Departures at Heathrow is a long goodbye.

Having spent months (or in my case years) planning a trip; several weeks thinking about packing before frantically throwing everything into a case 14 hours before I was due to be airborne; all the while still needing to find somewhere to convert sterling to rand, I arrived at the glass and steel buildings to complete the process of checking in.

I started trying to check in 24 hours before on the sofa with a cuppa and a hobnob. It did not go well. Before long, I became frustrated at the high minded piece of technology I was singularly failing to use. Bellowed ‘FUCK IT’, and decided to give up and deal with a human.

‘An ending was coming’

My partner TJ was kind enough to drive me to the airport. Things between us had been difficult. We knew there was an ending coming, but he was, and still is a good friend and unfailingly kind.

It was a relief to have him with me either way. Under the guise of the onward march of progress, more and more frequently, self-service machines are replacing the staff to whom I would normally turn for help. TJ however was one of the few techno-whisperers who could make the machines work the way they were supposed to. Together we printed off the luggage tags, walked to the desk and were finally able to engage in human interaction.

We were fortunate to be called to the desk of the one smiling person among a sea of hatchet faced employees who appeared to have long ago lost their passion for the work and seemed to be waiting for something, anything, to lift them from the monotony of the task before them. Or death.

It was explained to me that, though I was flying through to Durban, Johannesburg would be my point of entry and as such I would need to collect my bags and check them in again for my internal flight. All of which needed to happen during a 45 minute transfer window. I nodded to give the illusion of some vague understanding and backed away. Flying alone was going to be enough of a ball-ache without the additional stress of having 45 minutes to collect my bags, re-check them and board another plane…

‘The prospect of an 11 hour flight alone was doing little to settle my stomach.’

My parents joined us at the airport shortly after we had handed over my bags and, as is customary at any time our family gets together, we ate. An enormous pile of nachos was quickly demolished, though I only ate a little. The prospect of an 11 hour flight alone was doing little to settle my stomach.

We spoke about little things. Discussed adventures I would be having and then suddenly it was time to say goodbye and go through security.

Surprisingly, TJ’s hug was tightest of all. Usually my mother holds that honour. The woman can crack ribs. But this time he held me so tightly I didn’t think he would let go. Eventually he released me, just before oxygen deprivation began to take hold. I said my final goodbye’s and walked alone behind the metal screen to pass through security.

It hit me once I had passed through the metal detector and collected my hand luggage, phone and travel sweets from the x-ray machine what I was leaving behind.

Since we had been together I hadn’t been away from TJ for more than a few days. I had never flown on my own before. I had never done anything like this before.

Suddenly, I realised that this was not just a departure from the United Kingdom. It was, for me a departure from my routine. From my fears, doubts and insecurities and from my life as I had known and expected it to be.

‘I am here to help’

Ever since I was young, I have always been a caring sort. I have known I wanted to help people. In a similar way to more overtly religious types getting a ‘calling’, – I have always known that I am here to help.

In the past, I tried to look for a career in which I could make a difference. To be there for people when they need me or to support people in ways they will always remember. Even if they don’t remember me.

When I was much younger I wanted to be a nurse, though after I became HIV+ that idea had to be shelved. There were restrictions at that time on the medical roles people with HIV could perform.

‘The impact reverberating through my life…setting me along new paths’

That was the point at which so much changed. The impact reverberating through my life, dismantling futures I thought would be, and setting me along new paths. 

I fell back onto my back up idea, teaching. I started working in the classroom as a teaching assistant to get a feel for the job. It was great fun. I started out working in an infant school before moving to Hereford and working in a specialist unit for students with Autism.

While in that job I started HIV treatment which knocked me on my ass both physically and mentally.

I guess I’ve always known that, living in the UK, my healthcare provision is going to be great. Whenever I have been ill I have been very well looked after by the NHS and from time to time I find myself complacent about it.

I knew that when I had a bout of pneumonia a few years ago, I would be looked after. I know that I can get my HIV bloods tested every few months and be looked after with great care.

To remind myself how lucky I am, I decided years ago that I wanted to go and work with people with HIV in Africa.

Changing circumstances meant that my plans were temporarily put on hold for one reason, then another, then another until I realised that there would always be something. A reason for me not to go.

‘What better way to mark the decade’

If it was something I was genuinely keen on, I needed to pull my proverbial finger out and get a move on.

The timing for this pep talk from my inner monologue was perfect. August of 2016 was to be the 10 year anniversary of my HIV diagnosis. What better way to mark the decade than to go and celebrate it by looking after people who, by sheer accident of birth, didn’t have access to the brilliant healthcare provision of the UK.

Having found a charity who specialised in organising those sort of trips, I began looking at the projects they supported. I will admit, TJ had to physically remove me from the computer before I booked to spend a year looking after baby lions. That, he reminded me, was not the point. Lions have little interest in healthcare, unless they plan on eating a particularly well fed doctor.

