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10. Escaping Zanzibar

My little voice told me. Warned me. Tapped on my shoulder. But in Nungwi I was too weak from Montezuma’s evil revenge to do anything about it. And then we were on the wonderful, private Chumbe Island for our final days - one of my favourite experiences of the whole trip - and when I checked the Canadian government website that last night I interpreted the info to suit our situation, and assumed we were exempt from requiring a negative PCR test to land in our homeland even though I deep down I think I was twisting the rules to fit my desired reality, and despite recently relaxed border crossing rules, we Canadians might indeed require a negative PCR test to return to the land of milk and maple syrup.

 

We should have learned our lesson from the near-debacle leaving Canada, receiving test results electronically in the car as we pulled in to Pearson. But no…

 

After a wonderful breakfast overlooking the serene, warm sapphire waters of the Indian Ocean, we left our rustic but wonderful eco-lodge for the last time and boarded the narrow boat back to the larger island.  Our car was waiting to take us on a quick tour of historical Stone Town before heading to the airport.  Everything working smoothly and on schedule.

 

So the feeling after 2 hours of arguing with the Zanzibarian Airport Authority, when he finally said we weren’t allowed to board our plane back home… you can imagine how that felt a physical blow. Hell no! In my experience there’s always a solution, always a way out… but it was impossible to argue with the computer which showed — in cruelly cool green pixels — “negative PCR test results no more than 72 hours old required to enter Canada.” 

Oh hell yes. Indeed.  Even for Canuck citizens.

 

How will we possibly get out of Zanzibar now? I wondered as our plane took off without us, jet engines screaming tauntingly, and we waited for our bags to be returned. Unceremoniously. Momentarily, hope seemed to have taken off with our jet.

“Ok,” I said resignedly to the Ethiopian Air rep, “let’s book the next flight to Toronto.”

“So sorry sir, you cannot book flights here, you must go to our office in Stone Town.”

Of course

“And because today is Saturday the office is closed.”

Offuckingcourseitis

“So how can I book a flight today?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“You can visit our office in Stone Town tomorrow.”

Thank the gods for iPhones and (shitty) wifi.  I found a reasonably priced hotel near the airport and booked it — optimistically — for two nights.


A shot of me suffering during our unexpected delay (wonderful Chumbe Island in the background): 


Staying positive, we took a cab to the only site performing PCR tests (for US$100 a pop).  Results were promised within 48 hours…or perhaps a little longer, depending on the vagaries of island vibes that day. 

Hakuna matata

Back at the hotel I perused the Ethiopian Airline website and found the phone number for the Zanzibarian supervisor.  With nothing to lose, I called her via WhatsApp.

Against the odds, she answered.

I explained my flight plight.  It sounded like she was in the middle of cooking dinner for her family, but she took the time to listen, explain she couldn’t access her systems until tomorrow (home PCs connected to the corporate network via VPN likely don’t exist on Zanzibar) and promised to help us in the morning.  My main goal was to build a relationship with her, as my gut was telling me getting home was going to be challenging, and we’d need all the

sympathetic

help we could get.

Making the best of a bad situation, we went for a swim in the warm & lovely ocean just outside our hotel; there were much worse ways to suffer a missed flight.  Then, during dinner, we learned our very nice inn was built in swampland.  The large fan near our table wasn’t there to keep us cool but to blow away the clouds of mosquitoes.  And at night, instead of a turndown service the hotel offered to to fumigate our room with a cloud of insecticide… would you choose:

A) hope most of the poison air had settled by bedtime or

B) decline the service and instead donate some blood to little winged vampires while sleeping defenseless in bed, in a country where malaria still rears its ugly head?

Decisions, decisions…

 

Using WhatsApp (everyone’s favourite way to communicate in Africa apparently) I called our taxi driver from the day before — his name was Juma but I’ll call him Angel because the white-haired gentleman, instead of taking advantage of two vulnerable foreigners, had charged us a fair fare to take us from the airport to the hospital grounds, waited almost an hour, then took us to our hotel — and he agreed to take us to the Ethiopian Airline office in Stone Town to rebook our flights.  When we arrived, after many clicks of long nails on computer keys, the wonderful young representative confirmed the next available flight to Toronto was in three weeks.

