Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Maybe They'll Go Away

A few weeks ago I was on a bus when a woman tapped me on the shoulder. She pointed at my pack on the seat beside me, asking if she could sit down. I obliged, taking the bag and offering her the seat. She smiled and disappeared. A few moments later she came back with her bags. Her many large bags. Her many large bags filled with toys and clothing and other luggage and lunch and probably dinner for the next three weeks. I counted seven in all. Two were the size of those jumbo plastic bags you get at Toys R Us when you buy a Play Mo-Bil pirate ship and filled to capacity with other bags and boxes.

She started stuffing her bags beneath her seat and overhead, then handed me a Toys R Us bag to keep on my lap. I sat up a bit and looked around the bus. At least a third of the aisles were completely empty. She finally squeezed in, three bags on her own lap, and gave me a “Hey, what can you do?” smile as the bus started to roll. I tried to helpfully point out the many empty, fully functional seats behind us, but she ignored me, focused on keeping her stack upright. No one said a word.

One of the things you pick up on after coming to Morocco is the lack of personal space. People happily hold conversations inches from one another’s face and lean into and over one another to get points across at the dinner table. Those who live alone are regarded as both unfortunate (they have no one to talk to) and weird (why don’t they want someone to talk to?).

This same mentality follows in modes of transport. Six passengers squashed into a cab is the standard, which means you get to know your neighbors pretty well by the end of the ride.

You could ascribe a lot of this to the cultural significance of family and neighbors, and the focus in schools on conformity and group work. But what about a place where you get to choose your own seat surrounded by strangers?

Imagine you get on a bus. There is someone already on board. Where will you choose to sit? You’ll probably pick a seat that gives the other person a wide berth, but if you’re curious you might stay within earshot in case they pull out a cell phone. This pattern will more or less hold with every new passenger so the bus fills evenly. Now lets do this in Morocco.

Someone is on a bus. The next passenger chooses a seat directly beside or in front of the first passenger. So does the next person, and the next. No one wants to sit alone. Pretty soon one half of the bus is full while the other half is empty (except for the lone tourist or PCV, who is lounging across their very own aisle in their very own wing). It’s one of those bits of culture so ingrained that no one thinks to question it, even when it leads to seven bags and two people sandwiched together on a half-empty bus. If you asked a person from the States, I’m fairly certain they‘ve never given much thought to why they give a few aisles cushion. It’s simply what you do.

About an hour and a half later the woman disembarked. I smiled and said goodbye and set my pack on the seat beside me. I put on my headphones and stared out the window. A few minutes later someone tapped me on the shoulder. I pretended to sleep.

1 Comments:

Blogger DK said...

whether to sit by myself or next to someone on a bus or the metro is something I HAVE thought about fairly often (in the states that is). It usually goes like this--I find an empty aisle, take the window seat, and as the seats fill up I keep thinking "please, no one sit next to me." Then, once almost all the seats are filled and I'm still alone, I start to think "somebody sit next to me! Do I look dangerous or something?"

May 24, 2009 at 12:59 PM  

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