Who's in Charge Here?

I knew it was coming.  Adam text messaged me on Wednesday to let me know that he would be coming in early Friday to start his Carte de Sejour process of with the Gendarmes of Goulmima.  I had agreed to help.  For people with more normal jobs being up-and-at-‘em at 8:00 am is no problem, but I grumbled when my phone vibrated four times and beeped at that (un)reasonable hour.  “In town.  meet at gendarmes?” read the text message.

I tossed on a pair of shorts, t-shirt, baseball hat and shower shoes before hopping on my 21 speed TREK and heading out.  I stopped at Yussef’s on the way and picked up the standard yogurt and cookies. I doubled my order for the day.  One for Adam and one for myself.  From the corner store I headed toward the gendarmes and saw the newbie sitting on the curb waiting for me.  “Holy shit man!  You wear shorts in your town!” he greeted me.

“Yeah man.  You can wear shorts too.  Just start doing it now.  Set a precedent.  Let them know early that they will be seeing your lower legs every day.  Tell them they will like it whether they like it or not.”  After 18 months in country I feel qualified to give sagely advice like this, and with a freshly minted batch of volunteers I have been popping kernels like Orville Redenbacher.

We entered the Gendarmerie to see that we were hardly the first folks on the premises.  People walked in and got turned away because the work day had not yet actually started.  Naturally, we had to go in and get rebuffed ourselves.  “Wait for The Chief.  He should be here in the nine to eleven neck of the woods.”

Satisfied that we would have a wait of an indeterminate length, we got as comfortable as possible on the wooden bench just outside the front door.  From this spot I ate my breakfast and Adam turned his down (don’t know how I feel about this).  We sat discussing the usual Peace Corps subjects: girls in the region and respective training groups, chipotle burritos and other such luxuries of American life, and the mystifying manifestations of Morocco.  Also waiting at the Gendarmerie was a hilarious looking trio of men who looked like the inspiration for a disney movie that should absolutely be made.  The first man was ancient and rail thin with coke bottle glasses and a cane.  He was determinedly squinting and cupping his ears at his surroundings.  The second was a short squatty type in a white jellaba (think Snuggie) and beanie.  He kept pacing and mumbling just far enough away to keep the first man thoroughly confused.  The third was a herculean giant.  He was just holding his chin in his hand and shaking his head at the scene the first two were making.  The running commentary on these characters kept Adam and I entertained for at least 30 minutes of our wait.

The ants in my pants were getting really worked up, so I took Adam on a quick tour of the Dar Chebab (Youth House) next door before turning straight back.  When we returned we found all the Gendarmes had shown up in varying states of consciousness.  The Gendarmes are a comedic bunch if ever there was one.  Most of the fellas are my age, or maybe a couple of years older.  They are almost all from big cities far, far away from our town.  I can see them being assigned the post, and making the same dejected face I made when I first found the lonely looking dot on the map.  They are, to a man, Arabs, and stick out almost as much as I do in my all Berber town, and are unquestionably more homesick.  I am continually entertained by the ways they keep themselves busy.  My favorite is a baby faced guy who spends his every free minute in the cafe next door chomping on his pencil as he sweats the results of Keno.

Adam and I walked into the main lobby which was already packed with folks.  I, being a familiar face, and we, being the only two white guys in town were tended to without a wait (It may be racial profiling, but sometimes it works in your favor.).  We were led by the second in command to a little office off to the left of the lobby.  In his limited English he asked, “Smoke, not problem?”  We told him it wasn’t a problem.   He walked around and closed all the windows, then pulled out a cigarette and lit it.  Adam and I just looked at each other with knowing grins on our faces.  He asked to see Adam’s papers, and so Adam handed them over.  The Gendarme looked them over, then looked them over again, and again, and again.  “You know you only brought 11 pictures, you need 12,” he told me to relay to Adam.

“What he say?” asked Adam.

“You are one picture short,” I said.

“Oh god, he’s not going to bust my balls over one picture is he?”  Adam had heard a horror story or two (or twenty) of trips to the Regional Gendarmerie, and was scared of anything that could delay the process.  Apparently his balls would remain unbusted because we were told we could go in to see The Chief.

