By mid-August, I was becoming increasingly frustrated about not being able to travel internationally, so I began playing with ideas on journeys that could be possible. The numbers of cases in the US were continuing to rise and fall depending on which State you looked at, and I was just ready to leave for a while. To go to a country that appeared to have a more cohesive response and possibly the toughest part – where, as a resident of the USA, I would be welcome. This in itself proved the most challenging. My initial thoughts had been to travel to the UK, as I still hold a British passport, and could quarantine there for 14 days, before starting to travel in the UK and potentially head over to Italy. However, in discussing this with various family members, it became clear that the news from the US was so poor that I would have been creating difficult decisions for my family, had I chosen to go that route. So, unfortunately, that was no longer an option.
Fast forward to mid-September, and I continued to be very restless and ready to travel. With a few of the East African countries beginning to open up (Kenya opened its’ borders to US citizens in August) I started to explore the options. At this time these are driven as much by the ability to get a negative PCR COVID-19 test within a prescribed timeline for entry into a country, as they are the ability to visit a country as a US resident. Sadly, our inability to manage the COVID pandemic has rendered our US passports relatively useless these days.
Departure Day “D-Day”minus 30, my initial plans were to travel to Zambia (not Kenya) via Turkey. Turkey is allowing entry for US citizens and they are providing the ability to obtain COVID testing at Istanbul airport. My thoughts had been to take a rapid test in the US, as I wanted to be sure I was COVID free before leaving the country, fly to Istanbul and spending about a week to ten days in Turkey, before getting the requisite PCR test at Istanbul airport that would then allow me to fly to Zambia directly. Unfortunately the logistics of this began to be a little more challenging due to the more recent opening of Zambia and the inconsistency of the internal flights in-country that I would need for that itinerary to work. D-Day minus 15, I decided to focus in on Kenya as a first ‘post-COVID’ destination. With a negative PCR test required within 96 hours of arrival, this could be possible.
Working with one of my favorite partners, Big Five Tours & Expeditions, founded in 1973 by a Kenyan, Big Five seemed the perfect choice for this trip. We are both members of the Virtuoso Adventure Community, and are deeply committed to authenticity and sustainability in all of their work, which is very important to me. They are also incredibly “nimble” in working with such a short timeframe and understand the need to be flexible as we all get back to traveling. Going back to Kenya for me is very personal, particularly knowing how much so many of the local communities rely on tourism to provide an income that helps to sustain them and provide food security. For three years I worked closely with the Kenyan Ministries of Health and Education during my tenure as the Lead Director of a Children’s Program initiated as part of the Family Health International (now FHI360) commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative. I contracted TB while visiting TB clinics at the coast, and spent many weeks visiting some of the very rural areas of Kenya, that were so significantly impacted by the civil unrest during 2007 elections. In my office, I have a picture of two orphaned children, one as a result of HIV and the other as a result of the violent clashes during the elections that I look at daily as a reminder of just how fortunate I am. I have the pleasure in working with clients to plan many bucket list trips, some of which include Africa, enabling them to experience the incredible hospitality that is received when arriving in this still relatively unknown continent, at least as a leisure destination from the USA. The options to explore this continent are expansive and I do hope that as the borders open many of you reading this will consider reaching out to me about planning a trip for you to experience some of these.
Taking you back to the preparations for this trip. It is not only my first international trip since returning from the UK after the Christmas Holidays, it is also my first experience flying post-COVID. In preparing for the trip there are many similarities from past travels, but there are also many new nuances that we have to be aware of and plan for.
Having first determined the destination and COVID testing requirements, the next challenge was to find a testing center that would be confident (none of them will use the word ‘guarantee’) that the test results would be available within 48 hours. Thankfully, in North Carolina we have a health practice that specializes in Travelers Health, Passport Health has several offices in and around the Research Triangle Area, which is about a 2-hour drive for me, but worth it for the knowledge that I was almost certain to receive my test result in time to board my flights to Nairobi.
D-Day minus 14, I drove to Passport Health to obtain my Yellow Fever vaccine, unfortunately the ones I had in the past weren’t the lifetime shot that you can now get – although there is a shortage of these, so travelers need to plan ahead for this also. While this wasn’t required for Kenya, it is, if I decided to travel to other surrounding countries and back to Kenya, so it made sense to have that taken care of.
