Travel In the Time Of Corona: When the Borders Closed

I’m sitting down to dinner at Dar Seffarine, a 600 year old guesthouse in Fes, Morocco, in the city’s old medina of twisting alleyways and crumbling walls. My husband and I, on our honeymoon, head onto the terrace to find the table lit by candlelight. The setting is romantic, us nestled beside terra cotta washed walls underneath the stars, but we’re not alone. Dinner is communal, and we sit with the other house guests. Rather than the usual dinner conversation there’s a topic present on everyone’s mind: Just that day the US released its travel ban restricting entry into the states from Europe and all countries within the Schengen Area.

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Dining exclusively with tourists, this is a subject everyone is eager to discuss. There’s the forty-something New York couple who’ve flown into the country 48 hours ago, have already had their return flight to JFK rescheduled twice by Royal Air Maroc, and are now at the mercy of that airline whether or not they have a flight back home. They try to play it cool, stating that they weren’t supposed to leave for nine days anyway, so there’s no rush to get back. They’ll be fine. They’ll. Be. Fine. But given the number of times they’ve managed to work in the PHDs of their friends, vintage vinyl and the word “Manhattan” in under sixty minutes, I can tell they’re sweating beneath their black outfits.

Then there’s the retired couple from London, but they’re not the usual pensioners on holiday — Silver haired and tan skinned, they’ve been travelling to Morocco for decades and plan to live out of their van for the next four weeks, visiting mountains, sea and everything in between. I could listen to their travel stories all night. How years ago they camped in Mauritania and woke from a peaceful sleep in their tent only to learn that everyone else at the site was gassed in the night and had their wallets and passports stolen. Who had their van break down just last night in a rural area, walked to an all night cafe, had a patron offer them lodging, went with the stranger to their house, and not only lived through the night but were taken to a mansion and given a private room free of charge. Who describe the nearby Roman ruin of Volubilis as “It’s just a big heap, ininit”.

Immediately after the news was released we found the husband pouring over a map in the main room of the house. He wore a turban and a graphic tee as he told us they entered the country via their tricked out van through the strait of Gibraltar, and with the strait now closed, he’s unsure how they’ll make an exit. Clearly concerned, multiple times during our short conversation he rubs his chin and tucks his fingers beneath the turban to scratch his hairline. At dinner, the wife says over her vegan tagine that she believes coronavirus is a hoax, created to divert our attention away from what’s “really happening”. I love their free spirits, but worry that after years of having things just kind of work out for them, if a layer of sanity was sanded thin somewhere along the way.

Finally there are five Manchesterians (Mancunians if you want to get all Latin about it). Two brothers and a friend, all in their fifties, accompanied by their elderly fathers. The youngins’ are a rag tag trio who’d gone “Under the Tuscan Sun” and bought a home here in Fes twelve years earlier, that they’ve since restored and are now renting out as a guest house.

The sons are no plucky protagonists wearing crisp white shirts and sharing recipes of their favorite pine nut pesto though, oh no. They’re disheveled as hell and currently working on their third bottle of wine. Like their British counterparts they’ve been travelling to Morocco for 20+ years, and say they’ve never run into any “real” trouble. The trick, according to them, is that if you’re the scruffiest bunch in town you’re never the target, since no one thinks they want what you have. This story is shortly followed up by one about being caught in a thistle field trying to sneak into a music festival in Mali, only to bribe security and be rewarded with VIP access. All at half the cost of a regular ticket. When we ask the father of two who’s caused more trouble, without hesitation he points to his bespeckled son and blurts “That one”.

Because they’re all leaving the next day, and because flights to the UK are still running without issue, they’re not as concerned as others. Who they’re most worried about is actually the owner of the guesthouse we’re staying in, who they’ve had a relationship with for years now. After all, they could stay at their own guest house nearby for free, but choose to stay here instead saying it’s the best spot in Fes. With a chuckle they say that it won’t really matter if new guests can’t arrive if the ones who are here can’t ever leave. We laugh along, not yet knowing just how true that statement would become in a few days.

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In the morning Carl and I made a decision we knew was a long time coming, but had a difficult time accepting. Instead of heading into Europe at the end of the week, where we planned to spend the next month hopping from France to Germany to Belgium, rounding it all out in Amsterdam with the tulips in bloom, we bought a ticket to London. We figured we could get a few days in the city, possibly venture into the countryside, then fly home early. We accepted this fate, albeit a bit sadly, knowing our tickets into Lyon would go unused.

