It’s been a while since I had a memorable journey post on my blog so I thought I would write about one trip that I will certainly never forget. For many reasons. Read on…..
I was living in Kingston, Jamaica when the awful Asian Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 struck. I am sure many of us recall watching the news unfold on our television screens, a long, long way away. It was the way the numbers went up so rapidly…..tens dead, hundreds dead, thousands dead…..at around that point I think the brain shuts down a bit. And being so far away, pretty well on the other side of the world, it all felt very distant and very unreal.
A few days later, my now husband and I went away for the new year’s holiday. We stayed, as we often used to in those days, at an All-Inclusive hotel in Negril – one of the nicest beach spots in Jamaica. We relaxed, swam, dived and saw in the new year at a table that included (amongst others) a prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for the upcoming elections. I wonder what happened to her! (for the non-Brits amongst you, the Lib Dems were all but wiped out at our last set of elections, earlier this year).
So refreshed and relaxed we returned to Kingston – and a message in my in-box from London that called for assistance in Thailand. It seemed that our embassy there couldn’t cope with the sheer numbers involved in the tsunami – Thailand (and the other involved Asian and Indian Ocean countries) is a very popular tourist destination and untold numbers of British nationals might or might not be caught up in the tragedy. Hundreds of bodies were lying in morturaries, unidentified, and a huge number of people had been reported missing. So anyone who could be spared was asked if they could come to do temporary duty in Thailand – either at the embassy in Bangkok or at the emergency unit that had been set up in Phuket.
Now look on a map or, more usefully, a globe, and you will see quite how far apart Kingston and Bangkok are. So although I put forward my name – in particular because I had good experience of press office work in exactly this sort of emergency – I didn’t think for a moment that I would be called.
So imagine my surprise when the next day I received an email saying yes please, could I come? Perhaps the woman who was organising the extra help hadn’t actually looked at the map. Maybe she was too busy. But yes I would need to fly to the other side of the world and yes it was going to take quite a long time.
I packed my bags and within a couple of days my flights were booked and I was ready to go. But because it was a busy time of the year in the Caribbean (if you remember, the tsunami was on boxing day so we were still in January and the holiday period) the only flight to the UK I could get on was via Miami. So off I went on step one of my journey: Kingston – Miami.
I arrived in Miami and due to the timings of the flights I had pretty well an entire day to fill. I have spent a lot of time at Miami airport and it is safe to say it is not my favourite airport in the world. I have been delayed there overnight after missing a flight from Dominican Republic, I have spent the day there waiting for luggage that was checked in and needed to be checked out again as our flight was cancelled. I have lost bags there, I have had a camera stolen from checked-through luggage there. There are other reasons not to like this airport – including the particularly unfriendly and unhelpful TSA staff, the inevitable immigration queues which I think are the worst I have ever encountered and the absolutely totally rubbish shops that only seem to sell stuffed flamingos and salt-water taffy. Oh and chocolate in the shape of crocodiles….
Welcome to Miami!
So having a day to spend there didn’t exactly fill me with joy but at least, due to the fact that I was flying business class (those were the days!) I was able to use the lounge. Where, as I was sitting reading my book, an elderly man walked in with what seemed like family members and a buzz went around the room. People looked and whispered and then a military man in combat uniform asked to have his photo taken with him. I had no idea who he was. After a while, the man and his family left and most of the people in the room stood up and clapped. I was so curious, I had to ask the staff on the reception who he was. Apparently they weren’t allowed to tell me – but he was an ex president. Well he certainly wasn’t Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan….eventually I worked it out.
Apparently it was Jimmy Carter! Who I grew up knowing as Carter Carter the peanut farter! Although now I know him as a good guy who has done a lot to promote human rights around the world. So I was glad to have seen him in the flesh. Even if I didn’t know it was him….
Anyway eventually it was time for the next leg of my flight, from Miami to London. As I checked in I chatted to the woman doing the check in who asked why I was going all the way to Bangkok. I explained that I would be helping out with the UK Foreign Office’s efforts to help distressed British nationals post-tsunami. She said British Airways (the airline I was flying with) was also doing some work in this area as some of their staff and many of their passengers had been affected. I went on my way, thinking nothing of it, until I got on the plane. They looked at the name on my boarding card, they looked at their list and then they took me to the front of the plane. Right to the front. I had been upgraded to first class!
This is (and will probably remain) the only time I have flown first class as an adult. There were only about eight of us in there and we had beds and duvets and pyjamas and amazing freebies. As much champagne as you could want. However, as you can imagine given the circumstances and what I was headed to, champagne was the last thing I wanted. I certainly wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. But the flat bed and duvet was nice and I was at least able to get a bit of sleep.
I arrived in London the next morning and had to whizz around between the office and a travel clinic where I answered questions about my general health and made sure I was up to date with all the needed vaccinations. One of the questions was whether I might be pregnant as there were certain medicatons they wouldn’t give me if I was. Well I guess it was a vague possibility but I doubted it….
Finally that evening I boarded the second overnight flight within a 24 hour period and we were on our way to Bangkok. I wasn’t upgraded this time but we were still flying business class so it was another comfortable flight. But two long-distance flights and a time difference of 12 hours was always going to take its toll – so getting to Bangkok and basically being take straight into the office was hard.
However, it wasn’t as hard as what so many people in that part of the world had been through in the last couple of weeks. As well as having to deal with a lot of very distressed British nationals, staff at our embassy were also going through their own grieving process as one of the staff members had lost their life in that dreadful event. Those of us who had arrived to help put our heads down and tried to get on with it – we wanted to be as supportive as possible.
A few days later, I was moved to Phuket to take over the role of press officer there. This was even more difficult but we did at least feel we could help in a more immediate way. I was able to see first hand some of the terrible, terrible consequences of the tsunami and some of the images from those days will live with me forever.
However, a week or so after I arrived, I found something out. Something that would change my life forever and something that, from a very personal point, shielded me in some ways from the trauma of what we saw and heard about in Phuket. I found out that I was pregnant.
The daughter that was inside me has just turned ten. She is a long-legged. blonde-haired, sports-crazy near-teen. I look at her and can’t believe she was inside me all that time, when I left Jamaica, during my hours in Miami, the flight to Bangkok. Just she and I, we did that together. I bought a little orange elephant in Phuket just after I found out I was pregnant and I have it still, a reminder of those strange, strange days. Although now that I desperately want to add a photo of it to this post I can’t find it – one of the perils of having just moved to a new country and still be in chaos!
I immediately went off anything spicy and had to pretend to not feel very well every time someone invited me to the bar. I think all my colleagues had me down as the most boring or antisocial person in the group. But I decided not to tell more than a couple of people there and started plotting my escape. Another week or two and it was decided my work was done, I could return home. I packed my suitcases again and did the whole journey in reverse. Only, this time, I knew I wasn’t alone.
To read about other memorable journey’s in this series please click on the tag below. And if you have a memorable journey you would like to share please let me know – I am always after interesting tales!
Photo credits: Miami skyline Bryan Sereny Bangkok sunset: Mike Behnken