The Chief’s office is always super cluttered because the Gendarmes are at least two, three, maybe four decades from going paperless.  We took our seats and watched a show unfold.  One of the new Gendarmes sat across the desk from The Chief, and was getting absolutely reamed.  The Chief lit a cigarette and took a drag of it before resting it on the ash tray and lighting into his new charge.  Apparently New-Guy had made a grievous filing mistake and was just then hearing about it.  The Chief slammed his hands down on the desk then threw them up in exasperated disgust sending papers flying in all directions around the office.  A little buzzer rests next to his desk, and every minute or so he would buzz an underling into his office.  “Hey guy.  Tell this other guy he’s an idiot will ya.”

“You’re an idiot.  That all Chief?”

One guy didn’t leave immediately.  He stood behind The Chief listening to the whole outburst.  He and I understood what was being said, and Adam didn’t need much translation to get the gist of it.  We were doing everything within our power not to laugh at the scene.  This poor schmuck, new to town, was taking a tongue lashing like they don’t serve up at the academy.

Mercifully, New-Guy was excused on the verge of tears.  The chief turned to us and in a most pleasant tone said “Peace be upon you.”  We returned his greeting and hoped we were getting down to business.  The Chief looked at the ash tray and saw that his cigarette had been wind smoked to the butt.  He patted his pockets until he found the pack in his shirt pocket.  He pulled out a square and lit it.  One drag, and balanced it on the ash tray.  He got as far as pulling up the right document on his computer before his cell phone started going off.  His ring tone was crazy teeny-bopper techno music.  Once again Adam and I shared our knowing grin and tried to keep the chuckle to a minimum.  Another ten minutes on the phone and his attention shifted back to us.  He asked for the papers and looked them through.  When he was satisfied that everything was in its right place he got ready to fill in the document.  He turned to the computer and grabbed the cigarette from the ash tray.  Nothing left.  He pulled out another one, lit it, took one drag, and balanced it on the ash tray.  “Okay lets see that passport of yours.  Yes.  Yes.  All this seems to be in order.  Your from Massa-what-the-hell-is-this?  Where is the place of issuance.”  American passports have a new design and the location of issuance which was on the old design is no longer there.  Ay-yi-yi, this hurdle almost threw the whole operation off kilter.

“N-E-W   H-A-M-P-S-H-I-R-E,” we tried to spell it out for him.  When this proved unsuccessful Adam asked if he could just write it down for him.  The Chief patted his pockets for a pen and came up empty.  One lackey offered a pen.  No.  Lackey number two offered a pen.  No.  Finally from the cigarette pocket The Chief produced the exact same model of pen as both the lackeys and gave them both a superior look.  “Hah!”  We just grinned.  A few more details typed in, and then the phone rang again.  The techno music still had us laughing.  After the phone call The Chief reached for his cigarette to find it no longer in action.  Pocket > light > drag > balance.

“I gotta step outside for a cigarette,” Adam said.

Finally, after almost two hours in the office, document number one was finished.  The Chief managed to arrange the other documents that needed filling and buzzed in his second in command.  He took the empty forms and led us back to his office. “Smoke, not problem?”  We assured him it was okay, and watched the curious window shutting routine again.  In retrospect I guess The Chief gets paid enough to let the wind smoke all his cigs.  This guy was going to get his money’s worth.  Of course, every form had to be filled out in triplicate so our guy organized the forms and carbon paper and placed them in the typewriter.  Thats right the typewriter.  All set.  Oops, upside down.  Try again.  He got about half way down the first form before the typewriter started having conniptions.

I said, “Look dude.  Made in West Germany.  Awesome.”

Our progress was going something like this: key-stroke, key stroke, key stroke, problem, repeat.  After about a half hour the second in command was fed up with the whole thing.  He told us to come back at 2:00 pm and everything would be finished, he just needed to find a new typewriter.  Adam and I went back to my house and mused on the hilarity of our morning.  Then, after a lunch of tuna sandwiches, we went back to the Gendarmerie and into the office.  In the time we were gone the office had become a typewriter graveyard.  There were at least five machine corpses with their covers off and their insides splayed all over the room.

Poor Number 2 looks at us and says, “Look fellas, why don’t you leave us your numbers and well give you a call when we get it sorted out.”  Adam is probably still waiting.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.