what it takes to get home

Getting our family from Edmonton to rural Burundi is not exactly a straight forward nor a simple task. Really, getting here from most places is not easy, even from most places in Africa. Our trip was 15,912 km of flying over 9 time zones, several transfers, at various airports in multiple countries. When we returned to Kibuye we knew we would do so with a lot of supplies (everything from clothes, to toothpaste, to electronics, to household items to candy, to bedding, to birthday presents )— in theory, to last the next few years. So it adds up pretty fast. On top of that, we had our nephew Silas travelling with us to Burundi where he’ll be an intern on our team for the next half-year or so, plus we had a suitcase for our teammates who have been mostly without any way to get goods from out of country for the past 8 months with the borders and the airport closed. So that added up to 17 checked bags in total!

The packing starts a few weeks ahead. We also had to get rid of everything in Edmonton and empty the house and move to a hotel for the last night. We have to get COVID tests – that will for sure get back before we fly….but not more than 72 hours before we boards our last flight. So there is a small window there where it’s even possible. Of course, 7 people and 17 checked bags plus carry on’s is two full van loads – so my sister and my brother in law volunteer to drive a load of our bags out to the airport, then bring two vans back. (Great way for Adam to start his 40th birthday…especially since we were so focused on getting going we neglected even to acknowledge it….)

Also, before we even leave our first flight is cancelled, and the reduced flight schedule means we have few options so we now have 49 minutes to make our first connection in Vancouver. As long as we leave from Edmonton on time…we should be OK…in theory.

Flight #1: Edmonton to Vancouver
– or –
“the one that took twice as long to board as it did to fly”

We arrived a full two hours before our flight, and we got to the ticket counter right away, but pretty quickly it seemed evident that it was going to take some time. This seemed to be some combination of: 1) the woman seemed to be pretty new at her job and kept needing to ask for help, 2) there seemed to be something peculiar about us checking in. It took 30 minutes, still, no boarding passes or bags weighed or tagged. Then an hour. Now there’s a man in a suit running to the desk next to us – hoping he can still get on the flight to Vancouver, I hear the woman ask to hold the plane for his bag to load. Now we should be loading. WE’re still there. Still, no bags tagged. Still, no boarding passes. There seemed to be some confusion about some COVID-related security clearance, that they could get for Frankfurt, but not Brussels, or the other way around. I show them the documents we have already preprinted for COVID screening for both countries. Finally, a more senior employee says “well, I don’t’ read German, but I”m going to override and say they have the right forms. We have to get them on the flight since we’re holding it as it is not their fault they’re not on it yet.”

ahhh…so young and na├»ve…..

Now there’s a mad rush of the more junior employee trying to print off 28 boarding passes and 17 bag tags. Something gets screwed up, the other woman is cancelling some. Throwing some out. Reprinting some. Now the plane should have already taken off. In the mad scramble to tag all the bags – NONE – of them even get weighted. They all have to go to the ‘oversize’ a few desks over, so they don’t even slide over the scale. Then when I go to pay for the bags that are extra, they have some system issue and it won’t allow them to charge me for the bags. She finally says (probably realizing that the delay is costing their airline more than our extra bag fees) – “just consider it free of charge”

Great, now we’re sprinting to the gate, we’re on the flight, and the added bonus that we did not pay for extra bags. Only two small issues: 1) we now have ~23 minutes to transfer in Vancouver 2) in Brussels they are incredibly picky about seeing your receipt for excess luggage. If you can’t prove you already paid, they will charge you there.

Flight #2: Vancouver to Frankfurt
– or –
“the one where we get flagged by German Authorities”

We land in Vancouver, and since we’re stuck at the back of the plane, and COVID protocols mean you have to stay seated and exit by row, we’re the last ones off. We start the mad sprint through the airport. At one point I think Silas gives his bag to Matea so he could run unencumbered and get them to hold the plane for us. We made it. As we’re trying to catch our breath and get our stuff together we hear:

‘CAN THE WATTS PARTY OF 7 PLEASE COME TO THE PODIUM FOR A VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE’

The message from a middle-aged German woman was this: “I just got off the phone with German border police in Frankfurt. They saw you on the flight manifest and flagged you. You are not permitted to board the flight”

Uh. What now?

Basically, since the current EU COVID restrictions mean Canadians cannot enter the EU and since we have one flight landing in Germany, the next flight to Belgium is ‘domestic’ meaning we have to clear EU customs. Which, we cannot do. Therefore, we can’t fly to Germany, since we can’t get off in Germany.

Some quick back and forth and we get to a place where she says if we have a document saying that our travel is essential, then we “may” be allowed in. “But I have to tell you,” she continues “worst-case scenario they refuse you entry and send you back to Canada”

uh OK.

Luckily, our teammate Heather is a night-owl, so she’s still up in Kibuye, and gets us the most official-looking document she can within what seemed like 120seconds. So we board the plane (which is now being held for us!) – knowing we may well fly 10 hours to Germany only to turn around and fly right back here.

“But your bags haven’t made the connection…. nope just wait…your bags are here”

hmm

Flight #3: Frankfurt to Brussels
-or –
“the one where the cranky Germans leave most of our bags behind”

Had several hours in Frankfurt, and were able to find a place to sit, and relax for a bit. When it finally came time to load it seemed to be taking a very long time. Then there were more delays. Finally, the flight attendants were saying they needed to move people around, as the plane needed to be rebalanced (love to hear that) Some very, VERY, cranky Lufthansa attendants decided the best approach was to deploy the time-honoured approach of toddlers and tell people “well if you won’t move, we won’t leave. So I can sit here all day, but we won’t fly to Brussels until you switch seats. “

nice.

