Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In the wind....

It is a strange world living between the knowing where you will be getting your next meal or how you will get to your next destination or home at all. We all get complacent in being able to hop in a car or make a plane reservation or call in a meal. All of that has changed for those stranded in Europe.

Watching people with small children stuck in airports, running out of money and no idea how they are going to get home is terribly crushing. Those stuck in a country without a visa and not being able to leave the airport but without a bed or offer of food is tragic and unconsionable. Here it is happening with frightening regularity. For more often than not, without much compassion from those in the travel industry. Guess that are just well worn with it in that line of work.

In a crisis, the unfortunate reality is that you cannot save everyone and you have to keep job 1 as saving yourself. In a crisis (and make no mistake about it, this is truly a crisis of epic proportions), you have to be playing chess in your mind and thinking 3 steps ahead. And sometimes you have to have an angel on your shoulder. With loving support from family, an unexpected angel arrived in my sister in law, Tee. Tee is quite the world traveler and has her own stories of passage through lands not friendly and going where all would fear to tred. I will be forever in her debt for the help and creativity she offered for no other reason than to help. Tee, can not wait to buy you a beverage!!!

In her own words "like a dog going after a bone", she spent days seaching alternative ways to get me home. While some of the European air space is now considered open, I have seen what the British Fighter plane looked like that was posted on the Internet that went through the ash cloud and did not fare so well. She was glued to the media as well and studied what was happening. Between us we felt the safest route (even though with hours spent by my dear wife on the phone provided a ticket through germany in a week or so) was to head south to where the airspace has virtually remained open all the time.

My wife spent hours on hold with airlines who could care less about helping (gonna start a website called "United is useless". anyone wanna join)?" She was up all hour of the night trying to get them to be responsive, but at the end it became clear that they were still stuck in the rigid mode of any plane....point to point connections and NO PLAN for what would happen if a single point of failure halted you. I owe my dear wife so much thanks for keeping in contact with me, not giving up with the airlines and trying to make them responsive. I can never tell you how much I appreciate all your help and support.

The airlines truly just do not get it. Hope they all go bankrupt so I can go in and show them how it is done. In healthcare if you go to an ER and have to be admitted, you do not have to find a hospital to be admitted to. The hospital either has a bed or transfers you to one that does. A million metaphors in my head but the airlines are a total disaster for customer service. I know that is not news, but when you manage to "lose" 500,000 people in the system as there is now throughout europe and have NO plan in place for how to help any of them get home and they are suddenly responsible for their own plans, you have a total failure. I will stop the rant (for right now) and get back to the story.

I have a blackberry so I have been able to stay in touch with those at home and keep them apprised ( though txting when its early AM in Europe means txts being received in the middle of the night at home) and up to date helps to keep the anxiety down on both sides. Truly being in the wind without any clear direction is a curious place to be and quite a bit terrifying. Unfortunately a blackberry has a browser but I have learned most of the news broadcasts, travel agencies and other search engines for things like flight schedules do not have the capability to work well and the bandwidth precludes using it as a means to search for solutions yourself and most of the hotels do not have internet access points. Internet cafe access is so overwhelmed that at one, you signed up for 15 min blocks 2 days in advance. not exactly an easy way to search for a way home.

I will post my exact path home on a later blog entry because the herd mentality out here in the wild is beyond belief. I watched in Milan as one US resident said he got a ticket on a train to paris and he heard paris was open airspace create a true stampede at the train station and now trains to paris are booked for 10 days. So please forgive me if I wait until I am safely on my way to share my path.

Let me tell you what I have experienced. 90 minutes waiting in line at the Milan train station only to be told that the website that handles the train line I wanted was down and to come back the next day. I saw hundreds of people sleeping in any travel hub (bus, train, airport) with no place to go and no idea when they will get home. I do have some photos, but internet cafes in europe are locked down so tightly that the thought of how to circumvent the security to upload photos would stop anyone except a real computer pro. Where is a geek when you need him/her?

