Thursday, March 31, 2011

Complaining is Optional

Last night my hubby and I were invited to attend a seminar at the University of Manitoba, presented by HOUSING & STUDENT LIFE. Normally the obstacle of getting a sitter at short notice makes me wave my hand and say 'thanks, but sorry'. But when I heard who was speaking I really wanted to go, from a personal and professional point of view.

I'm stripping this from the Student Life Page linked at the top.

"VIVEN Winnipeg
For the first time in Canada, survivors of the 1972 Andes plane crash will share their story of survival and lessons learned from their 72-day ordeal in the mountains. Hosted by the Office of Student Life, Jose “Coche” Luis Inciarte and Gustavo Zerbino will engage audiences with their dramatic account of the event, the decisions they were forced to make, and the inspiration that kept them alive.

On Friday, October 13th 1972, Flight 571 with five crew and forty passengers crashed into the Andes Mountain range. After ten days, the survivors heard by radio that the search had been called off. On December 22nd 1972, the world finds out that despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, 16 individuals had defied the odds and were found alive.
A deeply moving and hope-instilling story of survival, motivation, and the power of the human spirit."

So, my thoughts and impressions...
Firstly, their voices surprised me. Coche has a voice the depth of a gravel pit. Gustavo's is higher-pitched, more strained (like someone has recently tried to strangle him). Coche had this warm chuckle and Gustavo had a ramrod posture, hawk-like nose and unflinching gaze. I can see why he's President of the Uruguayan Rugby Union.

They told the story of the crash and how they'd had to stay the night unexpectedly in Argentina due to bad weather. The didn't eat there because it was expensive and they didn't have much money. So they got on the plane already hungry. I bet they regretted that decision. The pilot hadn't been sure about flying over the Andes because of the weather forecast. They persuaded him. I bet they regretted that decision too. The beauty of hindsight is 20/20 vision.

Although maybe they didn't regret those decisions--because it was a waste of time and energy. The main message of the talk was not about the terrible things that happened but about the way they overcame the problems by (after getting over the initial visceral shock of seeing their friends dead around them) dealing with the problems one day at a time. They helped one another. They lived very much in the moment and dealt with one problem at a time with the goal (after hearing the search was called off after 10 days) of walking out of the endless array of snow capped peaks.

They defrosted a little water each day, enough to ease their thirst. And eventually, when they were literally starving to death, they began to discuss one of the greatest taboos. Eating human flesh. 

There was nothing there except ice, snow and rock. They made the decision as a group, and not until they ALL agreed did they try and eat the flesh of their friends. 'Bodies without souls' Coche kept saying, as if to remind himself and us of how they talked themselves into doing the only thing that would keep them alive. He described building up the nerve to cut into the frozen flesh. Described how, even after doing that, it took a whole new resolve to place the hard-won meat inside his mouth. Another resolve to force his teeth to chew, Another long drawn out moment of courage and inner strength to force the meat down his throat and not retch and gag on the precious meal. 

I'm a big believer in survival. It must be a species thing. Maybe I should apologize in advance to my fellow man because if there was no other way I'd do it too.

It felt odd to stare into the faces of these men who had stepped over the bounds of modern civilization. I felt a little shiver. A little knock on the door of my soul. There's a reason it's a taboo. It touches us to our fundamental core. I think most of us hope we never get into these situations, but if we did, we'd pray for the same strength these survivors had.

I didn't know anything about Uruguay--I'd assumed they were used to mountains and cold, but not so. Uruguay is a place like Manitoba, minus winter. A temperate flat land, the highest hill about 500 m. They ended up at 4800 m on a snow-capped peak, in their summer clothes and leather shoes. They crashed, and shortly afterward the sun dropped and they plummeted into -40C temperatures. 

I am intimate with that temperature. I know what it does to exposed skin. 

