All the trains look the same to me. They always have. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Asia, or back home, or anywhere at all, being at the station is equivalent to entering the void, and that causes exhaustive levels of stress bombarding my nervous system. The cause of my death would be either too much excitement or too much stress, both reasons being essentially the same in the end.
African stations and railways are not any different from the others elsewhere in Europe, for example, only it’s hotter, more crowded, and people dress in more colours here. Besides that, I’m still nervously checking the timetables and the numbers of the cars, keeping my fingers crossed I wouldn’t get on the wrong train.
I did get on the wrong train.
I got on the wrong train to Fes and realized it two hours after we’d set off. I must have taken someone’s seat when I got on initially and now that the real owner of the space is here, we are both frowning at my ticket that said Sidi Ifni. The man’s polite enough to sit somewhere else just not to disrupt my comfort while I remain sitting in the corner as he proceeds to an empty seat.
I have no idea, at least I didn’t have back then where Sidi Ifni is, or how far I am from the place I’m supposed to be. Either way, it’s too late for panic and there are at least a few more hours before it gets completely dark. I can get off at the next station. There is always the next station.
My phone’s dead, I have no power bank on me and the only thing I can distract myself with is writing the article I was supposed to hand over this morning. I go through the little I have on me and find a notebook and a pen. Those should do because I won’t put down much anyway. One of the essential differences between the writers who travel a lot and write about it and me is that I can’t write when I travel.
The scent of orange peels fills the stifling air and I close my eyes in a futile attempt to evoke something out of it. Oranges are cool, right? According to a study, orange has “one of the strongest measurable physical effects of any colour”. We can’t ignore it. It explains why people have such marked reactions to it. That’s the colour of the Svadhisthana. The opening of the chakra will “free fertility and inherent creativity.” I know this because I know all kinds of useless stuff.
There are oranges everywhere in Morocco, growing in the parks, on the streets, and ten-year-old boys sell them on the market in piles for change.
Should I write something about the kids who write their homework on scraps of paper, the way I’m doing now, yet not really, because they’re sitting cross-legged on the muddy market street next to their mother, who sells those oranges, and I’m trying to be original? Or no, that’s not something the readers of the journal would want to hear about.
“Our customers like travel stories, something they want to experience themselves. This is how you advertise a destination.”
I blink back against the headache, threatening to split my head into two and try again. My sheet of paper is so empty it makes the headache worse. I begin scribbling a description of the markets, that buzzing combination of spices, cloth and incense sticks. Then the image of the smells, the stray cats and dogs, the kids who work since they were six flood my head and I stop there. One of the passengers is watching football on his phone, the same goes for the one next to him, the young man behind him too.
Football, because football is life here and there’s a game tonight. The common thing between the boys I saw in the Marrakesh medina, the narrow streets of Yousoffia or on the Casablanca beach is exactly that— football. The kids everywhere greet you with “I’m Ronaldo, and he’s Mbappé,” smiling toothless smiles as they pull their younger brother in a tight hug, the rest of the boys still fighting for the ball since they haven’t gathered enough courage to come to meet you yet and give you the promise they’ll play for Madrid one day.
Their gestures are of grown-ups. I’d later wonder if it was because they wanted to copy the way grown-ups acted, or they had to turn into adults earlier. When I asked my students what they wanted to be they said “famous”. Wanting to be a hard-working, successful athlete in Morocco is the equivalent of wanting to be instantly famous for nothing on Tik-Tok in some places. The older man to my left is uttering a silent prayer and my pen tapping picks up the rhythm of the sacred words. The sun casts orange shades on the white sheets of the notebook, then the light travels down the seat, then back up to the hands of the women to my right. Their hands are covered in henna and I wonder how far up their skin the intricate drawing goes. The hair remains hidden under the hijab, but their smiles are wide and warm when I catch myself impolitely staring and then apologizing. But they greet me and offer to make henna for me if I like it. A phone rings and a young man picks it up.
I make out some of the words:
Yes, please don’t worry.
Say hi to bibi.
He promises to call when he gets there.
