It’s 5:30 in the morning, and I’m lying in bed feeling perfectly content as a baboon chatters outside my window.
The birds have a great deal more to say than the baboon, and I’m listening to them too, trying to decipher the exact ways they sound different from birds at home in Seattle. But the baboon is the one I really have no parallel for, the one whose presence makes all this feel like an adventure already, even when all I’m doing is hanging out lazily in bed watching the sunrise off the balcony and listening to the sounds of Johannesburg.
Getting here wasn’t easy.
First DripHydration, the company I paid exorbitantly for a guarantee that they’d have my Covid test results by 8pm Tuesday night didn’t produce the results, and by 9:30PM had yet to get in touch with me. When I finally got through to them in a panic, they told me snidely that half of Seattle had wanted Covid tests over the weekend and the lab was doing what it could. I’d get them when I got them.
I’m sure this was true, and it’s not even that it isn’t a valid excuse. I know there were people whose samples should have taken priority over mine. But they should have been careful about what they guaranteed. And if they were careful and still couldn’t meet their own self-imposed deadline, it should have been on them to reach out to me before the deadline was actually past, to tell me what was going on and when the test results would really be likely to arrive. Not cool, DripHydration.
The results — negative, or I wouldn’t be here with the baboons right now — finally arrived at just after 11pm. So I went into the trip on relatively short sleep… not ideal for managing fibromyalgia. Honestly, between the much reduced sleep and the stress of the flight itself, I would expect to be in far worse condition than I feel right this minute. But I’m sure not going to argue with it. Maybe it’s just that traveling is inherently good for my health — it’s often seemed so!
When I arrived at the Delta counter, the agent told me that my bags would have to be checked through only to Amsterdam, because I would them need to pick them up, go through customs, and recheck them onward to Johannesburg. Okay; I’ve done that kind of thing before, and it’s a nuisance but no big deal. So I checked them to Amsterdam as instructed, and was on my way.
I didn’t get a wheelchair for the trip through security. I waited a while for one, but they were taking people in order of their flights and mine was a long way off. That was exactly the way they *should* have taken us, so I have no complaints; but it would’ve meant spending most of my waiting time in the wheelchair line instead of the Delta sky lounge, which didn’t sound like much fun. So I confirmed that the sky lounge wasn’t very far inside the security lines and set off on foot.
The sky lounge itself was a lovely, relaxed place. Good seating, good food, and people spread out far enough apart that I felt safe taking some of that food and eating it carefully with nobody inside of ten feet from me. They had an excellent Waldorf chicken salad, and plenty of working outlets so I could charge my phone while I ate. They took down my name and made sure there would be a wheelchair for me when I was ready to leave. It arrived right on time to take me to my gate, so I did get one for the longer part of the walk inside SeaTac. I arrived five minutes before we boarded for Amsterdam.
As soon as I boarded, I examined my cubicle. The Delta One compartment was exactly what I wanted for Covid protection: fully enclosed up to a height just above my head when I was sitting down, and with private air jets directly above it. Super comfortable chair and a pretty darn comfortable bed when it was laid out as one. I was fairly impressed with the hard product, though Delta overall lost some points with me when their WiFi refused to let me pay for service on the flight. It just kept hanging whenever I tried to give it payment information — I tried three cards, plus PayPal and Amazon. I’ve never seen a website so unwilling to take my money! But I had a free hour through my cellphone service and that was enough to download a couple of videos I wanted to watch, so I was basically okay for stuff to do.
I’d heard a lot of things about Delta’s food in business class, most of it negative. Mine was a mixed bag, but averaged out pretty well on the whole. Lunch, served shortly after our 1:20PM departure, was chicken under bacon bits, with tiny potatoes. The chicken looked dry but actually tasted quite good once I got past the skin. Potatoes, once salted, were excellent, though it took me a little while to figure out the cute little salt and pepper shakers Delta gave me. There was a mini-baguette with really excellent butter. I’m a big fan of good butter, so that pleased me very much. Some kind of yellow soup I couldn’t identify and didn’t much care for. The salad was kind of weird — just a chunk of lettuce surrounded by grape tomatoes and a single hard-boiled egg yolk. Just the yolk. And all of it was under a great deal of cracked pepper. The tomatoes were actually great that way. I left the rest of it. For dessert, there was mint chocolate chip ice cream from an heirloom dairy, and it was so good that I ate it even though mint chocolate chip is normally not my flavor.
I discovered pretty quickly that I can’t sleep in an N95 mask. I was (at least for the time being) okay in it otherwise, but real sleep wasn’t happening. I woke up almost immediately, feeling suffocated, every time I tried. So I read, watched nature videos, or just closed my eyes and rested until we crossed over Iceland and they served breakfast.
Breakfast was sausage quiche, with a delicious chocolate pastry, fruit (a little sour; they tried their best but it’s just not the right season) and sauteed mushrooms and potatoes. The potatoes were very good, and the pastry was fantastic. I didn’t like the sausage but ate some of the quiche around it, and it was nice and fluffy. The pastry was by far the best of it — I could’ve easily eaten three of them. On the way back, if they have a similar menu, I might just ask for that.
We arrived in Amsterdam with me pretty worn out, and glad of the wheelchair that was supposed to be waiting. It was there, all right… but the attendant sounded a little confused about why I would need it, because my departing gate was literally right next door to my arriving gate.
I explained about having to go pick up my bags and go back around with them through customs.
“No you don’t!” she told me, shocked. “Delta should know that… Delta and KLM are like best friends!”
