Travel In the Time of Corona: Stranded In Morocco

It was our first morning in Marrakech when our riad manager Mohammed knocked on our door and told us that overnight, Morocco’s border had closed. Not just to Spain and France, as it had done 48 hours ago, but closed to the world. All flights leaving after today were cancelled. It was a Monday morning and the Thursday tickets we had to Washington D.C. — the third pair of tickets we purchased to leave the country, the tickets we spent hours on hold with Royal Air Maroc for, while a robotic voice repeated how much more my child would enjoy the plane ride if I purchased a Little Explorers Package — those tickets, were no good.

Within the last four days the WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the U.S. shut its border to Europe, and other countries were releasing new and updated restrictions every hour. It felt like watching a spaghetti western where the heros, anti-heroes and villains all draw their weapons on one another simultaneously, giving one another side-eye. Germany closed its borders to France, while Spain was closed to non-residents. Slovenia shut its land border with Italy as Italy went into full quarantine.  And Morocco shut down everything — Land borders, ports, the Strait of Gibraltar and all international flights.

Mohammed gives the news of Morocco’s closure with a face full of empathy and a tinge of fear. He reassures us that we have a place to stay — Riad Ilayka will house us and feed us. The only guests there currently, we’re their top priority. As he speaks I have a flashback to when we met him the evening before, just after arriving in Marrakech. A voice called out to the porter guiding us through the old medina, we turned, and found a leather jacket clad Mohammed disembarking from his motorcycle to introduce himself.

Now, less than 24 hours later, I announce that we’ll be going to the airport to try and get a flight out. I’m in go mode. There’s no time to panic. No time to wallow. It’s not yet 10am and if others are just learning about the closure maybe the airport won’t be a mess. Maybe we’ll get out.

Mohammed tells us not to worry about the bags. With a calm but determined voice he speaks words I hoped never to hear. “Leave them. Take what you need. Take your passport, just a few clothes. Things aren’t what you need right now”. I never knew how fast I could jump into motion. Within minutes our backpacks are neatly packed and on the floor — They’ve come with us over the last six weeks from Taiwan to South Africa to Morocco with half a dozen other countries in between. But how ready I am to leave all of it. For these things to sit on the floor of this room for all eternity if needed.

I shove my toiletries, passport, a change of underwear and a tee shirt featuring a pink elephant in a tuk tuk over the word “Thailand” into my purse and jet out of the room. Mohammed is ready for us at the entrance. He tells us how much we should pay for a cab to the airport — 80 dirham is a good price, but no more than 100. Bleakly he mentions that we won’t have many drivers saying no if we try to barter because they won’t be getting many patrons in the near future. His voice is calm as he wishes us luck, telling us to keep him updated with any news. If I need to be told I have cancer, I want it to be from him.

I feel relatively calm. Strong, like I can handle whatever is ahead. And then we arrive at the airport.

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Lines for tickets stretch across the width of the airport while there are no queues for departing flights, only mobs. We quickly located the service kiosk for Royal Air Maroc — It’s a long shot, but we figured we’d ask in person if they still intend to fly previously sold flights. What we found was an empty booth. The lack of humans didn’t bother me as much as what was left behind: A few dozen leaflets strewn across the floor, an empty chair, and a cardboard standup advertising cartoons of cigarettes. Shit. We go to the flight checkin counter (also empty) and speak to the bored looking woman sitting there.

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“Will the airline still be flying after tomorrow?”

“I don’t know. Ask the people in the booth over there”

“There is no one there”

“Then you just have to wait I guess”

We go back. We wait. Carl leaves to check the status of other flights, to better understand the situation. I wait. I ask someone at a nearby booth when they expect the Royal Air Maroc rep to be back and am told “They’re not here today”. Cool. Cool cool cool. I get in line for the ticket counter for “all airlines”. It doesn’t move. I Google flights, find one this afternoon from Marrakech to Istanbul to New York. I jump out of line and over to the booth for Turkish Airlines. After five minutes an exasperated employee exits the booth gesticulating wildly to the crowd and yelling, “There are no flights! I don’t know why it’s saying there are flights. There are not! Everything is cancelled!”

Honestly, best service I had at that airport all day.

