*if you haven't read Morocco I Love You || The Before, I suggest you go back and do so before continuing on.
We came back over the Atlas Mountain Range after our night in the Sahara Desert and arrived in Marrakech to a whole new reality.
Head Out of the Sand
The air had a different buzz. The streets of Marrakech were busy but not in the usual way; this movement felt intense and with concerned purpose. Our hotel hesitantly welcomed us with enormous sanitizer bottles in hand to an almost entirely empty facility, normally housing hundreds of guests. Hurried whispers escaped from behind welcome desks and lobby corners as the hotel staff gathered to discuss how to proceed in the current crisis, wearing fear on their faces.
Morocco had declared a state of emergency and was shutting down its borders.
The day was Monday, borders closed Friday. Our flights to the UK were Saturday.
In that moment we knew we were in trouble. . Each of us and our friends and family members back in the states scrambled to find flights and options home, but we were too late. Borders were closing and both of our flights home had been cancelled. Thus the plight to get back to US soil began. All of the stressful, crazy, manic details are too consuming to go over at length but I'll do my best to sum up how the following few days in Marrakech were spent and what it was like for us in those hours and days getting home.
Once we fully understood the truth of our situation, we knew we needed two things: clear communication from our embassy and ambassador and empty commercial planes sent to Morocco to pick us up on our own dime. We were receiving neither. The same president who had dismissed the coronavirus the day before we left was now blaming us for traveling and only responding to our pleas with condescension. Our US Ambassador in Morocco had responded to our request for help by suggesting we rent an apartment and nothing further. The city was shut down, our hotel was closing, and we were restricted to our hotel rooms until then. Our only hope remaining was political and media pressure to send flights to Morocco like so many other countries had done for their citizens. And we knew it was all up to us to make that happen...
The group of us ten women decided to divide and conquer according to our strengths. Some had connections personally or through their partners to politicians and media. Others searched for possible places for us to stay in Morocco if we couldn't get flights out and some were dealing with large work crises back at home and did what they could. Personally, I am not someone who likes to reach out and ask for favors. Ever. But after being a stylist for fifteen years and building relationships with so many varied and incredibly connected individuals, I knew this moment was the time to reach out to all of those wonderful humans who have always offered help over the years. And there they were, in droves, offering to help in any way possible. The way that people showed up through this crazy ordeal affected me deeply and means more than I could ever express.
My best friend Cheryl jumped into action and, though technically in California, was immediately there by my side. She and I became quite an efficient team, making connections or using the ones generously offered by my salon guests. Me working until the early hours of the morning, her matching my schedule and neither of us really sleeping, together we put together a hugely successful petition, contacted and interviewed with several journalists working for Oregon, California and national media stations, and reached out and communicated with several politicians trying to help us. Jess, our group of women, our families, clients of mine and so many others worked endlessly to help find us a way home. For three days straight we were dealt ups and downs, one minute believing we found a way home, the next minute understanding that we had only once again run into an unbreakable wall. It was wearing on us all.
The Way the Cards Unfold
Our way out was luck. And tenacity. It was Wednesday now and we were still in Marrakech with desperation building by the minute. Time was running out. We were seeing flights take off from the airport nearby, but had zero information on any available tickets. Midday our tour guide Mustafa had heard there were tickets being quietly sold from a connection of his at the airport. Hopeful, we all quickly hurried to the airport leaving our belongings behind, but sadly the information led only to disappointment. Misinformation had become our enemy, and we didn't know what our next move should be. Once again we were told to return to the airport at two o'clock am. For what we were not sure, but it was our last chance in Marrakech before our hotel closed so we decided to give it a shot.
After arriving at two am at the Marrakech airport one thing was clear: absolutely no tickets were being sold out of the airport. Groups of travelers from other countries had tickets in hand for planes sent to retrieve them but we had no tickets, no communication from any officials on flights and no way home. Until luck arrived in the form of a woman from the San Fransisco Bay Area (who ironically was also interviewed in an article for the SF Chronicle alongside myself, small world!). She told us about a small group of tickets out of Marrakech that had just been released that night through Ryan Air and could only be purchased through limited routes. So while I stood in a six hour line on the phone with Cheryl to get boarding passes printed for flights we didn't even have yet, she was finally able to locate and purchase tickets through the UK and onto JKF and then home. The first feeling of hope in days.
Running the Gauntlet
But the adventure wasn't over yet. The next several hours were like a foggy dream, full of twists and hurdles. One minute we had seats on the plane, the next minute we are told otherwise. When we finally made it to the front of a very long line, we were sent to the back of the line again with no explanation or to another long line instead. Eventually, human desperation and frustration began to show in everyone's behavior, social norms dissolving after hours of exhaustion and wear. I journaled this standing in one of the many lines during our thirteen hours at the Marrakech airport:
"Absolute mayhem. No organizational systems. Check in process is a multi step, jumping game from disorganized line to disorganized line adding unnecessary chaos and hysteria to an already manic situation. Desperation is showing on everyone’s faces. People are screaming at each other to get to the back of the line, with little direction from staff. No leadership and misleading information. Kind strangers are sharing what they think they know with others as they individually struggle to avoid delays in the booking and boarding processes, learning the hard way about the inefficiency of those processes. Staff looks exhausted as they hustle to get passengers on to fully loaded planes leaving no time for explanations. As I leave the women’s bathroom one of the women helping to clean and sanitize looks me in the eye and I feel compelled to utter 'Shukran' and nod my head in gratitude. Our hope of getting home still feels unreachable."
Is it Too Good to be True?
The day continued on and the uncertainty of our departure continued along with it up until the very last moment. As we were finally on the plane and the wheels left Moroccan soil, the passengers erupted in cheers. But even though we had almost lost our seats three separate times and had to fight to keep them, even though we each had miniature break downs and unflattering moments, and even though I know we were almost left behind like so many others, I couldn't join in with the cheers of excitement. Instead, tears of love for Morocco slowly ran down my cheeks. As I watched the land grow distant from the airplane window, I vowed to remember, not just this chaos, but all of the beauty.
We traveled for two days to get home, hearing of additional border shut downs in the UK and then again in JFK. The possibilities of not making it home were lurking around every corner, and each time we made it another step closer it was always only by the skin of our teeth. But we made it. Home. The word held new weight. I've always been grateful for what I've been blessed with and the life I've made, but this was a whole new level of appreciation. And a new understanding of how many people really are willing to reach out and help when there's a need. I don't believe all of our collective efforts to draw attention to stranded US citizens needing flights home were in vain. Several planes were sent in the days following our departure to collect some of the people stranded, and I believe that is partially due to the people who helped us and groups like ours get our stories out. However, as of April 17th, many people are still trying to find flights home. Count me lucky, proud and most importantly, grateful.
Stranded in Morocco
So that's the crazy story of us ten women busting out of Morocco during the breakout of COVID-19. If you'd like to check out additional photos and videos of the trip, I made this video to share.