Mission Impossible 6 – 11 Oct 2020
When your plans are completely thrown to the wind, destroyed, what do you do? Join us on one adventure where God opened up incredible doors. Like the signature TV story turned movie "mission impossible", can you find the instruction tape, that lets you know that God has a special mission for you? It might not be the entire plan, but you find undeniable marks of God's way ahead amidst the confusion. I am increasingly discovering that when my plans are destroyed, that this is God's way of grabbing my attention to let me know that He has a special plan that goes beyond mine.
This story began when we went to the Erbil Iraq airport to fly out from our Sep 2020 trip. As we went to the airport on 6 October to fly out, we were rejoicing in all the ways God had opened amazing doors during our trip. But more were about to come: prior to getting to the check-in counter, the airline had an individual asking us about our Covid tests, to which we indicated we had had our testing done prior to coming to meet Iraq's entry requirements. However, the agent was asking for new tests to travel now, a complete surprise to us since the United States was not requiring this for returning US citizens, and the only emails we had received from the airline in the weeks prior to departure were offers to upgrade to business class! Sadly, despite the lack of communication of the airlines testing requirements, and no requirement by the US, we were denied boarding, and our return was now thrown into utter chaos.
Over the course of the day, possible paths ahead surfaced: (1) rebooking with the airlines at no cost would mean leaving at the end of the month (2) a flight search "error" revealed that Turkish Airline had flown from Erbil the preceding Saturday, and that we could fly out in two days back to El Paso for less than $1,000 a person; we would get flight credit toward a future trip with the other airline for our missed flight. We proceeded down path "2", and started to get ready for the new flight home.
However, less than a day after booking our flight with Turkish Air, we received notice that this flight had been cancelled, and we needed to rebook! Rather than spending 45 minutes on the phone like with our intended airline, we took a taxi ride to the Turkish Air Office in Erbil to find out what was happening. Upon arrival, the TA agent revealed that the recent flight from Erbil was a fluke, and that tensions between the two countries was high enough that although they continued to list flights out of Erbil three times a week, none were likely to fly. He then revealed a path (3) for us: take a bus to Eastern Turkey, and then take TA flights from there back to El Paso at no additional charges for the flights booked the day before. Interestingly, when trying to find the TA office, we had discovered the International Bus Terminal for Erbil ... so all the pieces of the puzzle appeared to be falling together. Traveling to the Bus Terminal, we confirmed a bus that could get us to the Eastern Turkish airport, Returning to the TA airlines office, we booked our return flight to E Paso from Eastern Turkey, and then returned to pack and begin our travels back.
Two days later, we arrived at the bus terminal, boarded, and began what would be a long, amazing 58 hour trip home. While heading to the Turkish border, fellow travelers asked us whether we had Turkish Visas? Our bus booking agent had told us we didn't need anything to travel to the airport. And yet I could see on the phones of all our fellow passengers that they had electronic visas. Going to the website was an exercise of persistence: interrupted web connections, the need for our credit cards to confirm our identity all resulted in entering our information to get a visa not once, not twice, not three times, but five times! But after five times, and nearly an hour of trying, we finally had Turkish Travel Visas, not sure whether we would need them, but prepared none the less.
Arriving at the Turkish Border and crossing over turned out to be a nearly four hour activity (with no access to bathrooms!) Our luggage was inspected not once, but three times. Strangely, the passenger that alerted us to the Turkish Visa's was not allowed to exit Iraq due to passport issues. Midway through, they had all personnel go to a line to see our passports. Karla and I were at the back of the line, yet were pulled out of it to have our Passport review expedited. But we didn't get pulled to the head of the line the bus passengers were all in, but rather found ourselves being taken to the adjacent Turkish Police Station! My one consolation that we weren't being singled out as American's as we entered the Police Station was that our special passport review party included another passenger from Germany.
Inside the Police Station, the officers asked us for our travel passes. I quickly pulled up our visas that we had gotten the hour before the border, and was relieved to find out that this was exactly what they needed! I was also now especially relieved to have them, as I remembered how long it took on the bus to get them, and I am not sure the Turkish Police nor the bus would have had patience and understanding if we had had to scramble to get visas for an hour at the border itself.
Thanking God, we bordered the bus to travel to the Turkish airport. As we travelled the 190 miles distance there, we found the bus being stopped roughly a half dozen times to be inspected by the Turkish Police. Almost always when they boarded the bus, they showed no interest in us Americans sitting at the front. Rather their focus was on the Iraqi passengers, and Karla recalls two of them being taken off not to board the bus again. However, at one extended inspection site, while waiting and enjoying coffee served by the bus team, I suddenly found myself being asked by the driver to follow him. Following him off the bus, I circled around to the far side of the bus to find the Turkish police having pulled out two of our bags. These bags were soft rolling duffle bags, with US military camouflage, having been purchased at discount when in Saudi. The Turkish guards began asking me who I was; noting their interest in the military-styled bags, I disclosed that I was a retired US Army physician (something I usually don't do here). They then asked what I had been doing in Iraq, to which I let them know that my wife and I help the refugees, often traveling to distances far away from cities. Turning to the bags, they then asked to inspect them. I gave eager permission to them, wondering what I had packed in these bags and what additional conversations our field gear could spark. To my delight, as they opened the first bag, they came across five Turkish Coffee sets! Seeing these, they asked whether I liked Turkish Coffee, and was able to wholeheartedly let them know that not only did I enjoy it, but I was bringing many sets back to America as gifts. With this discovery, they were content to end their inspection, close the bag up and move both onto the bus. When I got home, I discovered that whereas the bag they opened up had the Turkish coffee sets, the other had our field medical gear prominently displayed. God was so good!
Finally arriving at the airport at
1 AM, a group of a half dozen passengers got off to await flights later that
morning. Our flight wasn't until past 10 AM. We all tried to lie down on the
airport furniture to grab some sleep.
Whereas I was able to steal a few hours of restless sleep until the
airport began opening at 6 AM, I later found out over breakfast with Karla and
another traveler that Karla wasn't able to sleep and ended up having long
detailed talks with this traveler. He
was very interested in learning more about the Bible and Jesus, as all of the
members in his band were Christians, but he had grown up in Islam. Karla patiently, sensitively listened to and
answered his many questions. As we all
later boarded our flights, our new found friend and fellow traveler commented
that he was so glad that our flights from Erbil had been cancelled and that he
got to spend time with both of us learning about Jesus.
Traveling on to Istanbul, where our flight to America was to depart, I set out to find a coffee shop while we waited the four hours for our flight. Returning to Karla with our first Starbucks in over a month, plus some Starbucks food treats, I found Karla deep in talk with a nurse from Ghana. She was interested in what and why we were doing things, and doors opened to share the Good News that the Gospel of Jesus brings. Our Starbucks treats were shared between all three, and again Karla and I were amazed at how God had opened up opportunities to heartfully share the hope that Christ brings.
The rest of our trip was "smooth sailings", with no eventful developments, resulting in us entering our house nearly sixty hours after we had left our Guest House in Iraq. A long journey, yet a precious one! An unexpected way home, yet one where God had planned out for us special precious touch points. Had we flown out as expected, none of this would have happened.
And oh yes ... while the rest of the trip was smooth sailing, we discovered the morning after we awoke in El Paso that our Shetland Collie had found our Backlava treats that we had brought back for friends and enjoyed them while we rested. 😊