Tag Archives: trains

Coasting in Essaouira, getting lost in Meknes

I stayed three nights in the port city along the Atlantic Coast, Essaouira (pronounced esa-wera). Alyssa and Andy left for Marrakech (then on to Italy) after two but I wanted to soak up a little more sun in this lovely little town. We spent our time walking the beach, eating kebabs, wandering around the markets and sitting on our hotel’s rooftop terrace soaking in the view. On the third day, after parting with my travel companions (who are greatly missed already!), I finally had grilled calamari to satisfy my seafood craving.

Afterwords I took a final stroll along the beach, where I used the “f” word for the first time while traveling. I felt a little hesistant to use it but as a solo female traveler I felt like I had no other choice. A young man fell into stride with me and after a few minutes, when it was obvious when I wasn’t going to shake him with my usual tactics, I resorted to using the word: “You know,” I said, “my fiancee would be very jealous if he knew I was talking to you.” Doubtful that this blatant lie would actually work, I was astonished to watch him peel off faster than he had approached! It was like I had discovered a secret word that enabled some sort of forcefield around me. I was untouchable. Just to check its efficacy in a new city, I used this “f” word on another young gentleman who took a liking to me today as I wandered through the fruit and spices market in Meknes. As soon as I uttered the word, he nodded and fell back, wishing me a good day. Brilliant.

Yesterday morning I left Essaouira for Marrakech, where I was catching a train up to Meknes (one of the three imperial cities of Morocco, located near the Middle Atlas mountains). The bus broke down halfway to Marrakech so we had to swap buses, making us about an hour late. I still had about an hour before my train departed for Marrakech, so I decided to brave the public transportation to visit the famous Koutoubia Mosque. I had a lot of locals helping me along the way and I made it there and back on the bus with 10 minutes to spare! The one take-away from this quick excursion is that I could use some basic French lessons to get around the next time I’m in a French-speaking country. C’est la vie.

The train ride to Meknes (about 7 hours) went smoothly until a bunch of screaming children got on my car about halfway through the ride. Then about two hours from Meknes I was awakened by two train stewards who were urgently speaking in French to me. When it was obvious I wasn’t understanding their instructions, they said “change, change” over and over. My heart fell because I thought they were telling me that I had to transfer trains at the next stop and it was already very late. Instead, they told me to gather my things and explained that since I was “alone” I was being moved to first class – what luck! The difference between first and second class was quite remarkable…I hope to stumble upon the same fortune on my return trip.

Today I have been exploring Meknes slowly. Every time  I try to follow Lonely Planet’s walking tour through the souks (markets) and around the medina (the walls of the old city) I get lost. Perhaps it is time to venture out again and continue on my way. At least I have the “f” card in my back pocket now.



Tracks across the Midwest

Ever since I started looking for work in Detroit, I’ve alternated my means of travel to and from the city between the train and the bus. Whether I book my tickets with Amtrak or Megabus depends on several factors, including ticket prices, the weather, the length of layovers in Chicago (because unfortunately neither company offers nonstop service between Milwaukee and Detroit), and scheduled arrivals and departures, which must coincide with the availability of those taking me to and from the stations. If I didn’t have to take into account all of these factors in my decision to ride the train or bus to Detroit, it would be the locomotive every time. Hands down.

I was first introduced to trains when I was studying abroad in Spain and since then I’ve been a rail enthusiast. It all started with an overnight train from Madrid to Paris. Pulling into the Gare du Nord in the early morning hours—bleary-eyed and achy from a second-class good night sleep—I was hooked. Since then I’ve relied on trains to tour Scandinavia, reach postcard-worthy beaches along Thailand’s peninsula, and cross the great geographical expanse of the United States between Los Angeles and Milwaukee. For me there is no better way to see countryside, enter a metropolis, or most accurately experience the local vibe of a region. Trains also afford a more comfortable ride than buses with bigger seats, ample space for luggage, and a snack car! One trade-off? Time. As it turns out, riding from Milwaukee to Detroit by train or bus should be about the same time, and in practice, I have found that the Megabus more often makes its arrival times than the train. Another trade-off to a more comfortable ride is cost. However, when demand for the Megabus is high, prices for the train and bus are about equal.

As you may imagine, I was thoroughly disheartened at the loss of federal funding for a new train route in Wisconsin between Milwaukee and Madison. This line was a step towards an eventual link between Chicago and Minneapolis, and a step in the right direction to provide Midwesterners with more public transportation options. Opponents of the federal rail funds argued that it was a bad deal for taxpayers, that it wouldn’t be sustainable, and that the current Badger Bus already provides such a public transportation service. Now I’m not above riding buses; anyone who knows me also knows I’ve spent my fair share of time on buses (and after traveling Southeast Asia primarily by bus, a seven and a half hour trip between Milwaukee and Detroit, with a comfortable layover, is a breeze—trust me). But given the option, I will always opt for the train. I don’t think there is anything wrong with providing public transportation-goers with options. In fact, I think it is a state’s responsibility to provide its citizens with a variety of choice when it comes to transportation. The Midwest is a long way from an environment in which living car-light or car-free is a viable option, but beginning to build up the railways infrastructure is a necessary step in creating such an environment.

Yesterday’s train ride east across Southern Michigan was beautiful. For the first five and a half hours at least. It had been snowing steadily since I boarded in Chicago and there was a light dusting across the landscape. It wasn’t until a combination of inspections, traffic interferences, and poor weather conditions, putting us nearly two hours behind our scheduled arrival, did I consider re-evaluating my love affair with trains.

So will I be booking my next trip by train? You bet.

Koh Pha Ngan and Chiang Mai

One thing is certain-this trip has already provided me with a very thorough introduction to the Thai railway system. In the past week we’ve taken three overnight train rides down south to an island and up to Chiang Mai, totaling around 42 hours on the tracks. I’ve concluded that riding third class has been both the highlight and lowlight of my traveling experiences thus far in Thailand. First class sleepers and second class reclining chairs are where most tourists (and wealthier families) are found. Third class is perhaps the most Thai experience, where food vendors march the aisles at all hours selling fried chicken, sticky rice, dried fish, cold drinks, and other favorites. Parents give up their bench seats so their children can stretch out and sleep through the night. And the trains come to screeching halts frequently enough at stations along the way to gather a solid impression of them, complete with schedules sketched out on white boards and endless lines of snack vendors. Third class is where a young boy, maybe old enough to be one of my first grade students, fell asleep on my lap. It’s where locals curiously glance over their shoulders to get a better view of the foreigner who wandered into their car. However, third class is also where a little girl threw up on her grandma’s suitcase right next to me and a puppy (yes they are allowed on the train) went tinkle underneath my seat. Luckily there was some remaining newspaper on the floor from a passenger’s makeshift bed the night before so both messes were cleaned up promptly.

Our time in Koh Pha Ngan was lovely, lounging on the beach, eating crepes, and swimming. I also entered into a fire limbo contest one night and won a beer! My friends say my yoga is finally starting to pay off.

We have one more day in Chiang Mai and then we’re off to Sukhothai, which was the first kingdom in Thailand. Tonight we are going on a twilight safari at the zoo which is supposed to be very good. I hope to update a bit more along the way but the room I’m in is getting too hot to continue writing now. Cheers!

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