Friday, October 17, 2008

How Far Would You Travel for a Shower?

Since I’ve been here we’ve done laundry at Fatima’s house about once a week. We do it there not only because the washing machine at my house is broken (and from what I can tell, it’s much smaller and simpler, too) but also because Mahmoud, Fatima’s husband who is referred to by everyone as “si Mahmoud” (mister Mahmoud), works for the utilities company (Redal), and that means they don’t have to pay for electricity and hot water. As Alma explained it, Fatima’s house is the land of electric plenty: “charge your computer, charge your phone, dry your hair and leave all the lights on, ma kain moushkil (no problem)!”

We also come here to take showers. I have generally been able to do this about twice a week since I’ve been here – which is not quite as often as I would like, and this I think is the one thing I really wish were different. The bathroom at my house, as I’ve mentioned before, can hardly be called that – mostly, it’s a toilet with a small sink and an additional faucet in the wall, both of which provide cold water only. I wash myself there as best I can every morning, but it’s no shower. The members of my host family seem to be used to this; they say they usually go to the hammam about once a week (but while I’ve been here it’s been much more erratic – I think Ramadan and post-Ramadan fasting has thrown off the schedule), or they shower at Fatima’s house. And then they’re fine for a while. Their hair looks a little less shiny every day, but the day after their hammam day, after the curls from the hair salon have faded, they usually tie it back into a simple ponytail anyway and wear it like that for the rest of the week. I don’t even really see them brushing their teeth on a daily basis.* But I really miss a warm shower every morning; it’s my way of waking up and getting mentally ready for the rest of the day. In lieu of a shower to do this, I have taken what I could get: I have started brushing my teeth a lot. A lot.

Two days ago, on Wednesday, it had been nearly a week since I had last been able to really shower when Alma told me she had had Zakaria fix the hot water situation at our house. Apparently the mechanism had simply been broken. So now I could “take a bath” at home, she said. This turned out to be a hammam-style bath session: she brought in a little stool for me to sit on, a big bucket that she filled with hot water, and two smaller bowls to pour water with. And so I spent about an hour on Wednesday morning washing my hair and seriously scrubbing myself in that little bathroom. The next morning I checked to see if the hot water was still there – because if so, ma kain moushkil, I can wash my hair a few times a week – but it seems to be gone again. I think it has to be turned on whenever someone wants to bathe, so it still may not be as simple to wash my hair as I would like – though it’s worth asking them again in two days or so if I can have another little hammam session.

Also, Alma has promised to take me to the actual hammam one of these days, when she’s done fasting. But for now, I’m good – I met Alma at Fatima’s house last night to do laundry, and got to take another shower: the second in two days!

Usually when we go to Fatima’s house si Mahmoud drives us all across the river to Salé. But for some reason he can temporarily not use his car – if I understood correctly, it has been confiscated because he needs to pay a small fine, but I am not sure about this. So Alma arranged with Zakaria to pick me up at home yesterday, after my classes, and take me to Salé. It turned out to be quite the trip. Salé really does lie just across the river, and a drive over there usually takes about 15 minutes (unless you get stuck in the morning traffic, which is insane – but more about that later), but yesterday, it took us two separate cabs and way more than an hour.

The thing is that city cabs don’t go to Salé. If you want to go beyond city limits, you need a ‘grand taxi’. The city cabs are called ‘petit taxi’, or ‘taxi sghir’ (the French or Arabic terms are used interchangeably). They are always Fiat Unos or Fiat Puntos, so very small (my big black bag hardly fit into the backseat, let alone into the nonexistent trunk), and they are color coded by city. The ones in Fes and Casablanca are red, in Marrakech and Salé they are tan, and in Rabat they are blue. A ‘grand taxi’, or ‘taxi kbir’, is bigger; it’s always a Mercedes, about the size of a Lincoln town car, and they are meant for longer distances – to go from Rabat to Salé, for instance, or from Tangier to Tetouan. These taxis are used a lot because they go everywhere, and are in that sense very convenient if you want to go to a small town that doesn’t have a train station.** Each grand taxi has six available seats: four in the back, and two in the front passenger seat. The taxi will only go if all six seats are hired. This means that you have two choices: either you and/or the taxi driver find five other people going in your direction, or you pay for all six seats yourself.*** So last night, after we had taken a cab to Bab Chellah (an entrance to the medina), where there is a grand taxi stand, we got in line (very uncharacteristic for Morocco – people waiting in line for something!) and started negotiating with the people around us. The four people in front were all going to Marjane, the big shopping center just outside of town, and so we hitched a ride with them. The other four piled into the back seat; Zakaria and I went in front. With Zakaria in the middle, as he very subtly insisted on – the taxi driver was very pious-looking (a beard, no mustache, a long caftan) and so probably couldn’t sit next to a woman. Because you don’t get much personal space in these cars.

So there we were, stuck in traffic with seven people in this car and no seat belts. Because Moroccans never use seat belts – si Mahmoud lets his 10-year old son ride in the front seat, and there is never any mention of a seat belt. And people do not drive carefully. Traffic really is insane, here. People respect the streetlights, but that is about it. Right of way is always taken, and never given; whoever is fastest and most audacious gets to go first. The lines that indicate lanes on the road are really only there as guidelines; in real traffic, there will be roughly four rows of cars on a two-lane road. Everyone cuts in front of everyone else, and people have no issues making left-hand turns from the right lane. There is a lot of honking, and a lot of quick speeding up and then braking to cut in front of someone who is trying to pass you by. I like a driving challenge, but I am not sure I could handle this, and I am usually glad to sit in the back seat.

In any case, we made it into Salé, but because the driver was going to Marjane, he could only take us so far. He dropped us at a big roundabout**** and we walked the rest of the way, with all of my laundry in tow – after making a quick emergency stop at a téléboutique***** to ask si Mahmoud for directions.

When we finally got there, dinner was just about ready, and we both gratefully sat down with some warm milk and Nescafé.

*They also think it is funny when, sometimes late at night, I decline a glass of soda because I’ve already brushed my teeth.
**They are also very cheap; one way from Rabat to Salé is 4 Dirhams. It is also common to take intercity buses, and I am not sure what the price difference is between this and grand taxis. I would say that the advantage of a grand taxi is more flexibility, but unless you take a bus from the national company (CTM), buses don’t seem to stick too closely to any kind of schedule – they stop for anyone on the road, and I think can be stopped by passengers at any time if they need to get off for some reason. This is why these buses always take twice as long to get anywhere as those from CTM.
***In the same way, if you want the front passenger seat for yourself, you can pay for two seats by yourself.
****Roundabouts are very, very common in Morocco. They are called “rompouan,” ‘rondpoint’.
*****This is a little gallery of public phones; even though all Moroccans have cell phones, they use these boutiques a lot and you can find them literally on every street corner. I think a lot of people don’t have many minutes on their phone and use these public phones in stead; it’s probably cheaper.

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