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Trapped in Morocco

I would like to preface this article by saying that my friend and I now realize how risky it was to travel during Spring Break, and we probably should have heeded the University’s advice to stay home. Nonetheless, we thankfully did eventually make it back safe and now have a great story in the arsenal for future cocktails parties, when social distancing is a mere memory.

My classmate, Teresa and I were supposed to go on DBi Morocco a few weeks ago. Teresa is in my block and always sat in the front with me in our foundation classes. To her dismay, I call those days the “acquaintance days.” We became “B-school besties,” another term she loves, when we did DBi China last summer, with a precursor trip to Hong Kong. It is rare to find a friend that you can travel with for extended periods of time, on little sleep, all while continuing to mesh with them. It is even more rare to find someone you can be stranded with in another country, during a pandemic, and actually enjoy the experience.

We were thrilled when we both got into DBi Morocco and started planning a Sahara trip prior to the start of the course. When NYU canceled all school trips at the end of February, we were disappointed at first, but ultimately decided to make it a personal vacation. We planned the itinerary for our 9-day trip and decided to tour as much of Morocco as possible. It is already hard to think of a time when we weren’t all COVID-obsessed, but it was a different time then. COVID-19 felt like an extraneous concept, not a very real virus invading home turf. We boarded our flights that Wednesday evening, not realizing that the WHO was about to label COVID-19 a pandemic and that Trump would implement a Europe-wide travel ban. Indeed, we arrived on foreign territory the next morning in more than one sense. 

Following the news, Teresa and I reconvened in Marrakech to decide what our new plans should be. Should we fly straight home (that would have been the correct answer), or continue with our planned trip? We stalked the CDC, WHO, and news websites. Morocco, at that time, only had 7 confirmed COVID cases. Surely, we were safer in Morocco than we were in our home city? After some discussion, we decided on the latter and compromised by changing our returning flights to direct and registering with the U.S. Embassy in Morocco.

The first few days in Morocco seemed almost completely normal. The market in Marrakech’s medina was in full swing. The beautiful palaces and hotels were still open and free to visit after a quick temperature check. That weekend, we left Marrakech and started our trek into the Atlas Mountains. The hosts of our dar (guesthouse) mentioned how tourism was slowing down, due to Coronavirus, but that was the extent of the irregularity we experienced. Saturday morning, we ascended into the desert and fell off the radar. There were camels to ride, drums to play, tagine recipes to consume, and glamping to do. (On a side note, I cannot recommend a trip to the Sahara more. I was enchanted with the dessert and particularly with “my” camel, renamed Joey. However, I would suggest not going during a pandemic.) 

We emerged from the desert Sunday evening and we could not escape the reality of how troubling things were becoming globally. We still felt naively safe in our little bubble but could tell that the tide was turning. We traveled to Fes, staying in its Medina. We went out to dinner that night and noticed that there were only two other tables seated. That was when reality began to set in. Walking through that maze of a Medina back to our dar, I realized just how empty the streets were. The situation became even scarier when we were followed and yelled at by strangers. We made it back to the dar safely and were decompressing when we received an email from the U.S. Embassy in Morocco, stating that Morocco was closing its borders, effective immediately. There were no flights for the foreseeable future and a lockdown was being put into effect the following evening at 6pm. 

This was a perfect example of what Teresa calls, “you chose,” when you make a decision and then live with the consequences. I would like to say that we were alarmed or frightened at the news, but the truth was that we just laughed. What else could we do? The next morning, we called the U.S. Embassy, who told us to “stay put.” We explored Fes before the lockdown was implemented but the atmosphere had changed, and the fear of the locals became apparent. As we walked by, people covered their faces and muttered, “Coronavirus.”  We began to feel unsafe walking around, which peaked when we were chased by a man trying to sell us a kilogram of oranges. “WE DON’T WANT ANY ORANGES,” we shrieked as we ran away. It’s funny now when we think of it, but not so much at the time.

