Having said bye to family and friends with a final round of hugs, I pushed my rather bulky airport luggage trolley into the departures unit at Nairobi’s largest airport. Passport — check. Ticket — check. Departure time — 23:50. It was a cool Wednesday night in March.
I cleared the security screening and headed straight to the check-in desks, all set for my long and arduous journey to the United States — my first visit to the land of opportunity.
“Sir, may I see your Canadian transit visa?” asked the ticketing attendant.
“I’m going to the U.S., not Canada,” I replied in a matter-of-fact tone.
What followed was a brief argument, and it began to dawn on me that my American dream — being nominated for a six-month fellowship in the U.S. — was crumbling right before my eyes.
My flight itinerary was as follows: Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, London Heathrow Airport, Toronto Pearson International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Columbia Regional Airport.
The smiling ticketing officer politely informed me that she could not process my check-in because I lacked a Canadian transit visa, which was a requirement for Kenyans because I was transiting through Toronto. As I discussed with the ticketing agent the implications of this requirement, I quickly sent an SOS email to David Reed, the program director at the Alfred Friendly Press Partners.
I then stepped out of the queue and sent Mr. Reed a text message. “I’ve run into a hitch at the airport. I have just been informed that I need a Canadian transit visa because my connection is through Toronto.” I didn’t know this and the British Airways staff have asked we change the route to avoid Canada or else I won’t be allowed to check in,” my SMS read. “Kindly ask the agents to change it. Thanks,” I pleaded with him.
Two minutes later, without a reply from Mr. Reed, I called him and explained my predicament. He promised to try all he could. We only had 25 minutes to make the necessary changes if I was to fly out of Nairobi that night.
“We’re now closing check-in to prepare for boarding. I’m afraid you have to reschedule your flight to tomorrow,” came the final word from the airport officials.
My head was spinning. How was I going to explain this to family and friends? I could not imagine the spectacle of me struggling with my suitcases back to my house, shortly after everyone had bid me farewell.
I had to return. I explained myself over and over again, to the same questions coming from different persons.
Luckily, Mr. Reed got the necessary changes done, avoiding Canada by making it a direct flight from London to Dallas and later a connection to Columbia, Missouri. The next day, it was hassle free and I made it to Columbia after 26 hours spent in the plane and airport lobbies.
Just when I thought I was done with drama, it happened that I had received the wrong Bank of America debit card! It bore the name of a Turkish fellow who had been nominated from the program but didn’t turn up. Little did I know that my bank debit card had been thrown to the trash bin! That’s a story for another day.
I got the trashed card, and a replacement.
Nothing could stop me from pursuing this fellowship, not even the combined gods of tickets and cards!