Nathan started college in one week. I’d be scalped by my working-full-time-and-caring-for-our-three-year-old-daughter wife if I wasn’t home ASAP (where almost a month later doesn’t = “ASAP”).

Three weeks later wasn’t workable.

Nevertheless, the uncaring computer confirmed “ASAP” = “three weeks later.”

Unless we wanted to get on the wait list for business class.  For $10,000+.  Each.

 

What price a happy wife?

 

Poor Nate couldn’t swing $10k, and I found it a bitter (jumbo) pill to swallow, so we found a café inside an ancient building down a winding alley and pulled out our pocket supercomputers, connected to the free wifi and started scouring the internet to find a way back to the other side of the planet.

After 30 minutes (internet speeds in Zanzibar aren’t much faster than our “dial-up” speeds of 3 decades ago) it was clear

A) virtually no airlines fly direct to Zanzibar

B) Adis Ababa is one of the only African hubs with regular flights to North America

C) There was a shocking demand for flights to North America from Africa at the moment, with reduced supply due to the pandemic.

I finally found a direct flight to Toronto from Tel Aviv four days later.  We’d have a 23 hour layover in Israel — just enough time to see Jerusalem and float in the Red Sea! — so I booked it via a flight from Addis Ababa immediately, then we hoofed it back to the Ethiopian Airlines office to reschedule our flight from Zanzibar to Adis Ababa (via Kilimanjaro). 

Due to the long layover in Israel, our first PCR test results would be more than 72 hours old before we boarded to last plane to Canada, so we had Angel take us back to the outdoor hospital tents to pay another US$100 for another PCR test.

Happy to have a plan in place, we toured the maze of alleyways that lend so much character to old Stone Town, and visited the powerful memorial to the remarkably sad role the island played in the slave trade, learning the vile commerce was only abolished in 1909!, and that Arabs were some of the largest and most pernicious traders of African slaves.

 

Thomas Smee, commander of the British research ship Ternate, describes in 1811: “The show starts around 4pm. The slaves come out prepared with their skins clean and smeared with cocoa nut oil, their faces painted red with white lines and their hands, nose, ears and feet decorated with gold and silver bracelets and rings. At the beginning of the row, made up of both sexes and classified by age -in ages between 6 and 60 years old- and from youngest to tallest, walks the person who owns those slaves accompanied by two domestic slaves who act as guard. When the procession of slaves around the market begins, at the slightest interest of a spectator, the line stops and the process of examining the slave concerned begins: check that there is no “defect” in speech, the ear and its limbs; that he has no palpable disease; and examines the mouth, the teeth, and all parts of the body…” Some slaves were whipped in public to see which was the strongest and could be sold at a higher price. Others were kept in low and small rooms for many days so that only those who endured in these very poor conditions remained.

 

We visited the this “low and small” underground room, which felt claustrophobic with just Nate and I inside; it was impossible to imagine what it was like with 50+ slaves chained and suffering together while some died due to hunger, exhaustion or likely the sheer inhumanity of their experience.

 

 

It was a powerful reminder of man’s unthinking ruthlessness toward other men, an important testament from the past to ensure nothing like it can ever happen again.

 

Back at the hotel I fired up the iPad to check in to our first of four flights back home.  When the fourth attempt failed due to an unspecified error, spidey senses started tingling.  The local Ethiopian Airline office was closed, so I reached out to the corporate customer service team via WhatsApp.  Four messages and an hour later, the helpful virtual gentleman informed me the Israeli government had shut down the Tel Aviv airport to all tourists, and wouldn’t even allow travellers to transit from one airplane to another within the airport.

 

The Swahili translation for “oh, shit” is “oh, shit.”  Truly an international, timeless expression.

A quick visit to the Tel Aviv website confirmed the truth. 

I damned Expedia for booking a flight from Addis Ababa to Tel Avis to Toronto when we weren’t allowed into the Tel Aviv airport — an important piece of the global puzzle I thought I’d so artfully assembled from a café in Stone Town to get back to my family in Kitchener.

 

Back to the bloody drawing board.