They planned and plotted and made the gear two of them would need to walk out. Sunglasses, rucksack, boots, gloves. They made it out of the wreckage. Two men set off into the soaring jagged peaks of the Andes with no maps, no idea where they were going or how to get there. Coche, one of the 17 left behind to wait it out on the mountain, said he'd picked out a day to die. (I think he said the 24th December). The rescue helicopters arrived on the 22nd Dec, after 72 days on that mountain.

Gustavo spoke about the things they'd found on the mountain. God. They saw his spirit. Felt him. They found Love (man-love was the rather wonderful expression). Love for their friends, their families. They found Joy in everything. They lived to see their Family. They discovered what was important and that was Family.

And when they came out of the mountains they told the world everything was 'Perfect', these men who'd been forced on a survival battle of biblical proportions. 

That's when Gustavo gave us a lecture on 'Complaining being Optional'. I think he's more a Nike sort of dude :)  

Just Do It.  

As someone who enjoys venting I didn't agree completely ;) I like to have a good moan about some stuff, but it did make me stop and think. Maybe I do need to find more of my JOY, maybe I need to love my FAMILY more, and maybe I need to LOVE people more, even strangers. These are all ideals I live with daily--I'm a nice person but no doormat. But I can try harder. Do better, feel the smile in my heart as I'm doing it. 

Gustavo was right about one thing--worrying achieves nothing.

I was honored to be in their company. They made inappropriate non-PC jokes and who's going to tell them not to? Good for them. They earned every breath they take. Every word they speak. They bicker like true friends who've been to hell and back and found Heaven along the way.

Bravo and thanks to everyone involved in organizing this talk.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Awesome post, thanks so much for sharing. What a wonderful story of humanity. PS. I've been on a MAJOR grumbling jag for the last three days ... it stops NOW :).

  3. Thanks for sharing Toni. I needed this today.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing, Toni. Amazing story. Really puts things into perspective.

  5. Very interesting, very moving. Thank you so much for sharing. Experiences like that do bring out the spiritual...I can't imagine what they had to go through. First of all, I hate the cold!!

  6. Wow! I have a huge lump in my throat now. I hope I'd find the courage to survive also if in the same situation. Incredible men. I find stories like this come just when I need to hear them. Thanks so much for sharing Toni.

  7. So glad you guys got something out of my retelling. I want to watch the ALIVE movie again now. Just because.

  8. I've never read their story, I'm not sure I could get through it. Just reading your post has me in tears. It makes me wonder what truths will come out about the trapped Chilian miners in the years to come.

    God has blessed every single one of those men.

  9. What a wonderful story, Toni, especially seen through your eyes. Thanks for sharing and lifting me up.

  10. Absolutely amazing! Thanks for sharing!

  11. Toni I live Chile and look at the Andes everyday. Although they are majestic mountains, it gives me the goose bumps just thinking about getting lost in there. To think about what they went through it’s just mind-blowing. Thanks fro sharing!

  12. Thanks for all the comments, guys. I am so glad I got to see these guys speak. I am fascinated by the human survival spirit. Why some people carry on and others perish. The other thing they talked about was 'death not being a punishment' b/c their friends were dead and they hadn't done anything to deserve punishment. They began to see death as a reward which made it even tougher to cling to this world.

  13. What a gripping and inspiring story. I just can't fathom surviving in those frigid temperatures. And eating human may sound crazy, but if I were in the situation and had died, I would want someone to use my body as meat to stay alive. In civilized settings we let them donate their organs so people can live.

    Thanks for this post. I needed this today. It makes us stop and think about what really matters in life.

  14. Incredible post. Thank you for sharing. I watched the movie- Alive-based on this event- at least 4 times. And every time, I swear I will never watch it again. It tugs at the soul and leaves you emotionally raw. But if it came on tomorrow, I would grab my box of tissues and watch it again.

  15. I heard about that stoey, but I don't think i will ever watch the movie. What a good lesson: Just do it. Don't worry.