Yay! Vacation starts today. Trish and I are off work, which means more to her than me because her work has been more hectic on this trip. I check my mobile phone for last-minute emails from work (and Facebook updates) on the ride to the Cairo airport. Emma comments on how quiet Cairo seems. It’s 4:30 a.m., and even Cairo is asleep at this hour.
Inside the Cairo airport we are assisted by a transfer ‘representative,’ an expensive service provided by a travel agent that’s not really worth the money, but it does take some of the guess work out of the airport/passport/customs experience. I think ahead to our upcoming Casablanca – Marrakesh connection because it’s the only one for which we have no assistance.
The Cairo International Airport waiting area has a McDonald’s and a Starbucks! These aren’t my favorites at home, but the girls are excited to get some rubbery pancakes and Trisha and I enjoy the familiar taste (and size) of Starbucks coffees. The turkey ‘ham’ on the Egg McMuffin is a pretty good imitation and it’s all fresh because we are the first customers of the day. Of course we don’t know it at the time, but McDonald’s will be our last real meal for a long time.
Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca isn’t a pleasant experience on account of the pervasive body odor. We’re hardly skittish about smells, but the four-hour trip is just ghastly. Most of us sleep anyway, so it’s no big deal. Touchdown in Casablanca is without event and I stand on Moroccan soil for the first time.
We take our time getting off because we know we have eight hours to wait until our flight to Marrakesh, so there’s no point to being first in line. When I booked the tickets, this was the cheapest route and I didn’t pay enough attention to the long layover. Buying 20 plane flights is a big itinerary, and it’s easy to overlook something like that. The cost was $800 to change for an earlier flight and we saved the money.
The most frustrating thing, we find upon arrival, is that you can take a three-hour taxi ride to Marrakesh from the Casablanca airport for about $150! This step of the journey was under-researched and we are suffering for it today. Our mistakes have been few, so we don’t beat ourselves up about it.
Inside the airport they select the Creekmore family for a special H1N1 screening and we get sent back at passport control. This is the first spot on our trip where there is no English — just Arabic and French. More than once I think about Aldo Fillipone, the high school French teacher that endured my hacking, mangled, weak attempt to learn French for three years. I can make it through basic transactions and directions, but it’s a chore. Every time I travel, I promise myself that I’ll brush-up on my French for next time. Yeah, right. Reduced to the simplest of words, the doctor’s swine-flu screening isn’t much more than asking us if we feel good. ‘Oui, Monsieur!’ I say with conviction.
We have a little trouble finding the terminal, due to some confusing signage. We eventually get escorted there by a very friendly guard. He took pity on us when we were found roaming through the airport administrative offices. The domestic terminal is empty and we settle in a choice spot right in front of the ‘Jet Lagg’ Cafe, a bakery counter with a few items.
The kids watch videos on the (Archos 7) portable video player I brought for them. It’s been the single most useful item for times like this. I ripped a lot of their DVD’s before I left and bought a spare battery so it can go for 12 hours. The markers, coloring books, crafts and little items I brought to dole out as the trip progressed have gone unused. The biggest entertainment has come from the the Nintendo DS (especially Super Mario Kart), the video player and a deck of cards. We play ‘War’ a lot.
Around the 3 hour mark, we have a tab going with the cafe and we’ve indulged in coffee, coke and various dry pastries, most of which go half-eaten. I kept a few bananas from our hotel breakfast box in Cairo. They help ward off the hunger but it’s been half a day since we’ve eaten at McDonald;s and everyone is looking forward to the big meal that awaits us at our Riad in Marrakesh.
At the five hour mark, we make the big move down the escalator to our gate, where we await our plane boarding call. The departure time passes and we get no announcement. Our fellow passengers, French tourists, look pretty annoyed, and one tries to explain to Trish that they are “talking to the pilot,” which we later find out is actually a negotiation. Our flight is apparently the victim of a one-off pilot ‘strike.’ But this information comes later. Right now, we try to figure out what the hell is going to happen to us. Eventually, we get a lousy answer. We are going to be bused to Marrakesh. Bussed! It’s insult to injury after we waited out this stupid layover and paid $600 for the family to fly.
The French all scatter and we are left to get fragmented English instructions. Trisha and I end up separating, me chasing down the luggage and her to scout the bus to Marrakesh. She gets detained in a Royal Air Maroc lounge waiting for mythical bus vouchers that later, it turns out, they don’t use.
With the kids in tow, I search for a security stamp they say I need to return inside baggage claim for our bags. It’s about 8 p.m. now and I convince the baggage claim security guy to let me in without the stamp. Sometimes it helps to have two cute kids along with you and not speak the local language.
