Monday, November 5, 2012

Journey to Kampala, Part II: The Flights

See Part I here...

That night I packed everything up and got ready for the next day's journey.  I woke up in the morning and started trying to get a ride to the airport.  The hotel quoted me $75.  I decided to try a cab for $52.  Turns out, NYC cabs were not available for airport runs due to extreme gas shortages and new restrictions on number of passengers in vehicles entering Manhattan.  I called the bellhop again.  Car service prices had risen to $90 in 25 minutes.  I sighed but said fine.  When he came upstairs he apologized and said the price had jumped to $120.  He was apologetic and genuine, and I am pretty sure this was city-wide.  (At least it was according to a few other people I talked to at the airport.)  He tried to find someone else to share the fare, but the timing didn't work.

The other hitch - my flight was at 6:45pm, and I couldn't check out past noon because the hotel was fully booked.  I planned to hang out at the hotel where it was comfortable for a few hours, but the uncertainty of the car availability made me choose to go to the airport earlier.  I knew it would suck for the cats, but it was better than not being able to get a car out at all.

We got to the hotel at 1:15 and had to wait until 3:30 to check in.  I found a quiet-ish corner and faced their carriers out the window.  After two hours we made our way into the line with some difficulty (three suitcases and two cats and just two arms made it a process, even with carts).  We got a sympathetic gate agent who checked them in without issues.  She never asked to see the health certificates, and the total charge was half what it could have been (long story that worked in my favor). 

Once we checked in, it was time to screen the bags.  We made our way to the TSA screening section, where they asked me to remove each cat from its carrier.  I was prepared for this.  What I was not prepared for was the baggage assistance woman shouting at me the entire time, "hold on tight! Cat gets loose, cat is dead.  We get a lot of dead cats that way.  Hold it tight!  Don't want a dead cat!"  After she shouted at me for the entirety of one cat and then wouldn't help bring the carrier back to me so I could re-load him, I lost it.  I told her I knew exactly what would happen, that I had lost a pet in transit before, and that her shouting at me made both the cats and me more nervous and more likely to drop.  She stopped shouting but still muttered on and on about dead cats while I wrangled cat #2. 

Once that ordeal was over, her counterpart told me to just leave the cart with the cats and he'd bring them to the plane when it arrived.  I didn't really like this arrangement, but he seemed to know what he was doing, so I said goodbye and moved on. 

The flight to Amsterdam was on time, packed, and uneventful.  My seatmates were Swedish businesswomen who had been in NYC for a conference and were stranded by the storm.  They had seen me checking in and were all excited about the cats, with lots of questions.  The flight attendant checked on the cats for me and confirmed they were on board, and I relaxed and zoned out.

I had two hours in Amsterdam before boarding, so I had breakfast, walked around, and tried to check on the cats.  Nobody seemed to know where they were, which was disconcerting.  They assured me it wasn't unusual.  I sighed and headed for the gate.  The gate agent agreed to check again for me, and she told me a few minutes later that my cats were at the plane and, as she said, "were happy and jumping around."  Ummm - those are clearly not my cats.  Plus, the flight attendant on that fateful flight from Frankfurt to Jeddah confirmed Hattie was on board and "hyper and making lots of happy noises."  I didn't take that as a good sign.  But at least I knew they were alive and in the right place.  (I worry about traveling with pets A LOT these days...)

A flight attendant confirmed the cats made it on board and were sharing the hold with some "tiny birds."  I can only imagine how that went!

The 8 hour flight to Kigali was pretty quick, all things considered.  I lucked out and had an empty seat next to me on a very full flight, so I could stretch out a bit.  I worried a little about the Kigali stop but tried not to think about what could go wrong.  We landed in Entebbe early, and I was met at Immigration by an expeditor from the Embassy.  He was very excited to tell me that my cats had beat me to the terminal and were all set.  I was thrilled!  We sped through immigration, and I almost ran to see my cats on the other side.  They were both a little shaky but alive and well.  I let myself relax finally.  The baggage people checked the tags to make sure I was the rightful owner (which didn't happen this summer in Boston!), we waited for my bags, and off we went!  I couldn't believe how easy it was.  Granted the Embassy had helped out with import permits ahead of time, but still.  I was so grateful. 

