"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Meat Flight To The Jungle- An Icon Of Memory

There was only one way to get from La Paz to Trinidad, a small town in the Beni jungle of Bolivia – the twice-weekly meat flight.  Before the arrival of cocaine kings in the 90s, the Beni was a cattle-raising area, not unlike the pampas of Argentina.  Thousands of acres of low-lying Amazon flatlands had been cleared for pasturage, and Beni beef became a staple for the wealthy upper classes of the capital.

Dropping the 14,000 ft. between La Paz and Trinidad, a distance of only a few hundred miles takes only minutes, and the plane drops like a stone.  This rapid descent is complicated by mountain passes so narrow that planes have to tilt their wings at a 45 degree angle to avoid the thick forest on either side.

The meat flights are loaded with supplies for the town of Trinidad – beer, laundry soap, generators, toilet paper, and canned goods – but there is space for one or two paying customers.  Bolts and latches are placed along the cargo deck so that portable canvas seats can be secured. 

I took one of these meat flights a number of years ago and was riveted and lashed down near cases of Tide and crates of Heineken. Three factory generators took up most of the space in the front of the plane, so I was seated in the rear.   Because of the 14,000 ft. altitude at El Alto (La Paz) airport, the runway is nearly five miles long, and the Martin 404 needed every bit of it to get off the ground.  It yawed its way down the piste, engines at full throttle, roaring and straining to get off the ground.  The generators shuddered in their braces, the Heineken rattled, and the pots and pans clattered.

As soon as we lifted off, the plane banked sharply and dipped to the northwest, and immediately began losing altitude.  The flat, mauve wastes of the altiplano disappeared, and the dark green carpet of the high jungle came into view.  We descended slowly and after fifteen minutes, the pilot banked his wings for the descent through the mountain pass to the jungle. In order to keep up airspeed but to descend through the narrow space between the sides of the mountain, he had to both raise his flaps and throttle up the engines.  The plane shuddered and strained as the counter forces of thrust and restraint drove and pulled the aircraft at the same time.  The plane flew towards the cliffs to leeward, then abruptly banked, and plunged down the gorge towards the airport.  The cargo shifted, groaned, and banged until the pilot pulled up and coasted into the long, flat runway of Trinidad.

The flights into Tegucigalpa and Kabul airports are similar, for the flight paths are between enclosing mountain peaks; but nothing compares to the risks of the Bolivian meat flight.  Although it took me two days in a pickup up a rutted, rock-strewn, and rain-slick track often perched over the chasms and gorges I had flown over on my way down to the jungle, I knew that anything would be better than the circus trapeze act of plummeting 14,000 ft. from high desert to jungle.

A number of years ago I was stranded in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania.  A dust storm had been blowing for a week, and the flight from Dakar had not been able to land.  The weather reports warned that the weather might last for weeks.  It was the perfect storm with cold and warm air masses colliding, the Atlantic heating, and the jet stream taking an unusual, aberrant course across  northern Africa.  We began to make alternative arrangements for leaving the country by driving up the hard-packed low-tide beach from Nouakchott to Nouadhibou where we could take a freighter to Spain. 

Nouakchott was a dismal place in those days, a tent city of thousands of refugees from the most severe drought the northern Sahel had seen in decades.  Even the nomadic Moors had been forced to come in from the Sahara, give up their wandering life of the desert and be tethered to the desperate, dependent, temporary camps of the capital.

The wind blew incessantly and sand was everywhere. The few foreign residents of the city taped their windows and tamped their doors, but the sand bit into the wood, blew in through unplumbed joists and badly-fitted glass, and sifted onto floors.  No matter how they tried, they awoke to small dunes of sand in their living rooms and kitchens.  When the storm lasted days, they became irritable and unpleasant.  After a week they became paranoid and helpless. Any longer than that and they planned their escape.

During the storm I was as cottage-bound as the full-time residents of the city; but made my way every lunchtime to Le Marais, a restaurant favored by the expatriate French and  served lobster, Brittany oysters, foie gras, and Pont Leveque selon l’arrivage, usually once a week. I wrapped myself like a Moor, covering my mouth and nose with a long stretch of simple cotton, and walked the few hundred yards to the restaurant.  The French expatriates, long having adapted to the life of the desert, paid no attention to the blowing wind and drifting sand outside.  They drank, sang, and ate as though they were in the provinces of France.

