“It’s the chance of a lifetime. An opportunity to make unforgettable memories.” That’s what I told my husband, mercilessly badgering him for ten minutes. “Just think about it, honey. We could be spending a fun-filled week in an African game lodge with wild, exotic animals running around. Why the photographs alone would be worth the trip.”
He conceded to my pleading and his auction paddle hit the air. I was amazed when he actually won for $2000. I was sure there’d been a mistake, that people attending the auction hadn’t heard clearly what was up for bid – didn’t understand what they were actually passing up. But I wasn’t about to argue the point. My husband and I had walked away with a bargain. I was never so sure of anything in my life.
“You do understand this covers only lodging,” he scoffed.
I wasn’t about to be discouraged. “It’s not a big deal. We’ll use our mileage. It will be fine. I promise.”
The next day my husband visited our travel agency. When he returned home, he called me into the kitchen. As it turned out, the distance from Portland, Oregon to Richards Bay, Africa would involve traveling twenty-two hours by air to reach our destination. I was briefly stunned by this discovery, but I wasn’t about to let the bad news dampen my enthusiasm. Days passed and my husband’s frequent references to our pending adventure as “non-productive time spent in lumbar torture to see zoo animals” resulted in blowing up and booting him off my itinerary. His disappointment over the news came with cheers of delight.
My moxie daughter Erika eagerly volunteered, assuming the vacancy as my new jungle mate. Her genuine excitement over our adventure surpassed my own and helped me maintain a positive attitude as the wave of unforeseen preparations slammed into me…over and over again.
I spent days on the internet going through my checklist, accumulating the recommended and very expensive bug-resistant clothing, socks, hats, hiking shoes, insect repellent, sun block, binoculars, transformers, and very important digital cameras. Erika called to remind me about vaccinations that were also necessary for our entry into Africa, leaving me temporarily panic-stricken. The clock was ticking and the only place we could receive tetanus and diphtheria booster shots in a timely manner was at a seedy travel clinic in north Portland. Following this harried doctor’s advice, I purchased Imodium, diarrhea pills and stomach cramping pills, and began to wonder exactly what I had gotten myself into. But logic and common sense were nowhere to be found. We were heavily invested and I had convinced myself the worst was now behind us…even as I purchase two prescriptions for a 28-day regiment of Malaria pills.
Claims of insanity from various members of my family wouldn’t dissuade me. Erika and I were the brave ones. We were the chosen. They would all envy our travels and regret their heckling, I told myself. As I struggled with two over-packed suitcases, I smirked at my husband’s farewell words, “Thank you for not making me go.” I pushed aside the realization that the cost of our extraordinary vacation had escalated to $15,000 with the inclusion of airfare and hotel accommodations. In a sympathetic gesture, my dear husband cashed in mileage that had taken years to earn in an effort to cushion the argent hours ahead of us and to lessen his guilt over abandoning me. He would be leaving on his own trip to Japan in the morning, while Erika and I traveled the globe in business class and overnighted in posh Amsterdam hotels. Ah…life was sweet and my husband had redeemed himself.
On August 31st, Erika and I handed over our tickets and passports, and boarded Northwest Flight #92. We toasted our voyage with champagne, enjoyed numerous movies, delicious meals and great service. Although it took ten hours, we were comfortable and excited about what lay ahead. Arriving in Amsterdam, it took us a good day to figure out the currency, train tickets and departure points. Before long, we were taking digital photos in various bars and restaurants. We drank in the pure beauty and history of this beautiful place. I was amazed at how well Erika could navigate us around a city filled with train track mazes, narrow streets, bridges and canals. Without her, I was sure I’d never find my way back to our airport hotel.
After checking in, I opened one of my fragile stickered bags and discovered my buried mirror smashed into a million pieces. This alone should have been fair warning, but I was still convinced luck was on my side. We located an inviting restaurant and after a nice dinner and shared bottle of wine, Erika and I settled in for a good night’s rest. First thing in the morning, we were off to the airport with bags and passports in hand. We checked in and had our passports stamped and were once again living it up in our KLM Flight #591 business class seats on our way to Johannesburg, Africa. Nearly eleven hours later, blurry eyed from lack of sleep, we stepped up to the immigration counter for visa entries into the country. We knew that our pre-arranged, pre-paid driver would be waiting outside the customs area to take us to our hotel.