My amazing sponsor met me in the terminal along with the Motorpool driver, and we loaded in and headed to Kampala.  Traffic wasn't bad, and we arrived at around 11:15 pm.  After lugging the cats and my luggage up to my apartment, I bid them goodnight and explored my new place.  It rocks.  Completely.

But that's a post for another day.  Suffice it to say I'm loving life right now.  I also love that, after Skyping with me and learning that I was finally "all the way in Africa" (how we refer to it with my niece and nephew), my almost-six-year-old nephew made my mom download him an African safari iPad app :-). 

Photos to come soon!

Journey to Kampala, Part I: The Storm

Greetings from Kampala!

Almost fifteen months after receiving this assignment I finally arrived.  And it's everything I hoped for and more.  I know we often have the honeymoon phase right after arriving, but I'm basking in it. 

Uganda is beautiful and welcoming - the land and the people, my apartment is phenomenal, my neighbors and colleagues are wonderful, my job will be a lot of fun as well as a challenge, my cats are happy, my car is in my driveway(!), and my HHE is in country.  Amazing.

Getting here, though, was a stressful experience.  I was scheduled to fly out of NYC on October 30.  Which, by about October 25, was clearly not going to happen.

There were two options - go with the flow or try and solve as many potential problems proactively as possible.  I can be go with the flow, but in situations like this it's better to be slightly neurotic and plan ahead.

On Friday I started making calls.  First was the umpteenth call of the week to the visa folks to see how my passport was working its way through the two different visa processes I needed.  It was halfway.  Which, after three weeks, was pretty frustrating and frightening.  They promised to overnight it on Monday to me for my Tuesday departure.  Which would be all well and good if there wasn't a massive storm coming.  So we had a 'what if' conversation and left it at that.

Next I called the hotel and booked an extra two nights.  At a significantly lower rate than my initial booking.  So I promptly rebooked the initial booking two.  The reservation agent was helpful but had not heard about the storm so didn't seem to know what I was talking about.  Which worked out in my favor, since there was availability at a reasonable price.

Then I called the airline.  They had no flight change waivers in place and had no real suggestions.  I was most concerned about rebooking the cats if our flight was canceled. 

I felt better but fretted through the night about the flights.  When I saw that Delta had implemented a flight change waiver for those in Sandy's path, I immediately called them.  And four hours later I finally got through to an agent.  Who was remarkably helpful, rebooking me at no cost on the same route two days later and making space for the cats.  (Or so I thought.  A look later at my booking made me think only one cat was booked.  Two more hours on hold later, an agent confirmed there were two cats on the reservation.  On a hunch, I asked her if it specified two cats in two carriers.  She thought it did.  Two days later, though, they THANKFULLY called me back because, lo and behold, they had booked it as two cats in one carrier.  All was fine.)  I was also super worried about their health certificate, since the new departure date would be the last day of the ten day validity.  The airline agreed that storm-related flight changes would grandfather the existing certificate in, so I could stop looking for accredited vets in Manhattan...

Anyway.  My mom drove me from NH to NYC on Sunday.  It was an easy trip, aside from the white cat in the backseat crying the. entire. way.  UGH.  We arrived about 4:30 pm, checked into our hotel, un-crated the cats, heard about the subway closure that evening, and went out to explore Times Square (just a half block away).  It was fairly crowded, but as we walked around we noticed that all the stores and restaurants were closing between 5-6 for the storm.  All of them.  We started worrying about food availability so we ate an early dinner at a restaurant across from our hotel that wasn't closing until 9pm.  I stocked up on water at the neighborhood store.  At $4.50 for a two-liter bottle. OY.

