JAMILA’S TRAVEL DIARY: Of our Canada trip, unexpected airport tests & quarantine away from my son

JAMILA’S TRAVEL DIARY: Of our Canada trip, unexpected airport tests & quarantine away from my son

I am currently writing this from my hotel room in Victoria, the capital of the Canadian province of British Columbia, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island off Canada’s Pacific coast.

Today is Day One of quarantine for me and my 16 year old son who is staying in the room next door. Our only interaction is through, phone calls, video call or when we say hello while on the balconies of our rooms: no touching and always masked.

We are here because my son got a scholarship and admission to a college in Victoria and since he is still a minor, a parent is expected to accompany him on his first journey to school.

Our trip here was challenging and nerve racking since we are still experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. For a trip to Canada, one needs to have a COVID-19 test done which is valid for 72 hours from the time of testing.

Armed with our negative certificates, my son and I made our way confidently to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, ready to check in and board our flight. We even arrived 3 and a half hours before. And that would be our saving grace..

On arrival at our terminal, we found a long line of passengers and relatives milling away the last few minutes before saying goodbye, talking and taking pictures.

My son and I joined this long, slow-moving queue but because we had 3 hours before our flight and we had checked in online, I was not too worried.

This however changed when suddenly, an announcement was made that all passengers taking our flight would need a rapid antigen test.

The confusion was clear for many travellers as they already had been tested and were carrying their certificates; but it seems more precaution was needed. We were directed onto a bus and taken to a facility a few minutes away but still within the airport precincts.

We paid Ksh. 3,480 per person for the test and waited for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, busloads of more passengers kept arriving for the same test. Nearly all passengers had not been informed about this extra test. The conversations among them was heated and there was a lot of irritation about this sudden test and the worry about missing flights.

40 minutes later we were back at the terminal, our second negative test certificates in hand. The usual security checks were done. our documents checked and here again we had to wait.

Calls made to the Canadian offices in Nairobi to confirm that we were allowed to travel. As we waited, time was moving fast and soon it was minutes to take off yet we had not even checked in our luggage.

Now the worry started creeping in: what if we miss our flight? What if we do not get authorisation despite having valid visas and all the necessary documents? Luckily, we were cleared to travel, our luggage checked in –that took some time too–but finally it was done and we walked towards the plane, boarding passes in hand and went through immigration quickly.

Looking back, I realize there were some unfortunate passengers who were not allowed to check in, as they were time barred yet not because of any fault of theirs.

They lost a lot of time doing the rapid antigen test. We were lucky but literally ran all the way to our boarding gate. Here we found more security checks: documents were scanned and copies taken with more questions about where we were headed and when I was coming back.

My return ticket was scrutinised; the COVID-19 certificates asked for and checked–the officials not to worried about us missing our flights. My son was also asked some questions, probably they wanted to ensure our stories corroborated.

Finally, we were allowed to board the plane. We were among the last people to board and we were soon airborne, several emotions going through our minds and hearts. For my son, saying goodbye to his home for 2 years and for me, unsure of what tomorrow held.

8 hours later, we arrived in Europe to more scrutiny of our documents at the landing terminal. We had 7 hours until our next flight to Canada. The airport was literally empty. I had been to this airport some years back and the human traffic then had been overwhelming. But this time, there were very few people: all masked, keeping their distance and speaking in muted tones.

We spent most of that time at the airport just talking with me giving advice and answering questions from my son. For him, he was trying to spend as much time as possible with his mother, his words and actions clearly indicating how glad he was that we were on this journey together.

Soon enough, it was time to board the second flight on our long journey and here our documents were checked again, scanned and sent somewhere. We had to sit on the side again and await confirmation from authorities that we were allowed to travel.

We watched as passenger after passenger was allowed on the plane on presenting their documents as my son asking me why this kept happening, saying we would not leave home if we did not have a purpose.

I was not sure what answer to give him and just said they were doing their jobs. Again, authorisation was given and we were the last ones to board the flight. I was just relieved we were able to continue with our journey.

Another 8 hours later, we finally touched down in the City Of Calgary, Canada. It was snowing as we landed and though it was extremely cold, the view was amazing.

On landing, certain protocols had to be followed: there was an app we had downloaded while in Kenya where we had filled our details about where we would be staying during the quarantine period. We were expected to display this as we filed past the first immigration officer.

We then joined a queue to meet another immigration official: he scrutinised all our documents, including those from the college as well as from the hotel we were going to quarantine ourselves in and the COVID-19 certificates.

We were then asked to go and see another immigration official at the airport so that my son would be issued with his study permit as well as authorisation to enter the country. We did as instructed went into another office.

After waiting for another 10 minutes, our documents were exchanged, we were questioned and gave clarifications as well as counter confirmations. Finally, my son’s study permit was given and our arrival stamped and documented. We could now enter Canada.

Despite all the scrutiny and questions, the officers were kind and helpful and that really helped in easing my worries. I remember them asking when the Kenya passport was changed saying it was the first time they had seen it –the effects of COVID-19 on travels was clear.

Calgary was not our final destination. We had to wait 8 hours for a local flight to Victoria Island. We walked around the airport, ate, watched people and the snow! We slept on the waiting benches as time slowly crawled by (that’s how it felt like); you see we were already 10 hours behind Kenya time, the mind and body confused.

At exactly 9.50pm local time we boarded the local flight, this time with no fuss at all and one and a half hour later we were in Victoria. I don’t remember much about that flight as I slept through it. On landing, everything went by so fast: we picked our luggage and found our transport to the hotel waiting right outside the terminal.

There was a huge smile on the driver’s face as he held a board with our names on it. It was like a ray of sunshine for our tired bodies. 25 minutes later we were at the hotel but because we were coming here not for holiday but to be on quarantine, we got in though a side entrance as a chaperon sent by my son’s school waited for us.

He kept 2 metres distance between us as he gave us a raft of instructions. Honestly I don’t remember most of it as I was too tired. My heart gave a painful lurch when we were informed that my son and I would be in separated rooms: next door but separate. We were not to meet at all during the 14 days of quarantine. Yes, there was a balcony and we could have conversations but we had to be masked as we did that.

I understood the precautions and why this had to happen but still, it was painful to hug him knowing that I would not be able to do it again for 14 days. We said goodbye and went into our separate but adjacent rooms. Our 14 days of quarantine had officially began.

The view outside my hotel room from the balcony. PHOTO | JAMILA MOHAMED