First time we went back to Brazil, besides the 40 degrees heat at nights and family discussions about how much more time we spent at the other aunt’s, it was no big deal. So the idea the second time we not to plan better and not to spoil the family any more. That time, there was little discussion, but we forgot to check for the little one’s passport and spent two weeks on queues at the federal police to get it, involving sending his documents over from UK via Fedex (thanks Guto!).
A lot of time (and planning) later, we decided to go, our style, and check all documents before flying. It was wonderful! Besides the usual family fight, all went well. We went to the beach and it was sunny and fantastic. On our way back from the beach I said: “We did it! Nothing went wrong this time, eh?”. It came out as a relief, but turned out to be a curse! At the exact moment I said that, a giant pool of lava decided to come out into existence, as if feeling my moment of joy, just to spoil it. It was a masterpiece, from a Norse god or something.
Wednesday, 14th April 2010
All flights stopped, and on Wednesday itself I knew ours (on Sunday) would be included. As business continuity planning (BCP), I coordinated with my company, my family and KLM to get the most out of the zillions of different news flashing on Twitter, Facebook and BBC.
I have to say that we were a bit disappointed with Eurocontrol. They stopped all flights for safety reason (quite reasonable) but they sat and waited until the volcano would stop spilling lava. As if that would solve anything, even after all geologists said it could take months, or even years, to stop.
Friday, 16th April 2010
Feeling the pressure of $200mi a day each, all airlines got their planes flying with no passengers. Some flew at lower altitudes, most at regular and some even got right into the ash, just for fun (and results). And even with all results negative, Eurocontrol delayed days to slowly restart flights.
Monday, 19th April 2010
We were still stranded in Brazil, with two hyper-active boys, mum without her medicines and dad without his nerves in the right place. We were offered a flight back, but KLM warned it was only to Amsterdam, so we didn’t take it. I said to the advisor to only book us if the flight was all the way to London.
Tuesday, 19th April 2010
We were booked on the same flight as before, but, according to KLM, all the way to London. I was amazed. KLM had done some flights to London already and I thought we were going home, much easier than I had foreseen… how naive.
At the Guarulhos airport, KLM said they couldn’t guarantee both flights, which came as a surprise. But with all the chaos, I thought it was only fair to accept their apologies and proceed with our travel back.
Wednesday, 20th April 2010
But it was only when we got to Schipol that I really understood what chaos really meant. There were a few thousands of passengers queueing for no apparent reason, going in random directions, being directed by random people in random uniforms, working for random companies, pointing to nowhere in particular.
One guy, dressed with a KLM suit, said I should get information directly from KLM (I didn’t ask). Another said that, in order to get info, I should take the queue that would take approximately 2 hours. When I finally got to the electronic ticket machine and had difficulties, the helping person told me she could not help because the machine was not helping.
In the end, we found out that our flight to London (KL1017) never existed. There were other flights to London (KL1019), but they were all full, and there were no confirmed flights in the next day. I had to queue to know that, too. Nowhere to go and no flight to take, we decided to rent a car and head to Calais to get the ferry. We got a big car, put all the bags in and headed south.
Holland, Belgium and finally France, we got first to Dunkirk to check for ferries. There was only a very stupid lady that refused to answer me if there was a passenger ticket, just because I was not in the queue. Of course I would get the queue if there was, but what would be the point to get the whole queue if there wasn’t? Well, there wasn’t. Another fine lady answered me in 3 seconds, and it didn’t even hurt.
We headed to Calais, broken, hungry and without a single Euro, we could only find MacDonalds in Belgium and Holland. But we made it. After several U-turns along the way (the car got no satnav nor AVIS had any), we eventually got there. Now, it was just a matter of dropping the key back and get the 4 hours queue to buy our tickets to cross the channel…
As the sunset began, the cold that was already there began to show its face. The temperature dropped quickly, my hands froze and Renata and the kids went inside. No panic, as it was just a matter of waiting… how naive.
Reaching the tickets office, I checked passports, bags and wallet… wait, where’s my wallet?! Desperately looking in all bags, I called Renata, who kindly reminded me it was in the car’s arm pocket… But I had already gave the car keys already back, in the night safe.
When I got inside the building (3.5hours later), I ask them to stay in the queue and we decided to look for a way to get the wallet back. A French staff wanted to break in with a rock, but I reminded him there were hundreds of policemen around, British and French. It’d be harder to explain than to come home without the documents.
After almost an hour looking for a way to retrieve the key, with no avail, they decided to call the AVIS guy, who arrived after half hour, and he also wasn’t in his best mood… Well, who would? Finally, we made it to the boat, with all bags and children and documents… But our car was still parked on the Long Stay at Heathrow airport, 3 days due.
Thursday, 21st April 2010
When we finally reached Dover, we found that there were no cars to rent, buses were full and the next train would be only hours from then. To make matters worse, the only taxi big enough to carry us didn’t know where Cambridge was…
The Travel Centre in Dover was the key. Not only I could withdraw money (using my credit card, as my account was blocked), but someone gave me a list of telephones to call for a taxi. After a few attempts, one of them got the call and had a car big enough. We agreed on the price and he came to pick us up.
It took around 2 hours to get home, all of us (including the driver) trying to stay awake, but we finally got home around 3am, and after firing the usual emails (family, work, friends) to signal our arrival, we went to sleep.
After 2 days without sleeping (yes, I didn’t sleep a second), it was a miracle I could wake up at noon. We had a minimalistic breakfast (there was no food at all at home) and, without so much of a shower, I headed south, to Heathrow airport, via train.
The train was fine, but the underground train decided it didn’t want to go all the way to terminal 4, so it stopped at Northfields and spat everyone out. I got the next train, which also didn’t go to terminal 4, and politely asked us to leave to get the next train yet, which finally took us to terminal 4.
3 hours after I left home, I was inside our car. All working, I just forgot the ticket, which was easy to work around since I had the booking confirmation and they opened the gates for me. I was expecting some traffic on the M25, which came as sure as rain in England, but my tiredness was so great that I couldn’t stay awake for too long.
I stopped at the A1 services, and had a light meal and a quadruple-espresso that I mixed with a heavy-chocolate milkshake and swallowed in a few gulps. It was yet another hour or so, almost falling asleep, that I finally got home… after 7pm.
All of us, safe and sound, and I had all the time in the world to sleep comfortably in a nice bed. There was only one detail.. During all that adventure, both kids slept like angels through the long boring parts, so they weren’t tired at all!
It is only now, three days after we arrived, that I feel I’m getting back my energy.