 

Cancelled the flights from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv & Tel Aviv to Toronto.  What were the odds of receiving refunds?? Perhaps, I thought, it would be better to break the plan down into continent-sized steps, and focus first on getting out of Africa to Europe, which would have many more options to fly back to North America (I’d rather be stuck in Paris or Frankfurt vs. Cairo or Entebbe).  I eventually found a flight path from Addis Ababa to London, then to Warsaw and finally to Toronto.  The first flight of this five-stop forty-four hour transcontinental marathon departed the next day at 3:40 pm. 

After hours of research it was the best possible plan, but possessed a few variables, any of which could catastrophically derail our return:

  1. The five flights ranged from 1 to 12 hours long, all but one requiring us to switch planes.  One delay could prevent us boarding the next flight, with a domino effect of missing the subsequent connecting flight.  Now intimately familiar with the nightmare of rebooking a missed flight during a pandemic, this was cause for concern.

  2. Flights were being cancelled due to staff shortages.  Beyond our control, so I didn’t stress about this one.

  3. PCR testing timelines:

  4. Turnaround times for PCR test results in Zanzibar: 48 hours (or longer).

  5. Our final flight departed Warsaw almost 40 hours after we boarded our first flight in Zanzibar.

  6. The Canadian government demanded negative PCR test results no more than 72 hours old prior to boarding the flight into Canada

  7. I felt rather clever at this point having taken two PCR tests both that day and the previous day, assuming the first test results would allow us on the jet in Zanzibar, and the second test results would be under 72 hours old and thus acceptable when we boarded flight #5 from Warsaw to Toronto.

  8. Assumptions can — and so often do — come back to bite one in the proverbial ass.

Using WhatsApp I kept the local Ethiopian Air supervisor apprised of our travel details.  Given all the setbacks we’d suffered so far, having an ally seemed wise.

Little did I know…

 

Having prepped as much as possible for all the variables we could control, we headed for bed, assuming that along with luck we’d need as much rest as possible to successfully manage our upcoming jaunt of 16,000+ kilometres.

 

I tallied the costs of missing our first flight:

$600 US to Ethiopian Airlines for rebooking fees

$2,000+ CAN to Polish Airlines.

$180 US for the Golden Palm hotel

$75 US for Juma our guardian driver

$420 US for PCR tests

$100+ US for meals (even though a great breakfast was included each morning)

 

 

I awoke poorly rested, we packed up, and our defacto driver Juma (aka Angel) picked us up and we arrived at the airport without issue, with a three hour buffer to departure to ensure we had plenty of time to deal with any unforeseen circumstances.  The first one hit us immediately.

 

UC #1

 

Check-in was easy, and we went through the rigamarole of walking to another desk to have our PCR test results (first test we’d taken two days ago) confirmed.  Our bags were placed on the conveyor belt which felt like a concrete step in the right direction. 

But then a gentleman from the airport Authority swept in.  The same man who had happily prevented us from boarding our original flight three days prior!  Had he been waiting in ambush, or did we look like some unusual suspects??  He conferred with the airline agent and scanned her computer screen, and then said calmly “your PCR test results will be older than 72 hours before you board your final flight to Canada.

I cannot let you board your flight today.”


I, just as (legitimately) calmly replied “we took two PCR tests.  The results from the first test allow us to board the flight today, and we’ll receive the second results online in plenty of time to board our final flight to Canada.”

Check mate, mate.


“I’m sorry, but that’s not acceptable.  All your various flights constitute one trip, and the rules state you cannot board the first leg unless you have a negative PCR test which is less than 72 hours old prior to starting the last leg of your trip” he explained.  Calmly, but with an edge to his eyes now.


“I understand, and that’s why we took two PCR tests.  Our full journey is over 40 hours long, and it takes 48 hours to receive PCR test results here, so everything should work out perfectly… as long as we leave on time today.”

He and the airline rep started counting on fingers and toes, adding up all the arrival and departure times.  I suddenly realized I hadn’t taken any time zone changes into account!  The 8 hours difference between Zanzibar and London or Warsaw could potentially make our second PCR test results more than 72 hours hold before skipping aboard our final flight.

 

As that old Swahili saying goes, “oh, shit.”