We got back to the room and watched the news.  And saw that NYC was basically shutting down.  My consultations for the following day (the entire reason for being in NYC) were canceled because the offices were closing.  In DC, the government was announcing its own shutdown along with Metro. 

Mom left early the next morning to hopefully beat the storm as she drove back to NH.  It's good she left early, because later on several of the highways and bridges she used closed down.  I went for a short walk in the intermittent drizzle and grabbed breakfast at one of the only open shops.  Later that afternoon I bundled up in rain gear, grabbed my camera, and headed out for a walk.  The streets were deserted.  Few cars, fewer pedestrians.  Nothing open.  I walked to Rockefeller Center, which was entirely abandoned.  Unbelievable sight.  Times Square had slightly more activity, but stores were all still closed.  The Naked Cowboy was wearing a life preserver. 

It was raining steadily by then and the wind was pretty strong.  I had to duck into several doorways to regain balance as I walked around.  I headed back to my hotel, dried off, and settled in.  I ordered in food from one of the still-open Vietnamese restaurants and prepared for the storm.  The airports had ceased all flights by now and would soon shut down altogether.  Schools and government closed up and down the east coast for the next day. 

I was extremely lucky as my hotel never lost power, and I had plenty to eat and drink.  My heart goes out to those who lost so much in this storm - their homes, their lives, their livelihoods.  The New Jersey coast in particular was just plain destroyed.  So, so sad.  A terrible tragedy that will take a long time to recover from.

On Tuesday I stayed close to home and tried to reassess my own situation.  While it pales in comparison to the stories of so many, I had my own unique set of problems as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  First and foremost, it was beginning to seem unlikely that I'd get my passport in time to fly out on Thursday.  Not only did I need one additional visa, it wasn't entirely clear if the government would be open the next day to work on my case.  About midafternoon the announcement of an open government on Wednesday was made, and I relaxed a little.  Just a little, because that's when I realized that none of the express mail services were operating, except to deliver supplies to hospitals.  (A decision I completely agree with, but it complicated things.) 

I weighed my options.  I could *hope* that mail was functioning enough to get my passport in time.  I could change my flight again, but that would probably mean change fees AND procuring a new cat health certificate.  Or I could just go get the darn thing myself.

Amazingly, I found a rental car company within walking distance of my hotel with available cars.  I made the reservation and then assessed the route.  It seemed all the relevant tunnels/bridges/highways were open.  The biggest question was whether my passport really was physically where I thought it was or if somehow it was in the ether of transit/processing.  I confirmed through a call to the passport duty officer that the office was truly open the following day, and I took a gamble.  I got my car the next morning and started off.  The gas tank was almost empty, which frightened me, since the first few gas stations I encountered had no gas or no electricity.  Thankfully I found a functioning one on the NJ turnpike.  (Which, as the day progressed, became one of the stations where people lined up for miles/hours waiting to get a few gallons of gas.)  My drive was long but easy.  There was very little traffic and no road debris or hazards.

I called the visa folks as soon as they opened and explained the situation.  They confirmed that my passport was there with my Ugandan visa and that I could pick it up that afternoon.  They even promised to try to get the other visa I needed.

So.  After that call I relaxed considerably.  I got to the DC area around noon and promptly encountered traffic due to a car crash.  Upon passing that, I made a quick stop at Target/PetSmart to get additional water dishes for the cats' crates (as the ones I'd ordered were lost in the UPS interruption ether) and a new GPS cord (same UPS ether for the TWO I'd ordered).  That hurdle jumped, I headed into the city.  I found the building and parking fairly easily, and I literally jumped for joy when they handed me my passport with BOTH visas inside.  YAY!  Mission successful!

I left DC around 1:45 and made it back to NYC at 6pm.  Not bad.  I filled up with gas in Maryland, correctly predicting that NJ would be a tough place to fill up farther north.  The amount of relief I felt was phenomenal.  Things were looking good.

See Part II for more...