Two weeks ago, almost exactly, I got on a plane to Morocco with the intention of traveling through Africa and Portugal for a month. I highlight the “two weeks” part because one of my biggest takeaways from all of this is just how fast things escalate; how fast the virus COVID-19 escalates, and how fast government action escalated.
Yes, I know you can easily make an argument that, particularly in the US, the efforts are too little, too late, and too weak, but let me give you a picture of just 108 hours outside of the country. It’s hard for me to imagine I was only in Morocco for less than five days, it feels like it was several weeks. Unfortunately, it’s not a “I feel like I really got away from it all” kind of time warp and instead a “did that really all happen in that short time period??” kind of time warp.
The Build Up
I landed in Marrakech on a Wednesday morning after flying all night from the US. My exit point, Newark Airport, had been quiet but not completely empty, and my layover in Lisbon was a little more lively, but also quieter than normal. In fact, both airports were rather pleasant to travel through. People gave each other lots of space, there were no rushes or crowds to queue 30 minutes early for boarding, there was not a single worker anywhere that I saw who was even slightly ill, not even a sniffle. TSA lines were fast and easy. Quite frankly, it was travel like I hear it was in the “good ole days.”
I explored the medina a bit, and then slept nearly 10 hours to try and catch up on jetlag. By the next morning things started happening in almost 6 hour increments. It was that fast.
The US closed its borders to the Schengen Zone without warning. Then the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Morocco closed its borders to France and Spain, stranding thousands of tourists. Portugal was still open for business – though I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to go now – and then abruptly was not. The country would go on lockdown just a few days later. The UK and Ireland were added to the US border closure list, making my planned re-route through London useless.
South Africa, my next destination, seemed good at first especially with their past experience with Ebola and their low rates of the virus, and then the tour operator canceled all tours, everywhere, for the next six weeks. At this point, I was trying to reschedule and reroute flights nearly every 6 hours. Luckily, I only actually booked one set I had to abandon.
When I decided to cancel my trip and return straight to the US I could only find flights about 5-6 days away that I could afford. I’d like to think some airlines simply hadn’t taken their automatic revenue management systems offline yet rather than price-gouging, but who knows. More and more flights were canceled. I would get to the confirmation screen for a flight and then couldn’t pay. Websites were going down and customer service centers were so overwhelmed I couldn’t reach anyone, most of the time the phone line didn’t even connect. Meanwhile my own rental property was losing bookings nearly every hour, setting me up for a bleak couple of months from an income perspective.
I finally booked a flight via Canada and got on a bus back to a town near Marrakech. By the time I arrived though, I learned the border to Canada with Morocco was closed. 30 minutes later, the borders between Morocco and … everywhere… were closed.
How Did I Get Out?
The short answer is not easily. Unluckily, I’ve been through a crisis abroad before when I was caught in a riot in Chile. This gave me some experience. Luckily, I was also at a hotel with the most amazing manager. He had already figured out how to host stranded guests like me for weeks to a month if necessary. As a result I had at least one plan in place instantaneously.
I quickly spun up all my social media accounts and followed the embassies from Canada, France, the UK, Australia, and the US to Morocco. I jumped on their Facebook and Twitter feeds and I made certain I was enrolled in the US Department of State’s STEP program so that I would receive any official messages from them. I also joined several English speaking expat groups quickly.
You can read more about the US’ response and sluggishness here. I didn’t find my way out with the help of the State Department although they did finally organize emergency flights by the end of the week.
Instead, I learned about evacuation flights to France via the French embassy’s page and some travel pros in an expat group. The UK Ambassador posted reassuring video messages with promises of flights by EasyJet and other commercial carriers in the next few days (at this point I would fly to anywhere that might have flights to the US and quarantine was a given.) My hotel manager was also part of a WhatsApp expat group and some people had been at the airport when the borders closed so they had been sending back up to date information not only of the chaos at first, but then how things proceeded.
While I was sending video messages home to reassure my family and searching out my own routes, the hotel manager came up with an update. Some of the members of his group had discovered an emergency evacuation flight to Amsterdam. Did I want to try and get on?
I left for the airport immediately.
Mom to the Rescue
While I was racing to the airport I started texting updates to my mother. Marrakech airport was less chaotic than it had been earlier in the day, but few people seemed to know what was going on. There was a large group of stressed travelers at one ticket counter (it later turned out that was for the Transnavia evacuation flights to France the next morning) and after a few conversations in French with the security force, I found my way to a tiny obscure desk next to TUI’s check-in counters.
The line was building, one woman was screaming and pitching a fit over who knows what, and right before the couple in front of me could speak with the agent, she asked everyone to wait and walked away. Was there still space? Had they sold the last seat? No one knew. But just as panic is contagious, so is patience.
It paid off: we all got seats.
There was so much happening though that I couldn’t think past boarding the flight to Amsterdam. Luckily, my mother had fired up her computer back in the US and once I sent her the list of DHS-approved airports from the Schengen zone, she found me a flight out of Amsterdam, booked me a seat, and emailed me the info for the next morning while I was running through Marrakech airport.
It turned out to be one of the last three flights from Amsterdam and the US closed its borders to all international travel less than 36 hours after I landed, although several more repatriation flights would ultimately be allowed.
Should I have gone and would I do it again?
If I could have seen into the future about what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have gone. But if I had the ability to see into the future there are a lot of things in my life I would have done and said differently.
Likewise, if the declaration of pandemic or even Europe border closures had been announced before I left, I would have canceled. But at the time even closing universities (and the first one to send students home happened the morning I left) were met with shock precisely because they were unprecedented moves and thus impossible to predict.
It’s easy to forget just how fast all of this escalated and say in hindsight that I should not have gone, but from that point in the past, this could have easily happened more slowly, or in a much less extreme fashion.
I admit, though, that I definitely was pushing some boundaries. Had someone else without my experience asked me if they should go, I probably would have said no. I have traveled a lot, as in: 65 countries and counting. I’ve lived abroad and I have a pretty high tolerance for this kind of chaos. Not only that, but I pivot well. This isn’t meant to be self-congratulatory. Instead, it’s self-awareness and self-assessment that’s been built over years of travel.
But, there are so many things that might have made the initial decision different, not just for others, but for me too. That’s one of the lessons here, that different personal circumstances not just situational ones would have led to a different decision: if I had dependent children, a credit card with a lower limit (thus constraining my emergency options), been traveling without robust international health insurance and repatriation insurance, any kind of medical issue, much less a different set of experiences and personality, I probably would have made a more cautious decision.
I’m paying for my risk-taking too, though hopefully not too severely. I’ve been in quarantine now for 9 days and I have been strict about it. But that means I have spent nine days alone, reading about the virus, potential symptoms, and its progress, and wondering if it will happen to me. There is no doubt that I went through a high risk zone, if not on the way out of the country, then certainly on the way back.
Those kind of “what ifs” wear on a person. It’s a kind of background anxiety that can’t be explained away because it is rooted in a very concrete experience. And while I was not only extremely careful abroad and even more so when I returned, I have five more days of serious wondering before I can move to a state of isolation and worry on a more generic level. I have had to stop reading the news and social media and responding to certain friends because the worry can become extreme.
Separate from the health concerns though are the economic ones. Along with losing 100% of my own business for the next 30 days at minimum, I know many other ancillary and support industries that are struggling. Small businesses in particular are going to be in trouble, especially those that benefit from tourists. My goal is to try and pivot there next to see what I can do about income and adapting my future plans. Hopefully I’ll be able to do so from a place of health.