During the two weeks leading up to this trip, I also stayed as self-quarantined as possible, staying within my ‘bubble’ of friends so as to minimize any risk of getting COVID prior to travel. I made sure I had sufficient masks, hand-sanitizer, wipes, etc., for the trip and started to think about what else I would need to take with me. With the new entry requirements, it’s complex, Negative PCR test, QR Health Code, Health Forms for transfers in Amsterdam and Charles de Gaulle on the return, the list is extensive and its really important to have printed copies of so many of these. I found that part quite interesting as we have moved to so much digital information as a result of COVID, yet for travel, for now, there is more paperwork involved. Another great reason to work with a trusted Travel Advisor and Partner!
D-Day minus 2, a four and a half hour round trip to get my COVID test, which in itself was easy, quick and painless! Then home to start thinking about what I needed to pack. Packing for a safari can be complex as ‘less is more’, with limited weight and the need to go with a soft-sided bag – the key is not to overpack, but also make sure you have the essentials as there isn’t going to be a nearby shop to stop and purchase those forgotten items! Of course, I provide a guide list for clients traveling with me so I just pulled that out and went from there.
D-Day – Having woken early, I started to get ready to leave, packing my bag, and gathering all the necessary paperwork together to have on-hand during my journey. Still no sign of the PCR test result though at 11:00 am when was about time to leave!
My flights were with Delta, leaving Wilmington at 12:55 pm to Atlanta. From ATL I was booked on the 5:50 pm flight to Amsterdam, with a five hour layover in AMS before arriving in Nairobi at 10:05 pm. The good news was that there was a later flight out of ATL at 8:35 pm just in case my PCR test result was delayed.
The check-in at Wilmington was challenging as the Delta system showed the gate agent I needed the negative PCR test to be able to depart for AMS, so she wasn’t able to check me in all the way through, meaning she also wasn’t meant to allow me to board the first flight from ILM! When I explained the situation and showed here the receipt for my PCR test, she kindly called her supervisor and they were able to agree to allow me to fly to ATL with the knowledge that if I didn’t receive the test result, I would not be allowed to leave ATL. I had somewhat anticipated this, which is another reason not to have checked bags, so agreed that I understood the risk, and a boarding pass was issued.
The flight experience on Delta was a good one, everyone was wearing their masks and keeping distance wherever possible. I arrived on time into ATL but still no sign of PCR test result – which has to be printed before arriving in Nairobi. This is where the ability to stay relaxed and be prepared to be flexible was important. No worries, I still had another couple of hours before my flight, and there was always the back-up of the later flight if need be. I felt that this trip was “mine to take”, and the results would come through, which they did with about an hour to spare. Long enough to to enable me to go to the Delta Sky Club and print out the test result!
The transatlantic flight from ATL to AMS was actually much fuller than I expected, particularly as there are two I flights a day, but they are still maintaining the empty seat beside you, so I felt like I had my own ‘space’ and as per my usual travel DNA, firmly slept most of the flight to Amsterdam. I am now sitting in the airport with approximately two hours until my flight to Nairobi. There is an area set up in the airport for health checks that you have to complete before your flight, but it was just a temperature check and completion of yet another form.
I’m currently onboard the flight to Nairobi, it is a KLM flight codeshare with Delta. Although the boarding process was a little more cramped feeling that my earlier flights, it was also very comforting to know that everyone on board the flight had to have provided a negative PRC COVID test within the past 72 hours and while, of course, there is a small possibility that someone may have since been infected, I still believe that traveling with a group of individuals that all had the common need for a negative test to arrive into Nairobi, provided a level of comfort, that we don’t necessarily have flying domestically in the USA. A good reason perhaps, if you are ready, to travel internationally to certain countries at this time! The flight to Nairobi is approximately 40% full so everyone has seats available around them and I am feeling very relaxed and ready to enjoy my time in Kenya.
Stay tuned for further updates as I travel – next will be that wonderful feeling of stepping of the plane to the familiar smell of stepping off the plane onto the African continent and all the adventure is has to offer for travelers of all ages!