What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been – Feb. & Mar. 2020 — Morocco

What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been – Feb. & Mar. 2020 — Morocco

I left home for Madrid, Spain on 28 Jan. 2020.  I picked Nancy up at the Casablanca International Airport, Morocco on 22 Feb. 

I believe everyone is in agreement that our world has changed in the last two months.  For those traveling like us the change presented challenges, worries, options to discuss, fall back plans and decisions.

2 Feb 2020 an email I wrote: “I am not saying to do nothing but a student at AZ State U wants to cancel classes, etc. and more people died of measles, flu, car accidents, gun deaths, etc last year and no one thought this was a pandemic and the President and at least one Secretary told us this isn’t an issue.”   (My underline today not at the time of my email.)

The above is my reply to a short string of emails that I started.  I can’t say I wasn’t aware of the C19 virus within days of leaving home.  I will say it wasn’t for another month before I began to think the virus might not only impact our travels but the lives of friends and family.

Dec. 31 China confirms existence of a new virus.

Jan. 20 first reported case in U.S.

Jan. 22 China shuts down Wuhan

Jan. 22 trump: “We have it totally under control.  It’s one person coming in from China.”

I arrived in Madrid, picked up the 4Runner and drove northwest towards Segovia, Avilla, Salamanca, and the tiny village of Santa Cruz located in the Sierra de la Culebra.  I left Santa Cruz for a night and morning in Ciudad Rodrigo before driving onto Toledo.  Toledo to Marbella for new tires and hi-lift jack for the 4Runner.  Broke the 4Runner’s new tires in with a short drive to a ferry from Spain to Morocco on 10 Feb.After new tires and hi lift jack were installed on the 4Runner I took a 10 Feb. afternoon car ferry to Morocco.

And 33 days later Spain declared a state of emergency due to the C19 virus.  I left Spain and was unaware of any talk of the virus – 33 days later the country locks down!

On 22 Feb. I picked Nancy up at the Casablanca International Airport and we drove to Fez for a 4-day/5-night stay.  Our travel plans were based on us staying in Morocco and the Western Sahara until late April – experience maybe the first week of Ramadan.  Then take the ferry back to Spain for a month or more of spring wild flowers and birds.  We were planning on returning home sometime in mid May to early June. 

Feb. 23 Italy locks down – 50,000 cases.

Feb. 27 U.S. stock market crashes.

Feb. 29 First C19 death in U.S.

Mar. 10 Morocco records first C19 death.

We arrived in Marrakesh on the afternoon of 12 March.  This was the day of our C19 virus awakening and the possibility of not going home anytime soon.  We did the typical Moroccan check-in that includes a 30+ minute conversation with the owner.  This was when we heard Morocco had at least one confirmed virus death, people were buying and hoarding toilet paper just like in the U.S. and Europeans had been told to book flights for home by their Embassies. 

Our riad owner, not the U.S. government made us start to think the C19 virus was something we needed to investigate and understand.  We both spent the remainder of the day and the next morning on the Internet reading as much as we could digest about the C19 virus.  It quickly became apparent that the scientific and medical experts believed this was more than just a serious flu, it was a killer virus that has no medical cure and a vaccine is at minimum 12 to 18 months and maybe several years away from widespread distribution.

Mar. 11 trump holds an Oval office speech – we watched.  Stock market futures crash over 600 points during his talk.

Mar 12 trump: “If an American is coming back or anybody is coming back, we’re testing,  We have a tremendous testing setup where people coming in have to be tested … We’re not putting them on planes if it shows positive, but if they do come here, we’re quarantining.”

Mar. 13 Morocco suspends all flights & ferries to Spain, Italy, France & Algeria.

Mar. 13 I sent an email to several doctors and family: Do we stay or do we go?  Consensus replies was: stay.  It was felt things were worse in the U.S. than Morocco.

Mar. 14 Spain goes into lock down.

Mar. 14 Morocco adds 25 countries to its list of no flights but the U.S. isn’t on the list.

Mar. 14 I spent 6+ hours trying to find a flight out of Morocco to anywhere – no luck.

Mar. 15 Morocco suspends all international flights.

Mar. 15 Watched videos of the complete unpreparness of our federal gov. and the resulting total chaos for returning Americans at U.S. airports – decided we had better chance of not catching C19 virus in Morocco than returning to a U.S. airport.

Mar. 15 Watched VP Pence’s live briefing on NPR – I felt we were hearing scientific/medical facts.

Everyday Nancy and I were spending several hours on the Internet and then discuss “Should we stay or Should we go” (Take off of Clash song in 1981 – thanks to cousin Rick on bringing this to my attention and yes I own the CD.)  It was always the last thing we discussed before going to sleep and the first thing we talked about in the morning.

We knew the C19 virus cases were rising exponentially in the U.S.  But the U.S. is home, family is there, and overall medical care for those with Medicare is good and yes we are in that group of privileged individuals with government provided Medicare.  Morocco has few cases, took action earlier than the U.S., has poor public health care but good private care hospitals but no one – family – to help us if both of us catch the C19 virus.

Mar. 15 Contacted U.S. Embassy by email and provided requested contact information for the two of us.

