Chapter 9 The Marrakesh Express
“That’s never a camera,” gasped the whiskered old station master as he cradled the tiny steel box in the palm of his hand. I never tired of that reaction, and sometimes would even hide the camera inside a 20-pack of Benson and Hedges cigarettes and sit it on the table in front of them just to maximize the gasp of the revelation.
“It is,” I said, “Would ya believe it?” The entire camera easily fit into his open hand, encased in a hard cold steel shell with a small hole on one side to screw in a pinhole wide-angle lens. The camera had just been developed by a French military manufacturer to sit not in a hand but at the end of the arm of a bomb disposal robot and act as its one good eye. And it was bombs that had brought me to the station master.
His station was Dundalk, the last railway station in southern Ireland before the border with the tormented north. There was only one rail track each way, which meant that if either track were disrupted for any reason or for any length of time, it would form a kind of economic blockade against the movement of goods between the south and the north. Something that was obviously vital for both.
For that reason the track was a favorite for bombers who would pack Semtex plastic explosives into the hollow steel frames of completely innocent bicycles, wheel the unsuspecting bikes onto the train and then simple abandon them. As the train approached the border crossing, the bombers would call in the bomb threat and create such disruption and delays the railway line would be closed to all traffic for hours.
In an effort to identify the bombers, sophisticated cameras had been installed in every possible corner of the railway station, inside and out. But the bombers had the good sense to keep their caps on and their heads low whenever they were near the cameras and so make it nearly impossible to get a good image of their faces.
When the Irish police heard of my tiny French camera, it seemed to ignite an idea for them. I had only recently demonstrated the camera at a military exhibition in Scarborough in the northeast of England. I called it Viking and I don’t know why, but I suppose I thought the name was strong and memorable.
The Viking was a covert briefcase surveillance system with that tiny camera as the star, hidden in a compartment in the bottom of the briefcase. I had drilled an almost invisible hole into the frame of the case that would allow for the installation of a pinhole lens that would give the camera full view of everything around it.
The case included a long-playing tape recorder in a separate compartment in case they needed to record conversations too. And for added measure I added a microwave transmission system the size of a large book that could broadcast the entire video stream up to ten miles within line of sight, and up to a half a mile if interfered with by the steel and concrete of nearby buildings.
The camera and recorder were activated by a small switch located discreetly into the handle of the case, allowing a spy to place the case by his side in a public area and record conversations of any nearby targets.
The police thought my Viking might help catch their bombers in Dundalk. Or at least the one good French eye of the Viking. In order to get to the north bound line, the bombers had to wheel their bomb-laden bicycles across a covered wooden walkway and then turn right down a wide stairs to the platform.
The tiny camera could be hidden behind the wall at the end of that walkway, the police suggested, with nothing more than a tiny hole drilled in the wood paneling. They were hoping that by the time the bombers reached the trap of my hidden spy camera, and with no other cameras visible, they would be more relaxed and their heads would be up and clear for capture.
As I surveyed the windy rain-soaked station for the best place to place the camera and the cables, and the best way to look discreet doing it, my mind went back to the road and the sun. The last time I’d set foot in any train station was nearly seven years ago, as Blackie dragged me away from my way back home and took me on a different adventure.
The day after I met Blackie at the hostel in Porches was supposed to be the saddest day of the adventure because it would likely mark the last. Instead it turned out to be the best day of the entire adventure, in part because it felt like the first day of a real adventure. Not only did I have a pretty and fun traveling companion who made conversation easy because she did most of it, but we were headed to Morocco. To Africa. And I knew that having a traveling companion would make me much more relaxed, or at least teach me how, and make so many great possibilities possible. What a tale this would turn out to be.
The adventure had suddenly been reborn and this time much bigger, even more real than I ever imagined, and who knew where it might lead. It didn’t matter that I only barely had enough money left to last for a couple more days. Or that my only real possessions now were the clothes I was wearing. This was the road, and when all you have left are dice, what else are you going to do with them? And those breasts.
Blackie had a plan and it was clear she’d given it a lot of thought. First stop Fez, she said, to see the beautiful old Medina. Check off that box, and then back towards the coast, maybe Rabat, and then south through Marrakech and Casablanca and to her ultimate destination – the southern border of Morocco and her unflinching determination to find a nomadic Amazigh tribe to ink a traditional Berber tattoo on her right hand.
That would be the end of the journey for her, she said. Once she had her tattoo, her trophy, her plan was to bring it back to Sheffield as evidence that she did what they all said she would never have the courage to.