At the time, France and Spain were rising in caseloads, but the UK remained a safe zone, with less than 500 cases in England and under 100 in Ireland. It almost seemed safer to stay abroad than head back to Pittsburgh and the East Coast of the US, as New York’s cases were ballooning.

Hours after we booked our tickets into Heathrow, the news came that the US was now barring entry to residents of the UK. Understanding that travel anywhere was no longer an option, as France and other European countries went into lockdown themselves, we scrambled. The earliest tickets to DC and NYC skyrocketed to $5,000.00. Having dumped a not insignificant amount into airfare that was going into the garbage, we opted for tickets that would depart Morocco on the day we initially intended to leave the country for France. Already having lodging lined up in Marrakech, we figured we’d make the most of the remaining time in Morocco while avoiding jammed (and therefore dangerous) airports in the meantime.

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The Great Room of Dar Seffarine

Come dinner, there are nine of us sitting around the table, each of us feeling like we’ve arrived at the Island of Lost Toys. The New Yorkers sit at the end of the table next to a Parisian named Pierre who’s just disappeared on the phone trying to arrange an earlier flight home.  A young couple from Malta sit opposite Pierre, with an ashtray in front of them they’ve been filling up as they reiterate that they don’t know what they’ll do, and seated next to Carl and I are the house owner Alaa, and a man from Connecticut who is also unsure what his next step is, but who seems to be taking it all in, enjoying the ride.

While the other dinner guests are furiously trying to reschedule flights and reiterating what their initial travel plans were, the Connecticutian is trying to arrange a Médina guide for the morning with the help of Alaa, who’s texting guides and casually giving updates. “It’s between Idrissy and Mohamed, but Mohamed may be busy with a French tour tomorrow” Alaa says. “Is Mohamed better than Idrissy though?” The New Englander asks, half-way between sarcastic and serious, “Because I only want the best”.

Tonight’s dinner feels more intimate than the night before. I credit that to the comradery that happens when a group finds themselves in a shared dilemma. With quarantines and border closures being ramped up each day, the guests can feel the walls closing in further, everyone understanding that whatever vacation was planned is altered drastically, if not ended entirely.

All reading the same updates and articles, all watching the statistics climb and inflate, we’re all experiencing the same events. Living similar scenarios with different home addresses. I feel less isolated at the table tonight than I have in weeks. I watch Alaa pour his third whiskey and pass his pack of cigarettes around the table a second time. The group shares photos of their homes, everyone getting a bit nostalgic for the place they’ve just come from and hope they can return easily to. It’s after all of this that the Connecticutian looks me in the eye and asks with a slight grin “Why is travel so fucking fun?”.

The next morning we pass Alaa as we leave for the station to board a six hour train to Marrakech and he tells us with all seriousness that should we be stuck in the country, we can stay at the guesthouse free of charge. Just come on back and he’ll shelter us, feed us. And if we choose to lend a hand with the cleaning that’s up to us. I thank him profusely, take one last look at the main area of the house with its skylight ceiling that pours light across the refurbished and intricate tile carvings, peek out at the terrace we’ve been dining at, and know that there would be worse places to find ourselves in a time of emergency.

In the next 36 hours we’d arrive in Marrakech and the Moroccan border would close entirely, with no further flights going into or out of the country (more on that to come). We were isolated in our room at Riad Ilayka and unsure when we’d be able to return home, but the staff there fed us without charge, looked after us, and kept us updated with any bit of information they received. The kindness and hospitality we received in Morocco is enough to make me want to return. I hope that when this fog finally lifts, when we no longer panic when we hear a cough in public, when we can casually buy a plane ticket, I hope that the places we stayed at briefly will be there to go back to.

When I asked the Mancunian trio why it is they chose Fes as the location to buy a home in, I received an answer I didn’t expect. They said they chose Fes, and the Medina specifically, because it was still revealing itself to them. Because much of it is unseen, is closed off by narrow alleys where daylight doesn’t reach and Google Maps can’t comprehend, cannot be found until inadvertently wandered to, the city is still being discovered. And wouldn’t that be the kind of place you return to again and again? To find something hidden? To know things that were previously unknowable?

And of course, because it’s just so fun. So. Fucking. Fun.

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