 

He shook his head, not sadly, and confirmed he couldn’t allow us to board our scheduled flight out of what was beginning to feel like a gilded island prison.  “If you receive the results from your second PCR test then I can allow you to board.”

And then the gut shot.  “Meanwhile, retrieve their checked luggage.”

Damn.  A terrible sense of déja vu (all over again!).

Time to call a Lifeline.

Angel #2.


Instead of trying to persuade/argue with Mr. Thou-shalt-not-pass, I nodded politely and made a beeline for the tiny Ethiopian Airlines office, desperately hoping my efforts to build a relationship with the Supervisor had been enough to earn her trust.  And help.

She was busy with another passenger, so I had to wait outside her cramped but air-conditioned oasis, back in the least comfortable airport terminal I’ve ever visited.  But at least it had wifi, so as the minutes ticked down heavily we checked the hospital website feverishly, like Vegas gamblers who’d bet the family house on a slot machine, praying each time we hit the “update” button the Status screen would change from “pending” to the beautiful green “Negative Result” script just like our first test results.

Two hours of this ridiculousness passed, yet despite my earlier pleas to the testing team on the hospital grounds (from the nurse who swabbed the far reaches of my upper nostrils to the gentleman in Finance who took our money) to expedite our tests, along with all the positive thoughts and prayers, that Status box resolutely said “Pending”.

The Supervisor approached us, along with Mr. Thou-shall-not-pass with his crisp white uniform and still uncaring eyes.

The Supervisor was obviously nervous, and she ushered me into the small office.  The stress was finally starting to get to me; if we didn’t get on this plane — which was taking off in less than one hour, with or without two Canucks who were at the mercy of a computer system that didn’t care about patently ridiculous and perhaps impossible-to-satisfy timelines — I wasn’t sure how we were going to make it back to Canada.


“Well,” she began, “I see your second test results still haven’t been uploaded.” 

So much for patient privacy.  I realized only a surname and passport number were required to access the website results, and she’d been monitoring as well.

“I would like to allow you on the plane, but you must understand: if something happens — for example if your second test comes back with a positive result — my company becomes completely responsible for you, whether that be flying you back (and where would “back” be if I was COVID positive?), paying for your quarantine accommodations, any penalties, etc…” her eyes widening, both with empathy for my plight and the nightmarish costs and consequences if she allowed us on her jet, both for her company and her.

I now fully understood why we hadn’t been allowed on our first flight.  The gravity of the situation hit me, hard, slumping my normally unslumpable shoulders.  I couldn’t dare ask her to put her neck on the line, potentially risk her job along with an administrative (and diplomatic?) shitstorm if anything went wrong, just so two foreign strangers could fly back to their faraway homes.  Could I?


I launched a logical charm offensive. “We’re double vaxxed” I heard myself saying, “and we’ve had negative test results here, in Uganda and back in Canada.  We’ve got no symptoms.  I’m happy to sign a waiver absolving the airline of any liability.

And,” with calm desperation, I played my last trump card, “I need to get back to my wife and little girl.”  I’d shamelessly shared an iPhone photo of Athena with the Supervisor earlier, and though her face gave away nothing, I felt something shift.

It was my miracle, coming.

“Okay

whoa, this is what a miracle feels like when it shows up

I will allow you to board the plane after you sign a form.”

Her wide eyes narrowed and firmed, and the strength of her decision after hours of waffling straightened her spine.  I saw and felt the change in her.


“No, I cannot allow them to board the plane” interjected Mr. Thou-shall-not-pass, as if he’d been rehearsing the line.  “It is expressly forbidden” he continued, gesturing to the computer screen whose simple green pixels had confirmed from on high that we didn’t meet the necessary requirements.  And as everyone knows, you can’t argue with they system.

But, as I learned from a career in corporate sales, you can appeal to the human spirit.


“No,” she replied, with wonderful steel in her voice, “I have ultimate authority here”

(I loved that line, and I stared at his “Airport Authority” shoulderboard insignia mounted so proudly on his uniform as she continued

“and I am authorizing them to board the plane.”

