When I lived in Switzerland, my partner at the time and I used to joke that we should create a Facebook album titled, “I should have told you…” that included pictures of our less than glamorous day-in-day-out realities and our less than glamorous travel snafus. Instead, we posted pictures of pristine alpine lakes, golden Belgium waffles and olive groves in Tuscany. We frankly deserved the running commentary from friends and family in the States: “Do you ever work?” “You two are living the dream,” and the patently passive aggressive “Must be nice…” But the comments nevertheless rubbed me the wrong way. Secretly I would seethe, imagining snarky comments I would make to set them straight.
We decided to go to Morocco for our winter break one year. Our posted pictures included cobras rising out of baskets in Jamaa el Fna, fresh squeezed fruit juices and Msemen flat bread served on the rooftop of our hotel, henna tattoos, camel rides along the beach, heaping piles of dates, figs and apricots and Moorish inspired architecture. What was decidedly missing from our posted photo album was evidence of our hellish bus ride from Essaouira to Casablanca.
We went to the local bus station in Essaouira the day prior to our departure to scope out our options for our return to Casablanca. Our hotel had recommended that we take the tourist bus line and we were headed in that direction when a man from the local bus company took us by the elbow and proceeded to extoll the virtues of the local bus. “Oh the tourist bus, you see, it makes two stops, whereas our bus goes directly from Essaouira to Casablanca and it cost much less.” Much less, meant we’d be paying about 20 Dirham (2 USD) rather than the exorbitant 100 Dirham (10 USD) that the tourist bus was charging. Even more than our cumulative $16 we’d save, we were eager to take the most direct route, and so we purchased our tickets from the cunning salesman, and went back to our hotel feeling smug, eyeing our fellow tourists for the rubes we took them to be.
The next morning we returned to the bus station. Our salesman smiled widely as we passed over our brightly colored backpacks, which stood out like cherries ripe for the picking when stashed amongst the burlap bags and cardboard boxes that made up the rest of the cargo beneath the bus. With some trepidation we found seats. At 5’3”, my knees were pressed painfully against the seat in front of me. My partner at 6’ 2” was forced into a Cirque Du Soleil-esk posture next to me. I was eager for the cargo hatch to lower and for us to be on the road. When the bus rumbled to life I relaxed for a moment, before realizing that the cargo hatch was not lowering. In fact, it was staying open so that we not only had to worry about a person taking our backpacks but we also had to worry about them bouncing out into a ditch. As we rumbled through town, our “non-stop” bus came to a screeching halt every few minutes. My paranoia about our packs was escalating, so at one of these stops I demanded that we bring our bags aboard. “Well, It can’t get much worse than this,” I said hoisting my pack onto my lap, which ensured that my legs were getting crushed from all directions. No sooner had I said that than the loudspeaker came on and a voice that sounded vaguely of Kermit the Frog performing the call to prayer rang out of the crackly, blown-out speakers. This, paired with our driver’s indiscriminate use of the brakes became the heartbeat of our ride. “At least once we’re out of the city, we’ll really get going,” I thought hopefully. But no, we continued to stop on our “non-stop” bus at every tumbleweed between Essaouria and Casablanca. And miraculously the bus continued to fill, though every seat had been spoken for from the moment we rolled out of the bus station.
Eventually the lurching got to the smallest child of the family (yes family) occupying the two seats behind us, and heaving vomit joined in the chorus of sounds and smells. Seven hours into a 400km journey that would have taken five hours on the tourist bus, my bladder felt ready to burst. We arrived to a town and the bus pulled over. People piled out to tank up on greasy meats served in Styrofoam cups and no doubt to use the bathroom. The trouble was, we had no idea where to find a bathroom, no language skills to make such inquiries and no sense of how long the bus would be there. Desire to not spend the rest of our lives in this dusty town superseded bursting bladders. By the time we arrived to Casablanca, after eleven straight hours in the bus, with Kermit the Muezzin ringing in our ears, we both had urinary tract infections brewing. That evening, in Casablanca, we went for the first and only time during our all of our travels to an American fast food chain. We blew our saved $16 on cheesy crust pizza at Domino’s, adding indigestion to our list of maladies.
Back at home, at our Swiss boarding school, we settled in for another semester of teaching the world’s wealthiest. I was charged with teaching a sixth grade science course that year that I had absolutely no business teaching. Each day of the class was a struggle—not only because I was learning the material the night before, largely on YouTube (I mean really, who remembers how to make electrical circuits?), but also because I was working with eleven year olds, who are caught in-between the simpering helplessness of children and the incipient brattiness of adolescents. During a unit on nutrition, one of the boys who trended heavily towards brattiness began to egg on two of the girls in the class who were decidedly on the simpering helplessness end of the spectrum. “Milk is bad,” he announced, his Italian accent making milk come out as meal-ka. The girls, who clearly came from homes where milk was touted as God’s gift to mankind, were indignant—“No milk is healthy. You need milk for strong bones.” And so because I was young teacher, who likely didn’t have enough planned for class despite being up all night planning, I allowed the “meal-ka is bad”/“no, milk is good” battle to rage for a few minutes, killing time. Eventually though, enough is enough. “Gad,” I said, directing my attention to the instigator, “if you keep saying that milk is bad, you are going to have to out outside and do push ups.” At this his grin stretched even wider, as he called out, “Meal-ka is bad!” So out he went, into a light mist where he did a few sit-ups, because he said he didn’t want to do push-ups and I was fairly spineless, before coming back in grinning like the Cheshire cat.
That Saturday, I received an email from Gad’s father directed to me and my Head of School that said in part: “I was told by Gad that today while he was explaining why milk was not good to children you disagreed and at the end you made him do some abs under the rain.” I could have laughed at the terrible syntax from an email composed in Google translate, but my skin was paper thin at that point, and instead I dissolved into tears expecting that this marked the end of my teaching career. Instead of enjoying the weekend, I agonized over a reply to Gad’s father and to my Head of School, who incidentally was far less concerned about the incident than I was.
Had someone from home written me that weekend, or any other weekday or weekend where I was dissolving into tears over failed or unappreciated lesson plans that I’d poured my lifeblood into, and exclaimed, “You’re living the dream!” I’d have been grateful for the Atlantic Ocean separating us, because my natural inclination would have been slow strangulation thereby extinguishing the possibility of them ever uttering such vapid comments again.
Now I look back at my photos from my years abroad, and I’m aghast to catch myself thinking: “Did I ever really work over there?” “Was that real life?” “Man, I was living the dream!” Thanks to the grand idea of the “I should have told you” Facebook album, which never manifested (and now never will as I’ve deactivated my account), I did snap this picture on our bus ride to Casablanca:
And seat number 32 brings me back to the reality that no matter how many crystal blue Alpine lakes or perfectly golden Belgium waffles or tender green olive groves that were included in those years abroad, life is indiscriminate in ensuring that everyone faces challenges no matter how charmed a person’s photos might seem.