The walk to the station took about half an hour. The streets were still busy with people milling about or packing up their stalls. The train I was taking was waiting there. I had my ticket clipped before getting on.
It was quite chilly inside the carriage so I donned my fleece. The train was half full with people crashed out on the bench seats. I found a long, empty seat and plonked down on it. I had mixed feelings of hope and a gut feeling that the visas would not be ready for me.
The train left at 1am and moved off into the moonlit night. It soon picked up speed and the temperature in the carriage dropped. I donned my Gore-Tex jacket too too and tried to get comfortable by lying on my seat. I couldn’t , so I managed no sleep all the way to the ‘Casablanca Voyageurs’ station where I had to change trains.
I waited for about half an hour for the connecting train to Rabat. It was about 5.30am by now. The next train came in and I jostled my way into the 2nd class carriage which had a few others in it. I managed to doze most of the way to Rabat and came to in the morning light.
The train pulled into Rabat’s station at 7.30am. I walked out of the station and across a busy road to a café for a coffee and a couple of croissants. An hour to kill until the Algerian Embassy opened. I was feeling anxious and cold because of the cold, sleeplessness on the train. ‘God, I hope they’ve arrived’, I thought. I went to the loo, paid and headed off into the cool morning to the embassy. I stopped in ‘Place Abraham Lincoln’ to kill 15 minutes and watched the police trying to control the chaotic traffic.
I still arrived too early and kicked my heels outside for a time. At 8am sharp, in I went, hope being my best ally at that moment [or so I thought]. The ‘visa man’ turned up and gave me the bad news. He said to come back at 1pm because that was when the telexes usually came through. My heart sank.
I left feeling low, almost upset. Suddenly, I felt very lonely. Dan in Marrakech, Penny in Watford, parents at home. Me, alone in Rabat. I also had the delight of a bout of diarrhoea to contend with which had made itself known that morning.
I slowly walked to a park about 15 minutes away from the embassy and back towards the city centre and sat down on a cold, stone bench. I read my book for a while, trying to lose myself in it. Hope is a funny thing. It’s always there. Sometimes, it brings great joy and happiness. But, now it had brought loneliness! Then, I did something foolish.
A Moroccan sat down next to me and said hello in Arabic. We got talking. He said he was a professor in Arabic music at the university in Rabat. I told him I was a student but that I was waiting to get hold of Algerian visas. Uncannily, he said his wife worked in the Algerian Embassy and that she could speed up the whole process and get the visas by Friday. “Brilliant” I thought.
He took me off shortly afterwards to get things arranged. Firstly, he said I would need some money to buy some Algerian dinars. Then, I would need some typed letters in Arabic. We took a taxi to a bank. I cashed in £300 and stuck it firmly in a zipped pocket in my Rohan trousers (Smell a rat, yet?).
Next, we went to a typist who knocked up a letter in Arabic with passport details on some ‘official-looking’ paper the Moroccan had bought. We rushed out of there, with him saying “Walk fast! We have not much time” in French. I had discovered that this chap I was with was called Abdul. He then asked me to give him the money because we could not buy dinars in a bank in Morocco ‘because of the different system’. We had to do it in the ‘Ministry of Agriculture’ (The rat was really starting to stink).
I told him that I’d keep the money for the moment, my gut feeling telling me that this was not right. He then said that the change of money had to be done secretly because it was not strictly legal and he would have to do it. I said that I would not change any money unless I did it myself. He responded with a short speech about trusting him; that he had phoned his wife (When, exactly? I thought) to sort it all out; that he had paid for the ‘official paper’ and a couple of taxi fares and that I ‘had’ to give the money to him to change it secretly.
By now, we were near the large mosque in Rabat, walking towards the ‘Ministry’. I smelt a big, fat, dirty rat and told Abdul that I was not going to change the money until I had the visas. He became all upset that I did not trust him and that he had spent money on me to do me a favour and how lucky I was to have met him. I stated that all I wanted was the visas, nothing else.
He started to get cold feet and made excuses about having to go to prayers. ‘Fine’ I said. I told him I was going to the Algerian Embassy soon anyway. He changed tack knowing that I was not going to hand over £300 to him them to ‘secretly’ change to then bugger off without a trace. He wanted 120 dirhams for the two bits of official paper and a card folder he had bought for me to contain all of the paperwork. I told him that was not going to pay him a penny there; that I was going to the embassy to see if authorisation had arrived. He could meet there after prayers to the sort the visas out.
Abdul got all uptight again but soon realised that he’d failed to con me out of £300. He shook my hand in a rather pathetic ‘after all that I have done for you’ manner and I walked off feeling relieved. I also thought I had been a fool even to contemplate going off with Abdul in the first place with a Moroccan stranger who had talked to me in the park. I should have known better. I felt angry with myself and had a sudden burst of irrational racism about Moroccans. I walked along scowling at Moroccans who passed by.
I returned to the Algerian Embassy and waited with a ‘French-Algerian’ man and two Peruvians in the waiting room. The ‘visa man’ again said our visas had not arrived.
Once again, feeling dejected, lonely and frustrated I left. I walked to the post office and phoned Dan in Marrakech. It was good to hear him [I had been away for less than a day!]. I told him the news and then went to find a hotel in the medina.
I found a room down a side road, dumped my bag and walked up the British Council buildings, keeping my eyes peeled for that con-artist from earlier in the day amongst all the other potential swindlers!
At the British Council, I sat down to watch Sky News for a while and a programme about herbal medicine before going back to my room. I walked along with an empty feeling inside me and the thought that I had possibly another four days on my own in Rabat which filled me with dread. At the hotel, I lay on my bed and lost myself in my book.
At 7pm, I went to a nearby restaurant and had a salad and lamb couscous for 35 dirhams. I thought about how well Dan and I get on together. At that moment, I was feeling pretty fed up and isolated. I missed Dan’s company. I got out my photos of Penny and stared at them long and hard.
Hope is a funny thing and a flawed strategy (I later realised!) when it comes to obtaining visas from obstructive embassies. It’s one of the main challenges of travelling. The bureaucracy that goes with some countries you travel is cumbersome. Sometimes, it is done on purpose to obstruct you. At other times, it is because they are trying to squeeze bribes out of you.
But, I was not dealing well with loneliness.
Will Hawkins lives in Lincolnshire with his family, works in a technology company in London and does as many micro-adventures as he can.
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