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Distracted by Morocco’s complacent luxuries, a traveller failed to pay heed to warnings in early March and continued on her month-long itinerary, only to get stranded by a lockdown. Here’s a rich and remorseful travel tale. By Devanshi Mody
We’re flying to Morocco despite my brother’s COVID-19 forecasts. “By March 15, this will explode, airports will shut, you’ll be stranded—maybe for months! Don’t go!” “Nonsense!” I dismiss it. Mum cries that if she’s forced to travel she’ll write her last will. She doesn’t want to die abroad or bring a disease home. “How dramatic!” I lash out and get her to consult a doctor, while I consult an astrologer. The doctor and the astrologer give the go-ahead. We go ahead.
Having landed in Morocco to crusade for its tourism, I find myself attacked by a tour operator. “Morocco is safe; the common cold takes more lives than corona, but the sensationalist media is inciting trip cancellations, engendering economic hara-kiri. The media is more dangerous than corona!” he barks.
The Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech merits the trip, I decide, as my butler checks us into a stunner pool villa with an outdoor jacuzzi enshrined in Moorish architecture. In the living room, a bottle of Ruinart lazes coolly on an ice bed, in a throng of myriad exotic Moroccan delicacies of almond, rose water, and l’eau de fleur d’oranger. We indulge in fine-dining on Ling-Ling’s enchanting terrace, overlooking a pool set in glorious gardens exuding the mystique of Morocco, as blonds totter past on stilettos as golden as their hair, blazing the latest in spring fashion. I clink glasses with mum, “How fortunate we are to be here!” Little do we know what fortune is conniving.
We wake up to breakfast, engulfed by glamorously apparelled, superbly groomed bodies—the sort that can afford pool-villas at INR 1,50,000 a night—feasting on Morocco’s most sumptuous breakfast buffet. Then, we leap from spa to poolside lunch to a meeting with Romanian tour operator Cristian Martinus, owner of Sun Trails, who is to dispatch me on a mighty traipse across ‘untold’ Morocco. He’s flying off to Spain himself.
We transfer to Royal Mansour Marrakech, the king’s hotel where riads, at INR 2,27,380 per night, are Morocco’s priciest accommodation. Copiously plied with champagne, we lunch in gardens where guests laze like there’s nothing in the air but the fragrance of spring. Over supper at the much-vaunted La Grande Table Marocaine, the resilience of snug, oblivious libertinage impresses itself in the dinner theatre as in the couture of French women and the choice wines of their male companions. There’s white-gloved service at breakfast while the spa peddles the ‘just-launched’ Tibetan Singing Bowls therapy. Alarm bells aren’t ringing yet.
Indeed, I’m preoccupied with discovering Marrakesh’s fabled medina, the Saadian Tombs, the stupendous Bahia Palace, Pasha’s Palace. Mum is preoccupied with hopscotching to avoid filth and puddles. We are armed with masks and disinfectants. Nobody else is.
Transfer to La Villa des Orangers, the most inviting of all of Morocco’s oases. My edgy mother is soothed. There’s a redolent courtyard with oranges dropping from trees like a million glowing suns. The artwork sits chicly about the French-owned luxury riad. The food is exquisite, the Louis Roederer champagne flows. So, when I see an alert on my phone from a friend in Delhi about India suspending OCI (Overseas Citizenship of India), I ignore the message. Must sleep. Excursion tomorrow to the port city Essaouira.
Passing stretches of argan trees with goats embedded in their branches, we whip around Essaouira as fast as the banshee winds breathing at the historic forts picturesquely overlooking the Atlantic, strewn with white cawing gulls. Having tasted wines at Domaine du Val d’Argan (valdargan.com), I hit Marrakesh’s souks seeking Moroccan lamps. There are no tourists now to dodge, only resplendent babouches staring forlornly into emptiness.
I return to a flood of frantic messages. “Have you checked your OCI and re-entry to India?” I couldn’t care less. Shower, champagne, gossamer ravioli, and divine French desserts await. Must sleep. Tomorrow to Aït Benhaddou, Morocco’s most celebrated site!
Through unspectacular ways (the much-hailed Tizi n’Tichka Pass disappoints), we reach the splendid but bereft Telouet Kasbah. At Aït Benhaddou, few tourists speck the aridness. It’s peak season. Coronavirus has decimated tourism, snatched Morocco’s livelihoods.
Back at the hotel, WhatsApp messages turn to bellow calls. “Have you checked about your OCI?!”
