This picture has been my screensaver on my iPhone for over a year now. If you’re following my latest blog posts, then you know that I’ve been dreaming about returning to South Africa to do a safari in Kruger National Park for some time now. It has been at the top of my bucket list. I’m supposed to be arriving in Joburg right now, but instead I’m sitting in the international terminal at the airport in Atlanta and going to miss some or all of my safari experience. So what happened?? Well, Delta airlines happened.
Before I regale my tale of travel horrors, I should note that there are many things that are happening in this world that are true nightmares. This is a quintessential first world problem. I am aware that the world has far worse to offer many people than waylaid travel plans or busted bucket lists. That said, it’s hard to express in words how heartbroken I am that my dream may not come true, despite serious funds spent, leave meticulously saved and detailed plans.
My departure day had an auspicious beginning. My flight departing Grand Rapids was scheduled for 1:30pm. I had some time to get ready. I was staying at a friend’s house in Michigan where my dogs will get to enjoy her lovely country property and her company while I galavant around the world, possibly for the last time for a while. Truth is, I’ve grown travel weary. Mostly though, I can’t bear to be apart from my pups (or afford a vacation + cost of boarding). For the next few years, I’ve planned to keep my adventures stateside with pups in tow. Okay, so one last hurrah before I become an RV master.
This morning, I had to move my car so that my friend could go to work. Still dressed in my pajamas, I grabbed my car keys. My friend followed closely behind. With my car out of the way, she pulled her Suburban out of the drive way and headed to a landscaping job. I pulled my car back to the house and grabbed my overseas suitcase to do some last minute packing. I rolled the suitcase up to the house door inside the empty garage and turned the door handle. It wouldn’t budge. It was locked, and I had left the spare key and my cell phone in the house. After all, I was just stepping out for a minute. My heart began to race and I thought quickly through my options. Maybe the back door was still open. We had just let the dogs out. I ran, no sprinted to the door. It was also locked. No key, no phone, no memorized numbers, deep in the country. I did have my car keys though. I could drive to my parents’ house and they could call my friend. I would lose some prep time, but I would be reunited with my passport, cell phone and other bags for my trip. I jumped in my car. By now, my heart was pounding hard against my chest and my blood was full of adrenaline. I put the pedal to the metal and tore up the country road toward my parents’ house. Up ahead, I caught a glimpse of what looked like a Suburban. That couldn’t possibly be my friend, could it? That would be too easy. Well, it was my friend. I had caught up to her. She turned around and let me back into the house.
Whew, what drama! Well, at least, I had the worst behind me. Something always goes a bit awry on a trip, and I had checked that box. Once I boarded my flight to Atlanta, I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, I could forget all my nerves and focus on the adventure ahead. And then my flight was delayed due to weather. Not once, but twice. No worries! I had taken such contingencies into account and left myself five hours before my overseas flight to Joburg. The weather was so terrible that we were diverted westward to Kansas City before curving around back toward the east coast, making our one-hour flight, three hours. Again, no problem. I arrived in Atlanta with plenty of time to spare.
My flight to Joburg began boarding on time. After a couple of twists and turns, it appeared that I was on my last leg. I settled in for the long haul as best as I could in the half-person sized seat in Coach. The flight would last nearly 16 hours. I loaded up a movie on my in-seat entertainment system and kicked off my shoes. Only 45 minutes into the flight, the Captain came on the intercom and asked if there was a doctor on aboard the plane. I didn’t like the sound of that. Hopefully, it was a minor situation. There was a doctor sitting right next to me. He got up and went to the back of the plane. After about 20 minutes, he returned to his seat and told his wife that we were going to turn around and return to Atlanta. Another 45 minutes went by before we turned around, and the return trip took about 90 minutes. The Captain came on the intercom again, this time to tell us the bad news. He told us that he didn’t know what the plan was, but the gate agents would figure something out. I was not so sure. It’s never a good sign when the pilot doesn’t know the plan. It usually means that there is no plan. For 90 minutes, I sat tensely in my small seat. I was worried about the passenger. And I was a worried about my travel plans. I didn’t have a contingency plan for this scenario.
When we returned to Atlanta, medical personnel boarded the plane. Thankfully, the passenger was able to deboard on his own. Turns out he was part of a missions team, and many of his team members were sitting around me. They told me that he had kidney stones and the latest episode came on only a few minutes into the flight. Having flown with a newly broken foot, I know what air pressure can do. I was glad to hear that he would be okay and even more relieved to hear that we would be refueled and on our way within a short time. All passengers got up out of their seats to stretch and use the bathroom. The mission team surrounded my seat, and soon it felt like a young adult sleepover party. Sixty minutes later, I began to wonder…and worry if we would really be on our way. It was already 11:45pm.
After more than an hour of standing in the plane, flight attendants announced that the flight was cancelled and that we would all be rebooked at the gate. I was sitting in row 39, so you do the math on that one. I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t realize how bad. When I deboarded, the line was about 75 people long. I got in line and gave Delta a call as well. The predicted wait time for customer service was…several hours. The line took several hours to clear, and I never reached anyone on the phone. I was rebooked through London Heathrow, but would arrive in South Africa on July 9, two days after my planned arrival. Domestic flights would be missed and I would miss out on my safari. It was 1:45am when I finally got my hotel voucher. When I arrived at the hotel, the line was about 20 people long…so I decided to use my time to check in for my flights. For some reason, I couldn’t check in. That’s when I realized that I had been booked to London as my final destination…!!! So, I got on the phone again. This time, predicted wait time was between 1 hour and 90 minutes. Oh thank goodness. One hour an change later, a Delta agent picked up and realized that I had no flight to Joburg. And all flights to Joburg were sold out until July 10. Remember all those people who were line? Well, they got booked to Joburg while I was booked to London. And now there was nothing left for me. It was 5:00am before we found a solution, one that would put me on standby for arrival on July 8 and another flight through London putting me in Joburg on July 9. After I got off the phone with Delta, I had to work with my travel agents in South Africa to adjust my itinerary. I was finally able to close my eyes at 5:30am.
I have to say that I almost gave up. I nearly decided to tell the agent to book me back to Michigan to call it a day, choosing bust over bucket. I wanted nothing more than to snuggle my dogs and crawl into bed. I cried. I shouted. And then I felt disappointed in myself. What sort of adventurer just gives up like that? How could I let this get to me? In the greater scheme of life, these were only minor inconveniences. Nothing to lose sleep or cry about. Shit happens. That’s life. And worse shit could happen at any moment. And that’s why it is so important to live in the moment, to seize the day. You never know when things will be taken from you. You have to just face what comes and overcome. It’s what we all must do.
I think we undervalue and far too often avoid experiences that will really test our mettle. But it’s those experiences that show us what we are made of and prepare us for the really tough situations in life. If I can beat the odds and find away to still make it to my safari halfway around the world, just think of what I can do. I was telling someone on the airport shuttle my story and said afterwards: “what doesn’t break you, makes you stronger.” He said: “Bullshit, what doesn’t break you, doesn’t break you.” I laughed. He was right…and wrong. It doesn’t make me stronger, but it makes me feel stronger. Imagine the confidence I will have in myself next time things don’t go as planned or I find myself in a serious crisis.
I pulled it together and decided to head to the airport at 9am (without sleep) to see if things might have changed with the light of day. And they had. The Delta agent at the check-in counter empathized with my situation and took extra time to find me a flight through Amsterdam that would have me arrive at 9pm on July 8. If all goes well, I will make it to Kruger and have time for a couple game drives. I write this as I wait to board that flight. Stay tuned for the end of this story…
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.