Loving And Leaving Morocco During Coronavirus Pandemic

Mar 28, 2020

Suzet McKinney waves as she, Tasha Lang, Sarah Baldwin and Mia Gassi ride camels for the first time during a trip to Morocco. March 10, 2020
Credit Dawn Booker, Pack Light Global

Late last week, the U.S. State Department officially put a halt on international travel as we know it. It is recommending United States citizens stay home, amid this coronavirus pandemic.

The timing of that declaration meant I barely made it back from Morocco before its government suspended all international flights. I was travelling with a group of African American women on a once in a lifetime excursion.

Sunday, March 8, when we arrived at our first stop in Marrakech, it felt like being implanted into a movie. So beautiful, so unreal. The music, colors, smells and tastes were foreign, something we had only dreamed about. But this wasn't a movie at all. It was just another part of the world we had never seen before.

The trip was organized by a friend of mine, Dawn Booker, founder of Pack Light Global Itineraries.  

"Everybody that didn't know me thought I was encouraging women to travel with a carry-on," Booker laughed. "It's literally the opposite. I’m talking about forget your 'baggage,' it's not about your luggage," she told me as we sat on a bench near the Atlantic Ocean in Essaouira.

And Booker says that "baggage" comes in many shapes and forms for women of color; women who are often at a disadvantage because of their gender and race. Women who are often told: It's too expensive to travel abroad. You don't have a passport. It's too far away. There's more discrimination there, than here!

"We deserve joy. We deserve happiness," said Booker. "Everyone here has been effortlessly happy."

Booker's trips are for African American women over 40. Her T-shirts read: "Travel Fearless."

"That was fun! That was so much fun!" screamed Mia Gassi from Chicago. She and three other women jumped out of our van and went on an impromptu camel ride, for the first time. Gassi's birthday is later this month and she wanted to have a once in a lifetime adventure.

"We have a great group and we're just open to new experiences, which is what travelling is all about," said Gassi. Despite all of the celebrating, it was hard to ignore the "camel" in the room. I asked Gassi if she was worried about the growing novel coronavirus.

"You know what? I think it's always been in the back of my mind as something to be mindful of. But I'm not worried about anything. I just pray about it," said Gassi.

We stopped at Arganomade Cooperative in Essaouira to see women prepare Argan kernels for oil and creams. March 11, 2020
Credit Leoneda Inge

Gassi prays but she also works hard to stay healthy. For example, she puts a few drops of oregano oil in her hand sanitizer and in her drinking water, for an extra punch of protection. So you know we all enjoyed visiting a women's cooperative where they make Argan Oil, soaps and creams.

While on one of our last tours, Booker worked to keep us calm.

"We're all concerned about getting home and all of that," said Booker. "We're going to go to the area where they filmed the Game of Thrones. So let's enjoy where we are now. And then we can start worrying again when we get back on the bus!"

That was Thursday, March 12. By Friday, our phones were dinging all the time – first, messages from family about school and sporting events being canceled. And then about flights being canceled.

Saturday, March 14, we spent our last night in Morocco in a camp in the Agafay Desert. Jeanette Biles is from Washington, DC.

"It's beautiful. Actually, there's no words to describe where we are. But it's beautiful."

And then there was a big sigh. Biles was on her cell phone and laptop at the same time.

This picture was taken at the Agafay Desert Luxury Camp, the day before we all rushed to get out of Morocco before its ban on international flights. March 14, 2020
Credit Denise Allen

"I was trying to save money, so I booked Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca, Casablanca to Lisbon, Lisbon to New York," Biles explained. "So my flight to Lisbon and my flight to JFK have both been cancelled, back to back. So now I’m sitting here, what am I gonna do?"

Laughing instead of crying. The next morning, we piled into vehicles. Half of us headed to Marrakech, half to Casablanca, like a movie. Denise Allen of Durham wasn't sure when she would get home.

"You know what, I believe that we think we have control but we don't. And I just try to make the best of every situation," said Allen. "It could be a lot worse things!"

What we didn't know is if we had not boarded a flight out of North Africa Sunday, March 15, we could still be there. Allen was the last in our group to make it back to the United States, after four of her flights were canceled. Morocco was soon on lock-down, by air and water.

I was able to leave Marrakech, on to Paris, then Atlanta and home to RDU. It took 24 hours.

I was shocked by the beauty of the Marrakech Airport when I arrived in Morocco. March 7, 2020
Credit Leoneda Inge

Once arriving in Atlanta, I was not able to de-board the plane without filling out a Traveler Health Declaration, stating where I had been. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention walked the aisles, also wanting to know if anyone had a fever or a cough. I didn't. Now, I am back in Durham, living in a much smaller world and working from home, quarantined like everybody else.