Carl reappears just in time for this announcement and fills me in on what he’s learned. Royal Air Maroc will not be flying later in the week. But, should we wish, we can have our flight potentially rescheduled to April 5th — Only 3 weeks away! (The airline still has yet to reopen, so this flight would never depart) We decline to reschedule and ask for a refund. Oh, there are no refunds, but they can offer a travel voucher. Taking into account that the airline flies only in and out of Morocco and the price we paid for our tickets, I’d say that should this airline exist in a few years, we have several trips to the country covered.

During all of this we realize that the general ticketing line isn’t moving because there’s no one actually manning the desk. There hasn’t been since we arrived. The line has just been compressing slowly over time, giving it the appearance of movement. Everyone is just waiting in hope that someone will arrive. The queue is squashing together with no one upholding social distancing rules. Everyone is exhausted and camped out on their luggage, coughing and complaining and we understand it’s best not to hop back into that line as it’s actually dangerous. Being here right now, is dangerous.

It’s now that we head outside and it’s in front of this beautiful airport, on this wonderfully kept lawn, that I cry. I accept that we’re not leaving today. I accept that I have no actual idea of when we’ll leave. This honeymoon that we arranged an unpaid leave for months and months ago, that we’ve spent hundreds of hours planning over the course of the last six months, has ended. Over the last week our travels shifted from “We can’t go to Europe, let’s go to the U.K. instead” to “We cannot go to the U.K., let’s just go home” to “We cannot go home”.

From the first day of our trip in February we’d been checking the news religiously. Had been upholding every travel guideline strictly. Had been washing our hands whenever a sink was in sight, had been wearing face masks on planes and trains, in cabs and museums. We’d done everything we could, sans returning home early, to protect ourselves and others during this trip. Had been firm believers that the show must go on. But the show had ended. The doors to the concert venue had shut and we were locked inside. Dammit did I cry then. I cried for a good five minutes until Carl convinced me to get into a cab and head back to the riad.

Mohammed opened the door for us with a knowing look and told us that since we had left that four other groups of travellers had arrived, all in the same situation as us. Stranded. There were two British couples, and two sets of French travellers — We’d see each of them in the next 24 hours, but for now we go back to our room, where our backpacks sat on the floor just as we’d left them hours ago.

In a situation like this where others are calling the shots there’s not much to do except wait. However, Carl and I are no good at waiting. We called the U.S. embassy in Morocco who told us to stay put and enroll into a program to share our location and information should repatriation flights be made. We were told to hang tight and to check our email and the embassy’s twitter feed for updates. They stressed that the worst thing we could do right now is move about the country, as that would leave them no way to find us in a pinch. I don’t have much faith in our government today, but being told to wait for a tweet to get us home only lessened my faith.

It’s amazing how quickly hours can pass when doing nothing except refreshing Twitter, when reading and rereading the same comments. Everyone posting was in the same situation as us, if not worse off. There was a mother in Casablanca with her 18 month old, pleading for a way to get out. Senior citizens who fell into the “high risk” category dotted all about the country. A traveller we met in Fes who had travelled into the Atlas mountains, and with no airport nearby and word of trains and highways shutting down, they weren’t sure where to go.

Come evening we went downstairs for whatever dinner the riad had prepared. Upon sitting, rose petals were promptly sprinkled on the white tablecloth in front of us, candles were lit, our glasses were filled with red wine and a half dozen mezzes were delivered in silver dishes. There were beets, marinated peppers and honeyed carrots — Riad Illayka knew that it was our honeymoon and wanted to lavish us, but the level of formality felt so extravagant that I began to tear up. I was tired and grubby and scared and watching someone polish my silverware in front of me seemed absurd. When our half-eaten mezzes were cleared and replaced with a large tagine filled with chicken, olives and preserved lemons, a level of guilt settled in. Here we are unable to finish our food and the country is gearing up for quarantine and scarcity.

For dessert we took the remains of our wine up to the room, watched two episodes of Rupaul’s Drag Race season 1, then went to bed at 10pm. We had a full day of diligent interneting ahead of us.

A chic couple of thirty-something Frenchmen sat across from us at breakfast. I’d been wearing the same pair of pants for three days, while one man wore a freshly pressed white button down and the other wore a sash as a belt over their draped pants. They filled us in that the day prior, the French staged a bit of a protest at the airport, with a mob of countrymen storming back and forth across the airport screaming “Get us out”. I’m not sure if this strategy worked or if flights were brewing already, but the French government organized repatriation flights for its citizens.

