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  • Writer's pictureEd

A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first Covid test

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

Having settled on the concept of Cape Verde we found ourselves being carried along on a tide of preparedness. A simple email and Katherine had applied for a two year career break from the NHS. A tentative inquiry to a local estate agent and the house was on the market. In late July when flights from London to Boa Vista dropped into our inbox with one-way on the ticket, we both looked at each other slightly nervously. What on earth were we doing?

Mobile screenshot of a one way airline ticket from London to Praia

Everything, beyond the sand and fish in Cape Verde is imported - much of it subsidised by Portugal including the beer (Sagres and Superbock) - fresh fruit comes from Senegal and Niger, whilst the Canaries contribute other essentials. During August we got to know the delivery drivers on first name terms as packages arrived almost daily in readiness. Clothes for the boys for a year, beachwear, fishing rods, wetsuits, spearguns, toiletries – and our favourite purchase a bimini which happened to be called Lisboa. Preparations around the house increased apace – the loft was boarded in early September and surprisingly quickly our lives moved into a series of neatly organised storage boxes. Katherine built up a slush fund selling stuff on Gumtree and we became regulars at the local charity shops. Spring clean on overdrive.

Cathartic feelings grew as core pieces of life admin were ticked off. Wills were drawn up, powers of attorney issued, our romantic civil partnership was thwarted by Covid-19 and Lewisham’s registry office. Vaccinations tick. Dentist tick. Global health policy tick. Zeb’s passport had to be renewed and was lost in the post for 3 weeks, adding a frisson of unnecessary excitement.

By early September we were increasingly concerned about our ability to get out of the UK, then as if by premonition our flights to Boa Vista were cancelled by TAP. Since March the borders to Cape Verde had remained closed to 'all but essential' travel.

"We’ve never felt ourselves essential but now we needed to be."

My two-year career break from the NHS was approved to start on 31st October, Ed now insisted I take all my annual leave to bring my final day in clinic forward to 07 October. Whilst I was writing the email to my line manager, he was back on the TAP website booking another set of flights on Sunday 11th October, from London via Lisbon to the capital Praia. From there we would have to take one of the infrequent inter-island flight to Boa Vista. We frantically set about making ourselves essential. With no embassy in London, consuls in Brussels and the Netherlands were contacted to no avail. The FCO’s man in Cape Verde was equally pessimistic about our prospects as the nation remained in a ‘state of calamity’. Having lived on the island of Sal for a year in 2000 Ed tapped up contacts who were able to help with documentation, letters of work and the all-important stamp. Pre-visas were obtained online and our apartment secured with 3 months of rent.

Zeb and Oz meanwhile remained blissfully unaware of the uncertainty pervading our lives. Both boys had been attending a new nursery together since late June and had formed a really tight relationship. We decided to not send Zeb to Beecroft, the primary school we’d been looking forward to him joining since moving to Brockley in 2016. It seemed unfair to split the boys, unsettle him and deprive another family of a place. The school called us several times to clarify that he wouldn’t be joining, each time making us question, were we doing the right thing?

As we raced towards October, Ed who had nonchalantly assumed we could pack up the house in a couple of weeks was now complimenting me on my foresight to start the process at the beginning of September as the loft continued to fill but the house felt no less empty. We secured a lovely family two roads away with a two year old and expecting their second baby in the spring - the perfect custodians of our family home.

Family sitting on steps outside family house
Saying goodbye to Braxfield Road - our family home of 5 years

It’s never going to be easy moving away from family and friends - a palpable sense of guilt tempers any excitement. Looking at Zeb and Oz though, we are reassured knowing we would only ever do something if it was ultimately in their best interests and this helps dampen the pangs of guilt. A trip to Norfolk and a final weekend spent enjoying the delightful Bailiffscourt Hotel and Spa with Granny and Grandad was an apt finale.

After 20 years with the same employer, suddenly I had three days of work remaining. My cluster bid me farewell via video call poignantly changing their backgrounds to pictures of their favourite beaches. Ed continued on his project management frenzy with decorators, electricians and other tradesmen, a quick trip on the Friday to a storage unit and the house was empty. After waving goodbye to the only home they have known since birth, the boys were shipped off to Granny and Grandad’s whilst we sat anxiously by our phones awaiting the results of our pre-flight Covid tests. What would normally be an exciting climax was wrought with anxiety. Would we be denied boarding in London? Would our paperwork stand up to scrutiny on arrival in Praia? Even if the covid test results came through in time would they be acceptable in Cape Verde for entry and onward travel between the islands? But we were all in, it was too late now. We had some contingencies and had agreed if denied entry to Cape Verde, we’d head straight to Dakar in Senegal and from thence on to Casamance where we would formulate a plan. Returning would be to accept defeat and was just not an option.