Erika continued to urge me forward after receiving her passport back, but the look in the female immigration officer’s eyes stopped me in my tracks. She waved my passport high in the air announcing repeatedly, “It’s filled.” I had no idea what she was talking about. There were clearly three pages left in the small booklet and none of the airline personnel in Amsterdam mentioned a problem, only stamped away, happily waving me on my way.
In a matter of minutes, Erika was directed to retrieve our bags while I was escorted by a large intimidating man through winding back hallways to a secured holding area. The immigration official, whose office I entered, seemed to be an African marshal, but no identification was made. He mumbled indeterminable questions while taking numerous phone calls. His impatience was obvious and reduced me to tears when he informed me that my ignorance would be going back with me to the U.S.
For more than an hour, I sat in a small, dingy room across from a Hispanic farmer who was being returned to Mexico due to his non-existent exit visa. I had no idea where Erika was at this point or how long I was going to be kept in this holding area. Immigration officers ran up and down the hallway, stealing a long look in my direction before disappearing from view in the official’s adjacent office. Nearly thirty more minutes passed as I watched the clock approach midnight. Erika was then escorted into the room with a female officer.
When I told her that I had asked for an emergency call to the American Embassy and was told that their office was closed and that I was heading home on the next available plane, she was stunned. She couldn’t imagine leaving me, but the flights were completely booked and she would have trouble getting out of Africa for at least a week. I instructed her to keep going, stay overnight as planned in Johannesburg and then take our connecting flight to Richards Bay on South African Airlines. There was no purpose in ruining her vacation as well.
Before she could answer me, another official arrived and beckoned me and the other detainee to follow him. We virtually ran to keep up with this man down winding terminals, the Mexican gentleman with his backpack and me with a computer-laden bag, until we reached the last two gates that were in final boarding call. He was directed onto a plane headed for Paris and would ultimately be back in Mexico in a few days. The security officer waved for me to hurry as he jerked my bag from me and boarded a plane ahead of me. I was escorted to a seat between two passengers in the last row of the same plane I had just arrived on. Then I was given a form to present to agents in Amsterdam, explaining my “filled” passport as a legal reason to reject entry into Africa and justified penalty to warrant return to my place of origin – the U.S.
For over eleven hours, I sat wide-awake between an African student and elderly Dutch woman as they ate and slept, only requesting water when the dry air became an issue. With my seat tipped back six inches and the seat ahead of me pressed firmly into my knees, I wrapped a thin blanket around myself, shivering while I anticipated facing more immigration problems in Amsterdam and my eventual expulsion from Europe. The two crying babies in nearby seats matched my mood, silencing me completely.
When we finally landed and were told to present our passports after exiting the plane, I knew that I was going to be escorted once again to a plane with its engines already humming at a gate. Instead, I was met with quiet indifference by three officers and had to ask them for directions to the immigration office at the airport in Amsterdam. A young gentleman there listened to my tale of woe, explaining that Amsterdam is more lenient, would have given me the visa for entry on one of the final pages in my passport, but then I was dealing with South Africa. He told me that the U. S. Embassy office downtown was my best bet and would alleviate problems in leaving Amsterdam.
At 11am, with an address, no sleep or food, I hailed a taxi determined to get additional pages and to catch the next available flight back to Africa where I had left Erika worrying and waiting. After a $200 taxi ride across town, I discovered that the U. S. Embassy, which is open only from 1:30pm – 4:30pm, handles only new births, personal threats and deaths of U. S. citizens. A guard at the Embassy gate handed me a plastic card and told me to make an appointment with the Consulate office on-line.
I rushed with my cumbersome bag to a Chinese Internet café and attempted to get on-line with a foreign computer, since my adapter and cords were now in Africa with Erika. As it turned out, appointments at the Consulate office are filled between 8:30am – 11:30am for the next day and their office was closed until 1:30pm. I also discovered on-line that it would be at least a week before I could get an appointment and realized that I had to recourse but to personally call someone to explain my dilemma. With no phones at the café and no Euros in my pocket, I headed toward the central train station to exchange American dollars, to find a phone, to get a train back to the airport, to purchase another airline ticket, and to find hotel accommodations for the night. It was only then that I realized all my clothes and toiletries were in my luggage along with Erika in Africa.
I got a recorded message on the phone at the train station after calling the Consulate office. Frustrated, I decided that if I just arrived on their doorstep, they’d have to deal with me. I called back again with my newly purchased phone card to get an address for their office. However, I fortunately dialed a wrong number by accident and got a real person on the line. After pleading for help, this gal finally gave in, breaking the rules, and told me that I’d have to come the next day by 11:30am and could go have a nice lunch while my passport was processed. I could pick up my passport with additional pages at 2:30pm so that I’d be on my way back to Africa once more.
