Ten years ago, a year into my life in the UK, I stepped off a plane unto British soil again, after my first visit home since moving to England. The plan was to make the trip to Nigeria an annual thing either for summer or Christmas. The plan never panned out. Two years later, April 18th, 2010, I was in a car accident and life as I knew it changed forever.
I spent 6 months in hospital and in that time my passport expired. I was stuck in the UK. Not that travelling anywhere would’ve been feasible in my state at the time. The logistics of flying to another country while in need of 24hr specialist care and being wheelchair bound were more than I could handle. “Why not just get a new passport Ify?” you’re thinking. Well it turned out that process had now become a bit more complicated and daunting since the accident. It required an appointment at the Nigerian High Commission, in London, a building notorious for its lack of accessibility (and that’s without considering wheelchair access); on average a two hour wait in line, a biometric scan and a minimum two week wait for a possible response afterwards. (I know people who’ve waited four months or more). Well aware that the logistics of all this could be hampered at any stage by my condition, it’s safe to say I wasn’t too keen on going through the whole process.
But a few years down the line, now a lot more stable and a little more homesick, not having a passport began to be a hindrance. One that got worse with time the longer I went unable to cross British borders. That is until I began volunteering at James Cook Hospital. There I became friends with the head of department, a friend who suggested I might enjoy a trip to the south of France for a week long catholic pilgrimage. My response, through muffled giggles?: “I’d love to come but I’m not catholic, and I don’t even know the full logistics of travelling with the care I need and”, you guessed it, “I have no passport”. Her response: “Challenge Accepted!”. Well not in those exact words but she was determined to help me take on every obstacle listed above. And we did. Hashtag “GETIFYTOLOURDES” was born.
Firstly, the issue of not being catholic: not an issue. Travel plans and health care: all sorted and provided for the duration of the trip by the Middlesbrough Catholic Diocese (who organise the pilgrimage) and other fellow pilgrims. So then, the big one: getting my passport renewed. I needed a trained healthcare professional with me to and from the High Commission as well as (and this was the bold part of the plan) help getting up and down the stairs at the Nigerian High Commission. Well! I had five people accompany me that day, four of which were qualified nurses, all willing to literally lift me up and down the stairs if needed. This bunch was prepared for the worst. So, we booked a train, made the appointment and on the 30th of January, for the first time in eight years, I hopped on a train to London.
To everyone’s surprise the whole day went without a hitch… well none we couldn’t easily tackle. Train ride was smooth; taxi from the station to the High Commission was actually very easy to get me and my chair into; and the biggest surprise of all, the High Commission itself. I was allowed through an entrance with hardly any stairs; got fast tracked passed the queues (literally shaving off at least a couple hours) and then instead of having to come back in two weeks or more, to pick it up, we somehow had the freaking High Commissioner himself to physically come downstairs and sign off the paperwork. I was given a brand new passport, hot off the presses there and then. I don’t know if that’s standard procedure for others in similar conditions or they just wanted to get rid of our “entourage” congesting the corridor. But I wasn’t waiting to find out. We hightailed it outta there before they changed their minds. Now with passport in hand and time to spare we ended up celebrating with a meal and a few drinks. I even had time to meet up with my Aunt Louisa and catchup.
Everyone was so gobsmacked and delighted with how hassle free it all turned out, we lost track of time, had to sprint across London (That was a weird experience. It was like Fast and Furious… but in a wheelchair… and no Vin Diesel), finally got to Kings Cross Station… and then…
…missed our train back up north.
But I didn’t care. I’d needed a new passport since 2010, and I now had one. I’d taken the first major step towards hopefully visiting home again. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First things first, Lourdes.
Part one of #GETIFYTOLOURDES was out the way. Now, the fun part began.