I’ve always wanted to be on the Amazing Race. You know what’s even more fun, though? Being in a real life Amazing Race as opposed to a reality television one.
I raced the ashes of Eyja (I’m done with trying to pronounce or remember the Icelandic volcano’s real name) and won. As I said on Twitter last night once I had reached my home in Cairo and kissed my children good night, “I pity the volcano that tries to keep me from my children!”
My children were my driving force.
I had gone to London for a two-day board of trustees meeting for SciDev.net. Before my trip, I had just set in place a study schedule for two of my children who required my help. Even though it was all about studying, I felt they were excited that their mother was urging them on to do better. I was to be away for four days: two meeting days and two travel days. During that time, the children were to continue their study schedule and I’d catch up with them once I was back.
On the first day of our meetings in London, I heard about a volcano erupting in Iceland and the possibility that it might disrupt flight schedules. I hardly thought about it twice. I had made it to London – thus beating the eruption – and I was certain that whatever might cause flight disruptions would be relieved by the time my meetings were done. On the second day of our meetings it became clear that there might be trouble. It was a Friday, so our hosts graciously offered to come to the office on Saturday and help us reschedule flights if the need came up.
The Dreadful Message Arrives
On Friday evening as I was sitting in my hotel room watching TV, I got a message on my mobile phone from British Airways that read:
Flight BA0155 on 17 Apr LHR/CAI ref 4J4V82 is cancelled. Visit ba.com/mmb Or call BA 0800727800 (UK) or 025780741 (EG) Apologies.
I immediately messaged my colleagues at SciDev.net and confirmed we’d need to go to the office on Saturday to re-schedule flights.
It was difficult deciding what to do. Should I try to make a break for it and reach Cairo by unconventional methods or should I wait out the volcano and hope it doesn’t take too long? Marcus, the operations manager at SciDev.net, and I checked my options. I could try to catch a train or a ferry out of London and then a flight from somewhere in Europe to Cairo. But Eurostar’s website wasn’t functioning due to high demand and the telephone was constantly busy. I was also unable to find a seat on a ferry. The hundreds of thousands – or more – people stranded in London were all thinking the same I was. Marcus made a quick trip to the Eurostar office and came back in minutes. There were at least 200 people standing in front of the office and a Eurostar representative told him that by the time he reached the head of the line he probably wouldn’t find a ticket any time today or tomorrow.
Marcus and I decided my best bet would be to reserve a plane ticket back home for later in the week. By then, the volcano should probably calm down. And that way at least I had a ticket and a secure way out rather than the many uncertainties of traveling by other means.
Marcus himself had a wife and two children stranded in Portugal where they had spent their Easter holidays. I am so thankful to him for spending that time with me planning my trip when I’m sure his mind must have been racing back and forth on how to get his own family home.
That Saturday and Sunday were very difficult for me. I had consciously decided to make the best of it and see a bit of London. I had visited London a few times before but had never had the chance to do some tourism due to my tight work and home schedules. Now that I was forced to stay in London longer than my business needs, I could relax and see the sights. I saw some sights but I wasn’t relaxed. I was constantly worrying about my children who I knew needed me. Their grandmother was staying with them so they were fine, of course. But a child needs his mother nevertheless. And their exams are coming up shortly so they really did need my help.
On Sunday I was visiting Windsor Castle with a friend when I suddenly decided I wanted to go home. It was useless pretending I’d havee fun in London and get some work done with no disturbances. And there seemed a strong possibility that my flight out of London on Tuesday would be cancelled. If it was, I’d have wasted more time and it would be days more at least before I could get another flight back home. I was also feeling claustrophobic. I was stuck on an island with very few options to get home. I’m not the type that sits back and waits for things to happen. I have a strong need to take control of any situation I’m in rather than let it take control over me. I told my friend I needed to catch the next train back to London to try to reach the Eurostar ticket-selling office before it closed at 5pm.
I reached the office at 4pm but it was closed. They closed early because they were unable to deal with the high demand. The Eurostar representative standing in front of the closed doors told me to try to get a ticket online. I already had done so several times but I was never able to get to the stage where I was able to pay online for the ticket. The website would suddenly crash. The Eurostar representative told me that there were many people who had the same complaint but that they continued trying and eventually were able to buy tickets online.
I rushed back to the hotel and went online to the Eurostar website. I entered the necessary data over and over. I asked for a ticket to Paris. I tried different departure schedules in the morning, evening, and night. I asked for a ticket to Brussels. I tried different departure schedules. I tried this over and over again. Nothing was working. I kept at it. Suddenly the page went through to the payment options. I had a Eurostar ticket to Paris the next morning!
But I had no plan as to what to do afterwards.
I tried buying a train ticket online out of Paris to almost any other European city. The TGV website, which friends on Twitter had graciously directed me to, was not working. I tried finding plane tickets out of functioning European airports to Egypt; direct and indirect flights. The options I found were very few, very expensive, and very indirect.
I printed my train ticket at the hotel reception and decided to sleep on it till the morning. I’d decide on Monday morning whether to take the train to Paris with no plan on what to do after that or to hang on to my plane ticket from London to Cairo on Tuesday. There was a risk involved in either decision.
By morning, I had weighed the risks in my head over and over again during a restless sleep. I decided that even if flights out of Heathrow resumed on Tuesday, the situation itself with the volcano had remained. There was still a risk that planes might be affected by the volcanic ashes. There was still an element of insecurity in taking a plane from London as a result. Letting planes leave London might not be safe. I decided to take the safe route out of London and get onto the European mainland. Once I was on the mainland I’d find a way home. There were a few functioning airports on the continent. I’d compete for a plane ticket home. Or I’d find a way to travel by sea. I’d find a way. At least I’d be off the British Isle and would have some options.