Thursday, April 29, 2010

Eyjafjallajokull

It was the most well-planned trip in the history of vacations.

Leaving on Wednesday, arrive Thursday, recoup, pick-up the kiddo, Dublin on Friday, Newgrange on Saturday, shopping, Titanic Exhibition on Monday, Kildare on Tuesday, Irish Rebellion sites on Wednesday, Thursday homeward bound.

Waiting for the first plane, I joked about luck. Silly me.

Anticipating a three hour layover in Amsterdam before a connecting flight to Manchester, we were surprised to learn on landing that our flight had been canceled due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland. KLM was rebooking as the situation changed.

The situation changed. UK closed its airspace. Everyone else followed.

KLM representatives claimed they were the first to rush to protect their passengers. They lied. They do.

Weird shaped ash cloud maps began appearing in news broadcasts as experts tracked the invisible threat.

We were unaware. Unlike airports in the US where there is a television tuned to Fox News or CNN in every concourse, there were no televisions in the Schiphol Airport. Which was nice, it was quiet. Which was dangerous, no news access leaves travelers vulnerable.

Planes were still departing at this point, if their destinations were in a direction not yet crossed by ash. KLM representatives told the approximately 3,000 stranded, rebooking would commence in a timely manner.

We stood in a line about two city blocks long after being told take a number. A couple of college kids were behind us. Everyone was talking about volcanoes. Who knew? The college girl had to be back to class in London the next day. Her male companion went to the head of the line and came back with the information, flights canceled, here's what we should do, get the train to Brussels and catch the Eurostar to London, be home this afternoon. They left. We never saw them again. Smart kids.

Finally got close enough to the head of the line to hear a KLM representative say, they were only rebooking first class and their frequent flyers at this time. "Then it does me no good to stand in this line," a man asked? "No," she smiled back.

I've thought about this and decided it must be a cultural difference. The Dutch will announce bad news with a smile. After a while, this can get on a person's nerves.

Then, why had a different KLM representative rounded up everyone and told them to stand in this very same line? No one knew, but this was a harbinger of things to come as it turned out every KLM representative said something different.

I heard over and over, this had never happened before, don't judge the blue-uniformed, pony-tailed ladies of KLM too harshly. Who's prepared for a volcano? Fair enough, but they should be well-trained to deal with canceled flights, stranded travelers and disgruntled people. Surely, that happens on a regular basis at every airport. They were not.

For our safety, they announced, the air space has been closed. Probably, will open the next day at 6 AM. Amsterdam was not our final destination. We could not leave the secured area. Okay, we're sleeping at the airport.

This can be accomplished by curling in the fetal position around the arm rest. Most of the night was spent dozing in half hour increments. Then we heard the army was bringing cots, blankets and a meal. Everyone trundled toward that designated area. When we saw another line, four deep, about a block long, after having already stood in line for four hours to not be served, we decided, we didn't want a blanket that badly. Bravo for us. The authorities separated the European Union passport holders out of this group and led them away, and those left, were locked, under armed guard, in the designated area and not allowed to leave.

About three AM, I saw someone walk by with a blanket from the Red Cross, so I walked back to where -- someone else said -- they were distributing blankets. I found the locked designated area and an armed security guard arguing with a man who wanted a blanket or if not that, a pillow.

"If I give you a pillow, I'd have to give everyone a pillow," the guard said.

So what, I thought. Some people are sleeping on cement floors. Give everyone a pillow.

An Asian lady, who had clandestinely exited the area to make a phone call, tried to reenter the sleeping area. Her children were in there. The guard yelled at her.

"No one in or out. Those are my orders. No on in or out!"

"My children." She pointed.

"Why didn't you use the phone in here! No one in or out. Those are my orders."

I decided I didn't want a blanket bad enough to argue with an armed young man over his head distributing pillows. As I turned to leave, I saw a rat scurry toward the elevator. I'm with you bud.

On the way back, I found a television! One television, with a CNN crawl, in a casino. Authorities would reassess air space closure at 8:30 AM.

After breakfast, KLM representatives said return to the counter at 10 AM, they will have an announcement. Or, rebook yourself online.

Online. I purposely did not haul a computer on this trip. How was I supposed to get online?

The airport had an Internet cafe with approximately 15 computers, all occupied by teenagers playing games or looking at Facebook.

We visited with our stranded neighbors. No one was irate or out of control. Just tired. We heard various exit strategies. Train, ferry -- we never planned on being in Amsterdam. We didn't know the options. We had one hell of a time figuring out the pay phone. The instructions are in Dutch. The instructions on how to turn the readout to English, are in Dutch. I learned by trial and error. Probably the only mental ability I had left by that time.

At 10 AM, KLM representatives told us to go away. Pardon? You said to come back at 10. Oh. Well, no news.

We went back to the television. Odds were the airspace wouldn't open any time soon.

Could we leave the airport? No, said one KLM goon. Yes, said another. No, said a third, you can't leave your baggage. Will you give us our baggage? No.

People with Asian passports couldn't leave. Neither could anyone from an Arab country.

Then a tall, pony-tailed KLM blue lady told us, you have an American passport. You can go anywhere, and sneered.

WTF
? We had been polite and I'm ashamed to say, obedient. Granted, she was having a bad day at work. She wasn't having as bad a day as 3,000 people trapped at the airport.

People started making their own arrangements. My husband and I are both EMTs with a fire department in Montana. We didn't react quickly enough at the Schiphol Airport because we spend so much of our time helping people, we expected to be helped.

