It's the call we all dread - a loved one has been hospitalised overseas.
My mother, who I thought was on tour in Canada, was actually in hospital in Hong Kong. My sister was unsure of her condition but thought she had a damaged leg. I rang the Australian Consulate in Hong Kong. They were aware of the incident but would not divulge any information for privacy reasons.
It was quicker to catch the afternoon flight to Singapore, stay overnight and then fly on to Hong Kong. On the internet, I booked my flights and a hotel in Hong Kong and requested a room in the Transit Hotel at Singapore airport. I also booked myself a changeable one-way ticket from Hong Kong to Perth direct.
The consulate confirmed that my mother was in hospital, was physically well, but had become confused after her flight from Perth, left the airport terminal and missed her connection to Vancouver. She had been found by somebody who had handed her over to the police. She had no passport, money or baggage and had probably been robbed.
As my mother was only in transit in Hong Kong, her suitcase would have been checked through to Canada. When she hadn't boarded the onward flight it was offloaded. I had a description of the case and, on my arrival in Hong Kong, I gave that and my mother's flight details to the staff at Cathay Pacific's baggage desk. After animated discussion, frantic computer work and a couple of phone calls the case was given to me.
I decided to take a taxi rather than the MRT to the hospital where the ward sister told me there was nothing physically wrong with my mother and she did not need to be in hospital. I took mother back to the hotel where we were told that the only available room was on a different floor to mine, so I parked my mother in my room and went to find alternative accommodation. We did get the hotel handyman to bolt cut the lock on my mother's case as the keys had been in her stolen handbag.
I booked rooms at the Holiday Inn Golden Mile and used my laptop and phone to communicate with the insurance company's emergency assistance centre in London. They wanted information from the Hong Kong hospital and my mother's medical history from her GP. They told me not to leave Hong Kong without their approval. I called Perth to initiate transfer of medical records and rang the consulate for a new passport and got the hotel's reception staff to fax hospital papers to London.
The next day, we used the Star Ferry to get to the consulate. We were there for over four hours. The staff explained the processes they had gone through, including liaison with the local police and more pieces of the jigsaw fell into place. We were told to return on Wednesday to collect the temporary passport. I bought my mother a ticket to Perth and changed mine. When I got back to the hotel there was a message from the consulate to say that the passport would be available in the morning. The insurance company was still waiting for paperwork, so we could not leave, but it came through overnight and next morning we got the all-clear.
We collected the passport and brought out flight forward a day. I amended our hotel booking for the third time. I could now pause for breath and we spent our free afternoon on a harbour tour.
Next day at the airport, my fears that passport control would have questions proved well-founded. The man at the desk quickly flicked us to his supervisor. Fortunately I had kept the police report at hand and the lady was soon satisfied. The flight itself was uneventful. It was a great relief to see friendly faces as we stepped out into the arrival hall.
• Always travel with insurance and check that your policy covers repatriation and the expenses of those who might have to travel to "rescue" you.
• Don't travel with large amounts of cash. Use a cash passport or similar facility available from banks and currency exchange companies.
• Carry any cash and credit cards in a hidden money pouch on your body.
• Carry a copy of your passport details and a couple of home contact phone numbers in that pouch.
• If you do get into trouble, contact the local police and nearest Australian consulate as soon as possible. Keep a copy of any paperwork.
• Be patient. Sorting out problems takes time.
I could now pause for breath and we spent our free afternoon on a tour.