It took us nearly a day of trains and buses eastwards, across the Spanish border and towards Seville, then south to the port at Algeciras and a short ferry ride across the straits to the Moroccan port of Ceuta. We were in Africa, what a story this was turning out to be, but no rest yet. Nearly another day of a bouncing bus ride through the Moroccan countryside in a colorful and loud bus full of locals and backpackers and we finally arrived in Fez in the early evening.
It was even more beautiful than Blackie described and I never imagined that a place of such age, sights, smells, sounds, colors could ever have existed. And camels as common and casual as cows at home.
We’d partnered with a couple from New Zealand that we met on the ferry, and it felt good that we had at least doubled our strength. One of the swarms of kids that greeted us at the bustling bus station offered to take us to the best and cheapest hotel and led Blackie by her hand before any of us could say no.
The next day our new guide’s older brother Rafik took us on a guided tour of the Medina and the souks, stopping by what he claimed was his uncle’s business to show us a beautiful collection of the biggest rugs I’d ever seen. As big and bright as the city itself.
Then on to his greatest secret, leading and urging the four of us through a labyrinth of narrow corridors and winding stairs and ending on the roof of the building and his mighty proud reveal.
As we tried not to hold our noses because it would seem rude, from this single building we gazed down on the massive Chouara tannery, and the massive sea of clay tannery pits laid out across the rooftops of Fez for dyeing the leather hides that would be turned into all kinds of leather goods in the surrounding factories. Rafik explained with very precise excitement that the main ingredients used in the most important first stage were cow urine and bird droppings, and we all believed him.
Later that evening I found the courage to tell Blackie that I had so little money left it would barely take me to Rabat, and so we might have to rethink our plans. I was hoping she’d treasure my company enough to share the rations so that we could finish the adventure together. Why shouldn’t I have a tattoo trophy too? The hotels charged for the room and not the number of occupants so there was no extra cost there, I rationalized. And food wasn’t really an issue because we survived on so little of it anyway.
The real issue would be bus and train fares, and I had no answer for that. And neither had she, as she walked me to the bus station the next morning for a very quick goodbye. We hugged a little tearily, promised to stay in touch, and in an instant the bus turned its back on Fez and Blackie on me.
It took less than half a day to get to Rabat, through Meknes, a much more somber journey because of all its implications and uncertainties. My goal was to try to sneak on to the Marrakech Express and ride it to Tangiers where I’d have to figure out how to sneak on to the ferry too and back to Spain. Boarding without tickets or passes was not something treated lightly in Morocco, I was told, and especially if the crime was committed by loud and ungrateful foreigners.
Within minutes of arriving at the station I’d kicked in with exactly such people, a large and noisy group of young American backpackers, and when I explained my circumstances, within seconds they had hatched a plan, a way out of Morocco. I knew if anyone would have a rescue plan, it would be the Americans. If I got caught though, they said, I would be on my own.
The station was so busy and bustling, and mainly backpackers and tourists heading north or south, the guards only seemed to be looking for tickets and not at them. So I scooped a fresh-looking used ticket from the floor of the station, the herd engulfed me, and we all pushed together past the guards chatting and happy and oblivious like Americans usually are, and all waving our white tickets.
The trick worked again when we reached the ferry port at Tangiers, but in between I had to tend with the ticket collector who worked his way slowly and meticulously up and down the carriages in search of stowaways. Word would go out, the signal go up, the ticket collector was coming, and my cue to exit the speeding train.
As the train rocked and screeched at speed through the Spanish countryside and into the Pyrenees mountains, I’d climb out the door between the carriages, clinging to the hand rails on the sides, and crouch down until another signal that the danger had passed. My co-conspirators, my new American friends, made sure to crowd noisily between the door and the ticket collector to dissuade him from checking outside, as we were sure he was sure someone might try that trick.
By the second or third time I was joined by one or two others, not aware if they had no tickets either or they thought I was just having too much fun. We’d scream and laugh and dare the whooshing telephone poles to try to knock us off our perches and I was happy to do that all the way to Paris.
It became even more of a game when a different knock would come to let us know that someone was trying to enter the lavatory next to our door. On cue we’d knock loudly on the outside of the train door, enter the racing train with broad smiles and question why they hadn’t stopped at the station for us. Everyone would fall about with laughter at the startled faces and it made the journey fast and pleasant and less foreboding. And it felt like I’d finally found my tribe of happy pretty nomads.
The game worked, and worked again, all the way through Madrid and Zaragoza and ending in Paris. By Paris I was an expert at sneaking, and found yet another train to the coast, to the port of Le Havre. The journey came to a temporary halt there because of more vigilant security guards, and forced me to spend nearly two days trying to sneak on board a ferry for the 24-hour boat ride to Rosslare in the south of Ireland and just ninety miles from home.
A little later than expected, a little more cunning and criminal than when I left, and with a lot more stories to share. But it was October now and still warm.