Reflections on Nando Parrado, the real hero of the film "Alive"

Last Friday I had the priviledge of hearing Nando Parrado speak to the 350 attendees of the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation Barcelona University.  Nando was the highlight of the 4 days of speakers.

Survival in Extreme Hardship

Nando Parrado survived for 72 days in the Andes, along with 16 members of his Rugby team, after their plane crashed in 1972.  Nando spoke about his experience of 36 years ago when he saw his mother and sister die, and survived in extreme conditions in the high Andes.

I had four reflections after hearing Nando’s impressive story of human endurance and survival:

  1. The extreme banality of the key decisions that shape our live
  2. No amount of suffering or effort even means that we deserve anything from the universe
  3. The universe just keeps moving – everything will carry on without us
  4. Extreme personal situations clarify who you are, your values, your purpose

1.  Banality of key decisions

36 years ago, Nando was boarding a charter plane with 45 of his friends.  None of the seats were assigned so each person sat wherever they want.  Nando sat next to his friend Roberto in seat 9B.  A couple of hours later, everybody in row 10 and back died in the accident’s first impact against a mountain peak.  A minute later everybody in the front of the aircraft died when the plane rammed into a glacier where it came to rest.  26 people survived the crash.

The author of this blog with Nando Parrado

I thought “Nando is here with us, a successful businessman, a fantastic family, a full life thanks to him choosing seat 9B and not seat 10B.”  The key decisions that guide our life can seem so small in the moment of taking them, yet matter so much more than the decisions that we agonise over (should I change jobs, should I marry this person, should I go travelling now or wait a year).

2. Suffering does not lead to “reward”

Nando and his friends survived 72 long, cold, painful, hungry days and nights.  He reflected that the nights were the most difficult.  Nando and his friend Roberto knew from about day 10 that they were not going to just die there waiting – they would walk out.  They waited 72 days for the winter to pass and the conditions to allow them to make an attempt at scaling an 18,000ft pass near their aircraft.  They waited 72 days looking up at the pass, imagining the valley beyond, the people, farms, green verdant valleys just beyond the pass.  When they set off, it took nearly 3 days to make it up to the pass (in bare hands, 2 pairs of jeans and their rugby boots).  The last 50m to the summit took 3 hours.

When Nando reached the summit and looked out he heard from Roberto just below “what can you see?”.  Nando reached the summit to look over and see mountains upon mountains rolling out to the horizon.  When Roberto reached the top, the two looked at each other.  They knew that they were dead.  The only thought was “we are not going to die waiting, we will keep walking”.

Nando and Roberto survived so much, saw so much suffering, the sacrifices of their friends, the losses of Nando’s mother and sister…  he so deserved a “reward” – but the universe is not fair – it does not reward suffering nor those who most deserve.

3. The universe just keeps moving

Nando returned to his home in Montevideo after 72 nights in the mountains, after walking 80km through incredibly inhospitable terrain, having seen friends and loved ones die.  He came back a changed man.  When he reached his house he found that his neighbour was cutting the grass and waved “hi Nando”, the buses continued to run, his room had been taken over by his sister.

Nando was struck by how little the world “missed him”.  It had just continued.  Life just goes on.  Nando went through his own personal hell, but the universe did not stop to take notice.

4. Facing death clarifies what is important to you

Nando accepted his death on at least 4 specific occasions only to find that he was still alive.  When Nando met the girl that became his wife – it took 5 days from first sight to them living together.  When Nando was facing bankruptcy and the loss of his house and 5 businesses to the banks in one of the latin american economic crisis he thought “I would have given anything 30 years ago just to know I would be alive and with the possiblity of bankruptcy” and just got on with the steps to recover personally and professionally and keep his business interests intact.  When Nando speaks I feel that I am in the presence of somebody who deeply knows why he is here.  He doesn’t fear decisions.  He doesn’t need to compare his life to anybody else’s.

72 days facing death means that this man knows who he truly is and is not worried if his neighbour has a bigger car or a larger television.

Were you at the conference? Have you seen Nando?

Were you at the EO Barcelona University? Have you heard Nando speak? Have you seen the film Alive?  Can we achieve the clarity of Nando without 72 days in the Andes? What are your thoughts?

What do you think? Let me know you were here ;-)

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