Saturday, December 23, 2006

I know that this update was expected somewhat earlier than it is arriving, but that is the way of Peace Corps. It isn't as though I have a good excuse. I was at In Service Training (IST), and just found hanging out with my friends to be a higher priority than banging around Agadir and looking for a cyber cafe so I could type about souk buses and grand taxis. Im sure you understand.

Quick Facts about Agadir: It was mostly destroyed by an earthquake, and has been extensively rebuilt. This means everything feels 1960's modern. They can proudly boast not one, but TWO, Pizza Huts. They are unable to brag about their good Mexican food, as they do not have any. The grand taxi station is rather poorly located.

Grand Taxis: The final part of the triad of Moroccan long distance transportation. Also known as a "Taxi of/by Agreement", because all the passengers have agreed on a common destination.

The Grand Taxi is a pretty straightforward concept. 6 people cram into a Mercedes-Benz and go to a common destination. That comes out to 4 people across the backseat, and 2 riding shotgun. The driver gets his own seat. Grand Taxi's tend to be clustered together at the Grand Taxi stand, but they can be sometimes found in areas of high tourist concentration, or at a ad hoc renegade stand. The grand taxi is a great option if you and 5 friends want to take a trip. You can quickly charter a taxi, and assuming you have some idea of the price, will not get ripped off (badly). If you are traveling solo, it is still a quick option, you just need to wait until the taxi is full. This can take upwards of 3 hours, or as quick as 10 mins. Just depends on your luck. The major plus to travel in this fashion is that the taxi will not make unexpected stops before your destination, and will drive at a higher speed than either a transit or a souk bus.

Example Trip: My house to Marrakesh. There is no regular taxi service in M'ssici, so any trip would start at Rissani. GT to Erfroud, or Errachidia depending on where you think will fill up first. It is probably better to wait for the Err taxi. Then west to Tengrir, or if you are very lucky, direct to Ouzzazate. Then Oz to 'kesh. Long trip, but small segments with new closer friends in the backseat. A good time would be to make that in about 12 hours.

The downside is that you are often sardined into your seat, and a large amount of patience needed to wait for it to fill up. I have heard tell of PCV's buying an extra seat to either move the taxi quicker or gain more space. This is not a bad idea, but will make your trip cost double. But, if you are traveling in a group of 5, it is not totally unreasonable to spread the cost out amongst friends.

Some unscrupulous taxi drivers will attempt to charge you for your luggage. This is not common practice, and unless you are bringing sooooo much stuff with you that it is causing some problem no money should be paid. You may also find taxi drivers who attempt to take your entire group to the destination, but at a higher cost due to your relative ignorance. Your best bet is to make sure you are dealing with the official taxi stand of a town, and when in doubt check with other passengers or drivers.

Taxi drivers on the whole tend to be fairly good drivers. But, like most all taxi drivers they amount they drive is directly proportional to the money they make that day. So speed is often the primary concern, with your relaxation and peace of mind being second. The taxi's themselves are in good condition, often with amusing upholstery.

Overall, a good way to travel. It is often the quickest route, but it can also be the most expensive.

In the above post I have badly misspelled many towns in Morocco.

The Souk Bus:

First, it is misnomer. Souk is market, but I know almost no PCV who uses a bus to get to their market on a regular basis. Also, the buses run (sorta) on a daily set regular schedule, whereas market is weekly. It should be called a big city bus, because that is where it will take you.

The souk bus is not unlike Forest Gump's box of chocolates. It is a bus, that much can be determined before hand. And, if you take the same bus repeatedly, you can get some idea of what trip is ahead of you. But, if you are getting on a random bus for the first time, you can find yourself anywhere on the comfort spectrum.

The bus station should have some idea about the time's and destinations of the buses that travel though, but times can be "approximate". If you are visiting a rather obscure town, it is best (as always) to reference the closest major town. And arrive early, you never know when things might be shockingly working ahead of schedule.

Buses start and stop (in theory) at a bus station. Each major town has a bus station, or at the very least an area that they start and stop in. My town has a section of road that buses will pull over into, or a Auberge parking lot. This does not mean that boarding and exit is limited to these clearly defined areas. Bus's can be flagged down anywhere on their route with a raise of the hand, or they can be stopped with a loud double clap of the hands. This can be 1km from the station, or in the middle of the desert. When these bus's enter a major town their stops can become so frequent that they seem to resemble a common city bus that is slowly working itself towards some faraway goal.

