At times like this, I find it useful to check in on my expectations. When the alarm went off at 6:00 in Dublin this morning, how did I imagine my day would end? Catching up on email while unwinding by the pool at our hotel in Accra? Hopefully. Out on the town with friends from our philanthropy world at the +233 Jazz Bar out in Kokomlemle? Plausible. Having a beer and curry at the foot of Hampstead Heath with an old college roommate? Would not have even been on my map.
In fact, getting together with Eric didn’t even occur to me until I was outbound from Paddington Station in the back of one of those adorable black London taxis, hoping I could get to the Ghanaian High Commission before they closed for the weekend.
Because, you see, I had other things on my mind. I was planning – expecting would not be too strong a word – to end up in Ghana this evening. The Aer Lingus flight out of Dublin was uneventful. It wasn’t until after we’d grabbed our bags for the transfer at Heathrow that we had any inkling of trouble.
The British Airways agent furrowed her brow and flipped back and forth through my passport.
“Do you have a valid visa for Ghana?”
It was right there, I assured her, and helped her find the page.
“No, that one is expired. They’re only good for 90 days.”
How could that be? We’d just gotten them two months ago, in late August.
“No sir. Yours was issued in January.”
January?!? I’d only had the passport since May.
She held a finger under the valid date. It clearly said, “23 January, 2018.” Devon’s, granted at the same time and with a sequential visa number, bore the correct month of issue, August. It was clear to everyone what had happened: in a moment of distraction, some official at the Ghanaian Consulate in Houston wrote my birthdate on the wrong line. It was an understandable and obvious error. The British Airways agent was sympathetic but adamant: the visa was invalid, and they would not be able to let me board my connecting flight.
So much for kicking back by the pool. First thing, of course, was to alert our hosts at Ashesi, who were expecting us on the afternoon flight. Then to call the Consulate in Houston (thank you, international phone plans!).
The voicemail recording at the Consulate in Houston informed me that they were open Monday through Thursday and asked that I call back during business hours. It was Friday afternoon in London, and it was already clear that I was not going to make my flight.
Call number three was to the Ghanaian Embassy (actually the Ghanaian High Commission) in London. No, I wasn’t getting out of town that afternoon, but if I didn’t get things resolved before offices closed down for the weekend, it was questionable whether there was even any point in me trying to get to Ghana.
We’d decided right off the bat that Devon should continue on without me. Her paperwork was in order, one Cohn (the rational one) was a hell of a lot better than none for the Ashesi gang, and someone had to do pool-lounging duty down at the hotel tonight.
Short story is…no, I’m afraid there is no short story. I’m going to keep ranting for a bit here.
I got Regan (sp?) on the phone at the London embassy. If she ever tires of embassy work, she’ll have a great future as one of those emergency responders who talks people down off of bridges. Her voice was calm and filled with reason. “Here – let’s try this. Do you have that number?” She stayed with me as I bounced back and forth between British Airways counters, trying to get some BA agent with whom she could corroborate data. No dice.
Meanwhile, back in Accra, Camille and the Ashesi gang were working with their local contacts to get some special government letter that would give BA permission to let me on the flight, promising that I’d get a visa on arrival.
Finally, Regan gave me her last best hope: the only thing left was for me to boogie into London as quickly as possible and try to fill out the paperwork for a brand-new visa before things shut down at the embassy for the weekend. Oh, by the way: they were closing early today.
I’ll spare you the mad-mad-mad-world dash into town, but things were not looking good. The forms for the online paperwork I had to fill out on the way assumed that you were a UK resident, and required you to specify on what day in the following week you would be coming in to pick the documents up. Of course, there was also the question of the passport-style photos and printed letters that were required with the application. Remember, this was Friday afternoon.
Short story – okay, I’m really going to make this a short story now – is that I have my visa. Regan and Twum and the others at the Ghanaian High Commission spun through the crazy bureaucratic processes with unearthly grace (“No, don’t worry about that form – I’ll take care of it.”), moved mountains, and even kept the freaking office open late for me while I scrambled for an Uber to get photos.
It was at a calm moment during taxi ride north from Paddington that I started contemplating the need for a place to stay, for the night at least. Of course, Eric and Tilly sprang to mind immediately. Eric, Keith, Gregor, Andrew and I shared a house, fondly known as The Iguana Ranch, senior year in college. And while it had been years since I’d seen him, we Iguanas tended to pick up our old conversations wherever we left them off.
Turned out that not only was Eric in town, he and Tilly lived a five-minute cab ride from the embassy. Fifteen minutes after the ever-patient Twum capped off the rush by handing me my newly-stamped Ghanaian visa, I was strolling the grounds of Hampstead Heath with an old friend, walking his dog on our way to a pint at the local pub. Oaks dating back 600 years, picturesque ponds and rills, and wooded crossroads literally straight out of John le Carre spy stories (le Carre lives nearby and is apparently fond of situating his fictional mischief locally). Then curry, conversation and ice cream late into the night.
I’m catching the train to Heathrow late morning tomorrow to see what the world is going to throw at me next. Call it a bit of Pabloverse rebound. Call it making the best of a bad situation. At the bottom of it all, it’s just life. Hopefully, my next dispatch really will be from Ghana.