International travel in COVID era not for faint-hearted
Even the most seasoned tourists face myriad of unique, new challenges
Everything was perfectly arranged for my departure from Los Angeles on Jan. 29 – or so I naively thought.
I left home four hours before flight time in order to get a rapid PCR test for COVID at Los Angeles International Airport prior to boarding my flight and leaving for Cape Town.
A few days earlier, I had received three confusing and contradictory emails: one from Lufthansa, another from the German health authority, the third from an official South African government agency.
Each detailed in dense legalese the entry requirements for US citizens boarding their flight (Lufthansa) or arriving in country (Germany and South Africa). I spent hours trying to decipher the rules, finally throwing my hands up in despair and giving up.
To cover all possible bases, I ran out and had a PCR test— which came back negative the next day. But even then I knew that by the time I arrived in South Africa the test would be too old. The country requires a PCR test (the at-home antigen test is not accepted) 48 hours before arrival – assuming I correctly interpreted the rules. My Jan. 26 test would not do.
My kind neighbor Peter dropped me at Tom Bradley International terminal around noon. I walked directly to the COVID testing clinic and was greeted by a medic.
When I asked for a rapid COVID PCR test he responded: “Sorry, we are all sold out!”
Aghast, I inquired about the other two clinics at the airport. “They are sold out, too,” he said.
He then advised me to go to a private Urgent Care clinic about a mile outside the airport. How to get there was the next challenge.
The medic advised taking a shuttle bus to the ride-hailing parking lot, then an Uber to the clinic. Repeat in reverse direction back to the terminal.
As I raced outside, I picked up the phone and dialed Peter, who was barely a couple of miles from the airport on his way home. I explained the situation and he immediately turned around and came back to pick me up.
The next hour was excruciatingly stressful. After waiting in line about 20 minutes for the test, it took another 45 minutes till I got the results. Peter and I waited in the parking lot as the minutes ticked by before my flight departed.
Test results in hand, we raced back to the airport. I arrived at the Lufthansa check-in line about an hour before departure – just enough time to go through a short TSA security check line, buy some duty-free gear and join the queue to board the plane.
Having the correct COVID test result within the right window of time for cross-border travel during the pandemic is not the only challenge travelers face – but it definitely is one of the most daunting.
Knowing something about modern aviation certainly helps. Since my knowledge about this truly complex topic is charitably called “limited,” I relied on the expertise of my good friend Rex Morrow, whom I met in Johannesburg in 1974 and who today lives near Brisbane.
“As you know I tracked your flights using the site FlightRadar24,” Morrow says in an email.
According to its web site, Flightradar24 is a global flight tracking service that provides real-time information about thousands of aircraft around the world.
“Flightradar24 tracks 180,000 flights, from 1,200 airlines, flying to or from 4,000 airports around the world in real time.”
A New Zealand native, Morrow’s knowledge is based on his personal experience as a private pilot. “Back in the early 1970s, I obtained my New Zealand Private Pilots License, and when I was traveling the Big Overseas Experience I took my logbook and license with me,” he says.
“I did a couple of local flights out of Rand Airport in Gauteng, South Africa as my employer Hertz United had a desk there and I delivered cars out there from time to time.
“It has to be one of the scariest flights I ever did,” Morrow says.
The reason: the airport is located at 5,500 feet above sea level, where the atmosphere is thin, providing much less lift to aircraft. Hot weather further reduces air density, making takeoffs even more difficult. “I thought the Cherokee 140 would never leave the ground,” Morrow says.
Seems like I picked exactly the right individual for real-time data on my travels.
“It was interesting to see that the first leg of your flight (LH 457 from LAX–FRA) was in a Boeing 747-800. It’s at least seven years old. It is one of the last of the passenger 747s (to be built) as production will cease at the end of this year,” Morrow says.
“It’s sad, as they definitely are the Queen of the Skies.”
On that point he is quite correct. I was most impressed with the interior cabin – flawlessly designed, comfortable and with soothing colors throughout.
“These days, airlines are more interested in [just] packing people in,” Morrow says. Too true!
Creativity and flexibility required
When I began planning this trip back in November 2021, I already was aware that it would be a last-minute endeavor. The pandemic rules and regulations seem to change daily; you cannot make your arrangements too far in advance because COVID is entirely unpredictable.
About the same time I was first thinking about traveling, Sabine Schäfer was in Cape Town visiting from her native Germany. She had arrived on Nov. 19.
Five days later, the newly identified Omicron variant of COVID was first reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa on Nov. 24.
The response from the rest of the world was immediate and devastating.
As reported by the BBC in the Nov. 28 article Covid: South Africa 'punished' for detecting new Omicron variant the country had complained it was being punished – instead of applauded – for discovering Omicron, a concerning new variant of Covid-19.
