Social Distancing

Things were certainly becoming more serious in the lead up to our recent Morocco Quick Hit trips, but no one could have foreseen the chaos about to be unleashed.  We’d watched the developing Coronavirus crisis and knew the U.K. was starting to be affected.  But the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice for travel to Morocco was still positive and the Moroccan authorities were still welcoming visitors as normal -we had no reason at all to think things would change so quickly.

I flew out to meet my first group and, after a welcome first night in Imlil, we headed to the Mouflons Refuge which would be our home for the next few days.  It was certainly quieter than normal, but still plenty of people from different nationalities were coming and going.  Life went on as normal.  We had a skills and acclimatisation day and then prepped for our Toubkal summit.  All was good. We made good time up to and down from the summit and had just finished enjoying lunch when I happened to glance at my phone.  Several missed calls and emails from my office.  

One email said all I needed – the Moroccans were stopping all flights into and out of the country from March 16th. What a snap decidion.  We were still due to spend another day at the refuge and then head out of the mountains tomorrow afternoon. On our current schedule we’d miss the flight deadline completely – not least because the groups flights weren’t leaving until the 18th as the team had booked extra time in Marrakech too.  For me my flight wasn’t until after my second group had been and gone in well over a weeks time.  

Our second group realised their plans weren’t going to be possible and so unfortunately that was that, but what about this first group?  Just as my office researched alternatives, my agent looked at options and we discussed ideas at the refuge, we all gradually came to the conclusion that our best chance to get a solution was at the airport.  A plan was hatched to leave the mountains at 4am and get to Marrakech Airport to see how the land lay.  

I didn’t sleep that night as I mentally picked away at the various layers of our situation.  In my mind it seemed to be get complicated the more I pondered on it.  I even carried on mulling it over as we walked down the trail.  By the time we left the refuge it was virtually empty and the trails were eerily deserted too.  We walked with few stops, met our transport efficiently and so in good time we were entering the airport. The scenes that greeted us were chaotic.  

Hundreds or maybe thousands of people were strewn around the departure lounge and any of the airline desks had hundreds of people queuing up for a solution that, as it turned out, didn’t yet exist.  Fortunately my amazing Moroccan agent knew some key staff at the airport and we were able to meet with them.  The news, however, was still bad.  All flights were full and no provision for rescue flights were even close to being put in place. 

We retreated back to our riad and decided to enjoy the evening regardless of the fact that we were certainly going to miss the flight deadline and the future was uncertain.  By this time all of the famous main square was closed and only a handful of the stalls in the souks were still open.  Every restaurant around the square was closed too.  Marrakech was a different place to any other time I’d visited.  Luckily I have been to Marrakech many times and so, with local knowledge, we found pizza and beer and had a great evening.  We then went to bed resolved to go back to the airport to find a solution tomorrow morning.  

If anything, by next morning the airport was even more frantic than the day before.  Some travellers would periodically burst into chanting protests at their treatment, the queues to see staff from any airline were huge and some people barged their way to wherever they wanted or needed to get too with little thought for others.  By now I’d managed to get shifted onto a flight that ‘might’ be leaving on the 18th (the Moroccan government had by now declared that the airport would close for good on the 19th), but the same flight leaving on the 17th had been cancelled and no one knew what was coming next.  We bit the bullet and started queueing to speak to any EasyJet staff member.

As we queued, there were 3 times that we became aware Brits were trying to sneak into the line to  save themselves queueing.  Needless to say they got a hard time and were forced to scurry off with their tails between their legs.  Hundreds of people were queueing courteously, but these national embarrassments made us all look bad (there were people from lots of nationalities in the queue). Luckily the interaction between most of us in the queue was very pleasant – we chatted with lots of different people and everyone got on well in these very unique circumstances.  Eventually, after 7 hours of queueing, we were within spitting distance of the desk.

There was still time for a bit more drama first though.  A party ahead of us at the desk weren’t happy. Whatever they’d been told didn’t work for them. The conversation with the frazzled staff member got more heated and soon they were screaming at the female EasyJet staff member.  I was sickened.  Every member of staff we’d interacted with at the airport had, in very very difficult circumstances, tried their best to help.  They were working with very limited information and had likely been on duty many hours.  Eventually the shouting group shifted their hatred onto a couple who tried to intervene and, as others stepped in, their pointless confrontation fizzled out and they scurried off with tails between their legs.  The situation we were all in was grim, but shouting definitely wasn’t helping anyone.

Soon enough we got to speak to that same staff member. She didn’t have much information but was very hopeful our flight would leave the next day.  That was the info she had and she shared it with us in a compassionate and professional manner.  She was no doubt facing loss of her own work and an uncertain future just like the rest of us.  We thanked her and headed back to our riad.

The riad was a haven of peace after the chaos of the airport.  But, it was striking how eerily quiet our journey there was – last night was quiet but tonight a silence hung over the city.  The roads were largely deserted, the main square silent and the usually packed and vibrant souks were boarded up and empty.  It was really clear that Marrakech was locked down.  The riad staff had kindly prepared a meal for us and we sat there as the only guests alongside 4 French women desperate to get back to Paris.

First thing the next morning we headed to the airport and, despite some more mega queuing at the bag drop, we eventually got checked in and made our way to the departure lounge. If anything the airport was even busier today as people got more and more desperate.  I’ve never been happier to see a boarding pass!  We had escaped.  It was striking how many unused seats were available on the flight and I thought of the people now waiting at the airport that would have given anything for one of those vacant seats.  There was little I could do to help with that and I mainly felt sapped and emotionally drained by the last few days. 

This flight took me to Gatwick rather than Manchester and so I eventually, by the help of the team and my home team, linked up lifts back to Castleton.  It was great to be back and great to get my whole team home, but what a shame for our second team and the staff we’d left behind.  I’d made arrangements that all our in-country staff would be paid for the second cancelled week, but they still faced a very uncertain period ahead.

Since getting back I’ve been settling in to the new reality.  Daily announcements by Boris, the closure of establishments and the tap of our business completely turned off.  Our focus locally has been on trying to make sure our elderly neighbours are looked after and fire fighting some business matters that have suddenly headed south.  Within the village there is a sense of community and people are preparing. No ones managed to find any toilet paper yet, but everyone’s still smiling and, although it feels like we are preparing for battle, spirits are high. 

I’ve learnt over many years of making mistakes and thinking I know better, that experts are well worth listening too – certainly when it comes to understanding viruses.  As I listened to them on the television the message was crystal clear –  things are going to get very bad and if we don’t stop interacting with other people things are going to get far worse far more quickly. 

Yesterday the weather in the Peak District was lovely.  A beautiful spring day.  So far in the Hope Valley, as far as I’m aware, we’ve had no confirmed cases of Covid-19.  That’s good. Unfortunately, as we watched, our home village became awash with people.  We can see the top of Mam Tor from our garden and it was like a football crowd on the summit.  The car parks were rammed and the streets crowded. Up on the broken road there were lines of camper vans.  I have rarely seen it busier and it seems unlikely we won’t see cases of the virus here soon.  

Friends who live in Snowdonia, the Lake District and Scotland reported the same.  Are we facing the biggest challenge of our generation or was it a normal bank holiday Saturday?  We are in for the long haul and I know there is a need for people to get out and exercise, but the evidence is very clear.  We need to minimise travel and we need to stay away from other people.  A month ago I’d never even heard the term ‘social distancing’, now it might just be the most important phrase in our international vocabulary.