‘But in the end…it was done’

It took a few days before I found the project of choice. Then it took another two months to find the confidence in myself to make the booking. But in the end, after roughly half a bottle of gin, it was done.

I would be going to Zululand on the Eastern coast of South Africa. The project was perfect, focused on rural healthcare and HIV and AIDS awareness.

I would be carrying out home based care and nutrition programmes; assisting with support groups; carrying out building and refurbishment work; running HIV education classes for adults and helping out in the local clinic.

Having spoken at length with the people responsible for running the projects, it seemed that actually having someone living with HIV working there would be a great benefit for them. To use me to show that people can go on, live and have a life even with HIV. 

So, there I was. About to begin a journey nearly six thousand miles from home just hoping to make a small difference and to remember how lucky I was.

‘What I was leaving behind’

It made me realise exactly what I was departing from and what I was leaving behind. The dissonance between what I expected my life to be and what it had actually become was palpable.

I shed an awful lot of my insecurity in that brief moment and walked on into the departure lounge.

I walked a few laps of the shops, but didn’t have long to wait before the gate was called. So I made my way down to wait to board the shiny plane which would bear me south.

My seat on board was next to woman in her late 70’s and we struck up an easy conversation. She had been born in South Africa, but her parents had moved to the UK when she was a baby. She had lived in a small English village until she was 30 before going back to live for the next 30 years in her parents home country.

‘Hatches, matches and dispatches’

At 60 she returned to the UK to live out her days only returning to South Africa now for what she eloquently described as the “hatches, matches and dispatches”.

I was informed however, that even that needed to be carefully managed. She told me of the hostility she had to deal with after turning down an invitation to an 80th birthday celebration.

The party for a cousin was declined with the line “It’s too much of a fuss to travel for a boring birthday party when I’m going to have to come back soon enough to bury him anyway”.

.Fortunately, this trip was for a match, the wedding of one of her nephews – “the favourite nephew in fact.”

I slept fitfully that night, the seat was not the most comfortable and there was a fair amount of turbulence. It did mean however that I was awake at dawn to watch the sun rise swiftly over South Africa.

A reddish blur far away became a glowing streak of light. It stretched out across the horizon, widening quickly to penetrate the deep dark blue of the night. It lightened to a deep burnt orange, tinged with pale yellow before the great orb of the sun appeared in the distance, illuminating the land below.

‘Time for breakfast’

This also meant that it was time for breakfast. Not usually a meal I view with trepidation. However an airline breakfast is unfortunately not a highlight of my culinary experiences.

This offering included a sausage made, I can only assume, from old, worn aircraft tyres. That would have been the worst part. However there was also an egg the like of which has never been seen in nature and which was surely nothing created under God. Or chicken for that matter.

Breakfast was served with such alacrity for five am, I had brief cause to wonder what the hell was powering the cabin crew. However, while on my way to the toilet I spotted a pot with a peeling label that read ‘Stewards Coffee’. I didn’t get close enough to examine it, but the smell emanating from the pot was a heady mix of something like espresso and a decent glug of jet fuel.

Shortly after my breakfast had settled, we began our descent before finally landing at Johannesburg airport.

I got off the plane and made my way to baggage reclaim to get my bags and recheck them, all within my 45 minute transfer window.

Owing to the generosity of my friends and colleagues who had been donating children’s clothes and medical supplies I had three bags. Two crammed full of donations and one with my own clothes and kit.

After a short wait, two out of three bags arrived and I began to wait for the third.

‘It will get here in the end’

Time passed, but it soon became clear that the third bag was not going to arrive. Time was running short. I needed to get to the other end of the airport to get my next flight.

I walked to Baggage Queries and asked the guy there “What do I do if my third bag doesn’t turn up?”

He looked at me for a moment before responding “It will get here in the end, or it may have gone straight to Durban. Either way, – you’ll get it eventually”.

In another time, another place, I may have panicked. But something about this man, his chilled out approach to ‘South African time and urgency’ made me smile. I simply said “thank you”, reconciling myself in an instant to the fact that one of my bags may well be lost for ever and began a sprint through the airport, two bags in hand.

‘I felt relaxed. It was new’

It wasn’t until I was in the air again, flying to Durban over valleys and plains that I realised how calm I was. I had to check myself to make sure, but I genuinely felt relaxed. It was new.

I thought how some years, maybe even months before, the loss of a bag would have been a major cause for concern. I would have entered a tailspin. My confidence and emotional resilience would have collapsed and yet, there I was, at 35,000 ft quite content. It confused me.

We landed at Durban after a short flight and I headed once again to a carousel expecting a bit of a wait. But no sooner had I arrived than one, two and then three of my bags appeared.

It would be churlish to deny I was relived but, to be honest, I hadn’t gone through any noticeable angst beforehand.

I left the airport and was greeted by another volunteer before we made our way to the car.

I settled in, ready for the long drive to St Lucia and the volunteer house, already aware that I was very far from where I started.