"Success is the journey, not the destination"

Ed took a separate taxi to the airport with 12 bags, whilst I travelled with the boys and Granny and Grandad. Check-in took 3 hours whilst documents were scrutinized, the airline insisting we purchased a return flight prior to boarding. Tensions rose as Ed sparked a firearms incident - armed police were called to confiscate his newly purchased spear gun much to his chagrin and Zeb's excitement. We passed through security to a deserted Terminal 2 and at 6.45pm boarded the Airbus A320 for the short hop to Lisbon. As far as the boys were concerned they were on a plane, it didn’t matter where we were going, this was adventure. We transited Lisbon sporting our Smugs and continued our flight south towards the equator. The boys slept. We worried. Would we choose the right frontier official? Would they be sympathetic to a young travelling family late at night? Would they just want to get home after a long shift? Would our Covid tests be accepted? Was our reason for travel essential? Did our supporting documentation stack up?

Exactly on time at 0055 we landed on the tarmac at Nelson Mandela International Airport in Praia. The butterflies in our stomach were most definitely not excitement. The doors to the plane opened and we were greeted by the familiarity of a 27 degree night in the tropics – the sort which envelops you threatening to suffocate with the first breath. We carried two exhausted boys down the steps to our future, which would be decided in a few short minutes by a frontier guard who was... unexpectedly friendly. Temperatures were taken, face masks donned and hands sanitized as we were ushered to the front of the queue. People behind us became impatient as the border official meticulously examined our documents. Each Covid certificate was cross referenced to passports and time-stamps to ensure the 72-hour validity period, translations were called for, letters of work were scrutinized, bank statements checked, pre-visas reviewed, previous visits to Cape Verde discussed. Finally, just after 0130 on Monday 12th October the official reached beneath the counter and we heard the deeply satisfying 'clickety click' as he drew ink from his pad and stamped each passport. Making this very tired family of four from Brockley - essential.

We reached Pestana Tropico hotel just after 2am local time. After extolling the virtues of small international airports, we collapsed into our beds with the hum of ceiling fans quickly sending the boys back to sleep. A few hours later we awoke in a darkened unfamiliar room and it took a few seconds to realise we were in Cape Verde. The 60 room hotel had 6 rooms occupied, we were the only foreigners. Breakfast was next to a palm tree with the boys sipping tutti frutti - their favourite fresh juice drink from Christmas. We had the hotel pool to ourselves to freshen up before reclaiming our bags from reception and heading back to the airport for a midday flight to Boa Vista.

As we off-loaded the bags to three trolleys at Nelson Mandela International, Ed realized one was missing - nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t in the aluguer (taxi). The hotel were called and were adamant it wasn’t in reception. Ed was dogmatic - insisting he’d seen it off the plane to the hotel. The apologetic aluguer driver suggested we might check lost and found, as Ed conducted a mental audit of what might have been in the bag. The kids clothes for a year? His prized windsurfing gear? Fishing tackle? Flip flops? An entire Sainsburys shop?

"I think it was the prospect of no Marmite and Patak’s Rogan Josh which sent him over the edge."

As he continued berating people I nipped down to lost and found with the boys and returned a couple of minutes later with said ‘stolen’ bag. It’s not often I see Ed meek and apologetic.

Check in for our inter-island flight was no less stressful. The airline TICV operates small twin prop aircraft and has very strict rules on baggage which Ed confirmed by email and meticulous use of his latest gadget - digital scales. Unfortunately TICV do not pool the baggage allowance and Ed’s much used ruse of filling buggy bags with toiletries and other sundries was not going to pay dividends here. 12 carefully weighed and checked bags, 1 stubborn check-in clerk, a bruised ego and an excess baggage charge which was more than the flights themselves - and we finally embarked upon the last segment of our journey – the short 20 minute hop to Boa Vista. The fact that the 68 seater aircraft was virtually empty (8 passengers) did little to make Ed feel better about the credit card bill.

Just after 1pm local time, we landed on Boa Vista. Normally the half dozen parking spots on the small dusty apron are full of charter flights from Europe. Today, we were the first and only flight into the airport and there wouldn’t be another for 3 days. As we walked into the empty terminal we smiled at each other, almost crying - and breathed a huge sigh of tropical air relief. Finally we had arrived at our destination - and at the start of our journey.


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