In the end, I'd lazed around for days in Essaouira, on the Moroccan coast, eating myself into a couscous-stupor. I wandered around the fishermen's port, paid ten dirham to climb an old city wall (where a seagull crapped on my head) and stumbled across the spice market. A young man tried to sell me perfume-as-a-soap. Or spice. Or anything. He was bored, and eager to chat.
"How do you get the spice to make that shape?" He presided over one of those stalls of colourful spices that were shaped into perfect pyramids. I've long wondered how these pyramids do not collapse.
"Magic," he whispered. Then laughed and showed me that the pyramids of spice were window dressing, made of glue and stuffing. The spices that were actually for sale were in containers in the back of the store.
Like the vendor, I was just filling my afternoon, stalling, taking my time in Essaouira, avoiding the hard part – undertaking the south-bound journey into West Africa.
Soon I would need to face the legendary no-man's land, the sandy border between Morocco and Mauritania. Traveller whispers spoke of price-gouging, potential danger, and – among the supposed landmines between the two countries – rugged dirt-tracks known only to elite guides.
Or maybe not. A few matter-of-fact message-board voices discounted these rumours, stating that there was, in fact, a daily scheduled bus to the border with the reputable Moroccan coach company CTM. Or was there? And did it make sense to take that bus? How would I get across the border once I got off the bus?
I'd come in a week ago from the Spanish enclave of Melilla in the north, walking across the border 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 stepped carefully. My supplies for this ten-month round-the-world expedition were limited to what I could carry on my back—I didn't want to end up covered in filth when I was sleeping on a train, with no hotel room to scrub clean my possessions.
There were two train stations in the town of Beni Nsar, or Beni Ensar (Arabic doesn't have standardised 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". Nsar Port, according to the Google maps, was close enough to walk to from the border.
But I try not to make overconfident, avoidable mistakes, so I stopped and asked a Moroccan man who was smoking a cigarette in front of a coffee shop.
"Pardonnez, ou est la gare?"
"Si. I mean, oui. Train." I don't speak French. Or Spanish. But I do a fine job of enthusiastically butchering both on a regular basis.
"Taxi." He waved his hand to indicate a large distance. A second man, next to him, sagely nodded. That wasn't the answer I was hoping for.
Just then a third man, with bloodshot eyes and James Dean hairstyle (in grey), leapt out of the coffee shop entrance.
"Non, non! Train ici! 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 memorised-map—though their debate left me a little doubtful. The wide street I turned onto was lined 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 kilometre, were the giant lifting contraptions of an obvious seaport. Everything seemed right. Except that there was no train station.
Boo. I needed help. I went into the next building I saw, and 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 men and caught a petit 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 to the brand-new, sparkling Beni Nsar Ville station. 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 kiosks had no occupants. The counters were mostly unoccupied. There was a security guard, bored on a bench, and one ticketing agent behind glass, chatting on his mobile phone.
He hung up when he saw me, and zealously undertook my case. Here was a good chance for me to remember that year of French I'd taken in 1981. I recalled at least three verbs, and one sentence about playing tennis. Surely that would get me through the next four months.
"Je vais a Marrakech. Un billet, s'il vous plais."
Eventually, we established that I could have a sleeper on the overnight train to Casablanca, connecting there to Marrakech. There were no couchettes (shared four-berth compartments) on this train, but there were private rooms.
"May I have one?"
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 phone battery ran out. He reddened. He removed the battery, clipped it into a charger, and plugged the charger into the wall.
We waited. I wished I knew six or seven French verbs. Our conversation hit many dead ends. Tennis didn't seem to apply to our discussion, and anyway, I don't know how to play.
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'd 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 once I screwed around on Facebook too long and used up my data balance on my UK SIM. I appreciated 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? And 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, there was 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 continue to remain a mystery to me.
But now, a week later, sitting in the shadow of the ramparts in Essaouira, in a café outside the old city walls, the train seemed a luxurious distant memory. From here on in, it would be buses and shared taxis across half a continent. I wouldn't see another train for many weeks or months. Tomorrow, I'd leave on a coach for a 24-hour journey south to Dakhla, the last town of note in Morocco, or Western Sahara, depending on who you asked.
And as I sat, enjoying my last luxurious moments of easy wi-fi and cheap riads, I turned on my Kindle's wireless. I clicked a few buttons, and a West Africa guidebook magically appeared on my Kindle. Ten years ago, on my first year-long journey around the world, I had carried a pen, notebook, SLR camera, and physical, paper books. Mobile technology had been in its infancy. Today I was loaded down with digital gadgets, PDF guidebooks to just about everywhere, and I had the luxury now of watching with amazement as one materialised out of thin air.
Many travellers resist technological distractions and convenience. Not me. I adore and embrace digital innovation. I marvel at it, same as I marvel at a pyramid of glue-and-spice.
How did that West Africa guidebook appear on my Kindle?
Marie Javins writes books, teaches aspiring comic book colorists in New York, edits Kuwaiti comic books and travels the world by public bus. You can read more about her current expedition – a second round-the-world journey – at MariesWorldTour.com.
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