I first heard about the volcanic eruption at 6 a.m. last Thursday in the dark hours of Glasgow, Scotland. A colleague called to say our flight to Newark International was canceled. After confirming that was true—and with little other info on Continental’s website—I stumbled, bleary-eyed from four hours sleep, into the hallway of the Radisson Blu Hotel and was told what now the whole world knows: Volcanic ash from Eyjafjallajokull volcano’s eruption in southern Iceland now covered most of Europe in a dark shroud of glass, rubble, and soot. It felt like something out a Hollywood in-flight, the first act to the attack of the zombies across Europe…
I’d been touring Scotland with a handful of other travel journalists for five quick days of hiking and cycling in the highlands and glad-handing at the Scottish Travel Expo in Glasgow. All told, the convention drew approximately 800 worldwide visitors, and now all of them were stuck on the island, just like the rest of the globe was paralyzed from any sort of international travel to, from, or through most of Europe. Flights were rescheduled, then rescheduled again as the days passed and the airports remained closed.
The not knowing has proven frustrating. Wake at 5:30 on Sat? Canceled. Told perhaps Wed, perhaps Friday…some don’t have confirmed flights till Monday. But after seeing footage of the airport chaos and still shots of cots laid out at JFK and legions of stranded travelers lying about, I know we have it easy. Indeed, Glasgow is a fantastic place to get stuck. The vibrant city has proffered unseasonably warm days, with modest pockets of rain and overcast skies that call into question the presence of that ash cloud some 30,000 feet above. I was able to secure a spot at Fraser Suites hotel near George Square, a lively ‘hood replete with pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants, including Gandophi, a fantastic joint serving food culled entirely from local ingredient (the smoked venison sourced from Rannoch Moor is culinary perfection). The city’s hosting an International Festival of Visual Arts, with exhibits scattered throughout the Glasgow’s many art galleries and museums, and almost every pub boasts a hearty stock of cask ales that rotate almost daily. And other Scottish hot spots like Edinburgh, are a short—and inexpensive—train ride away. In short, it’s a place that you’d never want to leave if you were visiting for only a few days.
Still, machinations to get home proliferate. We contemplated hopping a train down to Madrid, where the airport was open and international flights were departing. Until, of course, we learned that all Eurostar seats are sold out for days in advance, and any seats on any planes in Spain and Portugal and Greece fall to the unpredictable temptress known as “standby." Hardly motivation to embark on a countries-long journey. One colleague has been told he’s on a stand-by list to get on the stand-by list. Ocean travel has been considered a few times, typically after a few pints. A bed in a nine-bunk room on a freighter runs only 200 pounds per day, and the journey takes two weeks, while the only spot on the trans-continental Queen Victoria is a 23,000-pound suite that departs in a few days from Southamtpon. And the BBC reports that the British might start ferrying stranded citizens in other European cities back home on military boats. I even attempted to try and hop a mail-carrying transport flight. Likely the most uncomfortable plane ride ever, but at least I could feed my cat after 12 hours in transit.
A group of Indians in country for the travel expo did find flights on Air India—from Greece. They were going to drive to Athens…but didn’t have the required visas for the overland travel, and at last word they were diving into that mind-numbing process before the marathon overland haul. Others, like two women from Louisiana, are happy resigned to the waiting game. In truth, there’s little U.S. citizens stranded here and elsewhere can do, and while the dirty laundry piles up (and, yes, gets worn again…and again), it’s easy to fall into what the city offers, rather than fret over what we can’t control.
The concierge at the Raddison Blu, where I stayed until rooms became scarce, did have a nice point of view. “It’s like I’m doing the proper job of a concierge now,” he told me as I waited for my taxi. “Before airplanes and the internet and all that, that’s what our sort did. I tell ya, I’ve learned more about ferry, bus, and train schedules in the last 24 hours than I’ve learned in five years at this job.”
Word now is that the flight restrictions will be lifted for Scotland and Northern Ireland today, with Heathrow and the rest of the UK following suit in the evening. Fingers crossed on that one, as my flight has been changed to Wed a.m. via London, and then onto DC. With the airlines hemorrhaging $200 million a day during this dilemma and countless other industries feeling the impact, from taxi drivers to baggage handlers to countless crates of rotting food in Africa, the need for clear skies at 30,000 feet is almost palatable. But if the last few days have taught me anything, it’s that nature is unpredictable. The volcano could erupt again, and send all the continent-wide hopes of departure into a metaphorical tailspin that would make options like sea travel seem suddenly the right way to go. But till then, I’ll just concentrate on enjoying where I am right now.
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