3 August 2021 Tuesday
This was the day I wrote my previous post, Vigil at the pool of Bethesda, where I had compared our situation with that of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda in the Biblical account. In a moment, Jesus changed that man’s hopeless situation. I had written: Till Jesus comes to our Bethesda, we will wait. He is sovereign and knows exactly when to bring us relief.
Well, going with the Bethesda-pool analogy, Jesus came. And when He did, our situation was transformed.
4 August 2021 Wednesday
Nothing unusual happened.
5 August 2021 Thursday
A few family members and friends had been helping us to look for MIQ slots. I was calling them up and discussing strategies with them. I was also ensuring that all of us had our own accounts in the system, and were not using Shama’s. Initially, we shared Shama’s login, but we were hearing that it was against the rules and that vouchers secured in this way would be cancelled. Imagine the heartache if we did land a date and it got cancelled because we had logged into the system the wrong way!
6 August 2021 Friday
At about 2:15 p.m., I created an account for Philip (my husband), who had agreed to join us in our search, and I sat at his computer with the large monitor and did the usual refresh-screen-squint&stare-refresh thing till 7:00 p.m. or so. And at some point, after Philip returned from work, I showed him what to do, and he took over. I moved over to my desk in the study and started using my account on my laptop. We tried to stagger our refreshes, so that our pages did not refresh at the same time; hopefully we’d catch that elusive date this way. About an hour later, we were not in sync anymore with our ‘staggers’. A little after 9:15 p.m. Philip saw the 11-August date come up. Without blinking an eye, he clicked the date, clicked the I am not a robot box, and clicked Next.
He saw a page telling him that he had 48 hours to feed in flight details.
It was a surreal moment, and we group-called the Bhave family and Tim on WhatsApp immediately.
To actually receive the MIQ voucher for that date, we needed to enter the flight details. Our next step had to be to book Shama’s flights. Easier said than done, we soon realised. We agreed that Vishram (Shama’s dad) would talk to their travel agent, and I would talk to our travel agent here in Auckland.
The MIQ website listed four flights that arrived on 11 August 2021, Emirates from Dubai, Singapore Airlines from Singapore, Korean Air from Seoul, and Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong. Emirates was the only option for us, as we had no flights going from India to Singapore, Seoul, or Hong Kong.
It was late, but our agent, who is reachable 24/7, said that there were no tickets for Emirates flights from India to New Zealand in August. You had flights from India to Dubai and flights from Dubai to Auckland, but it was not possible to get a through flight.
It’s like this. When we traveled to India, for example, we had a ticket that included two flights in it. To be able to link two flights into a single ticket, the agent uses what is called a ‘tour code.’ Without this, Shama would have two unlinked flights. She could not expect her luggage to be checked in through to Auckland. Without a tour code and the single ticket, she would also need to check out at Dubai and check in again, but for this she would need a visa for Dubai, which she did not have. Moreover, the layover time between the two flights was only about two hours, which would make it impossible even with a visa.
Although this much-needed tour code was not being issued by Emirates for August, our travel agent was determined to try his best to explain the situation to Emirates officials to see if something could be done.
7 August 2021 Saturday
Friday and Saturday are the weekend for the Arab world. So, on the evening of the 7th, the agent did not have any new information for me. He had spoken to some Emirates staff in India but could not get the tour code. I asked him for a temporary ticket from Dubai to Auckland, so that even if nothing was achieved the next day, just as the 48 hours was ending, I would still be able to secure the voucher, by entering the Airline Booking Reference number. The agent was kind enough to give me such a ticket.
I called my friend Marcia in Dubai, who in turn got in touch with several of her friends in the airline business to find out what could be done.
8 August 2021 Sunday
Before the morning of the 8th dawned in New Zealand, Marcia gave me an Emirates Mumbai number, saying that she had been advised that Emirates in Mumbai are the only ones who might be able to help.
I had to wait for a seemingly endless few more hours before Mumbai awoke. I called the number and got to speak with a lady who assured me that transit through Dubai, which had been temporarily stopped, was now allowed and passengers could travel ‘as per the requirements of the final destination.’ Any elation I felt was deflated when I got back to my agent, as he was certain that I had not communicated the situation to the lady correctly and that she would have been of the opinion that I was among those who had a booking and whose transit through Dubai had been temporarily stopped.
I made my second call to that Mumbai-Emirates number. I got to speak to another lady. She said: “Because of the Air-Bubble agreement at the moment, Emirates is unable to issue multiple tickets in a single booking; they can only issue you two separate tickets.” But she assured me that as long as the layover is less than ten hours, Shama would be eligible for the through-check-in facility. “You will need to show both the tickets at the check-in counter at the Bombay airport. Dubai will be just a transit for you. You will not have to clear Customs or Immigration,” she spelled out. I even had a recording of this conversation to share with Shama’s family. How much clearer can it be! But my agent was not convinced. He said that he had been in the travel industry long enough to know that it was risky to travel without a through booking. He felt that I may have been talking to call-centre people sitting in their homes without access to accurate information. I called Shama’s parents who said that their agent was also saying the same thing.