He shook his head and wanted to say more, but it seemed the hierarchy was solid enough for him to bite his tongue, and he muttered angrily “then whatever happens is your responsibility“ and then things happened quickly.  I signed a simple waiver, and followed the Supervisor to the front of the check-in line (having rank is such a wonderful thing when it’s pulled for and not against you).  To her credit she didn’t even bat an eyelash when I stated my checked luggage included a spear.

I wanted to hug her.  I wanted to pull out my wallet and give her all the cash inside.  I really, really wanted her to understand how much her decision meant to me, and I conveyed my thanks as best I could, conscious off all the signs in the airport expressly forbidding the “tipping”

bribing

of airport personnel.

Then through security, where the bored official behind the glass barely looked up from the soccer match playing on his cell phone, and then we were in the waiting lounge!  It didn’t matter how drab and confined the brown low-ceilinged room felt… it was more beautiful than any palace for what it represented: miraculously overcoming a logistically-impossible situation & the first step to the other side of the planet and our families.

 

And, taken as a positive omen, our flight departed on time!  A quick stop in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, then a 4-hour coffee break in Addis Ababa before our 7 hour jaunt to London.  There was still a long layover there and in Warsaw, but just getting to Europe felt like a giant step in the right direction.

 

As we settled into our seats, the worst was now behind us.

Right?

 

Little did I know, but no, not by a long shot…

 

 

UC #2

 

Just over an hour later we touched down softly as the sun settled slowly behind the mountain peaks, Kilimanjaro casting a majestic shadow over the plain.

Just over an hour into our one-hour layover our plane was still parked, motionless in the creeping darkness.  Only an hour after that did the pilot come on the PA to say a critical part had failed

uh oh

but a replacement had been found and was being installed

yay!

and he would let us know within the hour whether it would be safe to take off.

Otherwise he would have to ground the plane.

Of course…

 

I did some quick mental math, and estimated we would have to take off within the next 90 minutes or we’d miss our connecting flight to London.

True to his word, the pilot was back after an hour and two beers (for me and Nathan, not the pilot), and he announced “we have installed and successfully tested the new part.  We can proceed on our journey.”

Yay!

There were some cheers.  But still the plane didn’t move, and I needed it to move now.

The engines finally started spooling, and we took off into the night, 90 minutes later.  According to my math, we would land in Ethiopia approximately 15 minutes before our UK flight departed.

Could we make it?

I told Nathan we could indeed.

And I believed it.

In my experience, few things are more powerful than positive thinking.  Except, of course, for government regulations…

 

We landed in Addis Ababa, mentally urging the pilot to break some ground-speed records en route to the gate (we were so late, who would even notice?) and your two weary heroes hit the jetway running.  I didn’t care if our checked luggage joined us on the next plane, I just needed our assess in seats.  Similar to a scene from Pamplona’s running of the bulls, we led a pack of Caucasians storming the gates of Bolé Airport.  Fortunately it was nearly empty — a complete reversal of the multicultural overcrowding we’d experienced a few weeks ago — but it’s a big building.  Low and looooong. We had to jog the width of it, impatiently push through a security checkpoint, sprint up a flight of stairs, beg for directions to our gate, discover it was the last one on the opposite length of the terminal

naturally

and so began an all-out discovery that my cardio needs some improvement.  I kept up with my athletic 19-year-old sidekick, barely, and a small part of me welcomed yet another security checkpoint midway through this gruelling leg of our high speed mini-marathon (complete with unexpected hurdles).

Sadly, there were no security guards present.  Off on a midnight coffee break perhaps?  Or because all the flights had already departed?

I could see our corner gate in the distance, and there was no crowd of passengers queued up to enter the gantry.  No hubbub of excited voices and tin-voiced announcements over cheap speakers.  In fact this whole section of the terminal was devoid of life.

Uh oh…

But when there’s even an iota of hope, we never give up.  So I walked through the unmanned security gate, to be promptly reprimanded by a uniformed woman lounging behind a post. I explained our plight, how we couldn’t miss our flight and she nodded her head and said “good night.”

A full throttle sprint like 747s thundering down the runway got us to the far gate, where a stewardess popped up like a groundhog from behind the desk.

The door to the gate behind her was closed.

Were we too late?

