Halima was picking up her Tunisian friend Najeh when I met the two on a train leaving Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca, Morocco. Twelve hours earlier on the other side of the world, a highway accident brought six lanes to a standstill en route to the airport in Buenos Aires, and if it weren't for a generous ground crew operator in Argentina who reopened the cargo pocket of the plane to add my bags in a few minutes before take off, I wouldn't have made the flight to Casablanca, wouldn't have taken the airport train upon landing, and wouldn't have randomly picked the one train car where Halima and Najeh were sitting. Which, as I would learn, would have been a real shame.
Halima is my age, divorced and living with her toddler in her hometown of Casablanca. She may be the nicest person I have ever met. Najeh is a couple years older, equally as nice and recently completed her degree in tourism in Tunisia, where she now works in hospitality. Najeh landed and met Halima at the airport where they met me, minutes off the flight I shouldn't have made from South America. The three of us shared the train from the airport and then a taxi to the same hotel, where we shared dinner, then a dance floor at a Morrocan disco, where, amid live Arabic rhymes and the banging of percussion instruments, we decided to share a trip to the beach the next day.
The next morning I passed on my flight to Barcelona to catch a bus seven hours through the Moroccan desert to the southern beach town of Agadir with my two new friends. At the lone bus stop in some dry dirt near Marakesh, we shared home cooked beef tangine (think pot roast in a massive claypot), a loaf of wood stove-fired bread and a pitcher of Morrocan mint tea that you pour from a height above the table to properly mix the mint. I was greeted by two sets of blank stares and then laughs when I reached for a fork and knife as the food arrived- Najeh took away the utensils, Halima pointed to my hands. Right.
Off the bus in Agadir I checked in to the male-only Al-Quods Hotel, which smelled a little like an old shoe with flickering lights dotting the hallways and communal toilets clustered near the stairs. I was greeted by the owner, a friendly older gentleman who eagerly refereed to me as "New York!", and slept on a cot in front of the front desk at night. None of the other guests noticed me walking in because the Senegal-Tunisia soccer match televised in the common room was tied in the late stages. My friends stayed across the street in a female-only counterpart, since coed hotels were not proper cultural etiquette in this part of town.
I spent the next couple days waking up in the beachside city to the bustling sounds of the open air market outside the motel, where Times Square-like commotion met Wall Street-like commerce that commenced in this packed corner of town just after dawn. We met in the mornings and made day trips to the beach that lined the North Atlantic Ocean, taught each other words of English and Arabic with some French sprinkled in, tried out new dance moves at discos with more live Arabic jams, drank more Moroccan mint tea and split more claypots of tangine that this time was eaten hands first, without a set of it utensils to be seen.
It was all starting to feel normal when it came time for me to move on to my next stop. I found myself slow and stalling in checking out of my tiny smelly room in Al Quods Hotel. I gave one last high five to the owner and caught the beginning of Forgetting Sarah Marshall in Arabic subtitles inside the packed common room with the same crew of soccer fans from a few nights before. I wondered if these guys found Jason Segel funny or if his lines were lost in translation in Arabic. Hard to know.
After buying my ticket, Halima gave me a bracelet with a Morrocan flag printed on it. Najeh tied it on and made me promise to never take it off. On the street near the bus station, Halima's friend Yassine bought me a fanny pack. Like a teenager embarrassed by his mom, I tried to take it off but Halmia insisted it was imperative to keeping all my belongings in one safe place.
With my suitcase on wheels, squash bag on my shoulder and a fresh new fanny pack strapped around me, I shared one of the harder goodbyes I've had to make in a long time, to a Morrocan woman and her Tunisian friend whom I met on a train a few days earlier. In their broken English they asked if I enjoyed Morocco and welcomed me back to their respective countries any time in the future. I was stuck on how quickly real bonds of friendship can work when I climbed the stairs to the bus. We had known each other for less than seventy-two hours. My friends watched me board and waved through the windows as the bus pulled away into the darkness of the night and back toward Casablanca.