After ten days, the storm abated.  The wind still blew, but with less intensity.  Visibility increased, and the sky became blue instead of the dull, sandy brown it had been for days.  We were told to be on standby.  The Dakar flight was sure to arrive.

Shielding our eyes from the sun and wiping the sand from our noses and lips, we scanned the skies,.  We heard the sound of motors before we saw the old DC-3 make its final descent to the airport, and quickly gathered our belongings and drove the few miles to the landing strip. 

The DC-3 was first produced in 1935 and had become the workhorse of Africa since that date.  It was remarkably well-built and reliable.  It was the aeronautic equivalent of the original Volkswagens – lift the hood or cowl and find primitive simplicity.  Little to break or foul, and easy to repair.  The DC-3’s remained in service for well over 50 years.

The wind was still blowing at at least 25 knots when the pilot turned into the stiff breeze.  Like the old Martins of Bolivia, the DC-3 labored and yawed down the runway.  Buffeted and sand-blown, it thumped over cratered potholes and avoided piles of Saharan sand.  The twin engines groaned and labored, and as the plane reached the end of the piste, lifted off and climbed above the storm.  Never had the crystalline, azure blue of the sky ever looked so beautiful.

Douglas DC-3, SE-CFP.jpg

On a mission to the Congo, I was to visit schools in Pointe Noire, a major town on the Atlantic far to the south of the capital, Brazzaville.  The flight down was uneventful, and we spent a pleasant few days in meetings, restaurants, and local bars in the quartiers. The flight back was due to leave at 7 in the evening, just after dark, and we arrived at the airport well before.  We heard the Twin Otter circling the field, performing a visual check of the runway.

Onboard radios were iffy affairs on internal flights in Africa.  However, this time the problem was three goats which had gotten loose from the temporary baling wire pen hammered up by the fire truck and were grazing on the grass that had sprouted up in the cracks on the runway.  The plane banked one more time, gained altitude, then dived and swooped over the goats which hopped, jumped, and clattered to the far side of the access road as the backwash of the props blew dried grass and bits of paper and plastic bags in whorls up and over the roof of the equipment shed.

The pilot made his final approach and landed smoothly on the tarmac. He opened the door slowly, stepped out onto the stairway, took off his aviator glasses, and waved to a woman on the observation deck.  As the service crew cleaned the plane and refueled it, the pilot and co-pilot drank Pernod at the bar, laughing with the woman on the observation deck and two of her friends. One of the tires need inflating, and by the time the plane was ready, an hour had passed and the flight crew were well into their third or fourth pastis.

With his arm around the woman, the pilot walked up to the plane, pushed and shoved the stern which on the Twin Otter rides high off the ground.  “No good”, he said. “It will never take off. Shift the luggage”.  The ground crew went to work redistributing the bags to the front and side compartments. After fifteen minutes, the pilot once again came out of the bar, pushed and shoved the tail, and yelled, “Ça ne va pas du tout”.  It will never take off, he said in English.  Never, never never.

The passengers who had lined up to board the plane were silent as they watched the baggage handlers once again shift the luggage from compartment to compartment.  As the pilot finally walked towards the cockpit, he grabbed the bulkiest and heaviest pieces of hand luggage from the shoulders of those waiting in line, threw them into a pile by the fire hose and repeated, “Ça ne va pas du tout”. It will never get off the ground.

The old De Havilland yawed and groaned its way down the rutted, cracked runway, struggling even more than the Mauritanian DC-3.  The hastily-loaded bags, sharing space with crates of mangoes and Pointe Noire beer, banged and hammered the sides of the cargo bays.  The racket from the throbbing engines was deafening, and we could feel the loose crates and boxes shifting and moving, sounding like the thunder of giant barrels rolling in the hold of a clipper ship in a storm. The cabin compartments jarred loose and purses and umbrellas fell to the floor.  The door to the cockpit was open and swung wildly, banging shut with each wild yaw.

The plane finally lifted off and just cleared the thatched roofs of village huts clustered just behind the far fence of the airport runway. The engines labored their way to a cruising altitude, and out the windows we could seen nothing but hundreds of miles of green, impenetrable virgin forest. The lights of Pointe Noire quickly disappeared, and those of Brazzaville were hundreds of miles in the distance.

