Travel In the Time Of Corona: Repatriation

We were getting out. Three days ago Morocco closed its borders, preventing travel in or out of the country, and went into lockdown. Since then my husband and I had spent the vast majority of our waking minutes desperately trying to nab seats on one of the few repatriation flights organized by the UK. The U.S. embassy was providing no updates or assistance getting back home, so we, along with thousands of other stranded tourists, were duking it out for coveted tickets. It was at 2pm on Wednesday March 18th when we finally secured tickets for a 7:20pm to London, after days of anxiety.

Our experience of being stranded in Marrakech is chronicled here, this post is about our repatriation.

Our bags were already packed. All we had to do was toss in our toiletries then triple check we had our passports before hurrying downstairs to catch a cab to the airport. In the entryway we say goodbye to our saint of a Riad owner Mohamed, who tells us to keep him posted with any updates we have (none of us are convinced the flight will depart). The porter leads us through the pedestrian-only medina towards the streets to find a cab. Morocco’s medinas are what come to mind when envisioning the country — Narrow and bustling streets, clay-colored walls,  vibrant rugs hanging outside shop doors.  Now these shops are shuttered and the streets are eerily quiet.

IMG_20200318_150810

We see only a few people out, and the majority of them are occupied in a fist fight. To avoid the scuffle we walk through Djemaa el-Fna, the largest square in the city and the main tourist attraction. From day into night this square is crammed with food stalls, musicians and magicians — It’s where juice venders juice, snake charmers charm and monkey tamers tame. It’s the heart of the city, usually filled with thousands, and it too is empty. Every moment of the last week has felt increasingly more surreal, and seeing this square deserted set the tone for the coming weeks and months.

Marrakech Menara Airport has been swarmed with travellers since the travel restrictions began.  Hundreds of people are outside of the airport when we arrive, spread over the tightly manicured grass. Some sleep, others read on their phones. On Twitter I’d seen questions posed asking if it was safe to sleep outside of the consulate in Casablanca, and hope that the airport lawn is only a daytime campsite.

IMG_20200318_152338

With four hours before the flight is set to depart, check-in hasn’t yet begun. We find a cafe, split a sandwich and coffee, and when we circle back around 30 minutes later the line for check-in is hundreds of passengers long and wrapped around the terminal. Over the next hour the line continues to grow, but no one has actually begun the check-in process. Those waiting begin to panic, and start exhibiting mobish symptoms. The line bifurcates – Creating a brand new line comprised of those that have decided they don’t need to wait with everyone else, and can create their own rules. Each line continues to compress and when check-in finally starts the pace is glacial. After two hours in line we’ve moved maybe thirty feet. We have another fifty feet or so to go when all hell breaks loose.

The monitor announces the 7pm flight to London Stansted, the line beside ours, is now cancelled. There’s shouting and alarm, and with us set to leave on Ryanair’s 7:20pm flight to Stansted, confusion and unease in our line. Minutes later the 7:20pm flight switches to cancelled and the shouting intensifies, until a clearly exasperated Ryanair staffer starts screaming that everything is fine, the flights are still on, everyone remain where you are.

A Brit responds to this by popping a bottle of champagne and yelling “We’re getting out motherfuckers!” as foam spews across his luggage and onto his partner. Humorous, sure, but the uncorking creates a shot-like sound which is frightening in such cramped quarters. Should he have done that in the States there would be an immediate tackling.

With less than 90 minutes until departure two additional check-in counters are opened and the two lines became four. Carl and I, who at this point are in the middle of the line, are now at the end. Flight misinformation is lobbed around to the point where no one knows for sure just what’s happening. Those in front of us say the flight is overbooked and seats are on a first come, first serve basis. Those behind us say that if you haven’t already checked in online that you aren’t getting a seat. Someone else says that if you didn’t print out your boarding pass that you aren’t boarding. It’s chaos.

The Irish couple behind us asks if we can watch their bags as they set off to find a printer in the airport and upon their return thirty minutes later they somehow manage to hop a few spots in front of us. Passengers shove and push and as I watch this animalistic state brought out in those around me I start to cry. But As soon as the tears flow two Londoners nearby tell me they understand how I’m feeling, and when they hear we’re trying to get back to the States, offer to let us stay in their flat should we find ourselves stranded in England. A woman behind me offers me chocolate and tells me she’s trying to get to Mexico City before the US/Mexico border closes, so that she can get home to her children. This makes me cry harder.

