Where’s My Bus?

Morocco is larger than many people imagine.

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It is 172,414 square miles in size, slightly larger than California. Add on Western Sahara – referred to as Moroccan Sahara by Moroccans – and the size increases 63%, becoming slightly larger than Texas. That’s a pretty big area, even if Peace Corps Volunteers were allowed to own and drive cars.

Throughout the year we attend various trainings, go on vacation, and take weekend trips, and some of us have to travel just to get money from the bank. How do we all get around?


Grand Taxis

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Use
Between cities/towns/villages and within bigger cities. Sometimes you can only find taxis for the next city over, but bigger transportation hubs can have taxis that can transport you to a city hours away, like from Meknes to Errachidia, for example, which takes about 5.5 hours.

Price
Set by the government based on the distance, it costs roughly 1 dirham (~$0.10) for every two kilometers.

Type of vehicle
Most are old Mercedes cars but they are slowly being replaced by the Dacia Lodgy to improve air quality.

Composition
In the Mercedes cars, two passengers squeeze next to the driver, four passengers squeeze into the back, and luggage goes in the trunk. In the Lodgies, one passenger sits in the front row of seats with the driver, three people sit in the second row, and two in the last, and luggage goes behind the third row and/or on the roof.

Stops
They are obligated to start at their designated taxi stand and end at another designated taxi stand. The driver can let you off early as long as it is on the designated path. However, you can request to be taken farther than the taxi stand, but you will need to negotiate an additional price.

Schedule
Drivers always wait until the taxi is full before departing, so you may leave immediately if you are the sixth passenger, or you may have to wait a while for it to fill. If you want to leave faster, you can pay for empty seats; for example, you could pay for six seats if you’re the first passenger there in order to leave immediately.

My most recent grand taxi ride: from Errachidia to my city. I was against the door behind the driver. In the back with me were three other men, two older and one university student. Up front were two women with the driver. There’s a cultural rule regarding women in grand taxis: if there is only one woman on the journey, she sits next to any door (normally the front one, in my experience). If there are two women, they sit in the front. Essentially Moroccans limit the amount of men that a female passenger has to sit next to in order to travel. The taxi driver often directs passengers where to sit in accordance with this unofficial policy.


Petit Taxis

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Use
Within cities.

Price
In smaller cities there’s a flat fee. Larger cities’ petit taxis are metered, but always ensure the meter isn’t “broken” like the driver will tell you. Otherwise, negotiate a price before you get in. Passengers can be picked up and dropped off at any time, and as long as the driver is a good person, he will adjust the price you pay accordingly.

Type of vehicle
The make and model vary, but they’re all compacts and each city has a specific color for their petit taxis: Ouarzazate’s are tan, Rabat’s are blue, Meknes’ are red, etc.

Composition
Petit taxis are legally allowed to carry only three passengers at a time, one in the front, two in the back, and luggage in the trunk and/or on the roof.

Stops
Like typical taxis, Moroccan petit taxis will stop wherever you tell the driver, but if a taxi is going one direction with a passenger and you need to go somewhere in the opposite direction, the driver won’t pick you up and you will need to wait for another.

Schedule
Whenever you hail a taxi.

My most recent petit taxi ride: in Rabat, from Peace Corps headquarters to the bus station. I was the first passenger picked up and the driver started the meter. By the time I reached the bus station, it had raked up 22 dirhams (~$2.20), but along the way we had picked up two more people who were going further. I ended up paying about 15 dirhams (~$1.50) for my share after some negotiation with the driver.


Premium Buses (CTM and Supratours)

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Use
Between cities, short- and long-distance.

Price
As you may expect, it depends on your origin and destination. Prices can increase the closer you buy tickets to your departure day, especially during bigger holidays. You can buy tickets far in advance if you so choose, or you can try your luck at buying them the day of your departure. Tickets can be bought online. If you want to “check” your luggage (a.k.a., put it under the bus) it typically costs 5 dirhams for up to two bags.

Stops
Both CTM and Supratours have their own stations or kiosks in the cities in which they stop. Mostly they stop big cities and towns that fall on the road between big cities. There are certain routes that can drop you off in a town that doesn’t have a kiosk, but you cannot embark a CTM or Supratours bus in such towns.

Schedule
Buses will run more often between larger cities. Along less-traveled routes, they may run just once a day. For example, my town sees two CTM buses every day running in opposite directions and two Supratours buses also running in opposite directions.

Notes
CTM and Supratours are known as premium buses because they are always air-conditioned, well-maintained, and often more comfortable than souq buses (see below). Also note that Supratours is a subsidiary of ONCF, the national train system, which will often allow you to purchase longer-distance routes that require both train and bus with little “layover” time.

