A chance encounter on a train transforms a trip.
By Mark Gibson | Dark, hot, and almost unbearably uncomfortable, I checked my watch again on the night train to Rabat. Four hours left. What am I going to do for four hours? Better yet, what am I going to do for the rest of the trip? I checked the date. Seven days left. It’s only been four days, I thought, how am I going to make it another week? No longer wanting to think about my Moroccan “vacation,” I decided to sleep, however difficult in my hard, upright seat, and momentarily escape the country that had once so enchanted me.
I decided to go to Morocco two summers ago while studying Spanish and interning in Madrid. I enjoyed the city and its sights and similarly enjoyed the surrounding regions. Castles, churches, and museums filled my weekends, and an easy life of sangria, siestas, and discos filled my weeks. But while always occupied, I was not always content. I began to long for something different and when I found a travel book on Morocco, I knew I had found what I was looking for. An exotic Muslim history; a location on that mysterious content of Africa; beautiful desert and mountain landscapes; and place-names like Meknés, Essaouria, and Marrakesh. By the time I finished my internship, my imagination played over the many adventures the country had to offer, and I quickly set out with my good friend Jon from Penn. I went in search of the fantastic, not realizing that what I looked for might just be pure fantasy.
From the moment I stepped off the ferry at Tangier, I realized my travel book had not told me about everything I would find. I confronted a throng of taxi drivers, each trying to hustle me into paying four times too much or, worse, rob me. I decided to take the good with the bad. “I’ll get done with this as quickly as possible,” I thought, “then I can enjoy the rest.”
Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t quite escape the “bad” long enough to enjoy the “good.”
In the medina of Meknés, or old section of the city, there was rarely a moment I could admire the cobblestone streets, high arched doorways, and strange apothecary shops without a hustler on my back. When I said “No thanks,” I received a strange combination of curse words. I laughed the first several times, afterwards not at all. In the market places, I haggled to obtain still exorbitant prices—the cost of being an American—and struggled to enjoy tourist attractions like the snake charmers with their cobras, mouths sewn shut and all. Even simple activities like riding a train or drinking mint tea I found unpleasant, the former marred by a desert breakdown and case of heat stroke while the latter tasted bitter when drunk while surrounded by needy children. By the time of my night train to Rabat, I had found far too much to look back upon and far too little to which I might look forward.
I could not sleep on the train that night and, although I cursed considerably then, now I could not be more thankful. Gazing out upon the dark landscape outside my window with my strangely comatose friend to my side, at first I didn’t notice when two men entered the compartment, stowed their luggage, and sat down across from me, but soon their heated discussion in French drew my attention. Thinking they might provide me with much-needed entertainment, I quietly watched them out of the corner of my eye. They appeared to be in their mid-30s and were dressed in slacks and collared shirts. One had a youthful, energetic look and argued passionately, while his slightly balding, older, and more reserved friend smiled with limited interest. Their light olive skin marked them as Berber, or native North African, and from their heavy bags I judged them to be fellow travelers. Then I became aware that they had finished their conversation and were now quietly studying me.
“Where are you from?” the younger one asked. American or Canadian? I asked myself, wondering whether to invite the usual criticism of the U.S. or end the conversation quickly to hide my lie. “American,” I said. Eyes widening, the other asked, “And you are a student?” Here it comes, I thought. And again, against my better judgment I truthfully replied, “I study international relations at the University of Pennsylvania.” I then mentally dusted off everything I knew of U.S. foreign policy and prepared myself for the worst. “Perfect!” the younger said with a smile, “We were just talking about the United Nations. Do you know any of its history?” Far from what I expected.
They introduced themselves as Zangui and Moha, a teacher and businessman from Rabat, and it seemed there was nothing they did not enjoy talking about. After discussing the United Nations, we continued with U.S. education, Moroccan agriculture, and prior travels, among others. The conversation was as lively and intelligent as could be hoped for, yet I found myself most intrigued by the two speakers. Zangui’s eyes almost twinkled each time he gave out another opinion based upon the vast quantity of books he had read. On the other hand, Moha balanced his friend’s energetic curiosity, listening quietly, and occasionally offering a toothy grin. Talking with Zangui and Moha, I nearly forgot I had wanted to end my visit, and I grew disappointed when I realized we would soon part ways.
As the train approached Rabat, I began to pack my things and wake Jon when Zangui invited us to spend the night at his wife’s family home outside the capital. I was both joyful and shocked at the offer. Don’t they know you just don’t invite strangers to your home? Perhaps sensing our uneasiness, Moha explained that it would be difficult to find a hostel that late at night so staying outside the city would be safer.
This was right, and maybe it mattered to Jon as a reason to accept. For myself, I didn’t want to let go of the Morocco I had seen in the past three hours and saw no reason to doubt Moha and Zangui’s intentions. We de-boarded a stop early in the small town of Kenitra. A short cab ride brought us to a three-story home, where I quickly fell asleep on thick Moroccan carpets, looking forward to the next day.
Jon and I woke the next morning to the smiling faces of Zangui’s wife as well as her sister and parents. They spoke to us, but not in English. Moha and Zangui, assuming the role of interpreters, explained that we had been invited to join the family for lunch before leaving. Our hosts placed me next to the elderly father, who served as my silent guide to the meal. There was flat bread, yogurt, and fruit for the first course and a large communal plate of meat and vegetables for the second; my guide carefully showed me how to use my right hand to scoop and tear, and also laughed at the sight of me. I found everything at once unusual and strangely familiar. Regardless of the language barrier, I could see the old man was playfully teasing me; Moha was trying to stop siblings from arguing; and far-from-conservative Arab music television played behind me.
When after our meal Jon and I were invited to stay another day, we could not say no. We went to the beach that afternoon, ate well that night, and then spent the following day with Moha, Zangui, and his wife and sister-in-law in Rabat. In all, Zangui and Moha invited us to share their homes and meals with them for three days, but, more than that, they invited us into their family.
Before I got on the train to Rabat, everything I had seen in Morocco reminded me that I was an alien, an outsider, and was to be treated as such, but I found nothing of that with this Moroccan family. They were not afraid of who I was or what I thought. I will never forget being invited to share wine and a beautiful view on the roof of their house. My eyes traced the bare white walls contrasting with the colorful rugs on every floor as I approached the white stone stairway up. Everything suggested a similar interior on the floor above, yet instead it was completely unfinished, the walls still concrete and the mattresses propped on cinder blocks. And Zangui, a selfless, well-educated man, barely hesitated to share with us his joy at having saved enough money for a proper wedding ceremony, even though it meant exposing his poverty.
Jon and I continued traveling for another week, but in many ways our journey ended when we parted ways with Zangui and Moha. For as many beautiful mosques or medinas, mint teas, or desert landscapes as we later encountered, nothing compared with our brief experience with two strangers on a train who quickly became good friends.
It feels strange to write, but I will soon leave Penn, the place I have thought of as my first true home in a lifetime of traveling. But I am not afraid, for I think the University and the people I have met—both in and outside of its walls—have prepared me well for what lies ahead. After I graduate in May I will set off on what should be the trip of a lifetime: a year of developmental internships in Central America and Africa.
This path is different from many of my classmates, and I have often been asked why I am taking it. I don’t usually answer honestly, for fear of seeming naïve. But if I were to let go of that fear, I would say it’s because I have learned there are many beautiful, off-the-beaten-path sights to see and many more people like Zangui and Moha in the world to learn from.
Mark Gibson is a senior international relations major from “a little bit of everywhere,” he says. You can learn more about his travels at www.gibsontravels.com.