Just like This Train

One of my favourite ways to travel is by train. You can quietly enjoy the scenery or read a book, and unlike air travel you always have the option of getting up and stretching your legs, eating a meal and using the toilet if necessary. The rhythmic sound of the wheels clickety-clacking over the rails is soothing, and the gentle swaying of the cars evokes the visceral memory of being rocked to sleep. The trains in Europe are particularly excellent because they are punctual, widespread, and frequent. You don’t have to worry if you miss your train because there will inevitably be another one in an hour or so.

Douglas and I took many trains when we were gadding about in the 80’s. We got around almost exclusively by rail during our month in Morocco, only once renting a car to get us over the Atlas Mountains and into the tall dunes of the Sahara Desert. These train trips were all uneventful except for one in which we witnessed some really horrible violence. This was the second instance of casual brutality we saw while travelling in Morocco – a country which seems to be a peaceful place governed by the rule of law, but which actually harbours and condones a lot of anger and aggression just beneath the surface.

The first such example took place during our week in Marrakesh. There was a small outdoor café across the square from our hotel which we patronized in the mornings for café au lait and pain au chocolat – delicious holdovers from Morocco’s 44 years as a French colony. The proprietor seemed a pleasant chap, always welcoming us with a big smile and a bow. There are poor children all over Morocco who regularly ask for money from tourists, and one little boy begged from Douglas and I the first three mornings we ate at the café. Every time he approached with his hands out, the café’s owner would come streaking outside and flap his hands at the boy while shouting “Imshi, imshi!” (Arabic for “go away”). He’d then apologize to us in broken French for the inconvenience, and we’d continue with our meal.

The same pattern played out on the fourth day, except this time the man came storming out carrying a kettle of boiling water. He strode purposefully over to the boy and instead of simply shooing him away began pouring the steaming hot liquid over his head. The poor little tyke recoiled and ran away screaming in pain while the café owner beamed at the other Moroccans in the square who responded with laughter and applause. It was as though they had just seen a good show rather than an inhumane and unwarranted assault on a needy child. We patronized a different café for the rest of our stay in Marrakesh.

We saw another vicious attack in Morocco when we took a train from Rabat to Tangier. No sooner had we settled into our compartment than a Moroccan family entered. The two children immediately sat down on the bench opposite ours while their parents arranged their luggage on the overhead rack. We exchanged smiles and nods as we settled in and prepared to spend the next 90 minutes sitting across from one another in awkward silence.

The train pulled out of the station and as soon as it had settled into a steady rhythm the mother brought down a basket from the overhead shelf. She pulled off the heavy towel covering the top, releasing a disgusting smell reminiscent of overripe cheese and rotten fish – an odour so disgusting and noxious that Douglas and I immediately exchanged silent looks of alarm as if to say, “We have to put up with this for the next hour and a half?!” I think the father mistook our expressions for ones of appreciation and desire because he immediately made a loud clucking noise with his tongue to catch our attention. He pulled back his jacket to reveal a gun nestled in the waistband of his pants, wordlessly warning us to keep our hands off their food. No problem there!

The family had just begun to chow down on their foul lunch when a commotion broke out in the passageway. There was a lot of yelling and a chase, followed by someone being tackled to the ground. We heard a protesting man being forcibly dragged past our door and then thrown by his seemingly furious captors into a compartment further along the way. Douglas and I immediately left the cabin to see what was happening, and the Moroccan father followed. There were other passengers coming from the opposite direction and we all converged in front of the compartment where the fleeing man had been corralled.

Someone slid the door open to reveal a struggling man being held by two railroad employees while a third repeatedly hit him with what looked like a bicycle chain. The poor victim cried out in pain as the man doing the whipping repeated the same Arabic phrase with every blow. Whatever he said clearly satisfied all of the Moroccans around us that the man deserved what he was getting. They nodded and smiled at each other as they departed, one of them quietly sliding the door shut so as not to disturb the horrible proceedings within. The Moroccan father explained the situation to us in halting French when we got back to our compartment – the man being flayed didn’t have a ticket and the porters were simply teaching him a lesson. He then said the same thing to his family in Arabic and they all bobbed their heads in comprehension and acceptance, as though this sort of violence were an everyday occurrence. They promptly resumed eating their rancid meal, seemingly oblivious to the cries of the unfortunate man being savagely beaten a mere two compartments away. Clearly Douglas and I were the only ones who felt that the punishment did not fit the crime.

Tumultuous rail travel is not unique to Morocco, a fact Douglas and I had discovered several years earlier when we took an overnight train from Thessaloniki, Greece to Istanbul, Turkey. Hostility between these two countries has existed since the 14th century when Greece was conquered by the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey). The Turks maintained control until 1830 when the Greeks finally won their independence. There have been several short wars between the two countries in the interim, with atrocities being reported on both sides.