With a rising sense of panic, I told her that my baggage had only been checked through to Amsterdam because the agent had believed I would need to claim it and do the customs thing. I didn’t even have a boarding pass for Johannesburg! She said, “Okay, it will all be okay. I think we had better take you to the transfer desk. They’ll take care of everything for you.”
As she drove me there — in a little truck; Schiphol is so big no wheelchair attendant could cope if they had to push everyone all the way! — I told her that I’d never seen an airport with a dedicated transfer desk before. American airports don’t have them. She was appalled. “What do you do there if you miss your connection?” she asked me. I explained that we usually went to the airline and asked them to handle it, but I liked this better. She agreed, still sounding deeply distressed at the idea that American airports would just leave you to the tender mercies of the individual airlines instead of taking care of you themselves.
I found myself really liking the Netherlands, even in only an hour or two, and most of it spent on handling administrative problems. The gentleman who helped me at the transfer desk was personally outraged that the Delta agent’s mistake had put me through such trouble, and the wheelchair attendant reassured me and joked with me in the manner of a good friend steadying me through an unexpected emergency. They were both fantastic. If this is the Dutch, I want to get to know a lot more of them! (And hopefully, I’ll have a chance to do so later in this trip.)
The gentleman at the transfer desk did get me booked successfully onto the correct KLM flight to Johannesburg, and he really tried hard to get my luggage to catch up with the plane. But there just wasn’t enough time. I found out later that my bags never made it aboard.
At the time I boarded the KLM flight to Johannesburg, I didn’t know about the missing luggage, and everything looked to be back on track. Which was a good thing, because my body was starting to run down badly. I was beyond weary after no sleep at all on the first flight, and I didn’t even try to eat anything. Not then, and not the whole 11 hour flight, either. So I’m afraid I can’t tell you what KLM’s food was like — I never had any. I just wanted to rest.
The KLM business class seat wasn’t as nice as the Delta ones were, but they were fine. Once I got the bed laid out, it was narrower than Delta’s, and there was less privacy since there were no doors on individual seat compartments. But there was excellent ventilation, and nobody in the seats in front of me or behind me; just a guy across the aisle from me, six or eight feet away and facing the other direction. I set up the bed and lay down with a couple of wildlife videos.
About halfway through the flight, I found myself struggling to breathe, and starting to panic. I pulled out the pulse oximeter which told me that my oxygen content was okay but not quite up to where I’d usually find it, at 95. I knew it wasn’t Covid, because it ONLY ever happened when I had the N95 mask on. When I took a quick couple of breaths directly into the clean air vents without the mask, my blood oxygen shot right up to 99 again in seconds, and I felt like I was breathing fine again. I consulted with my husband by text, not fully trusting my own judgment between the panic and the lack of sleep. I ended up switching from the N95 mask to my usual Sonovia brand fabric one. The Sonovias have tested as just as effective as N95s; they’re well filtered and form good tight seals, but they’re usually much more comfortable to wear.
Once I had made the change, I did start to feel better. The flight attendants were all very gentle and solicitous about my health (and I don’t think they felt like I was a risk to infect people or anything; they were just being nice). One of them offered me permission to try to sleep without the mask, but for my own safety I didn’t want to do that unless I absolutely had to. Another attendant reminded me that I was probably dehydrated on top of everything else, and I took her advice and drank three bottles of water in fairly short order, as well as an apple juice to keep my blood sugar up, since I wasn’t eating. It all definitely helped, and so did the more comfortable mask. I even slept for two or three hours.
When we arrived in Johannesburg, I was in good spirits, but very weak. I’d basically gone short of food AND water AND oxygen AND sleep, and my body was telling me in no uncertain terms that it can handle some of that but definitely not all at once. I made it to the wheelchair and gratefully collapsed into it. This was a bit of a lesson for me… I remembered at the beginning of the trip, when I felt I could take or leave the wheelchair, and just walked off. By the end of the trip, I literally could not have made it as far as baggage claim without the chair. It reminded me that having occasional good days when I can navigate the airport comfortably on foot still doesn’t mean those chairs aren’t meant for me. They’re just meant for me (and all the others like me) on the occasions when I DO need them. There’s no reason to be shy about that, but sometimes I am anyway.
On finding out that my bags were still in Amsterdam, we went to talk to KLM. They said they’d deliver them to my hotel, but I pointed out that wouldn’t work, because I’m only going to be here for a couple of days! By the time the next plane arrives, I’ll be ready to leave already and my baggage would keep following me around everywhere and never catch up. We agreed that, as the next KLM plane from Amsterdam is scheduled to arrive Saturday night, they would just hold my baggage right there at the airport and I will collect it on my way back to the airport for my flight to Victoria Falls on Sunday.
I really hope this works. I’m basically okay for right now — my medicines, a change of clothes, my PPE gear, and everything else I really need for a day or two was in my carry-on backpack; I’m no novice traveler! So this is an inconvenience but no serious harm… so long as the bags catch up to me before I leave for Victoria Falls. But after that, I’m going to be changing locations every couple of days, and I have no idea how they’ll ever catch up to me!
Fingers crossed they’ll be there when I go back to the airport Sunday. But I’m talking today to my travel insurance company, just in case. I’ve got a lot of other administrative things to do today, as well as resting up from a much harder flight than I had thought it would be, but I’m hoping to get outside and look around a bit as well.
Meanwhile, I’m lying in bed in a lovely little hotel, with the sun rising over my balcony and birds and baboons talking to each other in the background. I should be tired but I’m not. I’m just super happy to be here.