By Mohammed M. Mupenda*
As a travel addict, I could not wait the pandemic to ease in the United States of America and plan my trip to Africa. When mainstreaming media reports were documenting the surge of deadly pandemic across the world and the United States being most affected. This never stopped me to fly to Africa. Because, I had earlier thought of learning how to live with the pandemic could be the best way forward hence it is not going anywhere soon.
I thought, planned, executed, and decided to fly but trust me, passport, visa processing, yellow vaccination card and other requirements were not worrying as Covid PCR negative test results were required and you could not travel without them while most countries in Africa needed these results provided in 72 hours prior to your boarding flight. I spoke to my PCP about my trip and he never hesitated to avail for me a medical order that helped me much in scheduling appointment and getting tested. I made calls to different healthcare and hospitals looking for PCR Negative test, most of them had results availed within 48 to 72 hours but few were sure that they can guarantee the results in mentioned dates. Determined I was, I had to get in touch with my friends in health sectors. Luckily I was able to get labs that can take tests assure to avail results in time but with strict conditions of paying cash and health insurance not accepted. This happened and I did first test which provided results to me before my trip that was scheduled on November 28. I had rebooked the flight from November 26.
I celebrated as if I have received a visa. Because, it is always most celebrated to a travel addict like me. Unfortunately, the time for boarding a flight was not as good to me after being told that I will pay my luggage about $70 while I have been flying with most carriers luggage free of charge, I never believed and wanted to pay but I had to pay one luggage and second was to fly free, according to an American airline officer on duty by the time. This was never the case. When I got to boarding gate I was advised and recommended to pay second luggage, I asked them to contact her and she turned me down! As I insisted not paying, the flight had to close the gate and been told to wait for second flight that was to depart at 4:45 pm and arrive by 5:59pm, note that my flight to EastAfrica connecting Doha in Qatar was to depart at 7:10pm.
This made it almost impossible for me to keep time for checking in that required about 3 hours for international flights. I never wanted to miss the flight that has costed me thousand dollars and I decided to purchase another ticket out of pocket, the ticket I bought with United airlines flight was not used as I also arrived at the checking point when the gates are being closed. You can imagine how I felt. As, a regular traveller you can’t push some situations to stop them happening.
I opted for the other flight that had allowed me to fly on the same ticket at later hours and boarded on stand by, arrived on time and rushed to baggage claim area to pick my bag as I headed to terminal five for internationals. It is not short distance and you have to ply airports shuttle buses of which I did and I arrived at Qatar airlines when gates and offices have been closed! I felt bad and decided to buy another flight ticket to avoid leaving the airport while I was to make sure PCR Covid test is still valid upon my arrival to the country of destination. Despite affecting my budget. This never happened, I made calls as I also searched different airlines until it went up to midnight, I had to book a hotel to spend my night as I had spent for the whole day up and down. While in a room, I started counting losses including resignation from my full time well paying job but offcourse I had clear reason of travelling than keeping around, my head had much to think about but I could not get the answer and this made me try to be firm and resist from failing to travel. I made calls on Sunday 29 until I got the appointment through the doctor who had taken my first test on Wednesday before thanksgiving day, most celebrated and respected day in the United States.
He recommended me and I was scheduled for a test next day that was Monday 30. I took Uber at 9: 00 am to the lab for test and it was performed on time with promise to avail them before my departure time that was 6:00pm. Lab technicians promised to serve as first priority. During my preparation and panic results were sent to me on time and I went to the airport with smile on face despite expenses I had incurred and almost half budget of my money had been used up to pay hotels, flight, ubers and food that was not in plan.
Arriving at terminal five with smile on face, I started self- checking in as I print boarding pass, and luggage tags. This process took unsual time with COVID test needed prior to anything that is required to whoever planning and ready to travel out of the United States of America. After, I went through security check, asked the same results until I headed to gate c18 where I was to board on flight to Brussels. I did wait the time for boarding on as I watch thousands of Americans wearing masks any where we could pass, when they started calling on to board. People had been told to avail results and checked before so that they will not be turned away upon arrival to the destination. I was immediately checked by and said that I was ok to fly after showing them PCR Covid results. Miss Mary was travelling to Cameroon and Nigeria, we had just met and exchanged about our trips, she spent her night or two in a hotel due to covid test results, she was never allowed to board and asked to get results that were sent to her in PDF, I waited to see what could be her fate after she had spent a night in the hotel as well. She found them and followed me on board.
When I boarded on a flight, next to my seat was Miss Jacey, a friendly lady, welcoming and informed but travelled, lived and she studied in Japan. Journalist in me, we struck up a conversation about our trips, she told me that it has been nine months planning her trip but she could not be allowed to fly to Belgium, as an American does not require a visa but during COVID, things changed and turned the other way, in order to join his boyfriend who live and work in Belgium, medical approvals had to be arranged prior the trip, and the process took such longtime than expected to hear. This reduced bit of my panic and loss encountered I had gone through after she mentioned nine months chasing paperwork related to medicals. This is due to the deadly pandemic. She was not sure if she won’t be turned away upon arriving at the airport.
Well, I kept looking around the flight as everyone had masks 😷 on and during our lunch and breakfast were allowed to be off for few minutes and be reminded to wear them after the meals. We did and and we kept exchanging and we went asleep and she was allowed to move and sleep on any empty seat. I kept to look empty seats in the aircraft, something that could come to mind was how travelling has become very hard and the airline industry being hit seriously as well. Because, next to us, about twenty seats were empty and not only there, business class had the same problem and this means a lot to the business travel industry.
Upon our arrival to Brussels, we said bye to each other and promised to get in touch as I travel to most of African countries that were on the list. I spent my good time in Belgium and the same song was chanted of social distancing, wearing face masks as you are required to present COVID test before boarding on to another destination. I took my flight to East Africa as my first destination while planning to fly to Senegal in west Africa, don’t get shocked when I tried to book a flight to another country within EastAfrica and turned away or was advised to take another Covid test saying that the test I had taken in the United States has expired and they could not allow me to fly out of the country. This is another struggle in one of EastAfrican country as some countries have few and almost unavailable test centers. I tried to use GPs to locate some all in vain. I have been checking around and not sure if I will be able to get one sooner after being told that only two places would be allowed and eligible to offer the test but at higher prices.
I am stuck pondering on next move, my adventure, leisure and tourism plans may not occur to all places simply because the process and budget is likely to be limited and challenging until you give up and opt to other options including flying back home.
Mohammed M. Mupenda is a news correspondent and freelance reporter, who has written for publications in the United States and abroad. He is also a French and East African language interpreter.