Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Long Way To Panama

Two weeks ago, I completely physically exhausted myself Sunday night by working out, going for a long run and playing hockey then staying up until 2am when it was time to take the 45 minute drive from Orangeville to Pearson Airport in Toronto. My thinking was that when I got on the plane, I would have no problem sleeping and would be refreshed upon arrival and all ready to make the best of my vacation.

We arrived at 3am and were in the process of getting our boarding passes. That's when I learned that my passport would expire in just less than 90 days. That's when I learned that access to Panama is denied if a passport is within less than 90 days of expiry.

All the emotions took their turns as we waited for a representative from Air Transat to try and get through to the Panamanian embassy to plead for an exception to the rule. Shear panic, disbelief and anger were fairly predominant. Hope and faith were able to keep a presence throughout, as well.

At 6am, I was faced with my only option. My bride-to-be and the rest of our 28 guests would have to go on without me while I sorted things out. I reserved a flight with Continental Airlines that would leave at 2pm and via Newark, New Jersey, would arrive in Panama at around 9pm. That gave me a small window in which to work magic and make my wedding happen.

I left the airport and headed to the closest passport office which was just a short drive away in Mississauga. The office opened at 7:45am and I tried to be one of the first in the door. I was in front of an agent quite quickly but found out there was no such thing as getting an extension to my passport and that I would have to go through the process of renewal.

My next step was to fill out the forms and head to the earliest opening passport photo office available. The closest was just around the corner from the passport office but it didn't open until 10am. I immediately called CAA and asked where their closest office was, knowing that all of them offer passport photos. It turns out that it was just on the other side of downtown Mississauga and it opened at 9am.

As soon as the lock was turned over on the front door of the CAA office, I was inside pleading for the fastest possible photos. It took less than 10 minutes and I was back driving in the direction of the passport office.

The next road block reared its ugly head. I needed to have something in print that I was indeed to be on a flight at 2pm. I was able to get ahold of Continental but because I hadn't actually paid for my ticket, but had just reserved a seat, they couldn't fax anything over. I quickly put $525 on the line, knowing there would be a good chance of losing it if the passport process dragged on and didn't allow me to get to the airport in time.

Nevertheless, the fax came through and I was on to the next step: waiting in line with what seemed like hundreds of other customers. Whatever system they used, my number seemed to come up before many others before me. I stood at the counter at 10:30am, where I was met by a disgruntled and over-worked employee who had seen her fair share of emergency applicants already that morning. I put on my best puppy-dog face and pleaded for her mercy. She seemed to fall for it and went about the process. She soon informed me that my case had been approved and it was possible to have the passport ready by 11:30. She stressed that it wasn't a sure thing and to, under absolutely no circumstances, bother anyone at the pickup window until after 11:30.

I went into the adjacent mall and realizing that I hadn't eaten since the night before, grabbed a veggie sub at Subway. In line in front of me was the gentleman from the pickup window at the passport office. Out of all the cases that he'd already seen that morning, when he saw me, he took the time to assure me that all would be good and that I would see the passport by 11:30.

I went back up to the office, making sure not to go to the pickup window until 11:35, so as to not step on any one's toes. I was met by the same guy that was in Subway. He spotted me above the crowd and took it upon himself to let me know as soon as it was ready. Not 10 minutes later, my name was being yelled above the constant chatter of the crowd. He had the passport! I thanked him profusely then briskly walked out the door, only breaking into a sprint when I got to the parking lot.

I still had plenty of time and things were looking very good. Then... I ran into construction. The 4 lanes of Hurontario Street, the main artery that would take me to the freeway that would take me back to the airport, were cut down to one. I calmly used brute force and got through the mess in a relatively short period of time.

I soon found myself back at the Park N' Fly lot where I'd parked originally 9 hours before. Oddly, I ended up in almost the same parking spot. As I was leaving the parking lot, alone in a bus except for a family that looked they were on their way to a vacation as well, I realized I'd left my lifeline in the car. Luckily, the driver immediately did a U-turn and I soon had my cell phone in my pocket. Without it, no one in Panama would have a clue about my progress and I would have no idea what arrangements I would need to make upon arrival. Once I told the family my story, they were more than sympathetic. They also checked their passports for expiry dates.

In line at the Continental ticket counter, I was overwhelmed with joy. I'd accomplished the impossible and it felt awesome. There was suddenly nothing I couldn't do. Well, except, according to the ticket agent, make the connection in Newark. There would only be an hour and that was if there were no delays. Apparently, Continental isn't treated well in Toronto and their planes are often bumped down the line in favour of other airlines. I had no choice. I had to try.

The flight crew on the little propeller plane was incredibly friendly. The view was even better. New York City is one of my most favourite places in the world and the view of Manhattan couldn't have been better on our approach to Newark. Even better, we were half an hour ahead of schedule.

It was pretty anti-climatic after that. I easily made the connection and was on-board a 737 to Panama City. I received a text while in Newark that the resort was providing a personal shuttle from the airport free of charge and that the driver would be waiting for me at the gate with a sign with my name on it. I arrived without problems, found my driver and was at the resort with beers in hand by midnight. In the end, I was only a few hours behind the rest of the group.

The whole experience was exhilarating. I've never in my life felt the range of emotions and the pretty much constant rush of adrenaline. I now know that there is nothing that I can't do.

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