I must check out the bar, dwell on its champagne and gorgeous olives, almonds, pistachios. At the Moroccan restaurant, some guests, with appalling French accents, conduct an inane conversation about treading snow “with elegance” in Val-d’Isère, villa hopping through Bora-Bora, etc. I tuck merrily into salted caramel ice cream and recommend it strenuously to a British couple we meet at the bar. They expatiate on ‘Who killed Diana?’
Telouet Kasbah is the abandoned palace of the Pasha of Marrakesh. Photo Courtesy: Alvaro LeivaSoon, the reality is knocking at my window. Messages pound my phone. I can’t ignore them anymore. It is official. India has suspended OCI. My residency is abrogated. I can’t re-enter the country!
I call the Indian Consulate. I am vehement; they are firm. I persist. An official finally cedes, saying he will intimate Delhi for a waiver. But he warns, “Prepare yourself mentally that as you reach India, you’ll be quarantined for 14 days.” The hotel’s charming assistant manager, Souhail, who has spent 18 months in India, urges mum to go home while she still can. Guests who basked by the pool the previous day flee the hotel, terror-struck. But I’m busy concretising my month-long Moroccan odyssey, intent on completing it. Then, more champagne and canapés and olives by the pool that glitters like a sapphire even at 7 pm, and a faultless supper. The F&B manager insists everything must be ‘comme il faut’, even as disaster unfurls.
We proceed to La Villa des Orangers’ Romanesque vaulted hammam. Is it safe? But the spa is outstanding. Mouna, the wondrous therapist, comes to hug me; I step back. “Come now,” she says, “we’ve spent five hours together in the spa!” As we emerge from the spa, the French owner beams that some sense of normalcy prevails amid the frenzied exodus of his other guests. He scorns the novel coronavirus, “It’s not the plague. One doesn’t just catch it in the street and die!”
We transfer to Selman Marrakech, which has apparently more marble than the Taj Mahal and more oriental artwork and antiques than a small museum. This hotel boasts stables stocking Arabian thoroughbreds. In these stables, Madonna feted her 60th birthday. The Jacques Garcia-designed hotel, with its brooding sexiness, has the swishest suites, lushest toiletries, and most lavish mini-bar and terraces overhanging the longest pool in Africa. Beyond, the Atlas Mountains waver gleamingly. I see the marble, the magnificence, the mountains. But not the elephant in the room. Neither, perhaps, does the hotel management, contriving to encourage domestic tourism as foreigners vanish.
Unperturbed, I bring out my cocktail dress and Cartier perfume and preen myself for supper at Selman’s iconic Moroccan restaurant, Assyl, where guests gallop suddenly towards an outdoors arena. It’s the parade of the thoroughbreds—against the backdrop of the night’s black majesty.
Next morning, breakfast is a banquet. By noon, lunch is meagre. By supper, we learn Assyl is shutting, suddenly, tonight. We find ourselves alone in the vast and vainglorious restaurant with its uncountable glittering chandeliers. Mum is jarred.
A steward assuages our fears, saying he’ll save us the best seats to watch the legendary horse parade at the famous Selman Sunday Brunch.
Brunch is cancelled, social gatherings banned. Overnight. As the universe of complacent luxury collapses, amid the pulsating panic, I spend a nonchalant morning in the stables watching thoroughbreds groomed. Then, mum receives a message. Our return flight has been cancelled.
It’s March 15. My brother’s prophecies were dead accurate. As flights are cancelled willy nilly, more people hop on to private jets than in Monte-Carlo. An Austrian woman has managed one for INR 24,70,950.
The general manager, Kamil, is harrowed, commanding that we leave Morocco now. I remind him that flights are cancelled and that India won’t let us back in without a re-entry visa. He can’t fathom this intricacy. “If you don’t leave now, Morocco will lockdown and you’ll be stuck for five weeks.” Now I can’t fathom this inconvenience. I came to Morocco for a month, not an eternity. I intend to be home on schedule. Kamil thunders, “Everyone wants to leave Morocco. You alone want to stay!” I protest feebly, I don’t have a choice. But given a choice, would I have left?
Next day, I saunter casually to Selman’s Chenot Spa to reschedule our facials from the previous day. The spa is in dishevelment, everything being dismantled, disinfected. The king has ordered that spas—and restaurants—must shut. Mosques, too! Never in Moroccan history have mosques shut.
There’s a sudden announcement that the hotel is shutting. A couple engaged in an illicit love affair and 14 German golfers refuse to leave. They are expelled unceremoniously. Mum and I are the only ones left at Marrakesh’s most ostentatious hotel, now a marbled mausoleum with nobody to behold its Persian rugs, Syrian antiques, and Venetian chandeliers. Mum cries out to her family, “We’re prisoners in a palace!” Room-service alone operates. The hotel nevertheless conjures truffle soup and lissom linguine. Champagne pops in-suite, wine flows. I feel like Nero fiddling away as Pompeii burned.
