The air feels cool on my pale skin as I emerge from the second class car into the first class one for which I've paid $17US to travel 300km from Casablanca to Fez on this Saturday in March. I take my place in cabin 5, alone except for a Moroccan man seated across from me at the window. He wears a charcoal business suit and a maroon and white checked shirt with the top button undone. His shiny black leather shoes are mere inches from mine, and he is wearing a wool coat despite the heat prickling my neck.
“Bonjour,” he says. “Bonjer,” I reply in my poor excuse for a French accent. He notices me stumble and asks, “are you from America?’
“Yes,” I admit. I tell him it's my first time in Morocco and he tells me I’ll be safe here, there is nothing to worry about. I try to respond in a way that makes him believe that I believe him, but I doubt I'm convincing. I haven't yet gotten comfortable in this foreign land, a solo woman traveller who can't speak either of the two local languages.
Outside our window, an orange trees laden with bright fruit trundle by. A lone woman herds her sheep. I spot cows munching grass and a brown horse smaller than the ones back home. I sit quietly, trying not to call attention to myself.
At the next stop another man, this one with a blue scarf and brown striped necktie, joins our cabin taking a seat beside the door, as far away from me as is possible. The train moves smoothly on its track, silent except for the loud and fast conversation between these two Moroccan men who have never met before. I wonder what they are talking about. Me? The American president? Local politics or something else? In Rabat the man in the checked shirt will depart, leaving me in a cabin with people who don't return my poorly pronounced greetings.
Later I learn that it is a game, to not see anyone. Like on the bus at home, except that here I'm seeing everything.
I see the man in the suit and blue wool scarf praying quietly in his seat. His mouth moves soundlessly with the words of Allah, fingers clicking to a rhythm I don't understand. Head nodding, he holds his arms bent at a 90-degree angle to his body, fingers outstretched, moving as if by memory, down, up, down up, down up.
Beside him, a Moroccan mother dressed in long-sleeve layers and an ornate gold necklace stares at her iPhone, seemingly oblivious to the man prostrating himself mere inches away, separated by gender and a woven armrest. And then as suddenly as it started, the man stops praying and resumes his statuesque posture. The woman continues as if nothing happened.
At the next stop, I see the younger woman with a headscarf who glances at the numbers above our seats as she hefts her silver bullet roller bag into the overhead rack. Seat 54 is marked on her ticket. It's the middle seat, next to mine. The one under which a lady in red jammed a black zippered duffel bag, too large for the cavity. She motions to the rest of us—her cabin mates—asking who the bag belongs to. A teenage girl with uncovered curly black hair and high heels explains in Darija that the bag belongs to a lady who is no longer in the cabin. The new woman struggles to push the protruding bag more fully under the seat, then gives up and solemnly sits askew for the next 2.5 hours without complaint.
I almost offer to wrest the bag free and stash it in the luggage compartment above, but the silence of my cabin mates, coupled with my whiteness and inability to speak either French or Darija keep me quiet.
And so I turn my attention back to the window, to the groves of olive trees and peach stucco buildings outside the glass. To the many towns I won't have time to visit. And to my watercolors, and the art I am making while the man in the blue scarf and brown striped tie pretends not to watch me.