That evening, we decided that it would be in our best interest to go to Casablanca to be near the U.S. Consulate and the international airport. So, the next morning, on St. Patrick’s Day, we made our way to Morocco’s commercial center. Casablanca is very different from Marrakech and Fes – as it is less medieval and Arabic styled, and more modern in appearance – it is often not a favorite among tourists. However, if you think you are going to have to live in Morocco indefinitely, I’d highly recommend it. We got a beautiful Airbnb for $50 a night in a high-rise by the beach. The city was eerily quiet and the locals we encountered appeared to be distraught. Their economy is so dependent on tourism, that even a few days in lockdown was making an impact. We still made the most of our time there; going on daily runs, walking to all the tourist attractions, cooking meals, and having movie nights. Casablanca, the movie, is a must-see. 

The U.S. Consulate was not able to give us any information on how or when we would be able to go home, because there wasn’t any. Teresa and I spent a nice afternoon there interrogating all the security guards (they wouldn’t let us in) and heckling the other Americans also trying to get in. We discussed what we were going to do if we had to live there for the next month or so. She would be able to work and attend classes remotely, since she had the sense to bring her computer. I only had my phone and worried about how work would take the news of me being stranded in another country during a pandemic. It did not go over well. Interestingly, hospitals need their healthcare workers local during a state of emergency. Who would have thought?  

Expats stranded in Morocco were starting to get media attention from across the globe. A New York Times article connected us to social media platforms to talk to other Americans in the same situation. A WhatsApp group was how we found out about a repatriation flight to the UK. The flight was operated by Ryanair and would leave the next day from Marrakech. We booked it immediately. It felt too good to be true, but there was no alternative. The next day we left Casablanca and took a three-hour taxi to Marrakech. We gave ourselves eight hours of wait time at the airport. We were not taking any chances. The airport was mayhem. Thousands of tourists were trying to get home with no way out. When it was eventually time to check in, I looked around and had my suspicions about how the hundreds of people around us were going to be able to board this one flight. We felt safe, however, knowing that we had seats assigned, when the vast majority had unassigned seats. While we waited on line, Teresa and I held witty repartee and made friends with the passengers around us, but we could tell tensions were high on that line. People were yelling and accusing each other of cutting the line. Everyone was shouting at the poor check-in woman. By the time Teresa and I made it to the counter, she was almost in tears. We asked if she was going to be okay and she replied that she didn’t know how everyone was going to get on the flight, as it was completely overbooked.

Going through security was a breeze and the only easy part of that ordeal. We found a restaurant and celebrated that we were leaving by spending all our dirham. When our gate was listed, we made our way there. There were already over a hundred people in front of us waiting to board, and in a few minutes, over a hundred behind us. Again, I was worried about making the flight but felt reassured by having assigned seats. 

Eventually, boarding began, and we made our way up the line. When it was our turn to have our tickets scanned, boarding stopped to let a full bus make its way to the aircraft’s ramp stairs. I nervously waited for what felt like an eternity for an empty bus to arrive. My ticket and Teresa’s were scanned, as were four American retirees’, and we hopped on the bus. We were the last people to get on the bus. The 100+ people on line behind us were not going to be leaving Morocco that night. As the bus pulled up to the plane, the retirees booked it, making Teresa and I the last people to board the plane. Our assigned seats were obviously gone. I was ready to sit in the bathroom, the aisle, or on someone’s lap at that point, if it meant that I would make it home. The plane sat on the tarmac for nearly two hours as they unloaded the luggage of all the people, who had not made the flight. Later I found out, when I asked the flight attendant, that over 300 people had been checked-in for a flight with 189 seats.

We arrived in London Stansted Airport at 12am. To our surprise, there were no health questionnaires, temperature checks, or even Customs officers. We went through an automated passport check and voila, we were in the UK. We took a two-hour Uber from Stansted to Heathrow and attempted to sleep for a few hours before our next flight to JFK. As uncomfortable as those plastic chairs were, I have never been so happy to sleep in an airport. We checked in for our flight at 5am and I got my first airport lounge experience (thanks to Teresa’s swanky AmEx). The rest of the journey went smoothly. We took a very empty Virgin Atlantic flight to JFK. I was satisfied with the CDC’s screening on arrival and joyful to be back on American soil. 

So, what did I learn from all this? Well, first of all, if there is even a small possibility of a pandemic, I am probably not leaving NYC. I am definitely not going to a developing country. I am now distrustful of fruit vendors, especially if they sell oranges by the kilo. Casablanca is a timeless movie. Teresa and I will be lifelong friends. Also, I need an AmEx Platinum.

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