One of the myriad things this virus has managed is to make me feel grateful, miserable and guilty simultaneously. Things suck. They suck for everyone. But, they objectively suck for some, more. When I get down about the world being on fire I realize the fire directly around me is manageable, while others have flames coming out the sides of their face.

There will always be the shouters and the shovers, and there will always be the comforters and all we can do is try to be more like the later and to learn to coexist with the former.

At 8:30pm, an hour after our scheduled takeoff, we’re finally at the front of the line. As soon as the Ryanair staffer took a look at my red eyes he exclaimed “You’re on the flight. It will depart. Everyone is getting on”. This simple act is an unbelievably kind one, and because we don’t know of another way to express gratitude beyond “thank you” we ask how he’s doing. He hasn’t had a break. The printer broke and they can’t print out any passes (ok, so that’s one rumor that turned out to be true). He’s obviously tired but he’s doing a hell of a job with what he’s got. Pow Pow – he stamps our self-printed boarding passes and we jet off.

The final boarding call for both Stansted flights is made as we hit security. Walking through the metal detector I’m asked to untie the jacket around my waist and put it onto the conveyor belt. I comply, walk through the detector, throw my backpack on and run to find the gate, immediately forgetting the jacket. I have the brain capacity of a gopher at this point.

IMG_20200318_203136

We locate the gate, board the bus that takes us to the plane, sit in our assigned seats, and finally, breathe. Even the couple that holds tickets for the 7pm flight and accidentally boarded ours is sat. I’ve never been so grateful to be on a plane in my entire life and I know everyone else feels the same, because this is the only flight I’ve been on that’s had an ovation upon takeoff.

IMG_20200318_203530

Thank god, the flight itself is uneventful. We land in London’s Stansted airport at 1am and go through customs via a robot. All we need to do is place our passport on top of a scanner, look into a camera, and voila, we’re in the UK. In any other circumstances I’d be over the moon at how simple this all is, but with no one checking temperatures or monitoring our travel history I fear for how all-too-easy it is for travellers to carry this virus into the country.

One week ago, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and borders across the globe shut down, before caseloads ballooned across Europe, we decided that instead of going to France, Germany and The Netherlands for a month, we’d instead spend a few days in the UK before jetting home early. After all the stress of a honeymoon during Coronavirus, what we really wanted before returning home was an evening in a good English pub. We’d wind down, have some pints and blow off some steam.

Seven days later everything is a mess — While the UK doesn’t have any lockdown in place, we don’t want to risk getting stuck abroad all over again. And while it’s tempting to spend 24 hours in London, to see Big Ben and the Tower of London, we know that’s unwise. Given the number of hours we’ve spent in airports and around potential carriers, we don’t want to be heading into pubs and restaurants and potentially infecting others. We’re symptomless, but that phrase has lost its usual meaning.

Instead, we keep our masks where they are, take an Uber to the Heathrow Sofitel and book a flight en-route for 11am the next day to Washington D.C. I so want to see London’s skyline, wish we could wiz by Piccadilly Circus, but the route is entirely highway around the city, and all I see is a vague glow off in the distance, above the treeline. Still, I’m thrilled to be out of Morocco and into the UK, and when room service delivers fish & chips, mushy peas and two pints of English ale to us at 3am, I smile like I haven’t in days.

IMG_20200319_022410

I brace myself as we leave for the airport in the morning. We expect chaos, cancelled flights,  thousands scrambling to get home. We find Heathrow nearly empty. Some flights are departing as scheduled, but with few travellers dotted about the terminal I don’t know who will board them. Security takes mere minutes and to pass the time before our flight we sit down for a full English breakfast and another pint. I’m not big on drinking before flights, but dammit did that beans and streaky bacon taste good with a bitter ale.

IMG_20200319_093547

IMG_20200319_101801

IMG_20200319_095547

Almost everyone sitting at our plane gate is in their late teens or early twenties — I’m assuming students returning home after their semester abroad was cancelled. When it’s time to board, the line for our international flight out of one of the world’s busiest airports is only thirty-long. First class and business class seats are entirely vacant, the small crowd fits into coach, and once we’re all seated everyone rearranges themselves to be as socially distant from one another as possible. After dozens of crammed flights over the last few months I’m incredibly thankful to have an entire row to ourselves.