I was so relieved that I jumped on the train and headed to the KLM airline desk at the airport. After purchasing my ticket to Johannesburg for another $1500, I would be on the next evening’s flight. But the crimp to my plans happened when I discovered that the only flight to Johannesburg occurred once a day at 11:30am. I was now going to be staying in a strange city I had no idea how to get around in for an additional day and my connection to Richards Bay would also force me to spend another night in Johannesburg before I could finally catch up with Erika.
I had this image of Erika alone in a foreign game lodge worrying about me. With no way to reach her, I had to know she was safe. I pondered the distance and the fact that I would now be traveling nearly thirteen hours to spend two and a half days at her side. I had to be out of my mind, but the idea of sitting alone in a strange hotel or sight-seeing by myself in Amsterdam for five days convinced me that I had to take a chance and finish my journey no matter how brief my stay.
I woke up early the next morning, took a shower, put on my hand-washed underwear and newly purchased clothes and headed back to the airport’s train station in search of the U. S. Consulate office. On the way there, the wind was blowing sideways and the rain was pelting me. I stopped by the clothing store at the airport yet again to purchase a coat, knowing that I would be outside most of the day. Then off I ran to the train station inside the airport to insure that I arrived at least thirty minutes before my scheduled appointment. After a twenty-minute $7 train ride, I arrived in the center of town and searched out the Consulate office to get my necessary passport pages.
After being buzzed in, I handed over my tote bag and purse and was searched, scanned and numbered. I relinquished my passport and was told to come back in three and half hours. At this point, I was so focused on my passport, that I had lunch at the nearest establishment and spent the rest of my time wandering around museums with little interest. When the magic hour arrived, I was back at the Consulate office – searched, scanned and numbered once again. I received my passport and immediately headed back to the train station. The heels of my feet were blistered and I wanted nothing more than to get to bed early, knowing that I had to be up by 6am in order to arrive two and half hours early for my flight. I actually took the wrong train trying to get to my hotel and broke down, asking for directions. Two hours later, I was back in my room, staring at the mushy $18 crab salad sandwich room service delivered.
I discover internet hookup was available for $30 an hour on my television and sent messages to everyone I needed to reach, including my husband in Japan, in order to tell them that I was safe and heading back to Africa in the morning. I reserved a hotel room by the airport in Johannesburg and requested a driver through the lodge to transport me to where Erika was still waiting.
I finally went to bed and was asleep for about two hours when the phone rang. My travel agent in Oregon had some bad news to share. My connection in Africa was completely booked and I wouldn’t be able to reach Richards Bay for at least one more day. I found myself sitting in my Holiday Inn hotel room in Johannesburg praying for a cancellation so that I wouldn’t be spending only a day and a half at the Safari Lodge. I hung up the phone and was now fully awake. I realized that I’d spent more time in the air than I had on the ground. But when things couldn’t get any worse, they did. I got another phone call from the travel agency and was told that Erika and my return tickets to the U.S. had been adjusted and through some internal error, our business class seats out of Amsterdam had been switched to coach seats. The only thing that had kept me sane throughout this whole ordeal was the thought of returning home in comfort after another ten-hour flight to Portland.
A question reverberated in my brain. Do I go on or just stay put in the Amsterdam hotel waiting from Erika to return on her way back to the States? Somehow, I had remained committed even with memories of the shattered mirror and my husband’s disparaging words filling my thoughts. I found myself hoping someone in Johannesburg would get sick or miss their flight, just so I could claim an empty seat on the plane to Richards Bay. Morning came and I headed downstairs for breakfast totting my useless computer bag, now convinced that the only wild animals I would ever see in my lifetime lived in the Portland zoo.
I made a point of arriving at the airport three hours before my flight, since my travel agent assured me there were always last-minute cancellations. The KLM agent glanced at all my new pages and stamped one of the original old pages. I checked in and was amazed to discover that my economy seat from Amsterdam to Johannesburg had been upgraded to first class. Was there a mistake? No mention was made when I checked in. Things were looking up. With a little time on my hands, I struggled with fifteen-minute increments on an airport computer to check in with South Africa Airlines to find out if my good fortune was continuing. Unfortunately, the flight to Richards Bay was still full, but an airline agent informed me that I could wait list on my flight before the scheduled departure at 8:35am. Wait a minute! When did the time change from 9:55am to 8:35am, which was what my travel agent had quoted? Then I’m told that if I want to take a chance on the only available flight to Richards Bay, I’d need to be at the South Africa Airlines ticket counter by 7:15am the following morning.