The train in Thessaloniki was very dirty and smelled horrible because the toilet at the end of our car was already overflowing when we boarded. Once again we were sharing our cabin with some locals, this time three Greek adults – two men and a woman. We all nodded and smiled at one another and then snuggled in as best we could for the ten hour trip ahead of us. Everyone was quiet and dozing some hours later when suddenly the train came to a squealing stop, jolting us fully awake in the most startling way imaginable. Douglas and I shot to the window to see what was happening and saw several workmen disconnect our car from the bulk of the train. The whistle blasted as the engine re-engaged, pulling away the several cars in front of us as ours and the two behind us were left stranded in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night.

We must have looked really alarmed because the Greek people in our compartment started making calming motions with their hands and speaking in soothing tones to indicate that everything was okay. Douglas said that we must be at the border so perhaps a Turkish engine was coming to take us the rest of the way to Istanbul. No sooner were these words out of his mouth than a covered army truck pulled up alongside the train and about ten soldiers toting machine guns spilled out of the back. Their commanding officer stepped down from the passenger side of the cab and gave his orders. The men immediately split into three groups, one for each of the remaining cars, and headed towards us.

The Turkish soldiers who boarded our car seemed to purposely make as much noise as possible to intimidate the passengers. They trod heavily on the floor, slammed doors and shrieked instructions as they proceeded down the car. Our Greek travelling companions brought down and opened their luggage and got out their passports, so we followed suit. We endured several tense minutes waiting for the soldiers to make their way to our compartment, but soon enough they arrived and threw open the sliding door with a resounding BANG.

One soldier yelled for us to hand over our identification, impatiently snapping his fingers and pointing at our passports, while the other two began going through our belongings. The soldier looking through Douglas’s and my stuff just gave it a cursory once-over and then indicated we should close our bags and put them back on the overhead rack. He then joined his colleague who was gleefully handling the Greek travellers’ luggage with wild abandon, callously flinging out all their possessions and roughly searching their now empty bags for hidden compartments and contraband. When they were done the soldiers carelessly threw the suitcases on top of the messy pile of clothing they had just created, stomped noisily out of our compartment and moved on to their next unlucky victims. The Greek passengers then began the tedious task of sorting and folding their clothes and repacking their bags. When they had settled once again on the bench opposite ours, Douglas and I shrugged our shoulders at them with quizzical looks on our faces as if to say, “What the hell just happened?” They shrugged their shoulders back at us with resigned expressions, silently replying, “What are you gonna do?” A little while later a new engine arrived and pulled us into Istanbul without further delays. I would venture to guess that Greek soldiers treat Turkish train passengers with similar aggression and disregard when they come across the border.

After Turkey we travelled to Yugoslavia to meet up with my friend Vera, a first generation Canadian with lots of relatives in what is now Serbia. Her Baba (grandmother) had invited us to stay at her home and we brought her a large bag of delicious pistachios from Turkey as a token of our appreciation. Vera’s aunt told us that we shouldn’t mention where the nuts came from because Serbians detest the Turks. It turns out that the Ottomans had treated Yugoslavians just as badly as they had treated the Greeks. Turkey is surrounded by countries that hate them because of the brutality demonstrated by their forbears. Some wounds never heal, or perhaps are not allowed to.

I once took another train trip which could easily have become just as unpleasant as the ones described above were it not for my cousin Greg. He and I had booked two beds on an overnight train from Lisbon to Paris. Train compartments usually contain four beds, meaning we would be spending the night with the two strangers who had booked in to sleep opposite us. Luckily we arrived first and were able to claim the forward facing bunks – had I been forced to travel backwards I would assuredly would have suffered from motion sickness. We stowed our luggage and were about to get something to eat when our roommates arrived. They turned out to be a very friendly pair of Kiwi men who were riding their bikes around Europe. We sat down across from them and had a short introductory conversation during which they both took off their shoes. Oh my but their feet stank! Greg and I quickly excused ourselves, claiming that we needed to get to the club car before it closed but really just needing to escape from the reek. As we were leaving Greg turned back and said in a quiet, menacing voice, “I don’t know whose feet smell so bad, but if that hasn’t been taken care of by the time I get back, we’re going to have a problem.” Low and behold the compartment smelled fresh as a daisy when we returned. Greg follows the example set by his dad, my Uncle Bill, and consistently stands up for his rights and those of the ones he loves. Thank goodness for that otherwise I would have spent the night fermenting in fetid foot fumes.

Other than these few examples, I have always found train travel extremely pleasant. Most recently I took a lovely round-trip by rail from York to Edinburgh, passing through vivid green fields, herds of well-fed cows, quaint villages, and rustic countryside. Someday I hope to take the glass-domed train through the Rockies and a day-trip to immerse myself in the Ontario’s beautiful fall foliage. Train tracks often traverse vistas which cannot be seen from the road, and not having to concentrate on driving affords one the opportunity to take in the forest as well as the trees. All aboard!

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