Editor’s Note: Because of the Coronavirus last year, many tour bus companies were shut down. Buses were parked, insurance was cancelled on buses not being financed, and license plates were returned to the DMV. Many stayed parked for over a year and unfortunately, some went bankrupt. This is a story about one such company in Europe, and how it affected them and their passengers on their last trip before the shutdown.
On March 7, 2020, I drove one of our tour buses, from Switzerland to Malaga (Spain) where I was scheduled to pick up a bus full of passengers to take them to Morocco for their vacation. By this time, the Coronavirus had already reached Italy.
On March 12, 2020, the guests flew from Zurich to Malaga and I greeted them at the airport to start the tour.
On March 14, 2020, Coronavirus reached all of Europe. Flights were canceled, borders were closed, and ferry services between Spain (Europe) and Morocco (Africa) were canceled.
“Immediately cancel the trip!” These were the words I heard from our head office in Baden Rütihof through the mobile phone, into my ear at lunch while in Fes, Morocco. All European flights were canceled. Everyone had to fly back home somehow, on the last flights before COVID-19 completely shut down air travel. Immediately Twerenbold (thanks to their super team) managed to rebook flights for our two groups from Morocco to get the passengers back home. “What a stroke of luck.”
Now, it was time to cancel the city tour of Fes, return to the hotel, pack suitcases and drive the bus about five hours to Casablanca to return the passengers until the pandemic is over. We stayed overnight and the next morning at 5:00 AM we went to the airport to catch a flight booked for 8:30 AM. Thomas Rothschild’s group had already flown out on the 13th. Now, it was up to him to accompany my group. The plane took off on time. It’s done, the passengers in the group are on their way back home. I was left all alone.
Unfortunately, there was no chance of taking the buses home, so we had to fly home without them.
I drove to Marrakech and settled into a hotel and waited for 6:00 PM. Rather unusual for Morocco, the young man I was to meet appeared punctually. Achmed kept me company while I drove the bus to the company (Ouhadou) to park it and store it there until I could return to pick it up. Outside Marrakech, I parked the bus in a large hangar near the airport.
There was a second Twerenbold bus, driven by Thomas Rothschild, and four other German buses already there. I was quite tired and a lot of thoughts raced through my head. How long will it take before we can return to take our tour? “Certainly, no more than two to three weeks” So, I only took the items necessary for a short stay.
Early on I was at the Marrakech airport. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A crowd gathered like on a crowded bazaar. Everyone was leaving the country heading home. My ears immediately picked up the sound of the screaming crowd. Everyone tried to talk louder to drown out everyone else. A mixture of broken English, French, and habdachscheebalschgurichapta… Huge queues of people waited at the check-in counter of Air France.
“Oh man, that line goes on forever!” I cursed inwardly. Then I saw it. I looked at my ticket “CHECK-IN BUSINESS CLASS,” Wow, Twerenbold, my company, has booked a business-class ticket for me. “Thank you!” In no time I had my boarding pass and I was in a good mood. I went to have coffee.
With passport in hand, I stood at the customs counter ready to leave. The customs officer studied my passport very carefully, frowns… breathes deeply through… and says in a calm voice,
“You’ve got a bus with you! What about that?”
“I couldn’t take it with me because of Corona!”
“Yes, of course, but you need a permit for that. It is not allowed to leave a bus in this country without a permit.”
“OOPS! And where is the permit?”
“Get out of line again, go all the way to the left, then twice to the right, go under the barrier, go by the kiosk on the right side to the left, along the aisle, right side, first door.”
“OHHH Okay.” It took me a while to find the first door on the right.
After a few minutes, I left the office where the friendly officer was. In my hand, I held the “Authorization”.
Back to see that same officer, “No, not good, now the police have to stamp it.”
Confused, astonished, and annoyed I ask, “Where?”
“Just over there! And after that, you don’t need to come to me anymore. You can just go through.”
I said, “done” and an hour later I was sitting on the plane to Paris in business class, sipping a glass of champagne.