Mar. 16 Received auto response from Embassy telling us if we die call the emergency number and same if we go to jail – nothing about C19 virus or evacuation flights to U.S.

Mar. 16 Morocco shuts down all restaurants, tourist locations, etc.

We spent our day at our hotel but went out at 4:30 to get dinner and watched the city shut down from our outdoor restaurant table.  About 5:40 I told Nancy it was time to pay the bill and head home – the restaurant staff was moving chairs and tables into the building.

We decided that it would be safer for us somewhere other than Marrakesh.  I decided the safer place at least for the next week would be Taroudant.  Taroudant is 3.5 hrs south; only 80,000 people and I booked a room outside of town.

At this point in time I am beginning to think we won’t be able to travel home until June and maybe later.  No flights out of Morocco and only foreign government sponsored flights are allowed to land and pick-up their citizens.  I am reading the virus will peak in April/May in the U.S.  If the U.S. is to peak in April/May hopefully Morocco will peak earlier and be able to open its airports to at least a limited number of international flights by June.  Therefore we have sort of resigned ourselves to a long stay in Morocco.

Since it appeared we were going to be in Morocco for several more months I began looking for additional places with small populations and off the primary tourist path to visit and hunker down for days, weeks or months.

On our arrival we made the mistake of driving down this street.  Although later we were told Marrakesh was almost empty of tourist on the day of our arrival we did no more than three or four miles per hour due to foot traffic, horse carriages, bikes and taxis.

minute walk. 

Our bedroom and then there is the large bathroom, the larger sitting room and the covered porch which is two-thirds the size of the above three rooms combined.

18 Mar – Washington Post, Forbes, NBC, WSJ, NYT, etc. report on stranded Americans in Morocco, Peru, etc. and no help from the U.S. government in getting these Americans home.

An email by me on the morning of 19 Mar:

“Come to Morocco plenty of food and toilet paper.  Unfortunately no U.S. government in Morocco is helping U.S. citizens.

If you want to see the State Departments total disregard for helping U.S. citizens go to US Embassy Morocco and check out their twitter response and then read the replies (by American citizens).  I believe the last twitter message from Embassy was 30 hours ago; UK updates every hour and has been flying people home for at least the last three days.  Believe the U.S. ambassador was head of Automobile Association and doesn’t believe in climate change.  Arrived in Jan. and haven’t bother to check to see if he is still here.

We took a very nice drive for about 4.5 hours.  I touched an ATM and washed hands and took a gas receipt paper and washed hands. Sitting on our terrace and waiting for dinner in about three hours.

Stay healthy!”

During our drive we beat the rain home but the effects of the rain beat us the next day.

A second email by me on the morning of 19 Mar.: “Hiding out in Morocco. 

Will come home when flights are available or should the gov/US Embassy get its act together. Other countries flew or are flying citizens home and giving hourly updates. 

U S is recommending you try to fly to another country and at this time don’t think helping citizens fly home is necessary. Last BS embassy twitter is 30 hrs ago. DRAIN THE SWAMP, BABY!”

Nancy’s phone woke her up at 3:40 am. Friday 20 Mar.  It was an email from the State Department notifying Americans in Morocco that there would be five flights beginning at 9:30 Friday morning or less than six hours from the time of the message.  Nancy woke me up and I in a less than good humor got up and politely replied to the Embassy requesting two seats for the U.S. and providing all requested information on the two of us. I then notified family we were coming home.  Then back to bed for more sleep.

We got up early and packed.  I asked for our breakfast about 30 minutes earlier than our previously requested 9:00 am time.  We let the owner know we were leaving and would not be staying another night with them (or more).  Settled up our bill and tipped our English translator and more importantly very good cook.

We were out the gate by 10:00 am and that gave us five and half hours to make a three and half hour trip – as long as you don’t drive into a sinkhole.

I hit the hole with the front tire and said something like, “oh shit!”  The rear tire sank up to the axle. 

I opened the door and squeezed out of my seat to the ground, climbed up to the roof rack, open the storage box and threw down our shovel, then unlocked our traction boards and threw them down, climbed down and began digging. 

Nancy volunteered to walk back to our hotel to get help. 

The digging: the tire is in mud but less than a foot forward of the tire or back from the tire is dry almost concrete, rocky dirt.  I am thinking I may get the mud away from the tire but don’t think my collapsible shovel is strong enough to penetrate the dry rock hard dirt.  Don’t think I can create a ramp so as to place the traction boards under the wheel.  Keep digging, Tom.

In the next 15 minutes I made damn little progress in getting us out of the hole.  Nancy returned with the owner and his grounds man.  They spent the next 20 to 30 minutes trying to pull us out with the owner’s Land Rover.  No luck. 

The grounds man called for a tractor.  About 15 minutes later a small farm tractor showed up.  First try – nothing.  The grounds man and an on looker using someone’s pick and my shovel spent ten minutes digging and then the tractor tried a second time.  I was in 4-wheel drive, the tractor was pulling and slowly I began to move – Yes, we are on dry ground!!!

Before I can pay for all this help – everyone was gone.  Gone like in less than five minutes after I was out of the hole.  Not a single person ever put their hand out, they just helped.