Meanwhile Shama’s PCR test was done. Someone from the testing centre came to their residence and took the sample. The results would reach them that night. All this without any assurance of actually being able to travel.
Vishram had a song stuck in his head,
He didn’t bring us this far
To leave us
He didn’t teach us to swim
To let us drown . . .
No one had the time to think about the theological appropriateness of this song for the current situation.
Appropriate or not, the sentiment egged us on to take more and more risks. The 48 hours was nearly over, and I entered the Airline reference code from the temporary booking that I had. Shama received the the much-coveted MIQ voucher by email.
My daughter Lydia had a spell of clear thinking and wrote down a long list of items that Shama would need to think about and pack. One of the items on this list was to maintain a careful collection of important documents. Shama would have three copies of all documents, 1- printed out, 2- online somewhere, and 3- downloaded to the phone. So the voucher joined other important documents (like the visa, emails from Immigration, proof for the two vaccination jabs) in this way. But was Shama going to travel at all?
Our agent was still trying to get the tour code from Emirates and he said that only the next day, being Monday, would he be able to find someone in India to pay attention to his request. But what if flights get full? So we asked our reluctant agent to buy the two tickets, one from Mumbai to Dubai, and the other from Dubai to Auckland. If the agent managed to get the tour code, he could then cancel the tickets and replace it with the new single booking, we explained.
No Economy class tickets were available, and so we had to book Business class. The cost of the tickets was 8000 NZD, the cost of a car! But did we have an option? If Shama was not offered the through-checkin facility, we hoped to be able to cancel the ticket citing the assurance we had been given by the Emirates call centre.
My Dubai friend was skeptical about whether Emirates would refund us, so she suggested that I call Emirates staff at the airport to make sure before I actually paid for the tickets. My daughter Prisy and I, and later Vishram tried but we could not connect with Emirates staff at the airport.
Just when we were wondering what our next step should be, our agent in Auckland called to say that I needed to make the payment within ten minutes, as the accounts staff were leaving for the night.
We made the payment, and in a few minutes, the tickets had joined Shama’s collection of important documents. A few hours later, to this collection, Shama was able to add the negative test-report for the PCR test done earlier in the day.
We still had no way of knowing if Shama would actually be able to travel. But she had less than 24 hours to get to the Mumbai airport.
Our mouth was filled with laughter,Shama messaged
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
No matter what happens in the next 24 hours, the Lord has indeed done great things for us!! And we are filled with joy!
If she did manage to travel, it could be a while before Shama would see her family and friends, so Shama’s mum Hema wanted to have a function with the close family-friend circle to mark Shama’s departure with fun and culture.
I got dressed in the traditional yellow saree; the one that I had prepared for the originally-planned departure and wedding, and everyone gathered around me to spread the haldi (turmeric) on me, preparing me for my wedding and blessing me for the journey ahead. The festivities continued late into the night after which when everyone left; my mum and me continue the mammoth task of packing.Shama
9 August 2021 Monday
The last goodbyes said, then came time for the family to leave Pune and drive to Mumbai.
My pastor prayed for me and blessed me with this verse from Zephaniah 3:17:
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
With this blessing over me, I was covered with a bright red-and-golden stole, and while I was asked to wait at the entrance, a scene I had not expected emerged before me. My brother Sumukh, along with my brothers in the faith and my brother-in-law, stood before me with a canopy of flowers, waiting for me to enter under it. This is a wedding tradition from my mother’s side of the family; she is from the North of India, where in the bride is bid farewell from her parents house and led to her wedding by her brothers under a blanket of flowers (Phoolon ki chaadar). This is something I always hoped I would get to experience at my wedding when I left my parents house. I am still in shock that it actually happened and that I was able to experience it. So under the canopy of flowers I stood while everyone tried to hold back tears; I had warned them that if anyone cried and or made me cry, I would not leave them.Shama
A side note here—I’m not sure if I should be happy or sad that not too many people cried and everyone tried their hardest to hold back their tears.
They reached in good time. Bidding goodbye to her parents and brother would have been difficult. But then, if our travel agent was to be believed, Shama could well rejoin them in an hour or so. Shama kept in touch with her parents as well as with us here in Auckland, through WhatsApp. Technology is amazing.
She had to be at the airport before 10:30 p.m., six hours before her 4:30 a.m. pre-dawn departure. As she walked away from her family with her bags, Vishram remembered the little girl going to school with her school bag.
Mum Hema’s heart sang:
I know He’s able.
I know my Lord is able to carry Shama through.”
25 minutes later, a lady, an Emirates staff, come around with an announcemnt.
Emirates lady: Anyone here who has Dubai as your final destination?
Shama, going up to her: I have two tickets. I am going to Dubai, and from there, I am going to Auckland.
Emirates lady: Which airline?
Shama: Both is Emirates, and my arrival and departure terminal is the same.
Emirates lady: How much is your layover?
Shama: Two and a half hours.
Emirates lady: In that case, your final destination is Auckland.
These words brought hope. It also meant, we later found out, that Shama did not need to take the pre-departure COVID test, which was only for those whose destination was Dubai.