That night, Tee and I spent hours coming up with multiple plans for atacking the issue. We both agreed that the whole transportation system was overloaded and all normal routes were jammed so we had to get creative. She spent hours with me figuring out alterntatives. After coming back to the train station the next day with almost no sleep ( you cannot imagine the anxiety of not knowing when/if you can get to the next place as it was looking hopeless) I went back to the train station at 4am to get in line for when it opened at 5:45am with three options in mind. the overhead page now stated that all trains heading north ( and that included freight trains converted to passenger to cover the onslaught) were booked forward 4 days. Heard on the news that the volcano blew again. The UK to be hit hardest. Whewww... ( but also feel sorry for those trying to get home there). I outwardly wonder how much isloation I can handle and realize the isolation is not what is hard, but the feeling of being trapped. Hitchhiking becomes my last (4th option) but now viable option of getting outta here. That tells you the level of resolve that becomes required. Others merely sit and wait for someone to help them. I wish I could impart that it will be a long wait (like forever). The whole system is overburdened and there is no master travel agents waiting to tell you the right path to take.

The train I wanted (that got me to a point of exit) was fully booked Drats. I quickly change gears and get a bus ticket that puts me on a bus for 20 hours. The ticket agent in oh so broken english said to not bring water or drink and to "empty good" because there is no stoping and no bathroom. Quite a challenge but sometimes there are sacrifices to make.

While waiting at the bus terminal, a UK family had their pack stolen. In it was their credit cards, phones, photos from their trip around the world for the past 6 weeks and their money. They had their passports in their hands so there was at least one saving item. I am carrying a chest pouch and while I feel like a uber dork every time I have to pull it out at a restaurant, this reminded me that forceable means will be needed to get my "stuff". I hold no illusions of the definition of stuff. It is what you can lose and replace and covers everything except me. I will survive. I still watch my stuff and carry all in my big bag. When I say big, it has all the gear I needed to get to everest and is a huge duggel bag without wheels with 60+ lbs and is a lot to carry around where ever you go. Mega Uber Dork you would say if you saw me. Actually in the states I would say homeless person which is probably kinda ironically appropriate for the situation. I laugh at myself. Yup, well dressed, clean and shaven homeless.

I get back in the train line ( I said I had three options) and 2 hours later get a train ticket for the alternative destination. I like this option because it is obscure and even the gate agent cocks her head to the side (like a dog trying to understand something) and actively asks why I would want to go there. I hope that the city name is correct and smile and say that I think it is a good place to go. Cost all of $20. A bargain. Heck, if you just wanted to get out of Milan it would be a good choice LOL.

Milan is a town that is VERY italian. Lots of crazy driving, wild accidents, bravado, machismo, very physical...(women look like the wrestlers in WWF or off a paris runway and nothing in between). And it is a sorta rough city. Besides the theft of the Brits pack, I watched a couple various times pickpockets working the crowd. A scream of "policia" was enough to divert the bands but they would return soon enough. It is old school here. And some around you who do not wish you well. As a side note, there are a LOT of prostitutes. The funny side to it was they best dressed, best made up one who could have fit in anywhere in the states was a dude. Ewwww. To each their own path I guess.

I catch my train, leave the city and arrive at my new destination. Next destination tickets in hand, I have a day to kill. Will wander the city and take some photos. It is overcast but mighty sunny in my world. I am going to feed on this optimism for awhile and nourish the soul for the next leg of the journey. Not sure when I will get to post again, but will be as soon as I can.

And thanks Bebe, it gave me the laugh of the week to hear about the BCHF. Bring Craig home fund. Not needed, but appreciated. Now, a referral to a good dog bite attorney to go after the airlines might be fun!!!

1 comment:

  1. Great post Craig! Can't wait to hear what the solution was. You wanted adventure, right? Well you got it! Be safe, Buddy -- we're keeping you in our thoughts and prayers!!