Food Feature: Railroaded through Morocco

Who put the seedy in Sidi Kacem?

The train didn't rattle so much as it shimmied, a perceptible back-and-forth shake that seemed to indicate it was barreling down the tracks at least a few miles per hour faster than it was safely designed to travel. Mind you, we were probably only going 30 mph, but the creaky, wooden box car that was carrying me through the Moroccan countryside hardly seemed like the cutting edge in railway technology.

I was sweating profusely and mopping it up with my shirt — Morocco in late June isn't known for its agreeable climate — when a slight, dark-skinned man with tiny eyes set deep in his head sat down in the vacant spot on the wooden bench next to me. I nodded a greeting and returned to my previous engagement: gazing out the window as the North African landscape ambled by. So far I'd been disappointed — no deserts, no sand dunes, just a lot of the same rugged, green and yellow hills I'd left behind in Andalusia a few days ago.

I felt a nudge in my ribs and before I even turned my head, my tiny-eyed benchmate was whispering in my ear.

"What do you need?"

A little confused, I shrugged my shoulders and said nothing.

"What do you need?" he repeated, smiling now. "Hashish, marijuana, cocaine, what? I get it for you, no problem."

"Nothing, thanks."

I went back to staring out the window but my viewing was again interrupted.

"Come on. What do you need? I have only the best."

"Nothing, really. I'm not looking for anything."

Undeterred, he pressed the issue. "I know why you come to Morocco. You come for the hashish, the cocaine, the heroin. My name is Samir. I can get all for you."

"Really, I'm fine," I responded barely containing my festering irritation.

This was hardly the first hustler I'd come across since I took the ferry from Spain three days ago. The two days I spent in the grubby port town of Tangiers were a constant bombardment of Samirs, all peddling the "best" in drugs, food, women, rugs, clothes, whatever. It was a fact of life hardly worth getting upset over. In a country where the per capita income hovers around $1,000 a year, my pasty white skin might as well have been tattooed with dollar bills. But most of these hustlers, while persistent, were generally good-natured and would eventually relent. I figured my new friend would be the same.

He fell silent and as I looked out the window I could see his heavily stubbled face studying me. "Listen to me, my friend. The train stops in Sidi Kacem, that is where I live. You change to the Fez train there. In Sidi Kacem, there will be many people trying to sell to you. Their stuff will not be good, but they are dangerous. If you do not buy from me, I cannot protect you from them."

I looked at him and considered his thinly veiled threat. I shifted in my seat and glanced around the car for anyone I might be able to consider a useful ally. The prospects were grim.

The train was the physical embodiment of what my sheltered mind imagined Third World travel to be. Crowded, chaotic and, most of all, loud. It was what is known as a "smuggler's train," so named because it was filled with Moroccans smuggling goods into the country from Spain. At every stop, packages were heaved in and out of the windows, and lanky men were constantly running back and forth on the roof as the train chugged between destinations.

Inside, Berber women wrapped head-to-toe in silk robes argued vehemently with customs officials about what their garments were concealing. Evidently, most of the women were not as large as they looked; underneath their robes was cloth they were hoping to avoid paying tariffs on. The customs officers knew the women were smuggling, but Islamic law forbids them to touch any of the women in order to reveal the contraband. Faced with a hopeless conundrum, the officials had settled on loudly berating the Berbers as the best course of action.

When the ticket collector entered the cabin, I was sure by the massive and near-violent resistance to his presence that he was demanding the first-born child of all the car's inhabitants. I was the only one on the whole train who had actually bought a ticket. And I'd been warned by the travel office in Tangiers not to, to wait instead for the "tourist train." I was anxious, though, to get out of grimy Tangiers and on to Fez.

Which led me here. Taking a good look at my pushy compadre, I decided that if all that was standing between me and the wrath of Sidi Kacem's vicious drug lords was his 110-pound frame, well, I was fucked already.

"I'll take my chances," I told him.

Samir shook his head, got up and walked away. As it turned out, the violent drug trade in Sidi Kacem was non-existent, at least at the dusty train station on that day. In fact, there was little there at all other than rolling sagebrush and 110-degree heat. The only attention I got was from a small group of young Berber women who seemed puzzled that a sweaty, bedraggled American would be standing in their remote Moroccan village waiting for the train to Fez.


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