My last premium bus ride: I had stayed the night in El Hajeb, north of Azrou, but El Hajeb doesn’t have a CTM kiosk, so I had to take a grand taxi to Azrou, then a CTM from Azrou to Errachidia. I bought the CTM ticket a few hours before the departure because buses to Errachidia tend to be rather empty. I checked one bag for 5 dirhams (~$0.50) and had two seats to myself for the entire 5-hour journey.


Souq Buses

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The term “souq bus” is one coined by Peace Corps Volunteers at some point in the past for unknown reasons. It simply refers to any intercity bus that isn’t run by CTM or Supratours.

Use
Between cities.

Price
Again, it depends on your origin and destination, but it is 5-10% cheaper than the premium buses, and you can buy tickets up to a day beforehand or even once you’re on the bus. Luggage normally costs 5 dirham a bag which you pay to the man who loads it for you. He will also monitor the luggage area at stops.

Stops
They stop in approximately the same places as CTM and Supratours, but all of the souq buses stop at city bus stations (known as the gare routiere in French). Nonetheless, you can tell the driver to stop wherever you want him to in the city or town, meaning souq buses take more time to reach their destination than do premium buses.

Schedule
Despite posted schedules at each bus station, the actual buses are usually 15-30 minutes late, and sometimes don’t come at all.

Notes

  1. The quality of souq buses range from as nice as CTM and Supratours (read: with air conditioning and even WiFi, which standard CTM and Supratours buses DON’T have) to dilapidated pieces of mechanical nightmares.
  2. When you walk into the city bus station, a group of men will ask you where you’re going. Tell them; they will lead you to the bus company office within the bus station which has the next scheduled bus to your destination.

My most recent souq bus ride: I was heading to another volunteer’s site nearly two hours away from me, but due to available transportation I was required to take a taxi to a town 30 minutes away and then transfer to a souq bus. This bus was very dilapidated, with foam coming out of the seats and no air flow until someone finally opened one of the top emergency exits. After that, the trip wasn’t so bad and I could listen to my podcasts without sweating too much.


Trains (ONCF)

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Use
Between cities or inside larger cities.

Price
Trains are the most expensive form of travel. The price varies depending on origin and destination, of course. For example, a trip from Marrakesh to Casablanca in 2nd class costs 95 dirhams (~$9.50) while a premium bus is 90 dirhams (~$9.00). This isn’t too bad, but the price difference increases the further you go.

Composition
For 2nd class tickets, some cars have 8-person compartments and the others are open with seats all facing the same direction. (I have never been in 1st class, but I hear they’re nice.)

Stops
Trains only run in the north and west. They go as far as Oujda in the distant northeast, through Fes, Meknes, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh, Tangier, and several smaller cities nearby these metropolises.

Schedule
Once again, this depends on your origin and destination. For routes between the largest cities, you can find trains that depart every hour or so.

My most recent train ride: from Casablanca to Meknes. It took about 4.5 hours due to some unexpected (by me) stops in smaller cities along the way. At first I was standing near one of the doors due to how crowded 2nd class was, but eventually I was able to sit with a family in a compartment.


City Buses & Trams

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Use
Within cities

Price
Every time I’ve used a city bus or tram, the fare is fixed regardless of your destination. Pay for buses when you get on and pay for trams on the platform.

Stops
All fixed just like in the States.

Schedule
Typically you won’t have to wait for more than 20 minutes at the bus stop or tram platform, but this varies from city to city.

My most recent bus ride: from Fes city center to Fes airport. There is a specific bus (#16) that goes from the Fes train station straight to the airport. The fixed fare was only 4 dirham (~$0.40) and the trip took about 45 minutes.

My most recent tram ride: in Rabat from a hotel to downtown. There’s a fixed fare (6 dirhams, ~$0.60) and you MUST validate your ticket once you embark the tram, otherwise the conductor will charge you 50 dirhams (~$5.00). The trip to downtown took only 15 minutes.


Airplanes

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Use
Domestically or internationally.

Price
Like any flight it depends on how far in advance you purchase your ticket and where you’re headed.

Note
Casablanca is the main international airport but there are smaller airports that serve Europe as well as provide domestic flights, such as Agadir, Al Hoceima, Errachidia, Essaouira, Fes, Marrakesh, Nador, Ouarzazate, Oujda, Rabat, Tangier, and Tetouan.

My most recent airplane ride: from Fes to Madrid. I used RyanAir, one of the most popular discount airlines for Europe and the surrounding region. It cost only $100 roundtrip. I took the city bus as described above to get to the Fes airport.