Meanwhile, Italy is devastated. I message an Italian aristocratic friend from Oxford. He responds, “We’re fine. We even have special champagne for the COVID-19 season.” We are still being frivolous, fatuous, facetious, as in our Oxford days. But an uneasiness is creeping over me. As Europe declares the death of the economy, the Selman’s straggling staff fear they won’t be paid post March. My guide had said, “Man will kill a man for a piece of bread.” But Selman staff assure Moroccans will share a piece of bread with their brethren.
A range of tapas and sushi accompanies the finest cocktails and wines at Selman Bar. Courtesy Of Selman BarTransferring to Kasbah Tamadot, Richard Branson’s resort in the Atlas Mountains, we dine with a British couple, smug that their government is manoeuvring COVID-19 with greater intellectual and operative suave than Europe. David glorifies being non-politically correct and passes racially charged comments. I feel we might deserve what’s coming. An American couple swaggers their kids are friends with Tom Hanks’s kids
and are surfing away in California flouting social distancing rules. Alas, not the affluent consumerist Caucasian but the poor and the vulnerable will be worst hit, as always.
I discover that the hotels we were booked in have shut. Overnight. Sailing through the upheavals I’ve wondered when we will hit that wall. This seems like it. But Kasbah Tamadot’s manager, the eminently endearing and inimitably hospitable Houssain, extends our stay, feeds us, smiles on in chaos. He even dispatches me on a diverting hike. If yesterday a flush of white birds whooshed against snow-draped peaks, today blackbirds hover slowly, like black ash stagnant above us, like an omen. A staff member remarks at the denuded landscapes around. Morocco is drought-struck. People will soon starve. Providence is chastising us. We must ask ourselves why, he reasons. I recall The Gita, III.IV. Yajna is the plan of the Universe. And man has sacked, not sacrificed.
Portuguese fortifications of Mogador at Essaouira. Photo Courtesy: Funkyfood London-Paul Williams/AlamyAt Four Seasons Resort Marrakech, we find ourselves to be the only guests. The resort has remained open just for us, but for just one night. The king has announced a lockdown, with 6 pm curfew. Overnight. A Mercedes Benz limo, courtesy the Four Seasons, having wheedled travel authorisation, conveys us to classy Casablanca. Here, military tanks patrol the streets, armed officers march. The glamorous Four Seasons Hotel Casablanca receives us. There are only five occupied rooms. In striking desolation, lavish jewellery showcased in the lobby hangs like the over-spill of ivy and vibrant bougainvillaea from the luxuriant villas of Anfa hemmed in snazzy cars. Morocco has more Porsches than patient beds. As the hotels shut, homelessness menaces.
Four Seasons Resort Marrakech is filled with Moorish gardens and refreshing pools. Courtesy Of Four Seasons Resort MarrakechThe Four Seasons and the Consulate differ on who should shelter the stranded tourists aka us. The Four Seasons finds a humanitarian young Moroccan, Ali El Hajouji of Vacation Rentals Casablanca, who is extending his apartments to stranded tourists. From the marbled purlieus of the plush Four Seasons, with its seafront splendour, BVLGARI toiletries, Africa’s only Guerlain Spa, we land up in a studio where mum and I share a bed conducive only to a violently-in-love couple and squabble over bed-space.
The party is over. We are in a studio, with no water but plenty of champagne and wine that came with suites we luxuriated in, wondering if anyone could turn wine into water.
Lufthansa (lufthansa.com) offers connecting flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Casablanca.
Vacation Rentals Casablanca (facebook.com/AE Immobilier) is extending apartments to stranded tourists in Morocco. Four Seasons Hotels Casablanca (fourseasons.com) is located on a beach just 10 minutes from the heart of the city. Located close to the famous Jemaa El Fna square, the La Villa des Orangers (villadesorangers.com) is a riad, a traditional medina house. Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech (mandarinoriental.com) is set in 20 hectares of fragrant gardens and olive groves. Selman Marrakech (selmanmarrakech.com), Royal Mansour Marrakech (royalmansour.com), Kasbah Tamadot (virginlimitededition.com), and Four Seasons Resort Marrakech (fourseasons.com) are other exceptional stay options in Morocco.
Sun Trails (sun-trails.com) offers private tailor-made tours of Morocco, along with stays in riads, kasbahs, eco-lodges, and boutique hotels where you can immerse in local traditions.
Related: #TNLVirtualTour: Morocco