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Stranded in paradise: How we got home, the grand finale (3 of 3)

What's 65 hours of travel through 3 international airports, and lost luggage, when our destination was Israel (quarantine notwithstanding)?

“I Promise Not to Fart”

(Read part one of our saga here)
(Read part two of our saga here)

In the morning, once rested and fed, our youngest (age 4) asked us a series of 4-year-old questions. Why did we visit the airport and come back “home”? Were we visiting the airport because it was lonely? I had explained to him, months earlier, that it is a mitzvah to visit the sick. He therefore demanded to know if the airport had Corona and were we visiting it to make it feel better.

My sister doubled her efforts with Israeli ambassadors worldwide, while we got on the phone with every airline we had paid money (by now, we had $14,000 invested in tickets that we could not use, and we were out of both cash and credit). Our families offered us money. We talked to the Israeli-Australian ambassador, trying to get special permits to transit through Australia to catch the Israeli rescue flight leaving from Melbourne. No go. We tried to get to Thailand to catch the Israeli rescue flight going from Bangkok, but could not get permission to fly through Singapore to get there. 

Once we were connected directly to the Israeli ambassador in Singapore (Lior), he sent us a detailed list of all the places from which we could get to Israel. To where could we fly? Melbourne was out, India was out, Thailand was out, Moscow was out. New York still had daily flights to Tel Aviv, but we’d have to fly through two EU cities to get there, which landed us back in the Schengen visa problem. The only option was Minsk. After exhausting Google flights, the target itinerary was Bali-Jakarta-Amsterdam-Minsk-Tel Aviv. The Israeli ambassador in Holland confirmed permission to get through Amsterdam in transit, but the problem was Minsk. We would be facing a 30-hour layover in Minsk, and one could hardly categorize that as “transit.” Lior asked us to get ahold of the Indonesian Airlines (the ones who would fly us to Minsk) and request to be categorized as transit passengers, while he worked from his side to accomplish the same.

We called them. They didn’t answer. Not at their customer service center nor at any of their offices or outlets. My husband left the house determined to locate a travel agent who might be able to get through to the airline. The closest agent was three kilometers away. Afraid to take a taxi due to being in a small, enclosed non-hygienic space, he walked. Quickly. The travel agent tried to reach the Indonesian airline and encountered failure, just as we had. After a quick phone debate between us, he then flagged a taxi to make the two hour trip to the airline offices, hoping to make contact in person. As he sat down in the back seat, we were contacted by the Israeli ambassador in Minsk. He confirmed permission for us to be categorized as transit passengers and to enter Minsk, avoiding any potential quarantine there. In addition, he informed us that we would be granted a temporary visa on arrival so we could spend our 30-hour layover in a hotel, for the sake of the kids. He also said this: “I know it’s not ideal, 65 hours of travel. But take it. You have perhaps three days before you will have no more options. This may indeed be your last chance. Please get on the plane.”

We bought the ticket. We had 48 hours before the flight. As an attempt at normalcy, we re-engaged with the kids, who had been watching an unprecedented number of movies. Since we are (under normal circumstances) a non-screen family, this was BIG. They asked no questions. I think they were afraid to approach us for fear of us pulling the proverbial plug.

Upon re-engagement, our 4-year-old tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to go outside with him so we could speak “private”. Since we’ve spent the last six months in very small spaces, often with all of us in one room and half of us sleeping on the floor, he has learned that if he wants to speak to a parent without prying ears, he asks for “private.” We went outside, I sat down, and his face fell. He looked guilty. Like, caught-red-handed-stealing-cookies guilty. “Mommy?” He queried. “Nobody likes it when I fart. If I promise not to fart on the plane, THEN will they let us go on?” 

The Knives 

Two days later, we were ready. We had eaten 80 percent of our food and packed the rest (replacing medication in the backpacks), in preparation for the very real possibility of getting stuck in any of the transit locations. Armed with Cheerios and peanut butter, we schooled the kids not to speak any Hebrew, nor mention Israel, while in Jakarta. We explained why, carefully balancing the information we gave them with the worry that we might scare them. We ordered the same taxi as we had three days prior, and embarked on what we hoped would be a long journey. 