I convinced myself that a miracle could happen. A seat could become available. I decided to weigh my options and board my flight to Johannesburg once again – believing the third time was a charm. Approaching the immigration counter after flying another eleven hours, I glance around hoping not to encounter the same woman who had flagged me – sending me on my boomerang excursion. When I reached the only free clerk available, this woman was so engrossed with flirting with a male officer that she barely glanced at my passport before applying a visa sticker on one of my old pages yet again. I ended up walking away perplexed and headed for the currency exchange counter to acquire African money. The clerk there told me that it wasn’t safe to walk around anywhere in Johannesburg and I should take a taxi to my airport hotel. Following her directions, I waved for a cab, rode around the block and was charged $20. In the morning, I was up by 5am to make sure that I got to the South African check-in counter early enough to add my name to the wait list, only to discover that my hotel was actually attached to the airport and a mere five-minute walk.
From 6:15am to 8:15am, I ran back and forth from counter to counter trying to secure a seat on board, but to no avail. One English gentleman procured the jump seat at an extra cost, but I was told “48…48…that’s all we put on plane.” I was about to walk away defeated and head back to my hotel again when a thought suddenly occurred to me. Why not try another city? Maybe I could fly to the closest location to Richards Bay and get a message to the lodge driver to go there instead. I was desperate and out of options at this point. What would it hurt to take a risk?
I ran to the purchase ticket counter, paid another $250 and was informed that I had ten minutes to reach my departure gate to Durban, which according to the agent was only one hour away from Richards Bay. I realized that I didn’t have time to call the lodge to head off my driver. I looked around for an honest looking face and gave a young man a phone number and 200 rand to place a call for me. I could only pray that he was as honest as I hoped. Once on board, I opened the airline magazine and started to worry about the distance from Durban to Richards Bay on the map. Asking a fellow passenger, I was informed that Richards Bay was a two-hour drive from Durban, which didn’t account for the distance to the lodge. If the driver didn’t get the message, I would be left in an even worst situation.
I was determined to keep positive thoughts. To my delight, as I exited the plane, I spotted a man holding a sign for me. And as it turned out, the drive to Richards Bay and the lodge became a three and half hour bouncing trip in the back seat of a dusty cab. My mental complaints waned, however, upon seeing metal shanties along the road and people carrying water jugs on their heads. I realized that my hardships were only inconveniences. I could enjoy the day and a half that I had left on my vacation and then return home a much wiser, confident and experienced traveler.
A glass of champagne and two outings into the wild later, Erika and I were heading back to the Richards Bay airport preparing to return to Amsterdam. Another eleven hours behind me, we passed through customs with stamps on the same original pages yet again. After two days recuperating in Amsterdam, Erika and I headed to the airport excited to know that we’d be flying back to Portland first class all the way. When we arrived, an hour and a half before our flight on KLM #91, however, my passport wouldn’t allow us to check in for our boarding passes. I was told to get into line for assistance and after agents repeatedly ran into problems pulling up a non-existent reservation number, we were instructed to get into another line and to speak to someone in ticket sales.
With forty minutes to go before boarding, the KLM agent couldn’t figure out what was wrong with our tickets. We somehow had three reservations and no record of any ticket purchases. This sales agent worked for over an hour (as our flight departed) trying to remedy our situation, which could have involved re-purchasing our expensive airline tickets on my maxed out credit card that was still shaking from all the unplanned hotel and airline ticket expenses I incurred. This agent worked diligently and finally located a record with all my mileage. She arranged for us to catch the only flight from Amsterdam to Portland that day via Seattle – which was leaving in twenty minutes. Running all the way to the gate, we discovered that one of us was in business class and the other in coach. Erika volunteered the upgrade and we finally made it to the States after another ten-hour flight. But our problems still didn’t go away.
When Erika got on-line, she discovered that all the flights to Portland from Seattle were booked with the exception of a few seats on a Horizon flight that was scheduled to depart three hours after our arrival. We took the reservations and after landing, we were escorted by a Northwest agent to our gate to wait out our delay. After this final flight, we arrived safely back at the Portland International Airport. I almost kissed the ground to be finally home again. To this day, I cringe every time I think about this trip and whenever I hear someone planning his or her next vacation to Africa.