How this mother and daughter travel team caught the last flight out of Morocco amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Latifah Al-Hazza is a travel journalist who has been featured in CNN Travel and New York Times. When the U.S. was shutting down airports, Latifah and her mother were in Morocco, forced to catch the last flight back before Morocco closed its borders. Here’s her #QuarantineJournal about this frantic experience.
We were in Morocco hosting women for our women’s only tour company, Femscape Sojourns. At 2:00 a.m., on the morning of March 12, we woke up to loud banging on our door. It was two of our clients who frantically informed us that they needed to fly home ASAP as America was shutting its borders from Europe. Their original flight home, a few days later, was through Europe. We spent six hours on the phone with various airlines to alter their ticket dates. They were able to make changes and flew home (to the U.S.) within hours.
When they left, we felt empty. We were left with an entire riad (Moroccan style guesthouse) to ourselves. We had only booked a one-way ticket to Morocco and we weren’t convinced we needed to fly home that quickly. I did a quick flight search and found multiple direct flights from Marrakech to Washington DC. You would’ve never even known a virus was a threat in Marrakech. No one discussed it, no one was distancing themselves, no one was wearing a mask, overall no one seemed concerned. Due to the lax vibe we were getting, we didn’t think the US would close its borders from Morocco or vice versa.
It wasn’t until later that we found out that Marrakech had a number of coronavirus cases. These individuals were all residing in and being quarantined in a hotel not far from us. The media had kept it under wraps.
We spent considerable time trying to decide if we should fly out on March 15th as originally planned or stay until March 19th as we had been discussing. We reluctantly chose the earlier date to be on the safe side (and because friends and family were begging us to return).
During the last two days of our stay in Marrakech, we started seeing some differences in the way people were acting. A few restaurants began squirting customer’s hands with sanitizer upon entering and departing, a couple of establishments that we visited had employees wearing gloves, but most shocking, were a handful of shopkeepers who shouted “corona” to foreigners who passed by.
Little did we know that Morocco would close its borders on March 16. On the morning of March 15, Morocco announced that it would close its borders within 24hrs. We felt grateful that we had decided to leave when we did, but when we arrived at the Marrakech airport, we felt even more grateful to have a secure spot on a flight.
On March 15th, the Marrakech-Menara airport was packed. Hundreds of foreigners were in a series of very long lines trying to purchase last-minute tickets before the border closed. Hundreds of passengers were unable to reserve seats on flights as all flights that were leaving in the next 24hrs were already full. We passed by travelers who were yelling “this is unfair! You don’t have a right to keep us!” to Moroccan Immigration agents who wouldn’t let them pass.
Anyone who coughed or sneezed was given a worried glance. Although we had seen no individuals wearing masks while in Marrakech, many individuals at the airport were wearing gas masks. I’m not sure if they came into the country with these masks or if they purchased them in Morocco. If the latter, I am curious where they bought them as I have never seen anything like them except in the movies.
There was a line at the pharmacy in the airport. They were stocked with boxes of hand sanitizer and face masks and these were the only items people were purchasing.
We boarded our completely full flight and I must say, out of the hundreds of flights I’ve taken in my life, this was by far the quietest most somber of them all. Before landing in Washington DC, we were given health declaration forms. The usual customs declaration forms were not given out. The form asked about any symptoms we may be feeling and which countries we had recently been to. We were quite surprised to find that the airport wasn’t health screening anyone, it was as if nothing was wrong in the US.
Now, almost a month later, the United States (and the world) has drastically changed their perspective of this virus. While a month ago people were nonchalant about COVID-19 at the Dulles International Airport, today there are barely any flights arriving and departing from the airport.
We look forward to the day where we can all interact with one another and travel the world again. But until then, we must stay apart to be able to be together later.