Her eyebrows arched in surprise as she asked “tickets and passports, please?”

 

And then we sprinted, that closed door almost splintered as I kicked it open and we boarded the plane and the steward swung the door shut behind us.

It doesn’t get much closer than that.

 

Somehow, using his millennial powers mid-sprint, Nathan had pulled out his iPhone, and it had automatically connected to the wifi so his second PCR test results had loaded, and as we settled into our seats — one of us still a little short of breath — he showed me that wonderful word in its emerald font: Negative.”

I tried to connect to the wifi, but the jet was already taxiing away from the gate and couldn’t grab a signal.  As we leapt into the air, relief flooding through my veins like a most wondrous drug

we did it!

I just wanted to close my eyes and finally rest — almost everything that could go wrong was now conquered behind us in the jetwash as our plane raced north and to the West — but I pulled out my credit card and bought an hour’s worth of onboard wifi, just to get my PCR result so I could cross it off my mental “Things That Could F#*! Us” list and sleep peacefully then enjoy a pint or three in London, regardless what bloody time we arrived.  As the accumulated, unconscious weight of all the stress continued to gush away like a dam break, a smile traced my lips for the first time in two days as I waited for the PCR test website to load, so you can perhaps imagine how something as small and intangible as a single word on a small phone screen can feel

genuinely

like a physical punch to the gut which is exactly what I experienced when the scarlet Positive exploded silently on my iPhone screen like a malevolent fuckin’ IED.

 

Seriously.

 

Like a character in an absurdly unbelievably scripted movie, I stared at the screen for 30 seconds

perhaps a few minutes

unable to move.  It was such a preposterous scene, I did what I could to make sure I wasn’t dreaming

nightmaring?

and felt reality thrust back on to my shoulders all the heavy stress so recently shedded into the ether and again it was either fight-or-flight time but, trapped on flight ET700 at 30,000 feet, what options did I have?

 

I had less than 8 hours to figure it out.

 

The internet is a wonderful tool, truly.  While cruising angelically above the clouds I learned:

  • Heathrow has no PCR testing facilities within its terminals. As in none.

  • There was a clinic which promised same-day results, less than a 10 minute black cab ride away

  • Flights from Ethiopia to London had only resumed a couple months earlier.

  • All African countries were “red list” countries (now my least favourite colour), meaning if flying in from one of these scarlet-lettered states, only UK nationals were allowed into the country.  All other travellers would enjoy a mandatory vacation in a quarantine hotel, with:

  • Minimum 10 day stay

  • 3 boxed — and no doubt wonderful exemplars of British cuisine — meals  delivered to one's hotel door daily

  • Leaving the prison room was expressly forbidden, even for exercise

  • The least expensive hotel package started at just over $5,000

  • I was reminded of that wonderful Swahili expression, “oh, shit.”

So, now you know my facts; what would you do?

 

I considered throwing myself on the mercy an airport or LOT (Polish) Airline or government official, but immediately vetoed that, remembering the merciless and unarguable logic of whatever a respective computer screen would tell them to do or not do for or to me.  Plus, if I really was Covid-positive I was truly persona non grata

n. pl. per·so·nae non gra·tae (-nē; -tē) A person who is unacceptable or unwelcome, especially to a foreign government

and couldn’t count on any sympathies. 


I visualized all the steps necessary to leave Heathrow, grab a cab, visit the testing facility, then renter Heathrow, and realized my negative test result from an African hospital would be the opposite of an entry pass.

But, soaring through the heavens, I could reach out to my African angel, and fired up WhatsApp to see if she could consult on another miracle.

She answered quickly, texting “tell no one”, which seemed a little unethical for an angel, but in retrospect was good advice because then my only destination would be a depressing — and depressingly expensive — solitary confinement holding cell. 

Then she texted “try to board your final flight using your first test results.”

I smiled, knowing I couldn’t sweet talk anyone (else) to ever let me on an international flight without a “valid” PCR test (the arbitrary nature of the 72 hour requirement was increasingly frustrating, as my first test would be about 79 hours old prior to my last departure time from Warsaw, but I doubted the existence of any grey area in international travel law during a pandemic) and thanked her again for her help.