After a night out in Paris, I arrived in Zurich on March 18th.
It wasn’t until days later that I learned from Thomas that he hadn’t acquired such a permit. No one even noticed he brought a bus into the country.
In September of 2020, the borders were partially opened and we were able to get the buses back from Morocco. We had been waiting for this day for months. After 6 months, 15 days, and 8 hours, we (Thomas Rothschild and myself) rode a bus to the Zurich Kloten Airport.
Two previous requests were canceled because of Coronavirus. It took countless permits, a negative COVID-19 test (no older than 72 hours), a booked hotel reservation, etc., to be allowed to enter Morocco.
Authorities reviewed and checked countless documents and permits. Everything is leaning towards being able to go. But Thomas lacks the one important Authorization document.
I could feel Thomas’s nervousness about the lack of needing approval. We reach Zurich Airport very early. Immediately we go to the ticket counter to check in our suitcases. We get our boarding passes without any problems and Thomas shows his relief by letting out a deep sigh. I look at him admonishingly, “You’re not in Morocco yet.”
We spent the time until boarding with meaningless chatter. Thomas then tells me that he is transporting three kilos of “flour” in his suitcase. A gift for a friend in Tangier. It is immediately clear to both of us that this white powder is not exactly defined as flour. I can’t resist grabbing Thomas by his arm. “White powder (flour)! Oh man, I can see you being led away. I’m not going to wait for you.”
Ding, Dang, Dong. Some names are called out via the loud speakers to report to a boarding change. “Did they call us out?” Thomas asks me. My relaxed “No” is not enough for him. He rushes to the counter to ask.
Without mentioning his name, he asks, “What does the friendly gentleman mean?” The gentleman at the counter says, “We don’t mean you, Mr. Rothschild.” Thomas came to me in dismay and said, “How do they know my name?” I clearly recognize the sweat beads on his forehead. I just shrug my shoulders and said, “Three kilos of white powder (flour) and no permit, you’re asking for it.”
While boarding, Thomas couldn’t resist asking the same friendly gentleman, “Please, how do you know my name?” as I interject, “The police had you on their radar all morning!” Laughing, the man pulls down his mask and corrects us by stating, “No, you both are known to me.” Now the three of us had to laugh out loud. But clearly, I see in the corner of my eye again those sweat beads on Thomas’ forehead.
At 11:40 AM the plane took off with both of us on board and heading to Holland. After an hour and a half layover in Amsterdam, we continued to an Airport in Marrakech, Morocco.
Something told me that the lack of permission to return without a bus would be a headache for him. Do you know friends like that? “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” Right?
Today I was one of them. I really gave him hope: “Don’t worry, I’ll take you packed lunches to the prison, along with the 3KG of white powder in the suitcase.” His sweat spots were growing bigger and bigger. Landing in Marrakech we went to baggage claim and then to customs. Template passport, COVID-19 test, hotel reservation, and the entry form, and just like that, we had our Entry stamp. Yay!!! We made it up to this point…
I have been going to Morocco for fifteen years now and I am now known all over the country, like a colorful dog. Before arriving, I hired my long-time tour guide and friend Hassan Mahoub, who would support us for the next day in the port of Tanger Med in case of language problems.
Hassan had nothing better to do than to inform all the business men we are dealing with, by telephone, that we were both coming to Morocco to pick up our buses. Hachem, a carpet manufacturer, and dealer from Tinghir couldn’t resist getting in the car and driving 400 KM (250 miles) to Marrakech to meet us. You can certainly imagine our facial expressions when we arrived at the hotel and were greeted by Hachem.
During our dinner together, our phone and that of Hachem’s was continuously receiving notifications. Tour guides, restaurant owners, hoteliers… everyone asking about our well-being. The next morning at 10:00 AM, we arrived at the company Ohadou, to pick up our buses.
