Riding in Moroccan Trains with Old Men

“There is nothing like a train journey for reflection, and the passage from Casablanca to Marrakech is one of the most inspiring I know. Movement has a magical effect on the mind. It stimulates the eyes, distracts them, allowing real thought to take hold. I stared out the window at a landscape changing by slow degree from urban to farmland, and then again, to a desert panorama–baked terra-cotta red.” — Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights

My journey to Marrakech was a bit of a different route, but much the same experience–eight hours rocking away on a train, watching the landscapes change and feeling myself change from my time in Morocco.

My six-seater first-class car gained and lost a lot of people along the route, giving me time to watch how local people interacted: a wealthy couple in their late-20s–the man looking like he didn’t want to relinquish any control to his wife, but the woman was fiery and feisty and not ready to let him have the last word; an older couple who seemed so sweet and as if they loved each other so deeply that they’d drop anything to care for the other; and finally, my favorite–the old man.

The old man joined our car a few hours in, forcing the sweet couple to separate–the husband stayed with the old man and the woman moved next to me. The old man took a few minutes to settle in: he got some help putting his large bag above his seat, unzipped his jacket revealing a pair of suspenders holding up some too-large pants, adjusted his baseball hat so he could see people a bit easier, and pulled his laptop bag onto his lap as a sort of tray.

From his laptop bag, he pulled out a bottle of water and a sub. He delicately balanced everything on top of the fabric laptop bag, the bottle of water precarious. Slowly, he unwrapped his sub and lifted it to his mouth to pull off bits of it with his few teeth and took care to chew it.

I watched this old man from behind sunglasses for quite a while because he reminded me so much of my grandpa. He was the Moroccan Sammy Smith–suspenders, baseball cap, and all. Every bit of it took me back to a trip I had taken with my grandpa to Missouri, his childhood home, when he was in his late-80s. He was not in great health and wanted to see his siblings one more time before he knew he’d die. When we landed in the tiny airport in Joplin, Missouri, my dad went off to fetch the rental car and my grandpa, sisters, and I sat outside in the sweltering heat waiting. Grandpa adjusted himself on a brick wall and I stood watch for dad. My grandpa, ever the business man, had brought a brown leather briefcase my dad had given him as his carry on. The whole flight I wondered what could possibly be in it. I was about to find out. He popped open the latches, lifted the lid, and said, “Meggie, would you like a Werther’s?” I looked down to see that his briefcase was filled with his prescriptions, Werther’s Originals, and a newspaper. And when I saw that old Moroccan man pull a sandwich and a bottle of water out of his laptop case, it felt like seeing my grandpa again four-and-a-half years after he died.

Partway through eating his sandwich, the train took a sharp turn, hurtling his water bottle to the ground and breaking the plastic. Water splashed everywhere and he scrambled (albeit, slowly because he was an old man) to put his sandwich down and tend to the people who got wet. The husband from the sweet couple gave the old man a handkerchief to dry himself off and offered (what I assume) were some kind words of forgiveness. We all cleaned up the floor and got things back in order and once again, I watched this old man behind my sunglasses. He seemed embarrassed and upset at the situation, and I wanted so badly to give him my half-drunk bottle of water and offer him a hug. But my Darija was limited to a few words and it would have been inappropriate for a strange woman to hug a man in a Muslim country. So instead, I sat and thought about him, and the situation, and about my grandpa, and my hidden eyes welled up with tears.

All at the same instance, I wondered where this man’s family was, missed my grandpa, and was grateful to have found his spirit again on a train in Morocco.

7 thoughts on “Riding in Moroccan Trains with Old Men

  1. Lovely story, Megan. Half the fun of travel is people-watching, I think. I always have to remind myself to slow down and do that instead of rushing around trying to cross the next thing off my list!

    • Thanks so much, James! And you’re right–sometimes it’s difficult to slow down and just take everything in. We’re always so busy wanting to see and do more!

  2. Oh i love that part about traveling by train! if you go by car you always have to concentrate on the road while on a plane there really is little detail to be seen.

    On a train (especially if it is a luxury one) you can take your time, read a book, breathe in the landscape and silently observe other people! It feels slower somewhat (even tho in a lot of cases it really isn’t).

    booked a luxury train to get from cusco to the lake titicaca in 5 weeks. Will take like 4 hours longer than the plane – but am soooo looking forward to gazing at the wonderful peruvian landscape!
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