IMG_20200319_113015

Because the United States doesn’t have the appropriate health screenings in place across all international airports, we’re unable to fly directly to Pittsburgh — Washington’s Dulles airport is one of the ten locations across the country travellers can fly into from abroad. Passengers deplane and line up before a scrubs-and-face-mask-clad panel, and I feel hopeful that the country has its shit together to successfully screen for COVID. Alas, disappointment, how quickly you rear your head again after a few hours without your presence.

Each passenger fills out a form asking where we’ve travelled in the last 30 days and if we have symptoms like fever or a cough, then we’re ushered to an individual who reads the form, asking us to confirm what we’ve written: “So you’re coming from The UK, Morocco, Namibia, South Africa, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand and Taiwan?” “Yes”. Do you have a fever, cough, Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or a sore throat?” “No”. “Well, since you’ve travelled to the UK you should self quarantine for the next 14 days”. My form is stamped and that’s it — I’m free to enter the country and travel where I please.

IMG_20200319_172214

I’m sure the scrubbed up individual is checking for any obvious symptoms, but my temperature is not taken and no in-depth questions are asked. When I hand this form over to customs, the officer notes that the temperature field on my form is blank. “They didn’t take it” I said, to which he responded “They didn’t take it!?” When he sees the stamp given by the health team he shakes his head for a moment before cheerily exclaiming, “Welcome back!”

Further plane travel from D.C. to Pittsburgh sounds time consuming, risky and expensive, so we opt to rent a car instead. From the airport we pop into our rental, and on the balmy evening of March 19th begin our drive home. Cherry blossoms are in bloom all around us and I have that brief thought “Everything looks so lovely, the air is warm and the sun is hanging just right, there can’t be a global pandemic actively taking place around us”. I want to turn around and take a walk around the monuments with everything in bloom, but through all of this, the moral of the story is that what you want is not more important than the greater good. Sure, a fresh haircut is nice, but you know what’s even better? Not dying. And not making someone else die. So we keep driving.

Hoping to skip the stress that comes with suburban highways, we opt for the scenic route through the countryside. There are fields and forests and with the evening sun sinking into the trees it’s all quite splendorous, except for the house parties we drive past. A spring Thursday in rural Maryland brings out groups for barbeques and beers, even amidst the pandemic. After the mess and trouble we’d gone through to get back, I was dismayed to witness this. At that time New York was already reporting 3,000 new cases a day, and as the two of us were driving home to begin quarantine, porch parties are in full swing.

And because there just has to be one final hurdle to pass through before we can call it a night and pull into a Cumberland MD Hampton Inn, right after darkness falls we manage to find ourselves on a backroad dotted with toads. Mating season has begun and these amphibious friends are crossing the road for love. Carl grew up on a farm and loves frogs and toads dearly, so to see him swerving every few seconds in a wild attempt to toad-dodge was not the idyllic country drive I was hoping for. I do believe that those swerves saved a few dozen toadious lives this evening, but I’m sure that like all first time forays into a video game, he does not have 100% accuracy.

IMG_5709

In the morning I experience my first, and hopefully last, socially distant continental breakfast. A posterboard lists out breakfast options like bagels, juice and coffee, to order from a staff member.  I have no problem with this system, but the amount of underlining in the phrase “Breakfast options will be served by one of our team members” is troublesome. There must have been a hell of a lot of transgressions in order for that format to be necessary.

Hours later, we are home.

It’s not hard to detail how we got home — I can string out a series of events and dates and flights, but in the weeks after the return it felt like I got back via wormhole. When placed in a situation this surreal, the brain doesn’t process everything fully. It clings on to some moments while trying desperately to fast-forward through others. Months later, it can still be painful to grapple with all of this, just as it can be painful each time a Friday rolls around and I realize that the last seven days felt identical to the seven before. Then a flood of emotions wash over me and I’m incredibly grateful to be home, to have gotten out of Morocco, to not be playing frogger with toads,  to be healthy and safe and to have Zoom calls with family.

Then the guilt inevitably kicks in and as I think of those in worse situations the cycle repeats and spins and twists. When I finally land on an emotion to feel, I realize it’s Tuesday and the process has begun all over again.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s