Monday, June 4, 2018

Have passport, will travel

 Traveling can be extremely stressful. What time does the flight leave? What time do we have to leave for the airport? Will there be long security lines? Will the flight be on time? Will the plane be full or can I stretch out? Do I have my passport?

I made the decision to visit Sierra Leone a week before I was due to leave. As soon as I made up my mind I sent my passport off to the embassy in Washington DC so I could get a visa. Once the passport was safely in the hands of the courier service, I started planning my trip.

My friend Ngadi and her family were already in Freetown, I knew she would take care of all the on-the-ground arrangements, I just had to arrive. Easier said than done.

I was traveling: Bermuda - London - Belgium - Freetown. I had to overnight in Belgium.

My flights and hotel in Belgium were booked. It was now the Wednesday, before the Friday I was to start the first leg of my journey and everything was ready for my impromptu vacation except I didn’t have my Bermuda passport back. I called the embassy. A very nice gentleman assured me he had my passport and it was sitting right there on the desk – ready to leave. I thought – cool. All is in order. I had a return tracking number so I would know where my passport was at any given time.

Wednesday evening, I checked on line – no movement. Not a problem. I was confident, it would still arrive by Friday. I called the courier – just to make sure I had the latest information. The person corroborated what the website tracker said – no movement from the embassy. Thursday dawned bright and clear. A great day to receive a passport. Just to be on the safe side, I called the embassy. In fact, because each time I called I didn’t get a warm body, I ended up calling 17 times, to no avail. I didn’t talk to anyone. 17 times!

Friday morning dawned equally bright and clear but panic was setting in. The courier website said, ‘keep dreaming, you aren’t getting a passport today!’ I knew drastic action was needed. I called the embassy. The first attempt – I got a live body. Yes. They have my passport. Still. I was incredulous. Why haven’t they sent it? Instead of creating animosity by asking uncomfortable questions, I asked if I could get someone to collect it on my behalf. They were extremely cooperative. I gave them Angie’s government name (because Angie isn’t her real name) and told them she would collect it on my behalf.

I called Angie and explained the situation to her. Mark and I had talked that morning and he suggested that I not involve Angie in my drama as she was in Washington DC to attend her daughter’s graduation, not run around the city trying to break into embassies. However, I didn’t heed that piece of advice. I knew my girl Angie would move heaven and earth to help me.

Needless to say, she is one of the heroes in this tale. She got the passport and FedExed it to my hotel in Brussels. I had the tracking number so I knew where it was every second of every day. I started my journey on another passport (having more than one is extremely handy), secure in the knowledge that I would get to Sierra Leone with minimal fuss. Although I was scheduled to leave on Sunday morning, the passport wouldn’t arrive until Monday. Starting my vacation a day late wasn’t too bad.

I got to the airport in Brussels with every intent of changing my ticket to Monday, only to learn, there are no Monday flights to Sierra Leone! How is this possible? I won’t arrive until Tuesday evening? I would only have two full days in Freetown before I had to return to Bermuda? Sigh. Such is life. I was too jetlagged to make a 400 euro flight change fee decision. I figured I would sleep on it. I checked into the hotel. Went to sleep for a few hours. Upon waking up, I talked to the front desk and added two nights to my stay.

I got a good night’s sleep and woke up after 7am. I was lying in bed and leisurely checking my messages. I casually stopped at the FedEx site to see where in the world my passport was. Whoa! It was in Belgium. I Googled the location of the Machelen facility and found out it was ten minutes away by car. Ten minutes. It was 7:30am. Why not get up, get dressed and take a taxi out to the processing centre and see if they could find my passport and then I could leave on Sunday at 12:10pm as planned.

I hurriedly dressed and ordered a taxi. There was enough time to grab a coffee (of course). I gave the driver the address of the facility and off we went. Ten minutes later we arrived at a deserted FedEx facility. I banged on doors, looked through windows, hoping to see someone. Walked around the building and found two guys working. Luckily the taxi driver spoke Flemish and English and so was my interpreter. The guys couldn’t really help but offered to call the boss. The taxi driver called no less than ten times. We couldn’t raise him. I eventually asked if there was someone else who could help. The assistant manager. We got her on the first try. She speaks English! I explained my predicament. She agreed to come in to help find the package but needed the workers to help her. They agreed. She wouldn’t arrive for another 30 minutes.

I decided to go back to the hotel, pack my bags and return. If they had my passport, I could grab it and go straight to the airport. If they couldn’t find it, Plan B would go into effect, three unexpected days in the city of, arguably, some of the best chocolate in the world.

As soon as I arrived, they said they had the package!! I provided the appropriate ID and signed my life away. Jumped back into the cab and dashed to the airport. We made it in record time. I was ecstatic until the driver’s credit card machine didn’t work. I was like, I’m not missing my flight when I’m this close. I started wondering what I could barter if the machine kept declining my card. He turned if off and then started banging on it – I didn’t think this was an effective turn-on method but far be it for me to criticize the man who was responsible for driving me between the hotel and FedEx and who learned English 25 years ago for precisely this day. The machine finally worked, my card was accepted and I sprinted to check-in and gleefully showed my Sierra Leone visa firmly affixed to my Bermuda passport.

Thank you FedEx for going over and beyond in your customer service! Thank you English- and Flemish-speaking Belgian taxi driver who gave me his personal number for next time ... Thank you Angie Farquharson (my go-to BFF who will ALWAYS get the job done)! Do I have my passport? Check.

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