Polar Vortex Provides Unexpected Surprise for Winter Exchange

“Yo brah, is your flight canceled?” read the text message from my cousin Tuesday morning.  Like any typical teenager, most of what they say is either false, or intentionally false just to see your reaction.  I wasn’t buying. Planes can fly at -50 degrees, so take off at -30 on polar vortex Wednesday shouldn’t be an issue. Besides, we’d just dodged yesterday’s snow day which would have been a bigger concern.  But then he sent me the image from the airline’s website – CANCELLED. Upon reading that, my heart skipped a beat and I may have blacked out for a second.

It’s one thing to get your flight cancelled, but when you are responsible for a group of 80 Costa Rican high school exchange students, now stranded indefinitely in literally the coldest place on earth, you might need an ambulance upon receiving news like this.  This was an event so uprooting that I would later refer to things as before the cancellation and after the cancellation. This exchange was already one for the record books. With so many weather days I was basically making a new itinerary every single day. I was rolling with the punches, snow day here, cold day there, kind of like the Avengers going against Thanos.  You dealt with things as long as the SNAP didn’t happen, until it did.

winter skiers ready
Before the cancellation

I put the phone down, cleared my head, and assessed the situation.  Two of my six schools had already said good-bye to their host families as they were planning on going to the airport after concluding the day’s activities.  I was an hour and a half away from home visiting a high school and I had over half the group at a museum. I needed a command center ASAP and the best I could do was pace the high school hallway and leverage my phone for every last multi-tasking capability it had in order to keep the fire at bay.

First step, get dad on the phone with airline to find out rebooking options while I figure out a place for everyone to live.  I always tell host families that they are what makes the exchange magical and with that in mind I rubbed my magic genie bottle and asked for my first wish.  Luckily, this wish was a softball as families were more than willing to keep them, especially the ones that had just said goodbye. They had barely dried their tears of sorrow when tears of happiness would arrive with the surprise return of their exchange student.  Let’s just say you’d never get that reaction from a Holiday Inn.

Having resolved housing for the time being, I checked in with my dad on rebooking status.  Not. Good. At. All. Turns out, I needed to wait two weeks before I could get all 80 rebooked on the same flight.  With that news I left the high school and departed on the long, cold, windy drive back home through rural Wisconsin. The wind blew the snow across the fields, making it look like an arctic desert.  It was barren, and besides the passing vehicle, there were no signs of human or animal activity. When this story gets made into a movie this drive will have a montage reflecting back on all the fond memories of the exchange before the cancellation.  The music would be set to a ballad, probably from Adele, and the actor playing me will probably be crying, or at least have that glazed over look on their face like they are trying to come to terms with a recent death.

By the time I got home the pity party was over and it was time to get to work.  Armed with a thermos of coffee, I got on the phone with the airline only to promptly get shot down.  No flights with any reasonable space for at least a week(!). After talking up and down the chain of command and pleading my case I was essentially cut loose.  My only option was to take a fraction of a refund and rebook on different airlines. It was too late at night to begin that search and at that moment I looked my wife in the eye and told her surely this is just a bad dream and I will wake up soon.  This can’t be really happening, can it? It was like I was waiting for the director to yell “cut!” or Ashton Kutcher to appear and tell me I’d been punked.

I wanted to fall asleep and just dream for days.  Find some alternate universe and just stay there, ala “Inception”.  Even if I wanted to sleep it was darn near impossible with all the adrenaline surging through me.  I don’t think I slept more than 30 minutes the whole night.

The next day I managed to sneak 15 out on a later flight and slowly began rebooking the rest.  The weather may have been frigid but the phone lines we’re boiling. At one point I had a Skype call going with my trip coordinator, a cell phone connected to the airline and borrowing a second cell phone to take individual inquiries.  First I’d find the flight, check space/price, then call my trip coordinator to see who would take those spaces, then forward all the info to the airline and then work incessantly to convince the Costa Rican parents to agree to the change.

at work
After the cancellation

Convincing was not as simple as it sounds.  With 80 sets of parents it was a challenge to find consensus, with some anxious to get their children out quick as the weather could get even worse, all the way to the other extreme where they wanted to wait longer for the weather to pass.  The literal icing on the cake was that the teacher-chaperones had to be back to start school Monday and some even had meetings Friday. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a circle of people and they were all chucking snowballs at me to get my attention and listen to them.

That was Wednesday.  What followed then were some of the most anxious days of my life.  Now, that I had everything reconfigured I was on edge waiting for the next issue to pop up.  It didn’t take long. When going to verify the bus shuttle schedule to Chicago I was met with a notice that they wouldn’t be sending out buses that night due to the cold.  The last bus would depart in… 30 minutes. I was at least 20 minutes away and had no idea if the students would make it in time. I frantically sent out text after text, call after call all the while en route to the bus stop.  I was rehearsing how I would sweet talk the driver into waiting a bit, or preparing a chase team to track the bus to the next stop. Nobody could miss this bus.  In a sign that the universe wasn’t against me, everyone managed to make it in time.  That was the win I needed. If you’re keeping track, that was my second wish granted.

Fast forward through overnight bus rides, and waiting at airports all the way to Sunday at 10:45pm.  At that moment, I exited the airport in Costa Rica as traveler number 81 and let out such a big sigh I think it registered on the Richter scale.  There’s no greater relief finishing an exchange and returning everyone’s children back to them. On this occasion it couldn’t have been truer.

After an experience like this, some people might swear off doing that ever again.  However, if you ask me, I’d go through it all over again. The experience is too great and all the problems to solve only makes you stronger, right?  Plus, having gone through it once, I’ll be much more prepared for the next polar vortex.  And besides that, I still have one wish left 😉

 

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