I was destined to spend at least 10 days in a prison of one of Her Majesty’s innkeepers, unable to get back to my family.  My angel might lose her job.  The gravity of the situation hit so hard I’m surprised its weight didn’t pull down the entire plane.

Nephew Nathan shrugged his shoulders and fell asleep.

I spent the next few hours boning up on UK immigration law, its pandemic measures for international travellers, and grew increasingly depressed.

 

Every problem has a solution — I’d lived this lesson countless times travelling around the world — but the regulatory walls thrown up by the UK were insurmountable.

There’s always an answer, you just have to find it

There’s a first time for everything, even failure

 

The plane landed.  I had no plan.  No answer.

Then, bizarrely, the moment I stepped off the final stair and touched UK soil, the solution hit me, like a figurative bolt from the heavens.

I pulled out my phone, connected to (blessedly quick) wifi, and searched for direct flights to Canada — any city — leaving Heathrow within the next 10 hours (ie: within 72 hours of my first PCR test). 

There was one Air Canada flight leaving six hours later.

There was one seat left.

Damn right!

Within 2 minutes (bless Apple’s Autofill function!) I’d completed the ticket purchase screens, and hit the beautiful “Purchase” button.  I’d pulled it off!

The little ivory circle icon in the middle of the screen whirred and whirred.

“Your payment could not be processed.”

Are you f’in kidding me?

I smashed the Back button, praying some other fool in a similar predicament wasn’t trying to buy my ticket simultaneously, and hammered the “Purchase” button again.

I was at the mercy of that damned whirring circle, fervently praying like a gambling addict at a craps table who’s down to his last throw, reasoning illogically with an uncaring computer screen whose next message would be the difference between salvation and purgatory.

“Your payment could not be processed.”

As my Swahili friends would say, “oh, shit.”

 

Nephew Nathan, not yet a big player in our capitalist system, had a $1,000 limit on his credit card. I needed more than double that. Assuming I wouldn’t need it, I’d packed my my backup credit card in my checked luggage — and who knows which continent it was on now — and I’d only memorized my main credit card number.  Prior to leaving Canada I’d called my credit card company and left explicit instructions not to block my card as there would be some international charges showing up and I might need funds in an emergency situation.  It was 1AM in Canada so I couldn’t call their help line to vent my current, uhh…. frustrations.  Fortunate for any innocent employees there.

 

So close — just a single click away — yet so seemingly impossibly far from salvation and return to the promised land. 

What would you do?

 

I used my second lifeline and texted my other angel, Alison.  Who, by fluke had purposefully turned on her iPhone notifications before heading to bed shortly before my terse text flew in.  Less than a minute later I was typing in her credit card details, earning one last throw on Air Canada’s virtual craps table…

 

And it worked!  “Payment processed.”

 

The concept of “value” really is fascinating, when you think about it.  I’d spent days hunting for the cheapest series of flights to get us to Africa, and now I’d gladly pay thousands of dollars more for a single flight departing before a PCR test result grew more than 72 hours old.

The whole situation was faintly ludicrous, but when you don’t make the rules you have to figure out how to make the game work for you as best you can…

 

The Heathrow terminal was a model of soaring ceilings, sparkling alabaster cleanliness and Western consumption compared to the single-restaurant-and-a-dodgy-washroom option of our previous airports. 

We quickly found a “pub”, and that first pint of Guinness was the most delicious mixture of barley, yeast and success I’d tasted in a looooong time.  So delicious I had two more, partially to celebrate getting this far, but mainly because my gut told me the plan was going to work this time.  And, after a rough bout of Montezuma’s Revenge (likely due to inhaling too much of the Nile in some class 4 rapids), I was back to trusting my gut.

 

After a delicious sushi meal and some superb coffee — still not as good as Ethiopia’s — and a few relaxed hours strolling the huge terminal, it was time to part ways with Nathan.  I hadn’t slept for two days, and only truly relaxed once the Air Canada jet leapt into the UK sky.

And it’s hard to describe how happy

grateful

relieved

I felt eight hours later when rubber vapourized in a puff of smoke and I was touching Canadian soil.

Damn was it ever good to be back!

🍁

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