At the airport, I couldn’t bring myself to attempt to check in. Although airport formalities and forms are usually my responsibility, I approached the counter and my body immediately refused. I involuntarily began to wretch, flooded with the memory of our failure three days earlier. My husband noticed my unspoken plight (again, can’t scare the kids) and sent me to the side to wait with our carry-on luggage. I held my breath and stayed far away from the counter, counting circles, as my kids raced around the columns in the expansive, empty hall.

I glanced over to check my husband’s check-in progress, and the supervisor had been called. 

I froze. 

I saw them speaking, discussing, arguing, referencing phones and websites. I fought back tears. Thirty minutes later, he sent our oldest over to me to update me that the initial challenge had been Amsterdam. The supervisor didn’t think we were allowed to transit via Amsterdam, and, without clearance, wouldn’t allow us to board. The hubs had, however, surmounted the first challenge, and we were cleared for Amsterdam. Now he was working on establishing the chain of permission for us to land in Minsk. Forty-five minutes passed, and I was trying not to shake noticeably. Another update. We were cleared for Minsk, but our luggage would not make it past Amsterdam. So be it. My husband instructed the kids to extract their most valuable possessions from the luggage and put them in their carry-ons for safekeeping. Repacking ensued.

Another hour later, we were all checked in, I was shaking slightly less, and we proceeded toward security. We dutifully removed our belts from their loops and our laptops from their cases, systematically placing each piece in its own grey, lifeless tub. The machine started to beep. “Please,” I thought, “We have 24 minutes until boarding.” The Balinese TSA-equivalent took two of my kids’ daypacks and started rifling through them, fishing out a pocket knife from one and a Leatherman from another. I looked at my kids, wide-eyed. “What?” they said, incredulous. “You asked us to put our favorite stuff in our daypacks. We have our collection of shells, presents for our friends, and our pocket knives.”

I would have let these things go. Go ahead and confiscate what you need to…. Just LET US GET ON THE DAMN PLANE. 

Not my husband.

Ever the cool headed problem-solver, he whisked the forbidden carry-on items away, back to the check-in desk, very politely requesting that they add them to our luggage. Nineteen minutes until boarding.

I sat there at security, not knowing his whereabouts (he refuses to carry a phone, ever) with all the kids, not knowing how far away he had gone, when he was going to return, and checking my watch. 

Fourteen minutes till boarding. 

Nine minutes till boarding.

At four minutes till boarding, I lost it.

I mean, I lost it in a grand, inelegant and unprecedented way.

I told the kids I’d return in a sec, went looking for the husband, located him, and expressed my desire to board in a booming, colorful, expressive manner.

Ever the diplomat, he quietly handed me our passports and boarding passes, instructed me to move forward with the kids, and insisted he would be along shortly. We made the flight seven minutes before takeoff, with both precious knives checked.

Turn on the Red One

The layover in Jakarta was shockingly uneventful, and the transition to the Amsterdam-bound plane went smoothly. Nearly 15 hours later, after exhausting our sandwich supply, we arrived at an eerie Dutch airport scene. Nothing was open. We couldn’t buy snacks, Duty Free was closed, and the lights were off in most of the airport. There was one person staffing the counter to get to Minsk. Two hundred people needed to check in to the flight, since they were not issuing boarding passes at the departure desks. The normal check-in area was creepily abandoned and covered in a thin layer of dust. This poor woman did her best, wearing a mask, behind a six-foot high plastic tarp hanging from the ceiling. We couldn’t hear her; we couldn’t really see her. Gloved, she had to slide boarding passes through a roughly cut jagged hole in the plastic. We mashed our passports against the transparent divider so she could examine each one as we marched the children before her, one by one, to confirm their identities.

Three hours later, we arrived in Minsk, so hungry that we were willing to eat Russian food. The arrival process was surprisingly easy, with the exception of lost baggage (which we expected, since we had seen giant piles of unclaimed luggage in Amsterdam, attended by no one). Our identities were checked in the computer, we were promptly issued short-term visas, and we exited the arrival hall. We had not made reservations at any hotel since we had so much money tied up in refunds (we couldn’t afford another) and knew that the possibility of not making it as far as Minsk was severe, so we had nowhere to go. Without a Belarusian SIM card, we figured that there would be WiFi at the airport, and we could make arrangements that way. 

