It is no secret that the Vietnamese favor their own people, and rightly so. I would equally favor an American, but when it turns into a Robin Hood act, taking from tourists and giving to the Vietnamese, it becomes a problem. A few days ago I was riding in a tour van packed with 20 tourists, luggage and all. There was not much space, and the four hour ride was going to be less than jovial. A few miles down the road the driver pulled over to pick up a few local women hitching a ride; only one problem, there were no seats left. The tour guide asked three of the tourists the get out of the van, giving their seats to the Vietnamese women and assigning the tourists to the portable fold down seats in the aisle.
If you want to pick up hitchers with your full tour van, whatever. I know this would never fly in a Western country, but being it was Vietnam I could let it slide. Forcing tourists who had paid anywhere from $60-80 for the tour to give up their seats to freeloaders? Unacceptable. I don’t care which country you’re from—Eastern and Western alike, that is just bad customer service.
To make things more exciting, the ladies chattered on their cell phones the whole drive and had an especially loud conversation with each other when the tour guide was trying to explain the day’s itinerary to us. After the four hour journey, we were an annoyed bunch. This, however, would not be my only aggravating bus adventure.
The bus anger was left to brew in my mind for a few days, coincidently perfectly preparing me for a scrimmage with an evil bus driver the following week. I had booked a sleeper bus to the north of Vietnam . It was a bunk bed set up with overly reclined bus seats and I happened to have prime pick of the territory, being one of the first people on the bus. Remembering advice from my travel mates, always sleep on the bottom, I settled on a nice bottom bunk in the middle of the bus. As I approached the seat the bus driver ran at me pointing to the top seat saying I must sit there. I refused, inching closer to my beloved bottom bunk. A British girl next to me—also headed toward a bottom bunk—exclaimed, “why do you always make us ride on the top when the Vietnamese get the better bottom seats? Tell me! Why can’t I sleep on the bottom?”
This tipped the driver off. He turned into something resembling an angry monkey, howling and flailing his arms, all the while ignoring the British girl’s inquiry and yelling at us to take the top seats. This was my breaking point. I had dealt with enough rude people in this country and wasn’t about to tolerate one more.
“Ever hear of someone named Rosa Parks?” I asked. He stared, confused. “Didn’t think so. Well I’m about to rock your world.”
I turned to my bottom seat and plopped down. The driver grabbed my arm threatening to yank me from my seat, and I screamed in protest, “I can guarantee you I paid more money for this bus ride than any Vietnamese person, and I will sit wherever I damn well please.” I shoved my ticket in his face exclaiming, “show me where it says the seat number! Nowhere! You can’t tell me where to sit, then.”
Needless to say, he relinquished. This was the first time I had succeeded in a long list of struggles with the locals and it felt good.
As I nervously waited for some kind of a response, I looked around only to notice I was the last passenger left on the ship. Evidently, I had miscalculated the time difference which lead to our hour early arrival, and I had completely missed the loudspeaker announcements requesting passengers to get their passports stamped. I was batting a thousand.
In my anxious state, I looked out the deck window and saw that the port was nothing but a huge pile of rocks with concrete barracks and a line of semi trucks. Welcome to Africa.
The attendant finally arrived with my passport and I was soon on my adventure. From the pile of rocks port (if you can even call that a port) everyone boarded a single bus waiting past the customs booth. I knew I had to get a taxi to the train station in Tangier, but had no idea how to go about doing that, or even where Tangier was, as I seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I started asking around and the general consensus seemed to be that I needed to deboard the current bus, and get on a new bus headed to the train station that would come in an hour…or maybe two hours, to a bus stop no one could really give me directions to. Not convincing. Alone in Africa, I was not about to wait at the sketchy pile of rocks port for some phantom bus that may or may not come. I stayed on my current bus, and eventually ended up at the official port building where I caught a bus to the Tangier center. During the bus ride, I stared out the window at the green landscape and painted concrete houses, completly enamored with Morocco. When I was finally dropped off in Tangier, a nice Moroccan/French man accompanied me to the bus station and helped me find the bus to Fes. At that moment, I got a huge whiff of Moroccan culture. The bus station was a complete zoo with street vendors following me, travelers carrying heaping bags of goods, busses pulling in and out, and drivers and pedestrians alike shouting their city of destination to sell tickets. I felt like I was surrounded by the Do-Do Birds in the movie, Ice Age screaming “Fes, Fes, Fes.”I had been warned about the Moroccan bus system by both travelers and guide books. Apparently there are direct busses and local busses. Both go to the same place but one stops for every person, donkey, camel, etc. along the road and can take up to three times as long as the direct bus. The advice I received was to avoid the possiblitly of ending up on a local bus, and just take the train. Now I was in a tight spot with my new Moroccan/French friend on one side, and a bus driver shoving a ticket into my hand on the other side. There was no turning back now. I asked how long the bus would take and the driver responded, “seven hours.” I must have looked dissatisfied because he instantly correct himself with an optimistic, “uh, I mean five hours!” I accepted the ticket, boarded the bus and hoped for the best. As the bus pulled away I noticed a Moroccan woman in her fourties staring at me. I smiled. She continued to stare, so I waved at her, and she gestured for me to come sit next to her. Considering I was the only white person on the bus and everyone had had their fair share of staring at me by this point, I decided to take her up on the offer. Maybe it would deter attention from me, and it would be a good chance to learn about the culture. I scooted into the vacant seat and she quickly struck up a conversation in Arabic with me. When I proved unrespondant, the man sitting across the isle started a French conversation with me. Feeling like a complete idiot for not understanding either language, I nodded and pretended to somewhat comprehend what he was saying. Probably not a good idea, as this encouraged him to continue talking to me throughout the six hour bus ride. I eventually gave up and made the “I don’t know” gesture to everything he said. By the end of the bus ride I had my new Moroccan friends email and phone number, and he insisted that I call him the next day so we could meet up and he could show me around. Considering I don’t speak French and he doesn’t speak English and we could barely communicate face to face, I decided against the phone call (although I’m sure it would have been really interesting). Disembarking from the bus was my moment of truth. After making several stops and passing some pretty dodgy cities, I was almost positive that my luggage was stolen. I imagined that a bright blue backpack with a United Kingdom flag would be a prime target. Before the trip, I had fully prepared myself for the possibility of getting robbed in Morocco, and was now accepting of the chance, except for the fact that I had left my airline tickets in my backpack. I realized this half way through the journey and replayed scenario after scenario in my mind of what I would do if my backpack was indeed missing. Lucky for me, my bright blue travel buddy was right where I had left him. I was ecstatic, and definitely learned my lesson about what to leave in the backpack. After a full day of traveling, foreign conversations, getting yelled at, stared at and almost robbed, I arrived in Fes exhausted and speechless. I booked it to the hostle, and once inside the doors, a wave of relief came over me. I had no idea what to expect from Morocco or Africa, and so far it had been exhilirating, shocking and tiring. This would later on prove to be a daily cycle. Hello, Africa.