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Getting local home is like a blockbuster

A Paarl mother’s plight to rescue her 24-year-old son led to a huge effort involving key contacts available via Skål International’s global reach, embassies across three continents, an ambulance-getaway vehicle and a one-way flight of 27 hours over 22 000 km, flown over three days, quite literally halfway round the world.

Earlier this year John de Villiers was enrolled at the Explore Asia Academy in Hua Hin, Thailand to complete a TESOL course with the idea that he could teach English while completing his online BCom degree.

It was with much excitement and anticipation that the De Villiers family went to Hua Hin to visit the academy and make sure their operations were as legitimate as they looked, said mom Nicki.

Later, they were informed John would be placed in Myanmar to teach English. Filled with enthusiasm he flew to Yangon, the country’s capital, from Thailand.

John was sent to a school in Mawlamyine, a six hour bus journey from Yangon.

With Covid-19 becoming more prevalent, the family continuously quizzed John on the status of the virus in the country. Initially the school continued operating, but there were fewer pupils. Some overseas teachers had already left, and later the school was shut down altogether. Only John and two teachers remained.

With South Africa announcing on 23 March it was going into fifth-level lockdown, Nicki requested assistance from the South African embassy in Bangkok in the repatriation of her son.

In Myanmar there was local mistrust and fear that foreigners were spreading the coronavirus, and the teachers were becoming increasingly isolated and shunned by all locals. In the end, the school principal moved them to Thanbyuzayat, 64 km south, where there was no Covid-19.

“The need to get John out of Myanmar was becoming increasingly urgent,” Nicki recalled. “I was uncomfortable and I noticed he had started sounding less optimistic during our calls. Often when I called him the township he was staying in was in the throes of a power failure for hours on end.”

After days, weeks and months of endless phone calls and email exchanges getting John home looked impossible until a chance conversation showed a possible way forward.

A friend suggested making contact with a mutual one, Reni Hildenbrand, owner of Hildenbrand Wine & Olive Estate in Wellington. She knew a Bangkok Skål member. Skål is a worldwide organisation promoting global tourism and friendship. And so a complex plan of repatriation began.

In Myanmar the country was becoming increasingly locked down, internal movements from one province to the next were almost impossible, with ever increasing reams of paperwork required by the authorities. Getting John to Yangon without delay was a key step.

With no direct flights to South Africa and all borders to neighbouring countries closed, the only way out was via the international airport in Myanmar’s capital.

With the help of all concerned, and in particularly Nicki, arrangements were finally made after much work to fly John out via Korea, and then on to Amsterdam.

“Eventually there was hope and I had faith,” Nicki said.

But the trick was getting John to Yangon. Due to new legislation no taxis or buses were permitted to drive to Yangon due to the lockdown.

John was also told a town between Thanbyuzayat and Yangon had gone into lockdown, and he would need to go into quarantine for five days to get through there to Yangon.

But with help from various parties John first had to go for a Covid-19 test and remain in quarantine until the results came back. When it came back negative a vital part of the paperwork trail was completed. Now things moved fast, said Nicki.

They would first take a taxi before changing vehicles to an ambulance. Its purpose was to increase the chances of getting him through the quarantine roadblocks so he could reach his flight on time!

Everything fell into place.

The confident former military driver bluffed his way in the ambulance and was not stopped, and was allowed safe passage with his “sick” patient without delay.

Eventually John reached Yangon just in time to fly out to Seoul on 21 September, then to Amsterdam. He arrived to an ecstatic welcome from his mother and sister Kay on 23 September.

Once home, John couldn’t wait to have a swim in the pool and eat braaivleis!

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