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Published: March 20th 2020
Hotel Azur - Casablanca Morocco
The View from My Balcony - Not Bad for $55 a Night
12 Mar 2020-21 Mar 2020
Casablanca, Morocco, a non-Schengen country, has always held a certain mystique for me since I watched the exploits of Buster Crabbe as the title character in the television series Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion
in the late 1950’s. Early in my research, I found a tour that begins and ends in Madrid, Spain (my original starting point) and visits both Morocco and Portugal. That discovery whetted my Saharan appetite. Unfortunately, this tour was not offered until well after my planned arrival date, so I decided to reset my time zone disrupted, biologic clock in the warmth of this enchanting desert country before launching my European adventure and starting my Schengen counter. After a short stop in Illinois on the way east, I hopped on a non-stop flight at 7:20 PM on March 11, 2020 from Chicago O’Hare to Lisbon, Portugal (7 hours 40 minutes), arriving at 8 AM the next day, March 12. After a layover in Lisbon, I caught a flight to Casablanca (1 hour 50 minutes), arriving at 1:05 PM.
I had slotted a 10-day stay in Casablanca, a resort city, right? Well, not as much as I had envisioned, and
Hotel Azur - Casablanca Morocco
A Spiral Staircase Accesses the Second Floor and My Room
after some research I realized that a 5-day stay in the city made famous by the 1942 movie of the same name would have been totally adequate for my biological clock adjustment; however, the 4-star Hotel Azur costs $55 a night, is within sight of the beach and is a short walk from La Corniche (The Corniche)
, which is where many restaurants are located and where (slightly askew from Uncle Larry’s Moroccan stereotyping) a very active “teetotaler” nightclub scene can be found. After two TAP Air Portugal flights, I will put the airline on my highly recommended list. The hot meal in the evening, the snack served before sunrise and the sandwich served on the Lisbon to Casablanca commuter all exceeded my expectations. The transatlantic flight offered a couple of dozen movies, including “American Sniper” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” TV programs and a flight watch map with an aircraft locator map and a “cockpit” view including vector, altitude, air speed and countdown to arrival clock.
On the flight to Casablanca, a “travel history” form was distributed. The title of the form has been relegated to the lost knowledge file (whaddaya expect, I was half asleep) but the title left
no question – the authorities were trying to mitigate the spread of the Coronavirus. After arriving at Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport and clearing immigration (a very painless exercise), I made a stop at the cash exchange center to exchange $100 USD for 956.01 Moroccan Dirham (MAD). The cash exchange center agent told me the taxi fare for the 20-mile ride from the Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport to Hotel Azur would be 300 MAD. After I retrieved my suitcase, a taxi driver approached. We agreed on the 300 Dirham price, and I was off on my first unaccompanied adventure outside North America. We drove through a wide variety of landscapes – agricultural, industrial and residential – of varying socioeconomic affluence. I asked the taxi driver if the donkey-drawn carts were commonplace to which he replied, “My name is Muhammed.” I quickly gathered that his English was quite limited and soon learned this communication obstacle was present at the hotel and nearby restaurants as well; however, everyone I encountered spoke more English than I did Arabic or French!
With my body adjusted to the dramatic, 8-hour time zone difference between Phoenix metro and Casablanca and my “rise and shine”
time somewhere before noon, I began to explore the area near the hotel on Saturday, March 14. I found two discothèques that had entertained me with distant John Travolta-like melodies on Thursday and Friday night. Those same sounds, at a much lower volume, were also provided in the upscale restaurants I discovered. Speaking of restaurants, I dined at the Chweka Restaurant on Wednesday evening (a fella has to eat even if he is dog tired) and, upon my request for Moroccan seafood, enjoyed the server’s recommendation – an interesting and very tasty fish dish described on the menu as Tajine de Poisson a la Maroccaine for the tidy American sum of $11.31. The word “Poisson” had me concerned initially as I thought it might be the infamous, poisonous Fugu Puffer Fish but it turns out that le poisson is the French term for fish. Remember Uncle Larry, Morocco was once French Morocco! I was off to a very good start, or was I?
The area near the hotel was bustling with activity during all of my waking and “falling asleep” hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I had learned on Friday that the Best of Portugal tour (Tour 3) had been cancelled and that “Trafalgar has suspended all operations in Europe and Asia through to the end of April 2020,” and I had spent much of Saturday looking for options to fill the void. Sunday was much less active on the streets of Casablanca but not knowing anything about Moroccan nor Islamic culture or customs, I assumed the reason was the sabbath. Upon awakening on Monday, I found the street in front of the hotel almost deserted. That raised my suspicions. I had joined the U.S. State Department program, Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), months ago – a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to register with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate, and I had received several health alerts from most of the countries I planned to visit about the Coronavirus. None were ominously alarming.
