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Ash over Europe

By Obi Nwakanma
I traveled from St. Louis, to Detroit, to Amsterdam the previous Wednesday on my way to Liverpool. I did not arrive Liverpool. The Delta/KLM flight just managed to complete the first leg of the journey. I arrived at the Schipol Airport in Amsterdam on Thursday morning preparatory to taking the morning hop to Liverpool.

But just that morning, every flight into the United Kingdom and much of Europe was grounded. A volcano had erupted in Iceland and had spewed ash over the European air space forcing a quick blanket ban first over the UK air space, and slowly a blanket ban over the European air space.

These flight restrictions over the European air space by Eurocontrol the regulatory body that coordinates air traffic over Europe quickly led to a massive flight disruption which has been described as unprecedented in the history of commercial aviation.  Soon, no flights could be allowed in or out of the Schipol Airport, and soon the airport became a great carnival of stranded travelers trapped in some Odyssean limbo.

I was trapped in a no-fly zone. Liverpool seemed suddenly too far out of reach. I could not return to the US in any case until the next week. Soon, even this became impossible as the flight ban also covered flights leaving for the US. The ash cloud from Mount Eyjafjallajokul in Iceland had sent plumes of ash that made it dangerous up there. So, my trip was up in the air!

I waited like many passengers, frequently and firmly advised by airline officials to take it really easy and make myself comfortable like the rest of the travelers because no one knew exactly when the situation would ease. “I’m sorry, I have no further information.” That phrase became something of an official mantra – a sort of party line – a one-stop answer to every passenger’s inquiry.

“So, what should I do? I have a paper to present?”

“I’m sorry I have no further information.”

“Do you think the flight might leave today?”

“I’m sorry I have no further information.”

“Is this airline making alternative arrangement for passengers?”

“I’m sorry, I have no further information.”

The politeness overwhelmed me. It gave me no hope and nothing to be angry about. It was plain, without animosity, and without hope or despair, just simply matter-of-fact. There was nothing anybody could do. Nature had done its work; sent spumes of deadly magma into the horizon, and closed down space. I rued to myself: of all the days to travel,

I had to choose the day that Ogwugwu, fiery and intolerant, roared and belched with anger over Europe. As I saw it, there was nothing better to do than wait and see.  So I spent most of the day just mooning around: I am like a caged lion in this kind of situation, restless, bored and unsettled in my cage – the sparkling lounges of the Schipol. The line of passengers that first day of the flight freeze was long and had built up with a tail that seemed endless.

Many passengers stood in line because they had nothing better to do, no place else to be, and they just hoped to make rebooking for the next flight out since all flights had been canceled. Everybody hoped that the air would clear soon and that normal flight would resume, at best, the next day, Friday. I hoped so too.

There were many Nigerian passengers coming from Lagos to the UK or going from the UK to Lagos or Abuja or Kano. You could not miss them, my Nigerian compatriots. The loud, ill-mannered assurance of the men; the slow but deadly alertness of the women, and the conversation was loud. It was about been in a hurry and nowhere to go.

Perhaps some deal in the offing going cold by this forced interruption of time and space. It was human drama, lovely to watch. Soon, the lounge of the Schipol began to feel like a large tent city; a refugee camp or the camp of some prisoners of war or nature, and there was even a convivial, almost carnivaleseque feel to it all – this forced cohabiting of all races, sexes, and classes; and there was a bit of beauty to it, this strange moment, and the shared moments of uncertainty and loneliness.

Perfect strangers struck up lively conversations, shared their resources, and it was beautiful to watch people break the stiff barriers and anonymity of their frequent travel miles, and swap stories and strategies, many schemes, suggestions, and survival tips. How to get to Liverpool, ya say? Try the Ferry bro. But the ferries were all booked, and the buses, and it was impossible to cross the channel because of all these over bookings.

How about the train? I thought about it. Take a train from Amsterdam to Brussels or to Paris, and then take the train to London and then to Liverpool. But the Eurostar – the train services were also all fully booked – no space. Besides, the fares had also jumped; skyrocketed with their emergency prices. So what next? Well, I found myself sharing coffee with a lovely sister from Tanzania on her way to Oslo.

We were in the midst of incarfeination and platitude when, behold, it was my old friend, the painter Victor Ekpuk, on his way from Nigeria, and back to the States. I was glad of course to see a familiar face, and soon, we shared a beer, and Victor missed his flight out to the US that afternoon, and with this, his only chance of returning to the United States that week.

He called up some of his friends in Amsterdam, and went off to stay with them until he could fly. He flew a week later – on Wednesday. I elected to stay the night in the lounge of the Schipol in the hope that the situation might ease. The Red Cross had handed out some blankets, and water, and I tried to make myself as comfortable as possible on the seat of a bar, and spent a very restless night.

Next day, it became very clear that the flight freeze over Europe was not going to thaw soon. So, I called up my sister-in-law, Anjali and brother-in-law, Mario who live in Utrecht, about thirty minutes by train, and they had been desperately trying to reach me by phone at the airport. Both busy, professional cellists, I was loath to impinge upon their schedule, but they are gracious people.

I left the Schipol and joined Anjali who was playing that night at the Amsterdam Opera House, and she had got me a rather expensive ticket for the event: Belioz’s opera in five parts, “Le Troyens.”

The next day, I went with Mario to Rotterdam to hear the Rotterdam orchestra play Devorak’s symphony and lead Leonidas Kavakos, the famous Greek violin soloist on Mendelssohn’s violin suite at De Doelen. I also found time to spend a night at the home of Dr. Charles Obihara who had been ahead of me in Simpson House at the Government College Umuahia and who is a Pediatrician in Tilburg and his wife, the artist, Dorian Maarse, at their home in Groile, about an hour by train from Utrecht.

They too were gracious hosts. I did in sum try to make the best use of the situation. But one of the clearest lessons for me in this event is the dangerous interconnections of the globe in which interruptions in one spot may lead to a spiral effect – a closure of the earth.

The ash over Europe and the consequence remind us of the nature of these connections and the responsibility we have to each other. It also speaks in great volume of the puniness of man’ inventions against nature. Nature strikes viciously when it is awakened. It is a sobering truth.


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