Inside baggage claim, we quickly get two of our four bags, and wait for the rest. I begin to worry, but I know the bags will probably show up. They always do, right? There are still a few French passengers I recognize from our flight, so there is probably just a cart of bags somewhere that needs to be located. The baggage claim guys are dismissively reassuring. “Ok ok, no problem, sir. Just one minute for your bags,” they say.
But the conversations that go on in French are longer and more heated, so I suspect something is up. Trish locates the bus, which already has several passengers on it and comes back to us. It’s 9 p.m. and clear by this point that there is a real problem with the bags. Trish, blessedly, takes over the lead role dealing with the staff.
We wonder if the bus will wait for us stragglers? The girls play on the baggage carousel, something every kid wants to do in the States, but is never allowed. They peek through the fabric curtain that covers the magical entrance from the outside where they load the baggage. Emma and Lily are upset because it’s their bag (and Trish’s) that’ missing.
Trish and I begin to calculate what we have lost and what we will do if it doesn’t come. We leave on Friday for the desert, where no bags could be delivered. Either we get them in the next 24 hours, or they are not worth anything to us for the duration of the trip. The only consolation is that we have very little of value in the missing bags except Trish’s work laptop, which she would prefer to be lost forever anyway.
Ten p.m. comes and they assure us that the bus will not leave without us. But they finally admit they can not locate the bags and I need to walk 15 feet to file a claim. It takes another 30 minutes to fill out the paperwork. We hope that they can get it to Marrakesh the next day.
We are the last people in the baggage claim area and the airport seems to be shutting down. There is an open cafe, but we skip it because we’re most concerned about the bus. Trish points off in the distance at a white bus and shouts with relief, “It’s still there!”
Looking at the idled bus, I feel some regret for making 100 people wait two hours, but of course it’s not our fault. As we trot toward the bus, 18 hours after leaving Cairo, with half our luggage, it’s hard not to feel a little defeated. The lack of sleep and growing hunger don’t help.
As we get within 50 feet of the bus, it pulls out and drives away! What the fuck!? I drop the bags and run after it but some trees screen my waving gesticulations and no one can hear my yelling anyway. Trisha makes a quick decision to knock on all the other buses, even though most seem empty. Maybe there is a second bus? Her instincts pay off and there is a dispatcher on a chair that sees us and yells, “Marrakesh?” with alarm. “Oui! Oui!” I yell back (Aldo Fillipone) and he calls a cell phone and motions us to a minivan.
At first I think we are getting a personal van to Marrakesh, but the urgency with which they move makes me realize we are going to try to catch the bus. The girls think the idea of a bus catching a bus is hilarious and we pursue the motor coach in a high-speed chase. The van BUMPS, unslowed by the security checkpoints and then skids as we peel out of the airport.
The bus is pulled over on the highway median and it puts flashers on while we make the transition. It’s packed and we can’t get seats next to each other. The mood on the bus seems unfriendly, although they are all probably just tired, frustrated and hungry like we are. We squeeze into our seats and think about how to spend the next three hours. Luckily, Emma and Lily both fall asleep.
Trisha and I are too wound-up to sleep and pass the time in a trancy, semi-aggravated state listening to music or watching a movie. Trish is in email contact with our local travel agent and together they plan where we are going to meet the driver to our Riad. She’s uncertain of our bus’s drop-off point, and no one on the bus seems to know. It makes her anxious.
Halfway, the bus stops at a Moroccan kwik-e-mart, and we grab some water and Oreo cookies — the only things I could find that the girls might eat. They both munch an Oreo or two and fall asleep again. We’ve fed our girls nothing but sugar today. When we finally arrive I apologize to them both. It’s not fair to make them endure a day like today. They are only six and nine, although they act much older. Both girls respond with emphatic support. They know it’s not our fault and they are glad to be on the trip. It brings tears to my eyes. I couldn’t be more proud of this family.
The bus takes us to the Marrakesh train station and we are on our way to the Riad in less than 10 minutes. The city is busy and looks fairly clean, but it’s hard to be sure at night. Down the darkest of alleys, through a tiny door, is our gorgeous Riad. Our ‘room’ is a two-bedroom suite with a private roof porch. We check out the roof under a clear, warm night sky. I was hoping for some cold dinner, but everything has been put away.
The girls crash easily. Trish and I chat in bed for a while, still a little worked up. We hadn’t been able to talk much since we were together waiting at the gate. We compare notes and make the best of the situation. We hope the bags come tomorrow and the breakfast is huge.
[Photos by Trisha Creekmore]