Sunday, September 13 – Flying in the time of COVID-19….

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We are sitting on the tarmac in Doha at the moment, about to depart for Kilimanjaro. I must admit that I was entirely unsure of the what travel would be like during this monumental time of the pandemic, but so far things have been pretty straightforward, albeit very different from the other 21 trips here that I’ve taken. And as usual, there are always some silver linings that we look for amidst all of the natural angst that most of us have nearly become accustomed to at this point. First of all, most of all the normal flight times and routes have become non-existent. The Philadelphia counter for Qatar, once a hub of activity for their daily flights to Doha, has become a ghost town as they haven’t flown there since before we had returned in March. That, of course, was the first of many changes that I encountered while arranging my flights. I had the choice of either leaving early and spending 8 hours in the Boston airport waiting for my connection, or flying west to Dallas, a slightly longer flight, and only spending a few hours in the airport. I chose the latter as once I’m settled on the plane, I’m fine.

My flight to Doha was going to be 14 ½ hours and though I had a chance to upgrade to business class at the counter, I resisted the temptation of a lay flat bed and a premium menu as I was pretty certain that the flight would be under booked. Thankfully, I was correct, and ended up having an entire row of three seats to myself. Not quite as comfortable as a lay flat bed, but it sufficed, and I was more concerned about being able to spread out rather than sleep as many of you may know that I like to work on my flights, which includes writing my blog, rather than sleeping. Though quite long, this leg of my trip was a breeze with a number of meals and plenty of time to catch short cat naps and work in between.

A view of the empty Qatar business lounge in Doha

We arrived to a nearly empty airport in Doha, the hub of the national airlines of Qatar and home to the upcoming World Cup. The airport has been heavily upgraded and has more shopping than a dozen large malls in the US combined. On arrival in Doha, you normally have to trek a half a mile or so to go through security ENTERING the airport, but this has been scraped due to COVID, making the arrival here tremendously smoother, though perhaps less safe for those of you who may a significant concern for these matters. After some quick duty-free shopping (dates, cashews, raisins and a bottle of gin for the gin and tonics I’ve become accustomed to on the veranda after busy day work), I made my way to the airport lounge that I normally take advantage of while I’m here. My normal Qatar lounge was closed in lieu of the much nicer business class lounge that I now had access to and this was a plus as it is much larger and spacious and includes a premium restaurant on the second floor. The lounge was empty and I believe that the employees outnumbered the guests by easily two to one. I showered, worked a bit, and then had a lovely dinner before making my way back down to the business area to do some more work, or, to be honest, mostly texting with a friend and a bit of work on the side.

My dinner at the lounge

As most of you who have followed my blog know, our trips to Kilimanjaro typically include an overnight visit to the market place in Doha, a very classic middle eastern market that reminds one immediately of Aladdin. Qatar Airways has for several years allowed travelers to enter the city without a visa and have provided a five star hotel room for a pittance for all those with layovers that were longer than 8 hours. This was always a highlight for me as it was for the residents as they were all able to spend the night in Doha together and, occasionally, I was able to join them when our flights overlapped. There is also a wonderful locals restaurant I found a few years ago that is outdoors and serves kabobs, yogurt sauce, tahini and the like for very cheap and it’s as good as it gets. Unfortunately, with the changes made for travel in this age of the pandemic, no one is allowed to leave the airport and go into the city for the night any longer. It’s a huge loss for both the traveler and for Qatar with the absence of tourists in the market place, but one consolation is that they have rearranged all of the flights so as to do away with the overnight layovers, no longer necessitating the visit to the city. It’s a loss of culture, but a gain of time as I will now be landing in Kilimanjaro at 7:10 am as opposed to after 2 pm in the afternoon.

I’ve always had a sweet tooth…

So, if you’re into empty planes, empty airports and empty lounges, I guess you’re ahead of the game at this point, but to be honest, I’d rather have it back the other way, even it weren’t for the pandemic, as it just doesn’t feel like the same travel. OK, maybe the empty planes are a huge plus for the traveler, but how long can these companies or our economy sustain this? Qatar, a country with immense wealth, and Qatar Airways, a nationally subsidized airline, is unlikely hurting in the long run, but all of the shops at the airport and market place, the taxi drivers and hotels are undoubtedly significantly impacted by this loss of revenue and I am sure that many of these businesses, just like those in the US, have been unable to sustain themselves in the midst of this ongoing global crisis that seems to have no end.

An empty main atrium of the Doha airport

So now I am on my way to Kilimanjaro International Airport and I will home again in less than six hours. Yes, Tanzania has become my other home and this is now my 22nd trip home to visit my friends, return to FAME and spend time with the Temba family, who children I have watched grow like my own. I guess you may ask what ever possessed me to travel back in this turbulent time, and I would merely ask, rhetorically, how could I not? I have been here every six months for the last ten years and the thought never really crossed my mind that I wouldn’t return this fall. That’s not to say there weren’t hurdles as I now travel under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania, to the trip had to comply the rules set by the university, which, though not particularly harsh, weren’t necessarily inviting either. Thankfully, the powers that be were all in agreement that my work was considered essential and approved my trip for, had that not occurred, I would have been in a bit of a pickle. I am also a bit of a control freak when it comes to travel and I have always booked all of my own flights, that is, until now. The new rules of travel for the university require that all travel be booked through their contracted travel agents and, in the end, I was able to come to grips with the fact that this would just have to be. I quickly found out, though, that I was the first university employee traveling during the pandemic which meant that the process was entirely new, but after several days of some back and forth to make sure that all of the appropriate boxes were checked, I was approved to fly and my tickets were books.

Some of the shopping and electronic billboards in the Doha airport

With my flights all booked, I only had a few other hurdles to overcome to ensure that I was ready to travel. The first was something that I’ve had to deal with since the beginning and had to do with packing. Simply ordering things from Amazon and having them shipped, something that we all take for granted, is not a possibility in Tanzania, nor, for that matter, is having absolutely anything shipped. There is no postal service to speak of and delivery of a package, let alone intact, is virtually impossible. When I have to send paperwork to FAME for the resident’s permits, I do so by courier and it costs over $100 for a business envelope. So, as you might imagine, I have become somewhat of a mule for things that are needed at FAME, often bringing supplies that are unavailable in Tanzania. The weight of these items can be a bit excessive at times and packing under the weight limits can be a challenge. When we have a group of five or more of us, there’s no problem, but when it’s only me, it can be more a game of Tetris while throwing in the weight limit just for fun.

 

The other hurdle I encountered on this trip, and quite unique to the pandemic, was the need to get a PCR test for coronavirus within 72 hours of my travel. This is a requirement to Tanzania, and probably rightly considering the mess that exists in the US right now. I’ve been working in the clinic essentially full-time since May, as well as a few stints it the hospital on the ward service, but have really not encountered, or been exposed to, COVID-19. That’s probably a testament to the measures that have been taken at Penn, which is certainly a good thing. How I would get my PCR test prior to travel was a bit of challenge, though, and in the end I was able to get it done two days prior to my travel with the results being released literally two hours prior my leaving for the airport. Thankfully, it was negative, as a positive test, whether I was symptomatic or not, would have been the end of my return, at least for this trip.

 

No one ever said that it would be easy and I’ve been up for the challenges over the years, from bringing in a complete EEG machine, to medicines in the past, and now to the pandemic. This journey for me has been exciting and tremendously rewarding and has always brought me far more than I could ever have hoped for along the way. I am a very lucky person to have worked with those who I admire so much and have had the opportunities I have in life and for all of these I will be forever grateful.

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