Friday, December 23, 2011

Departure Difficulties

Getting out of Morocco was a nightmare. It was one of those hellish travel experiences you read about in a Travel and Leisure letter to the editor. Joe received a simple, matter-of-fact email from Royal Air Maroc late Sunday afternoon that stated that our Tuesday flight to Casablanca had been cancelled. We were still booked on the connecting flight to Milan, but they had rebooked us on the Wednesday morning flight to Casablanca. It made no sense at all. We panicked briefly, imagining that we would be unable to escape Morocco and knowing that Chris and Caroline would be arriving in Italy Thursday morning. We enlisted the help of our hotel manager who informed us, “Oh, Air Maroc does that all the time. If the flight isn’t full, they just cancel it.” A series of phone calls and some quick Internet research left us with a few options to catch our Tuesday morning flight from Casablanca to Milan:

·      make the trip to Casablanca by train on Monday, stay overnight at the airport and then take the still-intact Casablanca-Milan leg of our trip on Tuesday (this seemed a possible option);
·      take the plodding 2:30am (that’s am!) train on Tuesday to make the 6-hour trip from Fes to Casablanca to arrive in time for our flight (traveling in Morocco was daunting in sunlight – there was no way we were going to venture out in the dark);
·      hire a private taxi at 6:30am to make the three-hour drive to Casablanca (it would have cost a mere $350!);
·      leave Morocco a day later than planned by rebooking the Fes to Casablanca flight to connect with the Casablanca to Milan flight on Wednesday (but what if they again cancelled the Fes flight?);
·      leave Morocco a day early by rebooking the Fes to Casablanca and then Casablanca to Milan flights on Monday (this would leave us with some wiggle room in case anything else went wrong).

Given our squeamishness about Morocco and how anxious we were for the reunion with our children, we had no qualms about making an early departure. The last thing we wanted was to risk any complications with getting to Milan in advance of the kids, so we chose the latter option. The hotel understood our dilemma, agreed not to charge us for an early departure and then helped Joe call the airline. Royal Air Maroc booked us on the Monday flights and immediately sent a confirmation email. We breathed a huge sigh of relief, agreed that an additional night at the Milan airport would not be so bad and then headed up to our room to pack.

Our cab driver was waiting for us in the hotel lobby when we came out of the elevator at 4:45am on Monday morning. He and the gentleman on night duty at the hotel helped with our luggage and walked us to the cab waiting in the square just outside the city walls. At this hour of the morning, it would have been much too dicey to walk the six or seven blocks out of the car-free medina unescorted. The Fes-Sa├»ss airport was a quick 25 minutes away with none of the daytime donkey and horse cart processions to jam the streets and impede the ride. Before we knew it, we were at the head of the check-in line at 5:30 for the 6:30 flight, loading our bags onto the luggage scale and handing over our passports. We hadn’t thought to print out our confirmation numbers at the hotel since we’d been consumed with making the arrangements to leave Fes early. The young woman agent looked at our names, then studied the computer screen, and then looked back at our passports. This back-and-forth went on for several minutes, until finally she shook her scarved head and said, “No. You are not on this flight.” When we protested, insisting that we had an emailed confirmation, she called over a colleague who studied the screen and confirmed her assertion. “No, you don’t have a reservation for this flight.” Meanwhile, the check-in line was building behind us as Joe’s anger and my panic continued to rise. We have to get out of here, I thought. I just want to go; I want to leave now and will not go back into the city for another night.

The agent aloofly insisted there was nothing she could do and basically pushed us aside to handle the next person in line. Joe held it together enough to ask whom he could speak with about the “mix-up” and the agent handed us the customer service number for Royal Air Maroc. I pulled out our cell phone to make the call, but the battery was completely dead. When we asked the agent if she had a phone we could use, without even looking at us, she pointed to a pay phone on the wall. I scrounged together the few dirham coins I had left, pumped them into the pay phone and Joe got through to the airline. “I’m sorry, but the system cancelled your reservation,” Joe was told. “There’s nothing I can do; the flight is overbooked.” Just as Joe was about to let loose with the guy at the other end of the line, we ran out of coins and the phone went dead. Incredulous that no one could or would help us, we felt powerless in this oh-so-very-foreign country. All I could think of was being with the kids in Italy and doing whatever was necessary to be in Milan when they arrived. Joe and I were on the brink of giving up, slumping down under the phone and crying, when he remembered that the last email I’d looked at the previous night on my computer was the confirmation message from the airline. There was no Wi-Fi in the airport, but maybe the email was still on my screen. I furiously pulled my laptop from my backpack and bingo! There she was in all her glory -- the Royal Air Maroc email with our confirmation codes for the rebooked flights in bold. I rushed back over to the counter, oblivious to whatever else the agent was doing, and trying to keep my composure, set my open laptop right in front of her. She knew better than to ask me to wait, typed the confirmation codes into her system and miraculously her indifferent demeanor evaporated. “I’ll get my manager,” was all she said. A young guy in a baseball hat – the least official-looking airline manager I’d certainly ever seen – came out from a backroom and we explained our situation. After about 10 minutes of holding our breath, and the manager and the agent conducting intense discussion and executing “system overrides,” the guy-in-the-baseball-cap told us that all would be “OK.” We let out audible sighs of relief, my panic subsided and Joe was once again able to speak. They grabbed our luggage, we went through the worthless security system (the fellow on duty wore no uniform, looked like a guy they pulled in off the street and never once looked at the x-ray screen as alarms were beeping left and right), and we were ushered out onto the tarmac with our fellow passengers. I have never, ever been happier to be strapped into an airline seat ready for takeoff. We quickly took off, landed, disembarked at the antiseptic Casablanca airport and waited an interminable four hours for our flight to Milan.

Thanks to the miracle of jet-age travel, we found ourselves whisked away from the disquiet of Morocco and in just a couple short hours, transported back to a civilization in which we felt comfortable. Returning to Europe and setting foot in Italy felt like going home. We checked into a budget hotel at Milan’s Malpensa airport and I soon found myself in tears over a glass of wine and a plate of prosciutto in the hotel’s well-lit dining room. It seems I had been burying all my fears, reservations and sadness while in Fes, pushing down my feelings while still in the thick of the experience. It wasn’t until we returned to what I felt was the relative safety and familiarity of the Continent that I was able to let go and let them surface. Just as the physical symptoms of stress often appear not during but after the tension has passed, so my deepest responses to Morocco made themselves known in the dining room of an Italian airport hotel. We had managed to maintain an unemotional perspective while we were in the thick of the experience, but now it was time to talk through how we felt about what we saw and smelled and sensed in Fes over a comforting dinner at a distance. 

Pictures of our adventures:

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