carrying my bag. I had made the mad dash to get out from the Mohamed V after I saw several Moroccan police grab a matronly woman garbed in black djelaba and hijab right across from the Wall of Water. I was disturbed by the sight of four burly policemen grabbing her by the arm, dragging her. I had heard her while I was at the immigration counter, her caterwauling reverberated in the walls of the high ceiling airport I was scared all the glass there would break or the echoes of her cry would send the water from the wall into one big swoosh and splash. I asked randomly some locals what her gibberish was all about and a young lady replied ‘Looking for son, lost son’.
At the train station, I saw only one other man standing on the platform. He was wearing taupe leather jacket that had seen better days, scuffed at the elbows, over a white shirt and light faded denim. Although he was wearing loafers, ruck sack worn on one shoulder, he looked distinguished and dignified. He was tall, about 6’4, in his late forties and wore a Tom Selleck beard but thinned out reddish brown hair. I surmised he was one of those few Europeans who detested the sun as he was deathly pale. He had some wrinkles on his forehead but that too went well with his mien and countenance.
‘Are you taking the 4 o’clock train’, he asked as he inched closer to me.
‘Then you better have something like this’, he showed me a train ticket that he scooped out of the inner pocket of his jacket.
I had none. That sent me into panic. I thought I would pay in the train just like the Shinkansen in Hiroshima and Osaka as I remembered doing.
He pointed to the ticket booth in a far corner and yelled ‘You have four minutes’.
I sprinted to the ticket booth. I must have looked like one of those contestants in Amazing Race on tenth place desperately trying to be first.
When I traced my steps back to the station, the train from Sidi-al-Kacem was on coming.
The man chose to sit beside me. ‘I hope you don’t mind’ he whispered, his mouth was too close to my ear it was discomfiting and I could see his nicotine stained teeth. But I had to be polite. If anything, my jeans and sneakers would allow me for a mean roundhouse kick and a nasty counter in the groin or a punch in the solar plexus. ‘It is unusual for a young lady like you to be traveling alone.’
I smiled smugly. I could almost hear my husband say ‘I told you so’ or how stubborn I could be to be traveling alone for the hundredth time. Hubby could be a nag but he was right about so many things most of the time.
I knew the man had been helpful and I had already thanked him profusely. But that was not enough to warm me up to him.
Until he started telling me what made him keep coming back to Morocco.
‘I came to visit my wife. She lives in the outskirts of Fes’
I had always wanted my train rides to be quiet so I could immerse myself in the silence that allowed me to paint a picture of what or how my itinerary would be like. But I cannot be rude to a chatty stranger in the two or three hours of the ride. Besides, he had been helpful. And the people in the seats across from us were smiling although unsure of what we might have been talking about. They even thought we were a couple.
‘Guess how old I am’ he said.
‘Ummm, I dunno. Maybe 45?’
‘I’m fifty years old. And here,’ he continued as he fished a picture from his wallet. ‘here is a picture of my wife. She is twenty’
The woman in the picture was wearing a paisley printed brown and gold kaftan, with long blonde hair, brown eyes and a tentative but sweet smile. She looked like a model before having been scouted and glamorized or ruined by joints and booze fed them by Albanian mafia.
‘Very pretty’ I said.
‘You know how I met her? ‘
‘The internet. We were chatting. You see after my divorce, I became so lonely. I don’t want anymore Belgian wife. I came to Morocco three times before I met her’
‘How come?’ I asked
‘Because there were fifteen of them in Rabat. Casablanca. Agadir. Marrakech. Fes. Safi. All fourteen of them, when they see me for the first time, all would be screaming ‘Marry me. Marry me. Bring me with you. Take me with you. Even if I am back in the car they would run after me. It would break my heart but I don’t want to be a ticket for a visa.’
‘That’s a sad story’, I said
‘But you know, girl number thirteen I promised her I would come back, also number fourteen sent me the wrong picture. She turned out to be very fat. And then something inside of me was telling me to go visit number fifteen, go for number fifteen even if it was already dark at night and I was already very tired of all the bullshit.’
Even I myself was amazed that I would be hanging on to every word of a total stranger whose only demographics I happened to know were that he’s from Belgium, he’s 50 years old and married to a 20 year old Moroccan girl from Fes.
‘And you know what, she was the only girl among the fifteen who did not say ‘Marry me’. She told me how much she enjoyed talking to me on the phone and was very happy to see me in person. She knows there were other girls but she said I come back only if I am sure about my feelings for her’
‘And what did you say?’
‘I almost cried. She was the sweetest girl of them all and how lucky I was. I could not stay long that night as I have to be back in my hotel. I promised to come back the following day’
‘And you did’
‘Of course! I could not wait to see her again. She was even lovelier by day. My heart went out to the family. They lived in a thatched house with dirt floor. No wood, no cement. Just soil’
‘Aw. I see. That’s a sad story’
‘So that day I shopped for the family and bought them lamp, bought them a stove and things for hygiene because they don’t even have toilet paper’
‘That’s true. I fell in love with her ways, her simplicity. She did not go to college but she was helping her family raise her younger brothers and sisters. She sells things in the market. Do you know that the toilet paper I bought, she kept only for me to use?. Can you believe that?’
