Monday, May 3, 2010

The Great Volcano Adventure of 2010

Penny Hartin and her guide Oliana, planning their next trip around the world
Our Guide Dogs sure do get around. This past month when flight delays and cancellations were wreaking havoc in Europe due to the Icelandic volcano eruptions, GDB alumna Penny Hartin and her guide Oliana were stranded in Vienna, Austria. Both seasoned world travelers, they didn't skip a beat and made the best of their extended adventure. Here is their story.

By Penny Hartin

I thought some of you would be interested to know that one of your Guide Dog pals had been braving it through the flight disruptions over in Europe due to the volcano eruptions. Oliana and I were stranded in Vienna; we are back home now and in fact got very lucky. I think we were on one of the last flights that landed in Vienna before virtually all of the airports closed in Europe. Vienna is a nice city and we had a good place to stay - unlike many who had to camp out on cots in airports. The staff at our hotel in downtown Vienna were very accommodating about extending our room booking until we were able to get out.

I was in Vienna to speak at the annual congress of Age Related Macular Degeneration International (AMDAI). I am the Chief Executive Officer of the World Blind Union which is the organization that represents organizations of and for the blind at the international level – thus the reason for my frequent travel. Unfortunately, the conference had to be cancelled as very few people actually arrived in Vienna – many were stuck on route or didn’t get out of their home cities.

Oliana did a great job. Everyone in Vienna loves dogs, so she was offered bowls of water wherever we went, and around the corner from the hotel we had several blocks of pedestrian-only streets for shopping. I had absolutely no access issues, which one can sometimes have in some European cities, so it was a good place to be stranded in that sense. Oliana is a very seasoned traveler. She does not get anxious, and in fact, I think that she thrives on the challenge – the more difficult the situation, the more she seems to like it. She is really a wonderful companion, and even though I was worried about her and how we would get home, I was still very happy to have her with me.

The whole process was very challenging and stressful, mostly because no one knew how long we might have to stay and how we might actually get back home. I was also worried that I would run out of food for Oliana. I always pack for an extra day or two as I know that things can happen, but knew that I would not have enough for our extended stay. Once I realized that we would not get home on time, I bought some food locally but could not find her brand at that point. I started mixing her regular food with the new brand so as to ease her into it in the event that we had long delays. She responded well to that, so that problem was sorted.

Another issue I had to deal with was deciding how to handle her food and water intake so as to be ready when a flight became available. Fortunately, Oliana has travelled with me to Europe many times and so I know how she copes, how her schedule works and so forth. So I had planned when I would feed and water her and how I would handle it if our flight didn’t get out. This happened to us earlier this year when we were storm delayed in Geneva, so I was quite confident about what I could do for her so that she would not go hungry and would be comfortable. And indeed, she was just fine.

As it turned out, the first chance we learned that an Air Canada direct flight from Vienna to Toronto might be operating, I attempted to book it. I had worried that they might say the flight was too full to accommodate a Guide Dog and that they might ask us to wait. In fact, we were on their first flight out and they even blocked the seat next to me to give Oliana extra room. I am a frequent flyer with Air Canada, and have high loyalty status with them, so I guess that helped to, but I must say I was relieved. It was one of only three fights that made it from Europe to Toronto that day. Air Canada was wonderful to both me and Oliana; on the flight she simply curled up, very relaxed – obviously knew we were going home, and showed no signs of anxiety or stress.

I thought it would be useful to share our story, as it is nice for other Guide Dog handlers to know that one of their compatriots had a chance to participate in this historic event first hand. And I think that for those who are interested in traveling internationally, it is interesting to know some of the challenges that can arise and how our dogs can come through in such positive ways.

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