When I left the UK, I was sent on my way with so many different phrases: ‘safe travels’, ‘bon voyage’ (posh), ‘go well’, ‘see you later’ (for those who hate goodbyes), and then there was those who wished me ‘travelling mercies’. It’s one of those God-speak phrases, isn’t it? Kind of quaint, and a bit odd. Well, it turns out it packs a real punch, and is definitely going to be my future vocabulary for fellow Holy Adventurers. Let me explain…
Emigrating is a long process.
Emigrating in a pandemic is a significantly longer process.
Emigrating to a country with almost entirely closed borders is virtually impossible.
Emigrating to a country with almost entirely closed borders where your journey involves a layover in a state that is in total lockdown due to a spike in cases is actually impossible.
Maybe on another blog I’ll explain about the visa process and critical skills list and exemption to fly stuff, but suffice to say, there is a long old road to travel before you have flights booked, boarding passes in hand and are heading to the airport, but let’s just gloss over that bit for now.
And so it was, my flights were booked for 30th August. I was due to land in WA on 1st September. I knew I would have to hotel quarantine for 14 days, but then, then, I would enter the promised land and be reunited with Craig and begin life as a wife and Priest in Fremantle. All boxes ticked. All paperwork in hand. Ironically, I was Good to Go (bear with me. It’ll make sense in a few lines).
On 27th August, I woke up to an email alerting me to the fact that my G2G pass (Good to Go, see?) had been revoked. Without one of these, nobody can enter Perth, nor any area of WA in fact. I couldn’t get in. The side note explained this was because my flight path took me through New South Wales. Perth was not accepting any travellers from there, due to rising rates of Covid. A little p.s. suggested ‘book a new flight that avoids NSW’. That simple, eh?
Long story, slightly shorter, several friends and family members spent a frantic 24 hours trying to find solutions to this not-insignificant problem.
We looked for new flights – there were none until mid-October, at the earliest
We looked for new routes – the one glimmer of hope involved needing written permission from the Sultan of Brunei to enter his country, and he wasn’t rushing to get his pen out
We drew blank after blank, and yet, I mostly held on to this strange sense of peace and kept finding myself saying, ‘I’m interested to see how God is going to pull this one out the bag. I know it’ll happen; I just don’t know how’. And I was surprised to discover I meant it!
The advice from a wonderful woman from an Australian travel company, recommended to me by the diocese, suggested I just keep on applying for my G2G, in the hope that my application might eventually slip through the net. I did – 12 applications in the next 24 hours – until an exhausted sounding man called me, from Australia, to explain I must NOT submit a single other one and I would have to quarantine in Sydney and try again only once I was there. Nice that he remembered me… 😉
Time was ticking on, in that way that time does, and I decided to just show up at Manchester Airport and use my original ticket in the hope of making it through. A solid decision, I thought.
All good. Ish. So, I went to print boarding passes for my flights from Manchester to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Tokyo, Tokyo to Sydney, and maybe there might even be a blip in the system that allowed me a pass from Sydney to Perth and I could just see what happened?
Not in the least.
Instead, I was faced with various terrifying warning messages on each screen (the person whose job it is to write those must be very angry a lot of the time, I think). One of the airlines had no record of my booking. Another airline recognised my flight number but not my name. And the real kicker was with Tokyo – I think that message said something delicate like ‘NO FLIGHTS PERMITTED FROM THE UK. DO NOT FLY’. It was subtle.
I was kind of out of ideas, and because it was Sunday afternoon, and I was due to fly on Monday morning, I didn’t really have time to think of any. But, also, I still had this thing in my head (or maybe it was my heart) that kept saying ‘I’m interested to see how God is going to pull this one out the bag. I know it’ll happen; I just don’t know how’.
My sister threw me a surprise hen-do the night before I was due to fly and, as a small group of Christian women do, when slightly emotional and bolstered by much prosecco, we launched into a prayer time. God really got it, both barrels. As did the angels, the saints, and anyone else who cared to tune in! And then we went to bed…
Not really knowing what else to do, we set off for Manchester Airport, with my life in the boot and my mum’s heart in her mouth. We said goodbyes, maybe someone wished me ‘travelling mercies’ and I went on my way (full disclosure: I thought I would be seeing them again, later that night).
Forgive that really long introduction to my journey, but hold up, because this is where the miracles begin…
I make my way to the check in desk for my flight to Frankfurt. My ticket says I will fly onward to Tokyo where I will need to COLLECT AND RE-CHECK my bags, for my flight to Sydney. I have no boarding passes, some uncertainty about whether one of the airlines knows I’m coming and a very stern warning to not enter Tokyo. The woman behind the desk (query, angel?) takes my passport and ticket print-out and starts typing. She looks baffled at her computer screen (a gaze I become all too familiar with), talks to a colleague, asks for my visa, looks concerned, repeats this process and then looks up and says ‘all sorted, here are your boarding passes for ALL flights. You’ll see these cases in Sydney. All done’.
Nothing to do in Tokyo. Nothing to do in Tokyo?? Travelling mercies.
My flight to Frankfurt and then to Tokyo are largely uneventful, except for each of the cabin crew, in turn, coming to my seat and saying, words to the effect of, ‘I see you are travelling to Sydney, via Tokyo? HOW THE HELL HAVE YOU MANAGED THAT???’ Travelling mercies.
I arrive at Tokyo airport and the cabin crew tell all passengers to remain seated while customs and immigration come on to do their checks. At that moment, a young Japanese woman gets on the plane, walks directly to my seat, and says, ‘come with me’. Just me. Everyone else is staying put. We walk through airport corridors, not seeing a soul. We walk through doors saying ‘no entry’ and through barriers she just moves to allow us through and she tells me I am the only person on that plane to be travelling THROUGH Tokyo. Everyone else had reached their destination.
She delivers me to security, and they complete their checks in record speed, no questions asked, and spit me out on the other side into the departure lounge. Travelling mercies.
My layover is more than 7 hours and I probably saw no more than 7 other travellers in that whole time. The airport seemed closed – all eateries and shops were shut – but from time to time an Olympian wandered past in their country’s kit. You couldn’t make this up.
Eventually it was time for my flight to Sydney to board and I hear an announcement over the tannoy, ‘can Miss Gemma (hard G, every time) Sampson make herself known at the desk’. Remember the woman’s reaction on that first desk in Manchester Airport? Repeat that, with three members of staff, in Japanese. They took my passport, then asked for my ‘other’ one(??). They took my visa and my boarding passes for all flights. They took my tickets. They wandered off, came back, stared at screens, and then said they needed to call the Australian Government before they could let me board the flight. There is a flurry of phone calls and then one of them says to me ‘everything is fine. They know you are coming. So sorry for your delay’. WHAT JUST HAPPENED THERE? Travelling mercies.
(Incidentally, I got on the plane and was handed a glass of champagne to say ‘sorry for the mistake, welcome on board’ – turns out travelling mercies come with effusive apologies and perfectly chilled fizz).
My arrival to Australia was nothing short of perfect – slick, smooth, polite, friendly, welcoming, no dramas and my bags came off first. My phone call with the exhausted Australian Border Force man had made it very clear that I would be quarantining in Sydney, and that there is a good chance that I will need to quarantine again once I finally make it to WA. But I’m praying for a perfectly chilled glass of fizz, straight off my flight from NSW, with my Craig.
Might there be one more travelling mercy, Lord?