We drove back to the hotel.  Dropped the grounds man off.  But he wouldn’t let us leave until he has washed the mud off the 4Runner and cleaned our floor mats.  I gave him money and asked him to spread it around to those who helped us.  As is the custom in Morocco he refused the money but I told him the money was a gift for their generosity in helping us not a payment.

Out the gate and on our way again.  Drove a little faster than the speed limit for the first hour.  Then for the next two-hour we were on a 4-lane divided highway with a posted speed limit of 120 km/72 mph and I averaged a little more than 80.

We arrived at the airport and drove into the parking lot.  Grabbed our bags, locked the 4Runner and began walking toward a very empty airport entrance.

I will state the Embassy people at the airport had everything in a very organized setup.  First table you provide your name and they find you on a computer.  They give you a promissory note to fill out and provided a pen.  You fill out the form and drop your pen into a box – the pens are not reused.  Next table an official checks your paperwork.  This official then points you to the line to stand in for issuance of your ticket.  We were a little surprised that we were flying British Airways rather than a U.S. carrier.  Took us less than ten minutes in line before we were in front of a ticketing agent checked our bags and had our tickets handed to us.  This was a very efficient ticketing process.

Our gate is A2 – middle far left in photograph.  As you can see in the photograph not a lot of people at our gate and the other gates are not in use.

Our flight left about an hour late.  I am guessing the flight was 60% or less full.  We talked with one of the stewardesses for 45 minutes or more before and during the flight.  She told us she was given only a couple of hours from notification at home to takeoff of the flight.  There were almost no provisions on the plane – one water and one bag of nuts per person.

We landed and deboarded.  We were met by a British Airway representative who passed out vouchers for a bus ride from and back to the airport.  Took maybe three minutes to go through passport control.  Five minutes to pickup our bags and then it was out the terminal doors to our bus.  Less than ten minutes later our bus was on its way – and you were lucky if no one was less than three feet away from you.  I will say it was a happy crowded bus and no one was complaining.

We arrived at a Radisson hotel.  Stood in a line for a couple of minutes where everybody kept several steps away from the nearest person to them and then received our room number and entry card plus our dinner and breakfast vouchers.

Before we left our table for the dinner buffet I made a quick stop at the bar for two gin martinis up.  We definitely are no longer in Morocco – (1) a bar is available and (2) the price of the martinis was about one sixth of our daily budget in Morocco.  But after our day even a high priced martini didn’t bring our moods down.

I woke up the next morning and checked on our flight.  Our flight was on British Airway not a U.S. carrier and to leave at 3:30 pm.  We did breakfast and about 11:00 am caught the bus to the airport.

We stood in a very short line to check in.  The British Airway agent asked for my name and I gave it to her.  “Sir you don’t appear in our reservation system.”  A couple of minutes later she finds William Allin which should have been Thomas William Allin.  Five minutes later she has the name corrected and issues my ticket.

“Sir, your wife’s name.”  Nancy answers with Nancy Melissa Key.  “Hmm, I don’t see that name”.  Five minutes later, “Sir do you have your ticket subs from yesterday’s flight?”  I have no reason why but for one of the few times in my life if ever I say yes and hand our ticket stubs to her.  Long story short, the agent spent 20+ minutes on the phone to someone and never let them hang up until she had printed a ticket for Nancy and handed it to her.

Our flight to Dallas was uneventful – just like I want every flight to be.  Shortly after we boarded we were given a form to fill out and told to present it to some unknown person when we land.  Deboarding was slow – they allowed 15 people at a time to get off.  The person who collects our forms tells everyone we have been given the wrong forms, hands us new forms and we fill them out by using the jet way wall as a writing surface.

Once inside the terminal our forms are collected and we are told we are being requested to self-quarantine for 14 days – that’s it.  No temperature taken and of course no test since the government still doesn’t have enough test for hospitals much less airports.

We pass through Pass Port control and into the United States.  We were home.

Again, I must say as little help as the U.S. government and our State Department provided us the Embassy staff at the Marrakesh airport was very professional and friendly.

I can’t think of a time when it’s more important that factual information is provided from the President of your country than a worldwide pandemic or war.  Individual citizens have to make decisions based on this information.  If we had been provided factual information maybe we would have (or could have) left Morocco before Morocco shut down all international flights.  Maybe we would have and maybe we wouldn’t have caught a flight out but I never had the opportunity to make this decision because of misinformation or no information.

I also want to state that even thought this pandemic virus is a complicated issue I felt the scientific and medical community provided easy to understand and straightforward information.  My error was in not reading the scientific and medical information back in Feb. rather than waiting until early to mid March.

This debacle has been eye opener for me.  I have always felt that our U.S. Passport provided a certain security other countries couldn’t provide their citizens and the backing of the U.S. government.  I now know this is no longer a fact.  Our Embassy diplomatic staffs no longer are able to provide timely information or assistance as quickly as other countries’ embassies.

We aren’t going to stop traveling but I now know I must rely on ourselves in times of trouble. 

I hope everyone will get out and see the world.  It’s a wonderful place to explore.

Tom Allin

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