The couple spoke with their bags sitting next to them, and after eating the two promptly left for the airport and didn’t return. Shortly after their departure another French couple we’d met the day before, a mother/daughter duo, sat down and told us they’d secured a flight for 2am. There was a lot of waiting between now and takeoff, and their nerves were on display as they spoke. With the French getting out, it was just us and the Brits remaining.

Our next hours were spent much the same as the day before: Twitter to email to Whatsapp, all while on hold with the airlines we’d previously held tickets with, checking if any flights had opened up and asking for refunds. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Only when the afternoon call to prayer sounded (a moment I always savored) was the spell broken and we went up to the roof deck for some fresh air.

The British couples were absorbing the sunlight when we arrived. The four of them fit together so well I assumed they’d traveled together from day 1, but they’d actually met at the Marrakech airport on Sunday trying to catch a flight out. All unlucky, they booked the riad together and were inseparable ever since. One couple was in their early sixties, the other their late seventies.  The men each wore khaki sun hats while the women wore sundresses. All seemed incredibly chipper given  the circumstances. With smiles they explained their last three mornings had been spent at the airport, waking at daybreak to stand in line for potential flights, then coming back to the riad at noon after striking out.

I wanted to cry hearing all of this. These were people who fell into the “high risk” category. Those who should not be butting up against tourists in tight quarters. Who should have been out on the earliest flight possible. But with no clear system in place and everyone in the same situation, tickets weren’t going to the most worthy, they were just going to the lucky.

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That afternoon we watched one episode of Drag Race only to find that when the show ended we were 17 minutes behind on a tweet from the U.S. embassy, who’d retweeted a message from the U.K embassy that new flights were available. This lead took us nowhere, since at that point the flights had all been sold out for hours. But, we did learn some valuable lessons. 1) There is no break from Twitter. 2) Immediately begin following the UK embassy for flight updates. 3) The U.S. embassy is completely ineffective. In the last 48 hours they’d released no new information other than “enroll your information and standby”. The French embassy got its citizens out, The UK was doing the same, but the U.S. was merely piggy-backing off of flights arranged by another country.

Morocco’s UK ambassador Thomas Reilly (@TSAReilly) stepped up and did a stellar job for his citizens — Between the 16th-18th of March, he personally tweeted over 250 times while the UK embassy released 30 messages. Most of Reilly’s tweets were flight updates, but many were direct responses to individual citizens, answering questions sent his way. He was empathetic and involved and I have so much respect for him and his work. I also give him and the UK embassy credit for my husband and I getting out of Morocco.

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During that same period of time the U.S. embassy tweeted 11 times. That’s the lot of it, and considering several of those were just retweets from the UK embassy, the number shrinks even further. Who is the U.S. ambassador to Morocco you may ask? Well, it’s David T. Fisher, appointed in December 2019. Was he at any point during all of this reaching out to U.S. citizens or taking any kind of ownership in the situation? That would be a large nooooo. In fact, his name is scarcely mentioned around the embassy’s Twittersphere at all. While I do respect an individual’s decision to stay off of social media, if you’re the face of inter-country dilemmas and are promising information only via Twitter, you better tweet your ass off.

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To further complicate things, the UK embassy announced that in 24 hours Morocco would close down its airspace entirely, and had no date set when flights would open back up (As I’m writing this Morocco’s State of Emergency now extends to May 20th, with residents requiring authorization from officials to leave their homes). Adding a ticking clock onto an incredibly stressful situation doubles the emotions already in play.

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We weren’t sure where we were going to stay should we be stranded for another week. Or a month. The riad was fully staffed, but the few guests there had no desire to remain. Speaking with Mohammed on the third morning of lockdown, he was clearly worried. He wanted to be home. Not his Marrakech home, but home-home. Staying with his family outside of the city. He wanted to send his staff home to keep them safe. If in a few days we still hadn’t made it out of the country we’d need to relocate. We understood; if we were in his situation we’d want the same.

Phone calls with our parents were hard. The voices that usually bring comfort were trembling. At times, there were obvious tears on the other line. Needing to tell those who love you that you’ll be ok, when you don’t know if you’ll be ok, is painful. And I’m sure our voices were shaking right back. It was during one of these calls, as Carl was speaking to his parents, that I landed on a comment to one of TSAReilly’s tweets — Posted just a few minutes earlier, it said there were two new Ryanair flights departing for London that evening. My eyes widened. I went onto Ryanair’s site and behold, tickets were available. I flailed my arms at Carl, motioning to this information. He got off the phone. We were getting out.

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