The online booking for a train, wouldn't accept foreign credit cards. We'd have to go to the train station. Outside the secure area. Would they let us back in? No.

At the Internet cafe, I showed a Canadian lady the website for the train. She tearfully told us, she had called her Embassy and they had been told everything was peachy keen at the airport. Everyone had a blanket and cot and had been fed. She said, not true and they were sending someone to investigate. All she wanted to do was leave the airport. We wished her well and thought -- it works in the movies. We'll call our Embassy.

The man at the Embassy asked me, what did I want him to do?

"I don't know. There are no flights. We have no baggage. We can't book the train and no one will help us."

"Call me back in five minutes."

Five minutes later, we discovered, doesn't work like in the movies after all. They would let us use the phone in the Embassy for free (which assumed we could get to the Embassy) to call someone in America to send us money for the trip home. Or they could arrange a loan for us to make the trip home. "Okay," I said. "I'll add you to the list of people who won't help."

Once again, KLM was rebooking. Take a number. This time, the Dutch Army was there with automatic weapons to ensure the queue was orderly. You may think I'm kidding. I'm not.

Once more to the television, the air space was closed indefinitely. KLM could rebook 'til the cows came home, no one was flying anywhere.

We went to Immigration and found out, we could leave the airport. "You have an American passport," he said and gave us a strange look.

Well, pardon the hell out of me. I'm trying to be polite. I don't want to be the ugly American. I wish someone would have told me, an American passport is the gold-plated magic carpet to anywhere, before I left the States.

Our daughter booked us a hotel, online from England. We got a train ticket into the city and written directions to the hotel from the woman who sold us a ticket.

The customs agent who stamped our passports to exit the airport, smiled and said, "Enjoy your stay."

We could only manage to stare back blankly. By this time, we'd been awake 36 hours, in the same clothes and underwear. We smelled like last week's fish.

Huddled together on a train seat, staring at the scribbled street name on a note paper clutched in my husband's hand, convinced the Dutch were all neurotic or insane, we jumped when a woman across the aisle asked, "Do you need help?"

She looked at the street address. "You'll need to change to the tram." Got wide-eyed, blank looks back, and said, "I'll show you."

And she did. Got off the train. Escorted us out of the station, across the road to the tram stop. Told us which tram to take and when to exit. To hold our belongings close due to pickpockets. And then she went back in the station to continue her commute home.

Five feet after we got off the tram, we were lost again. We saw a policeman, who looked like Jean Reno (honest) scurried over to him, asked for directions and told our sad story.

Europeans have a different personal space than Americans. He stood close. I kept inching away. "Sir, 36 hours in the same clothes. I don't wish to offend."

Pffft, he waved away objection. Gave us directions, then with a big smile said, "Buy some new underwear and enjoy Amsterdam."

We found the hotel and the kindest receptionist in the world took us under her wing and helped us with further travel arrangements.

By then, everyone who could leave the airport, did and bookings were slim.

Two days wait for a train to Brussels. One day wait in Brussels for the Eurostar. Once we made it to England, five days before we could get a flight home.

So, we took the cop's advice. Enjoyed Amsterdam. Visited the kiddo who showed us all the best pubs. (But where are the classrooms, dear?) Saw Eddie Izzard at a Labour Party rally. Everywhere the weather was wonderful and the food was good.

Being a First Responder, I regularly practice disaster drills. Over and over. Here's what I learned from this real life disaster experience -- with the caveat -- if you're in a foreign country.
  • Don't trust your well-being to the authorities, they may not have your best interest in mind.
  • Evaluate the situation as quickly and reasonably as you can, then don't hesitate to act in your own behalf.
  • Anything you feel is essential to your well-being, comfort, peace of mind, carry with you.
  • Make that list a short one. (Thank-you Homeland Security.)
Home now, jet-lagged and shell-shocked.

Never even got a glimpse of Ireland.

Once free of the airport, random acts of kindness by strangers far outnumbered the bad behavior we encountered. In every country.

What stands out for me is how quickly things can collapse, yet how kindly we will still reach out to each other.

7 comments:

  1. gah, that's quite a story! Glad you're home safe!

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  2. Travel is enlighting, but Dorothy was right.

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  3. Wow, unbelievable. Glad you are safe.

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  4. I had tears in my eyes by the end. I've been in similar situations, but never, never so bad as that. I know how exhausted and dirty and flatlined you felt.

    I'd add one more item to your list: cash, enough to get home, enough to stay several days, in money belt under your clothing. You can put it back in the savings account when you get home, but having it with you can save you an immense amount of heartache.

    Ah, yes, the kindness of strangers (civilians). I've found that to be true, too. I'm glad you got back eventually. Are you recovered yet?

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  5. Stacey -- Thanks.

    Sarah -- You're right. We were lucky, we had the money we'd saved for Ireland, on us, in cash. I keep remembering a young Indian woman with three little girls, who, I know, was there for the duration.

    Recovered? Jet-lagged still, but I've been working. Enjoying small moments more than before.

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  6. Interesting tale- and good lessons learned. You are always your own best resource.

    We flew KLM once and my husband christened the cabin crew the Air Nazis (ironic considering how the Dutch suffered under the real Nazis). The crew were brutal, rude and officious, and always with that plastic smile...

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  7. MG,

    I thought that was odd too. For being such a wide open city (Amsterdam) the KLM reps there were inflexible, intolerant and rude --- all smiling blondes with bouncy pony tails.

    c

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Glad to hear from you!