My Monday email included one sent Sunday, March 15 at 11:54 PM entitled, “Health Alert – U.S. Consulate General Casablanca, Morocco.” Ho hum, another health alert. Treated almost as an “oh, yes, by the way” comment, the first sentence contained the meat of the message which, arguable, should have been conveyed in the email subject line: “The government of Morocco has announced the closure of all international travel in and out of Morocco. The U.S. Embassy and Consulate General understand the challenges the rapidly evolving international response to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused U.S. citizens seeking to return to the United States. At this time we encourage U.S. citizens who fall within identified high risk categories for COVID-19 to contact the Consulate General’s American Citizen Services Unit at ACSCasablanca@state.gov with the following information: your full name, date of birth, passport number, your current location, and a phone number at which we can follow up with you.” I complied, expecting that I would receive explicit instructions in that “follow up.” I later learned the announcement by the Moroccan government had been made on Friday, the day after I arrived and my body and mind were still in the time zone adjustment mode.
Moments later, an email dated 16 March 2020 (no time attached) from the Morocco Encompassed (Tour 1) provider, Nomadic Tours, informed me that, “The latest update is that Morocco has suspended all air and sea routes in and out of the country. It is with great regret that we are forced to suspend all our operations until further notice.” Unlike the State Department email, THAT really got my attention. Yet another email from Europamundo informed me that Tour 2, the tour of Spain tour, had been cancelled. Europamundo is also the provider for Tours 4, 5 and 6. With all three of my initial tours cancelled, and the fourth tour facing almost certain cancellation because it includes five nights in northern Italy – one of the hardest hit Coronavirus areas in the world. I queried Europamundo, “What is the impact of the Coronavirus on this tour?” Jumping ahead briefly and after several canned responses, I received one that addressed my question, “I have sent this question to the operational department, because they are working hard to look each itinerary (sic) and made some modification if could be made. Germany at this moment is not working, so we have our departure dates stopped, until April 17th. But we don’t know what can happen from here to May.” The Magical Europe tour, Tour 4, was to begin May 11, 2020 – almost two months away. With Tours 5 and 6 facing probable cancellation (Tour 6 ends on June 17, 2020), I decided to abandon my vacation plans and temporarily return to the U.S. until the dust settled and the crisis is ran its course rather than hunker down in a mighty nice hotel room with a spectacular view while still remaining hopeful that I could return in June or July to complete the second half of my trip.
While feverishly yet futilely searching for a flight out of Morocco on Sunday and Monday, I watched speeches from the leaders of UK, France, Italy, Germany and the U.S. on the news channels. All but one of those leaders at that time (Trump has since performed another routine about face) seemed to believe the crisis would get worse for travelers before it gets better. Still having had no phone call nor having received anything from the State Department beyond “canned, press release” emails (remember, “so we can follow up with you”), I sent the following email on Thursday morning to the U.S. Consulate General Casablanca, Morocco: “To be sure, I am not in distress; however, I am not looking forward to spending the next (up to possibly 18 months, according to President Trump) phase of my retirement locked down in a hotel room, as nice as is the room and the view. Are there any negotiations or plans underway to initiate "rescue" flights for stranded Americans in Morocco? If so, a couple of days’ notice would be helpful so travel arrangements from Casablanca to the departure point can be made.” I had heard nothing by the close of the business day; however, about 9 PM Thursday evening, I received an email notification of another tour cancellation – Tour 8, the Best of England and Wales Tour by England Experience Tours scheduled for July 9-16, 2020. This was a death knell for my “vacation of a lifetime.” THEN, I learned moments later on CNN that the U.S. State Department had issued a world-wide “Do Not Travel Warning” (typically assigned to countries like Syria and Afghanistan) – meaning that all U.S. citizens in countries whose borders have not yet been closed should return to the U.S. immediately, that those who did not return might be stranded indefinitely and that planning was underway to get those of us isolated by a closed border back to the U.S. Those choosing to remain abroad should plan to “shelter in place for the duration.”
In the interim (between now and the evacuation), I will be cancelling flights, hotels and tours and will fight with the travel insurance company and the entities just noted over financial matters AFTER I get back to the U.S. I’m posting this to my blog earlier than normal as there might be one or two of my blog followers who are concerned about the status of my trip and one or two more who might be concerned about my well-being. Please, everyone, remain assured. I am healthy and wish this unfortunate turn of events hadn’t transpired, but it is what it is!!! Back to my stay in Casablanca, had I known only five days would be adequate and not the ten days I planned, my flight from Chicago to Lisbon and then to Casablanca would have been five days later, the border closing would have been enacted and the flight would have never happened. Monday morning is usually 20/20. I’ll make another blog post after I’m back in the U.S. and have readjusted to my second major time zone disruption in less than two weeks – and to think that I planned an extended trip specifically so I wouldn’t have to endure numerous time zone adjustments!
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