By Jane Buckley
I don’t really believe in ‘destiny,’ or ‘signs,’ or higher powers rubbing their hands together as they look down on the human world and decide our fate. But whatever set of cosmic powers that worked together Friday night at that forlorn train station in Kénitra to tinker with timing and life lessons and other unsavory things…I don’t know what I believe anymore, but I’m just saying I think someone up there knew I had to be taught a lesson and pulled the strings just right to make that happen.
Let me rewind. There was a reason I was forced to reckon with fate and such existential matters in a lonely city near the coast of Morocco. It had been a weird and trying day for our group: think food poisoning and allergic reactions and last minute drastic changes to travel plans. None of this directly relates to my fate spiel yet; I’m just using it to set the scene and subtly encourage you to feel bad for me.
Cut to Jordan, Aastha, Henry and me sitting on the top level of one of the train cars headed to Tangier. We were still high strung, and hungry—it was Ramadan, and we haven’t quite figured out the whole not eating in public thing. But it was okay, because we were going to be in Tangier with socially acceptable dining options in four hours.
**spoiler alert: we would not be in Tangier with socially acceptable dining options in four hours.**
For clarification’s sake, I think it’s best to break down the ensuing events in timeline form. Disclaimer: this timeline is based on my trauma-addled memory; times are carefully but imperfectly guesstimated:
6:50: We notice our car is empty except for us. Seems normal for a long train ride with multiple stops.
6:55: Train shudders to a halt. No train station in sight outside. Seems less normal.
6:57: Train begins to roll in the opposite direction back the way we came from. Definitely not normal.
7:02: Train shudders to a second halt. Still no train station in sight.
7:05: We check the rest of the cars in the hopes of finding at least one other human on the whole train. We are unsuccessful. The only signs of movement are the flickering yellow letters “ONCF” on the announcement screens, reminding us of the train company sponsoring this disaster. We laugh nervously at how it feels like a horror movie set.
7:10: We realize we’re locked on the train. The automatic doorways that usually slide open when you hit the big green buttons are frozen shut, mocking us for never appreciating the way that they open when we didn’t even really care that they did.
7:20: A wild-eyed backpacker materializes out of nowhere on the train tracks outside, catches sight of us, and proceeds to bang on the door, yelling through the thick layer of plastic in a language we can’t understand. He is seemingly incapable of remaining calm or resisting from yelling for half a second. He successfully dissipates the few nerves we had left between the four of us.
7:25: We are distracted from the backpacker by a figure looming out of the darkness at the end of the car. We think it’s a horror movie killer. Turns out to the conductor of the train, who approaches us, eerily calm. “Bonjour,” he says.
7:30: We become frustrated with the conductor’s inability to tell us what’s going on.
“Qu’est-ce que passait?”, we ask, What happened?
“Le train a arrêté,” he generously explains, The train stopped.
“Pourquoi?”, we ask, trying to understand how we had gotten ourselves into this situation.
“Il ne va pas à Tangier,” he said, again as if he was explaining the obvious, It’s not going to Tangier.
Various iterations of this conversation lead us nowhere. We ask for his help. He says something about a depot. He leaves to help the backpacker. We still don’t know what’s going on.
7:45: It appears the conductor is never coming back for us. We find a door slid halfway open at the end of our car. This door was decidedly sealed tightly shut 30 minutes ago. Outside suddenly seems safer. We jump off the train with our luggage.
7:55: Conductor emerges out of the dark, as is apparently his style. Beckons at us to follow. We do, because it’s that or wandering the train tracks at night. Conductor plows ahead at a pace that far over-estimates our ability to handle the combination of luggage, gravel, and railroad ties.
8:00: Conductor leads us into the depot. I still don’t know what the depot is or why we’re going into it, but I feel it’s reasonable to expect a type of train station. Or some sign of human life. Or at the very least a semi-lit building? Instead conductor leads us into a pitch-black warehouse-type building. I close my eyes. I open them. There’s no difference. I flip on my iPhone flashlight, because I think it will make me feel better. It does not make me feel better. Shine it to my left, and a rusty hunk of metal, presumably part of the skeleton of an old train, rises out of the darkness, all tetanus-y, probably. Shine to my right, and there’s just a pit—like, a straight-up trench in the ground—right where I was about to swing my suitcase. This is so far from normal.
8:10: We emerge into the less-dark-but-still-pretty-freaking-dark night on the other side of the depot. Conductor has been waiting, but charges on when we all emerge. We look back and realize we could quite easily walked down the tracks outside of the depot and gotten to the same place; the conductor has quite deliberately chosen to march us through a haunted (I’m quite sure of it) depot instead. Conductor blatantly fails to acknowledge this potentially psychotic move, instead points across the tracks to the Kénitra train station. Conductor leaves, because it’s Ramadan and he hasn’t eaten yet. Fair, I guess, but a shockingly unceremonious parting with our potential-killer-turned-rescuer.
8:20: We arrive at the train station, safe and sound. That’s not true. We arrive at the train station, relatively safe and very unsound.
8:25: We meet Driss, a twenty-something-year-old employee at the train station, who has taken it upon himself to help our sorry group. Like so many Moroccans we met, Driss speaks English beautifully as he talks us through our options. Can’t explain why the train stopped but insists that taking a train back to Rabat for the night is safer than going from Kénitra. We trust Driss. We follow him out to the tracks to catch the train to Rabat.
8:35: The train to Rabat rolls away from the station, without us on it. Our mouths drop in disbelief. Driss starts laughing, seeing the look on our faces. “You guys have terrible luck,” he says, validating the self-pity washing over me. It turns out there’s another train in a half hour, but it won’t stop me from feeling deeply sorry for myself. I look to Driss for further validation. “Can you believe the day we’ve had, Driss?!” Driss says he can’t believe it.
8:40: Driss walks back with us to the station, still chuckling as we tell him the rest of our past couple hours. “Yeah I’d say that’s bad luck” he offers when we’re done, “it’s kind of like how I got into El Camino College in California and was supposed to go study there and then that asshole Trump got elected and blocked me from getting in the country. That’s why I have this shit job here.”
Oh shit. No, it’s not kind of like that, Driss. Jordan and I glanced at each other. Shame replaced self-pity. Driss was still smiling, like we were just swapping stories. He wasn’t telling us to make us feel bad, which almost made it worse. The past two hours had felt fictitious, and all of the sudden his words had brought me crashing back down to reality.
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so profoundly humbled. Without even meaning to, Driss had reminded us of our immense privilege as Yale students and as Americans able to travel to other countries. He had reminded us to consider the reality of what was happening in our own country while we acted as journalists reporting on international issues.
This trip has been transformative in several ways, and that moment marks one such instance. Those two hours may have been some of the craziest I’d experienced, but in the grand scheme of things, we were left with a funny story while Driss is left with a job at a train station instead of an education he worked to get.
So here’s my spiel on fate, as promised: I still don’t know who or what works to make things happen the way they do, but I know I needed to hear what Driss had to say—to be a more thoughtful journalist, traveler and citizen—and I wouldn’t have heard him in the way I did were it not for some careful, specific construction of events that allowed me to be so moved by our interaction. Kudos to you, higher powers, I’m impressed.
Jane is a rising junior in JE. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.