An hour into the flight, the co-pilot tried in vain to raise the Brazzaville airfield.  “Brazza, Brazza, où êtes vous?", he repeated over and over. The cockpit door continued to bang, the jungle canopy was unremittingly dark, and the Twin Otter continued to yaw and sway.  “Brazza, Brazza, où êtes vous?”, the co-pilot again shouted into his radio, but there was nothing in return except a loud, prolonged static hiss.  The cabin was as silent as a crypt, and the passengers either stared straight ahead at the banging door or out the portholes over the vast, immeasurably dense and threatening jungle. The plane gained and lost altitude as though the pilot were looking for a visual sighting of something familiar.  With each change of altitude, the engines coughed, groaned, and struggled to regain their cruising speed.

Finally in the far distance we could see a few lights twinkling, then a few more, and finally we could make out the recognizable patterns of street lights and the straight, bright beacons of the Brazzaville runway.

There are many incidents experienced in God-forsaken places which I repeat over and over in a ritual exorcism of bad karma – the spray of bullets by frightened teenage soldiers at a checkpoint near Cartagena that shattered the windshields of the pickup truck in front of us and riddled the panels of the school bus behind.  The blown tire on our Mercedes on the Chinese road from Timbuktu to Bamako which flipped us into ditch, left us shivering, cowering, but unhurt under the crushed roof until a trucker stopped and pulled us out.  The car had been going so fast that the wheels were still spinning. Or the gully-washer in the Algerian desert, a sudden torrential rainstorm which picked up our Land Cruiser washed us into a wadi, dry for years but now raging with water.

I am never sure how I escaped the shootings, kidnappings, bombings, rogue 16-wheelers, typhoons, floods, and earthquakes of 45 years in the bush.  Nor the dengue, malaria, hepatitis, brucellosis, amoebic dysentery, AIDS, or encephalitis.

I still have nightmares about the rabid monkeys climbing the ghats of Nasik, the feral dog packs that roamed the streets of Bucharest; the leeches, tse-tse flies, snakes, and vampire bats; the intestinal worms, fulminating rashes, suppurating eye infections; and strange animal-borne viruses of Africa.

Most of my many years upcountry were pleasant enough – adventure, romance, food, and long, leisurely afternoons on tropical beaches – but aside from the most passionate affairs and near-death accidents, I remember surprisingly little. It is a scary notion indeed to realize that so many years have been collapsed into just a few vivid memories, bookends holding a lifetime of ordinary events. Chekhov was bemused at the irony of human intelligence, spirit, and will being so unceremoniously interred after so few fitful decades of life.  He also speculated on the future, wondered what life would be like 100 or 1000 years hence, and debated whether or not the future was entirely predictable and determined by an ineluctable human nature; or could be positively altered by human investment.

Each of the memorable incidents in my life are mnemonic icons – they stand for something else, and my imagination fills in the blanks.  Memory, researchers now say, is 10 percent reality and 90 percent fiction. Our recollection of what happened is rarely the same as what other observers recount about the same scene.  We pick and choose the moments to inscribe on our mental tablets.  The flipped car on the Chinese road is the switch to more dimly-remembered similar events in Pakistan or Chad. The rain on the tin roof of the hotel in Moroni which muffled the cries of my Danish lover clicks an internal switch to other hotel rooms, other women, and other rainy nights.

So, I tell these stories of near misses again and again; and I sound like an addled veteran telling the same war stories over and over.  But I have a method to my madness. I am like Nabokov who called himself a memorist.  He knew that the long and increasing past was far more important than the micro-present and an uncertain future; and that remembering past events would be a validation of his life.  Even as a young man he forced events into his memory and kept repeating them until they were indelible.

That is what I do when I recount or recall the Chinese road or the hotel in the Comoros, or the gully washer in Algeria.  Each memory is the nexus of a constellation of memories which can be recalled.

The meat flights in Bolivia have been discontinued, the air service in the Congo modernized, the feral dog packs of Eastern Europe culled and removed, and Hindus are less tolerant of holy monkeys. However, my memories of these events and incidents are indelible and are now as they once were.  The sharp banking of the cargo plane that flew so close to the sides of the mountain that I could see under the leaves of the banyan trees is as much a part of me as the 737 to LaGuardia I took yesterday afternoon.

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