Shama’s family were determined to wait at the airport till she was fully cleared.
10 August 2021 Tuesday
At midnight, Shama had a new problem on her hands, which was to convince airline staff that she was allowed to enter New Zealand directly without having to quarantine in another country for 14 days. In her collection of important documents, she had emails from two different Immigration officers confirming that she, being the partner of a citizen of New Zealand, could enter New Zealand directly. Shama’s documents were scanned and sent to Emirates Dubai and Immigration New Zealand (INZ). Convincing Emirates staff in Mumbai and Dubai was fairly easy, but INZ had to send an authorisation code to override the error that the airline was getting. After waiting an hour or so, INZ sent the code, and Shama was issued two boarding passes. Cleared to go, she was able to check her bags through to Auckland. For the first time, it looked like she was actually coming to New Zealand. Shama’s family said a final goodbye through the glass. It was about 2:00 a.m. when the Bhave family began their drive back to Pune in the dark. Hema prayerfully blessed her daughter, saying,
“God has answered. She is on her way home. May goodness and mercy follow her all the days of her life with Tim.”
Understandably, the Bhave family would have been dealing with a mixture of emotions.
For us, this was the closest to pure joy that we have experienced, reminiscent of another moment described in holy scripture.
Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing.
And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”
By 4:10 a.m., Shama had boarded the plane and texted us all for the last time from India. Her text read: Putting my phone in airplane mode!!
In spite of not having slept for days, she did not sleep during the three-hour flight, which landed at 6:00 a.m. in Dubai. We knew that both this arrival and the next departure were both in Terminal 3. Mentally, we accompanied her as she made her way towards the departure gate. In order to be really sure that she was in the right departure lounge, we asked her to look around and see if the other passengers were going to Auckland. From their accents, she felt that they were. After an hour of light banter, the WhatsApp messages suddenly became serious.
Shama: They’ve asked me to wait again.
Vishram: Now, what are they verifying?
Shama: Whether I can enter.
Vishram: Let us learn to trust HIM.
Why were they doing this check again? It was not clear whether Emirates Mumbai had not updated Emirates Dubai or whether it was a routine process of due diligence that had to be followed. While her documents were again scrutinised, Shama was not worried, although she was extremely tired; she had not slept for days. Soon she would have a 19-hour flight to sleep to her heart’s content.
About 8:00 a.m. Dubai time, she was cleared to fly. We praised the Lord.
But for all that the Lord had done, we spent the next hour worrying a little, because we had not heard from Shama after she boarded the aircraft. We could track the flight on line and see that the flight had departed, but was Shama on it? What if she had fallen down out of sheer tiredness, somewhere between the Emirates desk and the plane? My daughter Lydia begged me to contact Emirates and find out.
So I used the chat facility in the Emirates website to find out if Shama had boarded.
Agent Schubert: Passenger has already checked in for the flight. Flight has departed at 09:04 local time.
Myself: Does that mean that she is on the flight? Please forgive me if it is a stupid question.
Agent Schubert: If she would have not boarded the flight, ticket status would have been suspended. Current status is check-in
Although I felt as if I was communicating with a robot, I think ‘Agent Schubert’ was trying to say that Shama was safe on the flight. Hema was also relieved.
An hour after the flight’s departure, we could track the flight passing over the area round about Pune. Hema and Vishram said that they would wave to her. Maybe they actually did.
Six hours later, the plane landed in KL for refueling, and to our relief, Shama texted, “And I got a window seat!!,” oblivious to all that had transpired after her flight’s departure from Dubai.
After some more banter about being careful not to take any food out of the aircraft after landing in Auckland and also about the predicted turbulence, an hour later, the flight took off from KL. She was well on her way to us.
11 August 2021 Wednesday
We tracked the flight as it neared New Zealand and finally landed in Auckland.
She had had a comfortable flight and had managed to sleep a little. “Not a lot, but deeply,” was the way she put it.
Having been grilled by airline staff both in Mumbai and in Dubai about whether she could actually enter the country directly, we were certain that she would be properly questioned again at the actual border. Shama, though not unduly worried about it, was also expecting this to happen.
Customs was a breeze, according to her and this was what it was like:
Customs officer: Why are you here?
Shama: To get married.
Customs officer: Which country did you come from?
Customs officer: How come you came directly from India?
Shama: Immigration allowed me to. I have letters.
Customs officer (without even asking to see the letters): Hope you are able to get married soon!! All the best! Welcome to New Zealand. Easy peasy!
A bus transferred passengers from the airport to the MIQ facility in Novotel Hotel nearby, and Shama found herself on the 9th floor. It was for this MIQ space that we had spent sleepless weeks keeping vigil at our ‘Bethesda pool.’ It was this MIQ slot that Philip had snagged so unexpectedly hardly five days before. Our God does all things well, all the time. Sometimes it feels like this.
A last little note: Most of the time, God’s amazing ways are not obvious to us. In fact, for most of us, it is rarely so. Life’s turns can make God seem distant, but He always has His children’s back. Like the old Sunday-School song says: Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so.