“The foreign ministry made the statement as countries around the world restricted travel from southern Africa as details of the spread (of Omicron) emerged.”
A statement by the South African foreign ministry strongly criticized the travel bans.
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.
The bans were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”
After Germany joined dozens of other countries in limiting travel to and from South Africa, Sabine Schäfer – stuck in Cape Town – grew anxious, she told me two months later as we chatted aboard our Jan. 30 flight from Frankfurt to Cape Town.
“I just wanted to get home as soon as possible, because I knew I would have to quarantine when I arrived back in Germany,” she said.
Lufthansa, the German national carrier, was allowing only German citizens to board its planes in South Africa; not even Austrians could fly, Schäfer said. She could have waited for her reservation on Lufthansa later, “but I wanted to get home earlier,” she said.
A resourceful and experienced traveler, she did her homework and discovered Ethiopian Airlines would accommodate her on a flight via Addis Ababa.
“I met lots of other people stuck (in South Africa) and told them to try Ethiopian,” she said. “But many (of them) said it was not safe.”
Schäfer made it home, where she completed her two-week quarantine.
You might think that after this experience she would be somewhat cautious about traveling again so soon during the Omicron outbreak – but you would be wrong!
As I sat in seat 3H awaiting the seatbelt sign on LH 576 at about 22:30 CET on Jan. 29, Sabine Schäfer arrived and settled into seat 3K.
Immediately we struck up a conversation, and the next 11 hours in her company were thoroughly enjoyable – even although at one point I knocked over my glass of beer and it fell in her lap! She graciously accepted my apology as we both frantically tried to clean up the mess.
Before deplaning, I scribbled down the details of her story in my reporters’ notebook.
DISASTER! Phone charger cable lost
Not a single soul who has traveled during the last decade would argue that a solid mobile phone has become an indispensable tool for the contemporary tourist.
The many ways it can be used to make travel more fun, fruitful and a whole lot easier are innumerable. Keeping it charged is vital, and often a challenge.
Pass through any modern airport and you will see dozens of people sitting on the floor next to a wall outlet with their devices plugged in.
It was at around 1830 CET on Sunday, Jan. 30 in the lounge at Frankfurt Airport that I noticed my phone was down to about 20% charged. I began rummaging through my backpack looking for the power cord with increasing anxiety.
It didn’t take long to empty the entire contents. There was no phone charging cable!
I remembered plugging it in to the armrest USB port on the plane and charging the phone during the flight from LAX. The only explanation for its disappearance is that I unplugged it from the phone but left it dangling from the USB port on the plane.
I rushed over and asked the concierge if there was an electronics store nearby and was told that, since it was Sunday after 1800, the nearest one was closed. But, if I went out through passport control, then turned back and retraced my steps through the huge duty free store, I would find another that was open till 2100.
Even though it was still over four hours till my flight, I ran back towards inbound passport control, presented my document and promptly got lost.
I frantically asked directions until someone pointed me to a down escalator, which took me to the departure level. I ran through the immense duty-free emporium and found the no-brand electronics store – where I purchase a new, white charging USB2 cable for €20.
I breathed a sigh of relief and headed back through outbound passport control to the lounge. As a memento of the this travail, I now have a suspicious number of German entry and exit stamps all on the same date on Page 6 of my passport.
But, at least my phone did not become a useless brick!
1 year abroad beats 2 years at college
Ever since my first trip from South Africa to Europe in 1972, I have been a believer in the old saw “Travel broadens the mind.”
Countless times over the years while I was a college professor, students would ask me what they should study in an upcoming semester. Without hesitation, I would recommend a gap year abroad; it’s worth at least two years in a classroom with an often-unmotivated and uninformed professor pontificating from the podium, I counseled them.
Indeed, to this day, every hour I spend on the road it seems I learn something new about someone somewhere.
For instance, from Sabine Schäfer – my new German friend – I learned not to be afraid of a new COVID variant emerging while I am thousands of miles from home. She taught me how to survive.
Six months ago, stuck at home while Delta raged across the US, like most others I cowered behind my screen, “happy” with my once-weekly zoom gathering with a group from the Pasadena Senior Center that I lead.
In the days before my departure from Los Angeles heading for Cape Town, my anxiety seemed to increase as the hours decreased.
But an odd thing seems to have happened at LAX when I successfully resolved the imminent disaster of my PCR test. I grew a pair! (Yes, those!)
Settling into my seat before takeoff on LH 457, I exhaled deeply and the stress seemed to just exit my body and disperse into the universe. I reasoned: if I could resolve the crisis just ended, I could handle almost anything.
My faith has only increased since then. Upon reflection here in the charming little town of Fish Hoek, I’m no longer afraid of leaving the safe confines of the familiar. There’s a gleam in my eye as I contemplate what retired folk are SUPPOSED to do: Travel!
Thanks for reading In the (K)now! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.