As we finally pulled back – well over a half-hour late Silas noticed a luggage cart next to the plane. He counted at least 6 of our bags on it.

In hind sight they were probably left intentionally. IF they were asking a few ~150lb people to move, they sure were not going to load over 500lbs of our luggage.

Flight #4: Brussels to Entebbe
– or –
“the one we knew we couldn’t make”

We only had about 1.5 hours in Brussels, and by the time we land, that’s down to about half an hour. Of course, the COVID-deplaning-rules mean that since, once again, we are in the very back of the plane we are the absolute last ones to get off. As we were finally standing up in row 38 there were 24 minutes before our next flight left. Meaning boarding should be complete. The one that flies once a week. So now we knew that we were already missing a good chunk of our luggage, we may be charged extra for it, we STILL may have problems with papers, and also we’re never going to make the flight. So again we move into super-pursuit mode to try and get to the plane before it leaves.

See the source image

Anyone out there about my age – can’t hear the phrase ‘Super Pursuit Mode’ without thinking back to Friday evenings watching David Hasselhoff putting his super-awesome 80’s sports car KITT into Super Pursuit Mode to catch the bad guys who are especially fast.

So of course, they were – once again – holding the flight for us – and about 10 other passengers from the same flight…who we blew past during our indoor 800m record attempt. So no one had any time to double-check we paid for all our bags. And basically, said “you’ve got visas? COVID tests?…great…we’ll take your word for it.”

this was the one where the sprinting actually ended up in sweating

Flight #5: Entebbe to Bujumbura
-or –
“The one where it all starts to become a blur”

This isn’t really another flight, the plane lands in Entebbe Uganda where what feels like 80% of the passengers leave. None get on, and then we start the 1-hour flight to Bujumbura.

Now, landing at 02.00 after several days of travel is the kind of arrival where all you want is to gather up your bags and get to a bed.

descending the stairs into the dark, warm, moist, fuel-laded air of Buja airport at 02.00

BUT WAIT THERE”S MORE.

First – get in line to get into the airport to do…something. It wasn’t really clear. What was clear was that although there couldn’t be 100 people getting off the flight, it was taking quite a while. Also, an overly ambitious policeman would come around routinely and scold us for not maintaining social distancing. We all have to stand on our painted spots “but we’re in the same family!” “n’importe pas. a la distance!!” Ok. so we do,

Then after another 15 minutes, we tend to cluster a bit, talking etc. “A LA DISTANCE”.

There are two lines, one for non Burundians. which goes last.

none behind us…just the empty dark tarmac of the airport

After about another hour or so we moved up the line a bit. Seemed the bottleneck was one individual who was handwriting forms for the COVID tests. Kind of like this

sloth dmv GIF

After we pay for our tests, get the forms, fill out customs forms, and clear passport control, we get to the baggage claim area. Again, since we were at the back of the plane we – once again – were the very last ones through. So we see our bags – at least those that are in Africa – on a few carts. But we have to leave them there and go to the fancy tent set up on the grass next to the tarmac.

fanciest temporary COVID testing facility I can imagine anywhere

Repeat our names, birthdates, etc etc. So someone else can handwrite the info down and hand us a swab. We walk over to the guys in HAZMAT suits doing the tests. Then we find our bags, and head for the bus out on the tarmac taking us to the quarantine hotel. Except I have to find the person who has the papers to fill out for the missing bags. Of course, the luggage tags don’t match – due to the goat rodeo which was our departure from Edmonton. We have bags with no matching tags – many tags with no bags. In Buja they always double-check EVERY SINGLE bag you leave with -and you HAVE to have the matching tag. But…it’s almost tomorrow – so I think they are starting to care less. We had 8 bags there, meaning 10 missing. And I can mostly figure out which 10 they are.

at this point….she’s kind of an old pro. Why would a 9 -year old need help clearing customs??

By the time tall that is done, the sun is coming up on day three of our travels.

We get to the hotel which we prebooked earlier. They have two rooms with space for three each, for the seven of us. And one of them is currently flooding, water pouring out to the sidewalk when they open the door. They offer to send housekeeping.

Back to the front desk. Find new rooms. By the time we get into them, it’s well after 7.00. So we get breakfast, and then try to sleep for a few hours.

Fast forward about 24 hours, a person from the ministry of health comes to our door. He has a paper authorizing our exit. All six of our names are on it. Wait…we’re seven. He is checking off names and giving us each a copy. Then he sees Alma. “Wait…who’s that” “Watts, Alma. A-L-M-A. Non…A-L-M-A” He looks for a bit. then says….”hmm…she doesn’t look sick…you guys are good.” He writes her name on a piece of paper and moves on to the next room.

A week later when the next flight from Brussels comes – there are 9 of our bags on it. Wait…we were missing 10. So we are now a week on and STILL missing one last bag. But who knows which one or what was in it. We start looking at pictures from Edmonton and adding things up. Apparently, I can’t count to 20 well. Yup, we only had 17 bags. For some reason when we landed I was convinced we were looking for 18. BUt no. So…i guess we’re good.

So overall, not too bad. Two negative COVID tests for all of us in two continents, eight of the bags with us with the rest trailing a week later. But all seven of us did make it here in a bit over forty hours. Honestly, given all that could have gone wrong, I think I’ll take it.

I think we’ll just sit tight for a while now.

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