Wrong we were. 

In order to connect to the airport WiFi, one must register with a cell phone number and receive a text message with a confirmation code. Our Indonesian cell phones were not up to the task. We walked through the front door to a rush of cold, the equivalent of which we had not felt in over a year. Two of our kids had outgrown their shoes several countries ago, and we never bothered replacing them (what did they need shoes for? Sandals had served us just fine when Eastern Europe wasn’t on the docket). Shivering, we approached a cab driver and asked him to hotspot us for five minutes so we could arrange for a hotel. Under pressure, I selected the cheapest thing I could find and we climbed in a taxi.

Arriving at the hotel, we noticed a large building adjacent to the entrance. It looked suspiciously like… an indoor water park? The hotel seemed closed, but they allowed us to check in. All the lights in the hotel were off. We were the only ones there. We kept expecting a small child to peek out around a corner and whisper, “Redrum.” The hotel restaurant sparkled behind glass, but it was closed. We ate granola for dinner, as it was the only thing left in our bag. We called down to the front desk after attempting to shower, and were informed that the hotel had been mostly closed for weeks, so they had turned off the water. And the heat. Wrapped in blankets, smelly from the plane, we tried to sleep. 

In the morning, we asked the same very tired girl at the front desk what the deal was with the slides jutting out of the building next door, and she explained in bits and pieces of English that, indeed, WE WERE AT A WATER PARK HOTEL.

Entrance to the water park was free for hotel guests. The kids freaked. Squealed. Jumped up and down. We looked at each other and figured… we’ve been through four international airports in the last 36 hours and we are heading to our fifth. Why would an empty water park expose us more than an airport? We had 12 hours before our next flight, so we donned swimsuits and walked in. We figured — if nothing else, at least we’ll get a shower.

Let me tell you, this was no standard water park. We’ve had our share of water parks, and we are discerning judges. This place was the size of a sports stadium, and it was magnificent. Even better — we were the only ones there. The slides were turned off, but a friendly young Belarusian guy approached us with a big smile, and explained that the place was ours. Each time we wanted to go on a slide, they would turn it on for us. No lines. No people. We told him we wanted to try the red one first, so he radioed up to his guy on the red one, and it was turned on. When we were done riding the red one (eight times), we told him we wanted to try the blue one next. Promptly, the blue one was turned on. And so it went. It was like we had rented out the water park for our own personal use. We felt like the presidential family.

Five hours before the flight, we showered in a seemingly endless locker room and walked into the drying room (they have a drying room!) to ready ourselves for the next leg of our journey. Light without half our luggage, the taxi to the airport was easy. Upon arrival, the hubs went in search of our lost luggage while I checked in. Most of the airport was closed, but Duty Free was open! After purchasing two bottles of whiskey in preparation for quarantine, we were ready to board. We heard Hebrew for the first time in months. It sounded like music. We exchanged knowing smiles and walked onto the plane, clutching our “booty,” giddy with a mixture of jetlag and relief.

Upon landing in Tel Aviv at midnight, an Israeli Ministry of Health representative boarded the plane and gave us a talk via megaphone. There were forms to fill out. Temperatures to be taken. Instructions to receive. After waiting in the airport for two hours, we boarded an army bus to a quarantine hotel. Home Front Command had called the hotel ahead of time, letting them know a family was about to arrive, so we wouldn’t have to wait in lines to register. They ensured that our bus went first, and held back the other buses so our kids wouldn’t have to wait for beds. Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, we were welcomed to our rooms with milk and cookies, and instructed not to leave.

Israel was providing us with three rooms in a four-star hotel, complete with three meals a day, for our 14-day quarantine. For free. All of our kids had their own beds for the first time in nearly seven months. Within 24 hours, supplies started showing up. After posting on Facebook that we had arrived safely, a package of books showed up for the kids. Then seven boxes of Cheerios. Then home-baked brownies. Then a $100 bottle of wine. 

We are safe. We are healthy. We are comfortable. We are loved.

We are Israeli.

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