‘Yes I can. That’s a beautiful story Mister?’
‘Peter. Call me Peter’
‘I’m Eva. And I’m pleased to hear your story.’
‘Pleased to meet you Eva. What’s your story?’
I chuckled. The truth was I rued the idea of spilling my life story to a man I knew only an hour ago.
‘Peter, you should go on with your story. Mine is not half as interesting as yours’
By the time the train arrived in Sidi-al-Kacem I learned that he was mechanic in a town an hour away from Brussels specializing in fixing and selling Aston Martins.
‘Looks like you’re one of the older James Bond assistants’ I said.
‘Yeah. Exactly!’ he erupted in delight that an Asian would know James Bond.
‘Fastest car in the world at the time’ he added.
We were sitting on a wood bench by the platform on Sidi-al-Kacem, an interchange to bring me to Fes as it would also pick up passengers coming in from Tangiers from the west of Morocco. He looked at his watch and said it would be a wait of fifteen minutes. As it was close to six o’clock, I was feeling hungry. He must have heard my stomach grumbling as he offered me a sandwich which he took from the outer pocket of his ruck sack which I reluctantly received. He must have sensed my trepidation so he started eating the other sandwich with him, biting small pieces at a time. In between bites, he stared at me seeing me still with the unopened sandwich wrapped in Saran.
‘That’s goat cheese and wheat bread’ he said. ‘Finish it before the train comes’.
I had never had goat cheese in my life. Especially not from a stranger but I was hungry. Seeing that I was already eating the bread, he said ‘I’ve fresh milk here if you want’ as he lifted fresh milk in a tetra pack. I quashed the urge to ask if it was fresh goat milk as I might throw up if it was. I had nothing against goats or their milk, I wasn’t just a goat milk person.
When I was finished he took the sandwich wrap and folded it into a small square, not crumpling it like many would and threw it in a litter bin in a corner.
The train for Fes arrived and we scrambled into our seats as there were many others rushing to get into the train.
We were seated in front of many women and young men this time. Unlike the polite women from Casablanca, the women on the way to Fes were loquacious and warmed up to Peter especially when Peter greeted them ‘Assalam Alaikum’. During the ride to Fes, it was mostly the women that Peter talked with, in Arabic. Sometimes he would translate their conversations for me, the gentleman that he was. The one instance that he let out a hearty laugh intrigued me as the women were looking at me naughtily. I glared at Peter, demanding to know what it was all about. He said’ These women are telling me ‘Brother, your mission is to convert that young Miss to Islam by the time we get to Fes’.
When the women were talking among themselves about going to (or coming from) Meknes, the shopping for clothes in Casablanca and following up documents in Fes, Peter would turn to me and told me the story how he learned Arabic, the kind that was taught in universities, eloquent, grammatically correct Arabic, not colloquial. His employer in Saudi Arabia during his younger years sent tutors to him to study the language which he mastered in five years. On top of that, he also spoke French, Flemish and English. ‘It was the language, French and Arabic that made me choose a bride from Morocco and not from your country’.
I did not know how to react to that. But he was right. Some women back home who could only speak fractured English with fake accents would definitely consider him a good catch, a gold mine.
He went back to the chatter with the women in Arabic whom he must have regaled with his love story they were swooning and sighing at the same time.
Meanwhile, I was talking to a young man, the twenty year old Mohamed who came from Rabat for his English language class. He mistook me for a 21 year old. I was nearing forty at the time. Either I looked the part or he was being kind. Whatever, it made him a lot interesting to talk to.
He was hoping to get to a college in Santa Monica in California where his cousin was based. But after 9-11, his visa had since been denied thrice.
‘That’s a sad story ‘ I said.
‘How’s my English? I hope we can e-mail each other so you can see how I am doing with my English studies’ he enthused.
‘Sure’ I promised.
We got to the train station in Fes which was near a terminal and a market. The place was crowded with many people. I asked Mohamed for directions to my hotel which the guide book said to be a stone’s throw away from the station. Mohamed offered to walk me to the hotel but I said I needed to have supper first as it might take a while to order in a hotel. I wanted something ‘fast’ and asked him to have supper with me. While he offered to walk me to the restaurant, he declined the invitation to eat as his parents might be looking for him by now. We never got to exchange our e-mail address.
As to Peter, he was patiently waiting, never interrupting nor intruding, for my conversation with young Mohamed to be over to say his good bye. He said he had a car waiting for him from the opposite side of the terminal. He gave me his business card and shook my hand very firmly. He wished me luck and I was to call him should I need anything, anything he might be of help. He would be in Morocco until the end of the month, he said as he and his wife will be working on her visa in the capital, Rabat.
‘Take care, you brave girl’ he said his hand on his forehead, doffing a hat he never had.
As he turned his back, I saw his silhouette, standing tall amidst a crowd of strangers, walking steadily with a gait and swagger of someone who knew he was loved, until he disappeared in the dark.