They call him two more times after he hangs up the first time. When I was a student in India I had a colleague from Sudan who said she’d never been in a room all by herself for more than ten hours before. I found that difficult to believe and improbable back then. I don’t think so now.
Family here is a connection, one that doesn’t break over time or distance. Family is respect, and regardless of how many times this young man I’m on the train with has left home before, he’d still call his mother every time he arrives.
I make the peculiar connection between the amber-lit road ahead, the train and travelling a foreign land, showered in sunsets, while I haven’t heard of your parents in weeks and the people here. The man says “Thank you for seeing me off,” then adds something uncomprehensive to me and hangs up. I went to the station by myself, the way I always do.
At the age of thirteen, I began attending boarding school, and I always took the train by myself, because being close to your parents or them seeing you off when you were a teenager counted as lame. The young man says goodbye and I decide to call my mother as soon as I have access to my phone.
We nod to each other and he remarks on the fact I’ve crossed out everything I’ve written so far. I am not sure what language he speaks best, so I try French. He speaks Arabic, French and English. He speaks better than most people I know whose parents have spent thousands on private lessons and they can still only read the big street signs and chit-chat with the waiters, trying to sound smart, witty and oh-so original. He asks what I’m doing in Ourika, because nobody goes there, and I admit to my mistake. I was supposed to be in Fes and all that.
Yusuf says works there, but now he’s visiting a friend in the south. I chat him up about what he does in Fes. His eyes land on the hands, clasped in front of him and I follow the gaze.
“I work in the tanneries, where the animal hides are tanned.”
“Oh, I see.”
I don’t ask for further details and he doesn’t offer more. But the little he shared explains why his fingers look that way. They’ve soaked the colour of the burnt-orange dye he dips his hands into every day.
“You can’t wash it off,” he says, surprising me he wants to pursue the conversation and then points to where the ink of my pen has left indigo droplets on my fingertips.
“I always do that,” I grunt my irritation as I try to scrub the sticky wetness. “Always.”
“Whatever you do, it leaves its mark on.”
Yusuf shrugs. “Of course, you won’t take it off. Although it’s not a bad colour. I’d rather have my hands covered in this than with something I'm ashamed of.”
He then lifts his hands, palms up, “I’m not ashamed of this.”
One of the men sitting to the front gets up and passes by sharing dates. Yusuf and he exchange a few words in Arabic and the man continues down the aisle to share more of his dates with the passengers. The football game goes on and the winning team scores again. Most of the passengers jump, greeting each other.
“Did you play when you were a child?”
The excitement with the score getting even to me, probably.
It’s one of those stories we’ve all heard of a million times, but we still consider fiction, or rather— a statistic. He’s quit school so that he can work and support his family.
“It happens to many families. Everywhere”, Yusuf says. “I’m sure you know many other people with a similar fate.”
“It’s only special because it’s mine. Other than that, it’s just… well, life. ”
Then something must have clouded my face because he sits straighter and shifts closer.
“Please don’t write one of those stories with a sad end. Don’t remember this as something sad. Most of us have to take care of our families, it’s the most important thing. And if they’re happy, I am as well.”
I’m suddenly washed all over by that weight, that feeling you get in your stomach that very much resembles pain, but it’s often confused with excitement. It’s that orange chakra from earlier, maybe- the one that reminds us that part of us must die to create space for something new. Perhaps it’s a new dream, perhaps it’s a new understanding of dreams.
He’s watching me, expecting.
I mutter the silent agreement.
We exchange a few more words and he says I should get back to work. The sun has sunk behind the horizon and the orange has been eaten up by the darker colour. I look up from the sheet of paper and notice the train is slowing down. We’ve arrived. Somewhere - it could be anywhere - but we’ve arrived.
I’ve also written the story.
Eve Dineva is a bilingual author of short stories and novels from Bulgaria. She’s the winner of a number of contemporary fiction contests, held in her country, and poems of hers appear in The Trouvaille Review, Zoetic, FEED, Ethel, Indian Ruminations and others. She is nominated for this year’s Best Emerging Fiction Writer, Ukiyoto Publishing.