My history of South Asia professor, Aparna Vaidik, once told me that the definition of creativity is “pushing the limits of your existence.” If someone feels trapped or confined by boundaries, he or she must actively seek ways to bend limitations and find a new path. While I was studying abroad in Spain on spring break, volcanic ash from the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökul spread across Europe, leading to widespread flight cancellations. Travelers, myself included, were forced to find roundabout ways to return home.
On April 15, I arrived at Madrid-Barajas Airport intending to fly back to London. I quickly learned that all United Kingdom, Paris and Amsterdam flights had been cancelled until April 20. Soon after, my flight on the 20th was cancelled again, and the volcanic ash clouds began to settle in Spain, potentially leaving me grounded in Madrid for two weeks. I wasn’t alone. At least 50 other people faced similar circumstances in my hotel. Trains had been booked for a week in advance; ferries were sold out as well. In essence, we were trapped. Fortunately, three men pushed the limits of their existences to leave Madrid and took 50 of us alongside them back to London.
The three were an unlikely trio: Lawrie Dunston, a European-renowned techno DJ; Simon Adorian, a secondary school headmaster and former English teacher; and John Prendergast, a cargo and aviation specialist from Ireland. Desperate to leave, the three managed to book a charter bus in less than a day and logistically coordinate a trip that would cut through northern Spain, the Basque, Southern France, through Paris and across the English Channel toward England and Gatwick Airport. They named their coach bus the “Gatwick Express,” playing off of the name of the real Gatwick express that brings travelers to the Gatwick Airport in London.
What made the entire story remarkable was that 50 individuals who had never met were able to unite and harmoniously travel from Madrid to London. We all had pressing reasons to return home, whether it was final exams, careers or – in one man’s case – his wedding. Everyone was apprehensive, but in this 30-hour journey, we congealed as a group and committed to weather the weather.
To be honest, we had no reason to trust the coordinators. Lawrie had called a friend and entrusted him to charter a bus from Madrid to London, although he was unable to ascertain all the logistics of the trip. The three coordinators required that we all pay a 50-euro deposit to confirm our seat on the charter bus. They assured us that they would return the money if the bus did not arrive; however, with no information concerning the bus company, the bus drivers or the route we would take home, many rightfully worried that they would be paying a 50-euro deposit only to lose it to potential scammers. The coordinators took a gamble and put themselves on the line. We took a risk, buying into their idea and assuming them trustworthy. Ultimately, our risks paid off.
Crises have a way of bringing out the best in humans. From this experience, I learned that with cooperation, tenacity and mature leadership, things can happen. If you asked any of the passengers on the “Gatwick Express” whether they ever would have imagined leaving Madrid by coach bus with 50 strangers, they probably would have laughed.
I do not mean to be overly dramatic about the adventure. We would have gotten home eventually, but I do think that the process and journey of the “Gatwick Express” illustrates some lessons for all of us. When things look dismal and bleak, there is always hope. Moreover, when humans work cooperatively with the collective desire to achieve a greater good or an urgent goal, ideas can become reality. If we can find ways to trust one another and believe in the goodwill of others, we can achieve great things.
Jeff Morshed is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.
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