There you have it! All the ways to move around Morocco and get to Europe!

Personally, I choose grand taxis to reach the cities and towns closest to me. I’ll use souq buses if I’m going a little further, but will switch to CTM or Supratours buses if I need to travel more than two hours. I have no access to trains where I live, but I use them if necessary when I reach the west or north. Overall, I prefer the premium buses because Errachidia, the closest big city to me, is a transportation hub and CTM in particular offers direct trips to Ouarzazate, Marrakesh, Meknes, Fes, Rabat, and Casablanca.

This post was adapted from the unofficial Peace Corps Morocco website which I redesigned and currently maintain.

Essaouira, the “Little Rampart”

Essaouira (“es-swera”) is a port city on the Atlantic. Though it was formerly named Mogador, its current name means “little rampart”, referring to the old fortress wall that surrounds the old part of the city.

It is a very touristy place which, if it was like Marrakesh or Fes, would usually mean shop owners would harass passersby to come look in their shop and consider the “very good price” of random items. However, Essaouira is not like Marrakesh or Fes. It has a familiar aura of a beach town in America: people are more relaxed, life moves more slowly, and everyone really seems happier; plus, it’s cooler and breezier than any place inland.

Arguably its best quality – as I observed during my… two days there – is its focus on the arts. Rug makers, musicians, artisans, weavers… it’s known particularly for gnaoua music and has art galleries on virtually every corner.

When I visited Essaouira I brought along my DSLR, as I intend to do the next dozen times I visit, inshallah. These photos are some of my favorites.

Life in Three Bags

Somehow I have to fit my life into three bags. One will be a carry-on during my flights; two will be checked.

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Here’s everything.

Certainly I will buy many things in Morocco, but there are some things money can’t buy. Flags from every country I’ve visited… a pennant from my university… a tiny framed poster of Frodo in The Two Towers. You know, things that money can buy but have certain memories attached to them.

Then there are those things that a lot of my money went into buying. A laptop… a Columbia Omni-Tech coat… a camera. Obviously those have to come with me, too.

And finally there are those things that I could buy in Morocco but may not be of good quality and/or are ridiculously expensive. Bed sheets… soft underwear… hiking boots. I’m bringing those as well.

So how do I go about packing everything?


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Bag 1 (21.5″H x 14″W x 11.5″D)

My carry-on. An Evecase DSLR/Laptop backpack with all sorts of pockets. An inch and a half deeper than what Southwest Airlines allows – and two and a half inches deeper than American Airlines allows??? – but smaller in height and width. (Nobody tell them.) This bag is the only one of the three with expensive valuables, aka…

  1. Laptop
  2. Kindle
  3. iPod
  4. DSLR camera, including lenses, memory cards, and accessories
  5. Audio recording equipment, including microphones and accessories
  6. External hard drives

This bag will essentially be permanently attached to me – thanks to the waist and chest buckles – from Portland to Casablanca. No theft here.


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Disclaimer: picture does not include clothing.

Bag 2 (24″L x 16″W x 8″D)

Checked bag 1/2. The bag that goes with me to training. It’ll include most of my clothes, towel, some toiletries, bed sheets, office supplies, shoes (like my new, unofficially-required Chacos), and a small jar of honey. This last is a gift for my host family.

This bag flies free on Southwest and on American! Cha-ching!


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Disclaimer: picture does not include clothing.

Bag 3 (27″L x 18.5″W x 9.5″D)

Checked bag 2/2. The bag I’m leaving in Peace Corps storage in Rabat (see Bad Dreams), meaning it won’t have anything I will need for the three months of training. Bye bye, hiking boots, kitchen utensils, a couple pots, room decorations, and cleaning supplies. I’ll place some of my more wintry clothing in here because training ends in early December when my bag and I will be reunited.

I’ll keep a second jar of honey in this bag for my second host family in my permanent site.

This bag flies free on Southwest! Hooray! It costs $100 on American. Boo! This ultimately shouldn’t be a problem, however. Simply showing the desk agent some of my PC documentation should waive the fee. If not, PC will reimburse me.


Bonus: personal item

My camera tripod in its carrying case. It’ll probably hang out next to my feet during the flights, but if I can manage to get it in the overhead bins… again, don’t tell my airlines.


Although I have never really had issues with packing for extended international trips, this time is different. It is more difficult knowing that I’m moving to another country rather than visiting. It is more difficult to decide what stays and what goes. It is more difficult having to leave certain things behind, things that I want but don’t need.

It’s gratifying to have trouble fitting my life into three bags. It’s disappointing that I can actually accomplish it.