NATAL, Brazil – Twenty-four hours ago, I was in Georgetown, Guyana.
Trust me, I’m just as surprised as you are to be uttering those words. Don’t worry, I’ll catch you up in a moment.
Originally we – Anah; my best friend from high school, Landon, who currently lives in Los Angeles (no, not that Landon); and I – were scheduled to depart Saturday evening on "AO Force 2": the second of the two American Outlaws charter planes. “AO Force One” had left the night before bound for Natal and without any hiccups we were to follow right after.
Until we were informed that the original “AO Force Two” was experiencing “mechanical troubles” and was going to be grounded in Houston. The point of charter planes, of course, is to avoid headaches, but ever since the package was announced nearly two years ago, headaches is all that AO leaders Korey Donahoo and Justin Brunken (full disclosure: two very good friends of mine) had experienced.
Rather than a wake-up call from the front desk of our Houston hotel, my phone was blowing up with texts from Donahoo and Brunken with this unexpected turn of events.
“No worries,” the charter company assured us. “Another plane is on its way. You’ll all make it to Natal on time. Oh. Except for one thing … the new plane is a little smaller. You’ll have to find about 15 people to step off the plane and we’ll find a way to get you to Natal later.”
In other words, AO needed 15 volunteers who were willing to take a chance on a different itinerary.
Of course, there was still the chance that the original itinerary, the new, smaller “AO Force Two,” wouldn't hold. But it did. Without any further hitches the second plane took off.
I know because I watched it go.
Yes, Anah and I were one of the 14 that stayed behind. Actually, stepping off the plane to help AO was a no-brainer for us. Donahoo, Brunken & Co. have not only worked tirelessly to make American Outlaws the largest US supporters group, but also are friends. If sidetracking one’s own dream to get to the World Cup wasn’t apart of being friends then what was the point of friendship anyways?
To pass the time in Houston and distract ourselves from the mounting list of unknowns, “the AO 14” – every good adventure needs a good nickname – coined a game called “AOmazing Race.” We’re on Twitter at @AOmazingRace, with the objective of awarding made up points for the journey ahead.
Meanwhile, the charter company was scrambling. The first info we got was that the trip to Natal was going to require some zigzagging: Houston to Miami to Trinidad to Guyana, and finally to Natal. At least that was the first plan.
The schedule would put us in Guyana – yes, the land of Jim Jones – less than 24 hours before the Ghana match. This was cutting it close, but it seemed like enough time. Oh, but wait: Turns out there is no flight service from Georgetown to Natal. So, it turns out, the president of the charter company was going to have his personal plane pick us up in Guyana and whisk us to Natal.
Whoa. Full-on damage control.
But then, we learned about plan B. It was a simplified itinerary. Miami and Guyana were out. Now we would fly from Houston to Trinidad, where the private jet – our winged chariot – would meet us for the final leg of the journey. This itinerary had us arriving just 12 hours before the AO pregame tailgate. It all sounded too good to be true.
Which, of course, it was.
We landed in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, with visions of luxury travel in our heads. How stocked will the private jet's mini-bar be? Can we start a dance party?
I made it through immigration before the rest of the group and went ahead to secure our bags. Then I waited. And waited. No one else showed up. I doubled back only to be confronted by an immigration officer.
“You need to give up your passport," she informed me. "You don’t have a flight here yet.”
Turns out there was no private jet. It couldn’t get clearance to land in Trinidad. Or perhaps there never was a plane. Either way, the AO 14 were now in the Trinidad airport without our passports
Immigrations officials held onto our passports while Robi, our travel representative, called her bosses to get us off the island and to Brazil. Guyana was back on the flight plan.
Once again, there were assurances that a plane would be waiting for us. We didn't feel very confident.
After we landed and breezed through Guyanese customs, our fears were confirmed: no plane.
By now it was one in the morning and we we had no idea if we were going to ever reach Brazil, let alone fulfill the destiny of this trip: Seeing the US national team play in the World Cup. The game against Ghana in Natal was set to kick off in about 16 hours, and we were stuck in an airport in a tiny country on the South American coast. Was this trip ever going to end? And how was it going to end?
At 5, we had an answer. Salvation came from an unlikely source that brought everything full circle. "AO Force One," the charter jet that took the first group of Outlaws to Natal, was on its way to Guyana. It would arrive by 9, and an hour later we would be en route to Brazil.
If everything worked out – and why wouldn’t it? – we would be in Natal and in the stands by kickoff...