A few days before, Thomas had phoned Alfons Marx (the German bus businessman) because he had read on Facebook that he had already returned to pick up his bus. He told him not to be scared when we see the buses. He said “There is several Centimeters of thick dust and sand on our buses in storage.” We were prepared for anything.
Upon arriving at the storage lot, we knocked on the large metal entrance gate. A small peephole opened. We say that we are the Drivers for Twerenbold and are here to pick up our buses. The flap is closed and a short time later the metal gate opens. After 203 days, 18 hours, 14 minutes, and 23 seconds, we are reunited with our “babies”.
Both buses were brought forward, the batteries were charged, the engines were running and both buses were washed! Of course, I don’t have to mention that not even a bottle of water was missing. Everything that had been left in the buses was exactly how we had left it before we left them at the beginning of the pandemic in March.
Shortly after our arrival, the boss of Ouhadou came out and we thanked each other. But the most beautiful thing was that he only wanted to have a small tip for his people, for storing the buses for seven months. That was out of the question. We handed him an envelope with a “very big tip.” Finally, we have our buses!!
We set off and headed north towards home.
Around 8:30 PM we reached our hotel in M’Diq, which is about 40 KM from the port of Tanger Med. Our friend Hassan Mahoub had joined us in the meantime and we spent a nice evening together. Our ferry to Genoa was scheduled to depart the next evening at 10.30 PM.
At 12.30 p.m. after an extensive breakfast, we went to the ferry port in Tanger Med. Thomas worried about his missing approval documents again. The sweat beads on his forehead were back. Hassan and I did the rest. Upon arrival at the port, we saw cars, trucks, and especially motorhomes as far as the eye could see. There were many people on holiday who had to leave their campers behind in March, when they were also surprised by Coronavirus.
There were long queues at the ticket counter. Oh man, how long are we supposed to be there? With a Backschisch (bribe), everything can be expedited in Morocco. The right man in the right place and a small note and he pulled up our ferry reservation, we passed the queue to the ticket counter and we had our ferry tickets.
For further help, however, we had to forgo Hassan, as the port is as secure as Fort Knox and further access is only possible with a valid ticket. Now, comes the point that made Thomas have many sleepless nights. Moroccan customs and border police. The vehicle needs a registration number, chassis number, name of the driver and before all of the valid dates are stamped on it.
Moroccan vehicle license plates are valid for six months. So, we are at the hands of the customs office. We have our passports, the vehicle license, and the original license plates. The tax collector looks at the vehicle license and asks what we did from March until today in Morocco.
Answer: “Nothing. The bus was parked and we flew home. Now we are back to pick up the buses and take them home. “
Understanding… nodding… we got our stamp! There were also no problems at all when we went through the border police checkpoint. We also handled the vehicle documents at the scanner, and again with a small bribe. Why did Thomas go crazy for days? Why does he rack his brain and play through all the options in his mind? Why, why, why?
We had made it, we were in the port, had done all the formalities, not yet on the ferry – but at least we were ready to drive on.
Frightened, I say to Thomas, “You shouldn’t feel relaxed, we’re not on the ferry yet.” At about 2:00 AM the last of the vehicles were loaded. After 57 hours on the ferry and a stopover in Barcelona, we arrived in Genoa at 8:30 in the morning.
Italian poles: Passaporto, Coronavirus questionnaire (5 pages long). “Buona giornata e buon viaggio” (Good morning and have a safe trip). The last 400 KM to our company (Twerenbold) we are ready to drive home.
I was still trying to keep Thomas’s nerves going. “You are not yet in Switzerland. You are not yet at the company office. Your bus is not yet in the yard.” All only a Joke, because Thomas is a really good colleague. Around 2:30 PM we reached Baden-Rütihof safely.
After a week of adventure, laughter, friends, and excitement we reach our head office in Baden (Switzerland). After almost nine months, our bus fleet is finally complete again.
This was a very unusual year. When facing a pandemic like the Coronavirus, you can get caught out of your native country and there may be issues getting back in and/or getting your vehicle back across the border as happened to us.