Saturday, April 17, 2010

Volcano Woes

I’m used to having my travel schedule disrupted by all sorts of things: Thunderstorms, Snowstorms, Incompetent airline companies, Needing to saw a hole in my bed, and random other unforeseen circumstances.

This week’s unforeseen circumstance was a volcano – mount Eyjafjallajokul in Iceland. If you have not been following the news, I’ll fill you in: The massive amount of ash spewing from the volcano has dispersed across the skies of Europe and has completely shut down all air travel for thousands of miles around.

It figures it would be a volcano in Iceland. First they ruin their own economy, then they destroy the travel industry of the entire continent. This is hardly surprising from a country whose main industries are “fishing, dragons, and screaming” (if you don’t get that joke, look here Although if you live outside the US, you might not be able to stream this brilliant video. Try looking here).

Anyway, at the time of the eruption, I was in Ireland – just an hour flight from home. But alas, for the last three days, and for the forseeable future, no planes have been, or will be, moving. So the only way off the island was by Ferry.

(Random aside: I was amazed to discover that only about 12,000 years ago there were land bridges from Ireland to UK and from the UK to continental Europe. But alas, these bridges are now long gone).

Getting a reservation on one of the ferries was no mean feat. There are precious few ferries, and they quickly started to fill to capacity. (“Capacity” turns out to be far more than they can handle, since on a typical day, I’m told they run at about 10% of capacity – if that). Along with thousands of other people in the same predicament, I started franticly surfing the web trying to get a reservation. (Calling was beyond hopeless). There were very few web sites that would take reservations any more, and many of these sites were freaking out and crashing from the extreme traffic. After a few hours of searching, finally, for a brief moment, Fortuna smiled upon me, and I managed to nab a ferry reservation to Holyhead (Batman) in Wales, for the next day at 8am.

So at 6am Saturday morning I left Maynooth Ireland to go to Dublin Ferry Port. The scene there was hardly to be believed – people lined up to get on the ferries as far as the eye could see. You would think it was a rock concert or something.

Loading the Ferry, the Ulysses (appropriately enough for a Dubliner), was smooth enough. Show your reservation number, and walk right on. There was a guy there grabbing everyone’s baggage and throwing it onto a baggage carosel. Had I been thinking I would have refused to part with my luggage, but at the time I was just happy to be getting on the ferry. Huge mistake (more on this below).

The Ulysses itself is actually very nice. It seemed like it was actually a slightly re-configured posh cruise ship. Imagine the Love Boat, but a bit smaller. Now imagine taking the Love Boat and jam packing it with 1500 tired and grouchy people in a space more suited to about 100 people. (For those who might be interested, I spent the trip sitting in a corner reading appendix E from this massive article which I had the foresight to print out the night before. I only wished I had used a slightly larger font – my eyes are getting too old for the “print reduced by a factor of 4 so you don’t have to carry around too much paper” trick).

The seas were remarkably smooth, and the trip was very quick. This was not a coincidence. If the weather had been windy or rainy, the volcano ashes would have dispersed or found their way down to the ground as rain and air travel would have resumed. Alas, the unusual streak of fair weather and smooth sailing in Europe this month seems to have come at just the wrong time.

On the other hand, what was decidedly not smooth was the situation at Holyhead. The baggage carosel at the Holyhead terminal was set up to handle about a dozen bags, maybe a hundred,… not ten thousand. The masses of humanity squeezed into the arrival hall and complete confusion reigned. Just when we thought that maybe a few people were starting to find their luggage, the next ferry docked and complete confusion started all over again.

When I finally found my luggage after about an hour and a half (No exaggeration – I was cursing myself for stupidly allowing my luggage to be separated from me in the first place) I then had to find my way to the train. Of course there were thousands of other people with the same idea. The confusion was so complete in the station that it wasn’t even clear where the line for the train started and where it ended. I wandered around in the confusion for quite some time (you might think they would bring out a few extra police or rail workers to help with the situation, but no). As I got more frustrated, I debated getting a cab to take me to anywhere else besides Holyhead so I could reconsider the problem there. Just then a security officer came along and declared that I was standing in the line for the train tickets and just beyond that was, the train platform. He pointed only about 50 feet away to what was supposedly the front of the line. This was another rather lucky break. In only about 40 minutes I made it to the front of this line, grabbed my ticket and walked onto the next train. In another stroke of luck, the next train was direct to Birmingham – whereas many would have required at least two transfers. Fortuna was certainly smiling on me now.

I hesitate to think about how long some people must have been waiting to get on the train. The line stretched so long it was probably hours and hours before some of the folks at the back of the line got out of there.

Anyway, from Holyhead the journey was pretty simple. 4.5 hours to Birminham, short layover, and an hour from there to Oxford. I made it home by about 8 pm. I typically make it home from the US in much less time.

Next travel disruption? Earthquakes? Locusts?


Susanne said...

According to a colleague this is Odin having a great time, and demonstrating to the world what happens if you mess with his people...

So perhaps certain countries should reconsider demanding their money back from Iceland, or else Odin might bring on Katla... (The close by, even bigger volcano. Incidentally the evil dragon Katla in Astrid Lindgren's "The Brothers Lionheart" was named after that volcano.)

Doug Natelson said...

This is really a sign that the Norse gods are upset by the impending Thor movie directed by Kenneth Brannagh.

Anonymous said...

Icelands volcano Eyjafjallajokull - ash problem solved. See my photo in flickr: