Return of the ash

There was a bit of deja-vu in the air along with the ash as I read in the news this morning that an airport-closing plume had made another appearance in Britain.

It seems a bit like old news now – but a few short weeks ago, the impossibly-named volcano in Iceland that had somehow managed to send global air travel into a tailspin was making headlines around the world.

I had a unique perspective on that particular story as I arrived in Europe to participate in the International Federation of Agriculture Journalists’ (IFAJ) Congress in Belgium a day before the now infamous eruption.

None of us taking part in a pre-congress tour of Luxembourg in those mid-April days really paid much attention to the spewing ash – which we never once actually noticed during our entire impossibly sunny and bright 11 days in Europe – until we started getting emails from colleagues who were having problems getting to where we luckily already were.

In the end, only 30 of the 170 registered participants could not get to Belgium for the congress. Many of those who did had remarkable stories to share about how they made their way to Ostende – by ferry, by train, by car and any number of combinations thereof.

And no matter when they arrived, they were welcomed with open arms by our Belgian hosts, who also went went to incredible lengths to ensure that those stuck at home could virtually follow as much of the congress as possible. Videos, photos, transcripts, Twitter feeds and more are all archived on their congress blog.

As the airport closures dragged on and our congress started to near its end, a growing list of alternative-getting-home-options was developed by those of us contemplating how we might get back to North America. Keep in mind that at the time, the media was widely reporting that the closure could last for several weeks!

Here are some of those kooky ideas:

* make our way to Spain or Portugal, where airports were still open
* take the train across Russia into Asia and fly home from a city like Beijing (This one came to me via text message courtesy of my brother. He lives in Norway and I had originally asked him if Norway had any ferries to Iceland – because funnily enough, the international airport in Reykjavik was one of the few that was open!).
* Figure out someway to get Israel, where airports were also still open and from which there are regular flights to North America
* Transatlantic passage on the Queen Mary II, which co-incidentally set sail from Europe to North America a day after the Congress ended

Fortunately, none of those crazy plans needed to become more than just that, crazy plans to help pass the time and assure yourself that, no matter what, there WERE still options. After all, there’s nothing that can make you homesick more easily than the realization that you can’t go.

The airports re-opened just as the congress wrapped up and although a few delegates were delayed in their travels home, everyone eventually made it to where they needed to get safe and sound.

It would already have been a memorable congress, made so by the quality of the food, tours and top-notch hospitality we received, but the whole IFAJ vs. the volcano adventure gave it that little something extra that we’ll be talking about for many years to come.

A funny final note – in the midst of volcano madness, we toured a produce auction (more on that in an upcoming post) that had a particularly appropriate photo on the wall. Kelly and I could not resist expressing exactly what we thought of it…and documenting that sentiment for posterity:

Note: My participation in IFAJ 2010 was partially supported by the IFAJ Alltech Young Leaders Award.

Volcano photo source: World Buzz Now

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