You will likely end up paying around 5dh for baggage to be stored under the bus. This can be fine for a long trip, but shorter engagements should be negotiated down a bit (something I'm still working on). I have even seen things as large as a washer/dryer unit being unloaded off of souk buses. Today I watched goats get loaded underneath. I have no idea how much it costs to send a goat.

The original plan you have your own seat. This is not a guarantee, but the bus driver tries to let people know if it is standing room only. Tickets can be bought either on the bus, or at the bus station before hand. Either is fine. I have never bought a ticket then found the bus wasn't going to stop, but I suppose it could happen. This does lead to the issue of buses not stopping. For reasons only clear to the driver, there is no obligation to stop at any town. I have awoke only to find myself flying right though my destination on more than one occasion. Sometimes buses that have always stopped in a town, will decide that they are not putting the brakes on today, requiring a minor reworking of your travel itenary.

One problem that gives souk buses a bad rep with some PCVs is that they are not entirely clean. Where as a grand taxi tends to get cleared out with each trip, the bus might only get a cleaning at the end of the day. So if you are traveling in the afternoon, it is highly likely your seat has already had 2 or 3 passengers. And one or more of them might have spilled a drink or left you some candy wrappers. Additionally, the mountain passes can be stomach churning for any normal person, and downright sickening for those who travel infrequently (most the people on the bus). It is not for nothing that the ticket takers carry around empty black plastic vomit bags. Etiquette says that full ones should be thrown out the window as quickly as possible.

Another issue is that the windows and ventilation is often poor. It is a misconception with some Moroccans that drafts and cool breezes in windows can cause illness. Or let in spirits. Either way, windows are often shut and the heat inside can become very uncomfortable during the summer. This can be an issue also on the Grand Taxi, but it seems more acute to me on the buses.

The major advantages is that is can go a looong distance and you only need to pay once. A trip that might require 3 grand taxi's can be done entirely on one bus. I am not allowed to travel at night (safety first!), but a bus at night could in theory take a tourist person a long distance and they would arrive somewhat refreshed in the morning. The biggest reason to take the bus is that it is cheap. By Moroccan standards or by American standards it is a cheap ride. I can travel from my house at 7am, to Meknes at 630pm for around 100 dh (11.75US$). Thats a lotta go for little dough.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Today we are starting part one of four on transportation options here in Morocco. There are three basic ways for me to get from A to B should both of these points be far apart; the bus, the taxi, and the transit. Today, the transit.

This is the most simple and humble way to get from point to point. Most transits (really, all that I know of), run a more or less short route mostly daily from a small town to a larger town then back again. They leave and return at more or less set times, but that is open to some flexability. 1pm is a lot like 3:30pm. You pay a set fee, and maybe something additional if you had some really big cargo.

What is a transit? Its a panel van. In my town the seats are bench style and arranged around the walls of the van so that the entire middle can be taken up with cargo. These seats are all removeable, if need be. Other transits have the seats arranged more or less in the traditional style. They are painted usually with a flat latex paint, and often identified by color. "Im taking the red one at 3pm".

A lot of volenteers count the transit driver as one of their chief assets in town and work to keep a good relationship with him (its always a him).

Transits are really the most adventerous way to travel. Firstly, the number of tourists on one is almost zero. So as a forigner you always stand out. For most of us, the transit is full of local people who know us, but should someone new get on, it can be a suprise for them. Second, by and large they are the least well maintained of transportation options, and are more likely to break down or be reduced to slooooow speeds. This is understandable, because it is not uncommon for them to use "roads" that are little more than tire tracks in the rocks and sand. I know of one that regularly uses a river bed (when the river isnt there).

The most interesting part is when you come back from you day at market. What was originally a rather empty van is now more full than you can ever imagine. I have never seen one turn down extra people or packages, so they can be almost bursting. Almost everyone has been shopping, so now there are all their new purchesses. But these are more than just veggies, and maybe a new pair of shoes. Large sacks of animal fodder are common on mine. As are new animals to go with the fodder. Today I was trying to do a little snoozing while on my way to town, when suddenly a great commotion ensued while we were picking up a new passanger. He was bringing a goat and two little kid goats on board. I like to play with them, so really, Im not complaining. Last week, we had an entire donkey on with us. Also, as my town is in a bit of a building boom, the transite is responsible for bringing back the bricks and mortar and also rebar. If it can be moved, it will appear in or on top of a transit at some time.

Overall, its a fun experience, and one that for many of us is essential. The transit is likely the only relialbe way to get from your site to a larger town for basic household goods.

Next...the souk bus!