musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Don't Fly in Small Planes...

An old roommate, dear friend of mine and serial exaggerator once made up a set of rules by which she lived. Numero uno on the list:

"Don't fly in small planes. You will die."

It's a good thing she wasn't with me yesterday. On a small plane. In South Sudan.

Arriving (for the fifth day in a row) at the Juba office at 0730 with bags fully packed, I was less than optimistic about my chances of leaving. As I frantically tried to busy myself with [insert generic office task here], the minutes turned into hours and before long I was hungry.

Which was exactly when I was told we were leaving for the airport... hurray!

What came next is fairly standard for folks with experience in humanitarian aid, South Sudan, etc. and so this post is predominately meant for my mother and other interested non-crazy persons.

When we pulled up to the cargo area of the airport the yelling had already ensued. As the resident foreigner, it was presumably my fault that we were 4 hours late leaving.

"Look. My friend," I managed in my best East-African-colloquialism-tinged tough guy impression. "I'm just the passenger. We can stand around all day yelling or we can get the hell out of here so you can get paid." Somehow the money angle usually works.

Unfortunately we still had to load the plane with the medical supplies that would be going with me (actually I was the one hitching a ride with them) up to Pagak, my new home for the next 5+ weeks. That took another hour. Still no food in my belly.

The plane is a Cessna; a reliable work horse of the humanitarian aid and aerial safari communities. All manual. Goes anywhere. Lands anywhere. The Kenyan pilots get in and start pushing buttons. And turning the plastic wheels that I'm assuming control the flaps. They remind me of Big Wheels tires.

"Seat belt on?" Check. Now that's what I call a safety briefing!

We're first in line for take off. Actually, we're the only one in line for take off. As we taxi over to the runway I notice that the pilot's door is still ajar. I figure I'll wait until we're on the runway about to take off to say something. Good thing I waited. He was deliberately keeping it open... air conditioning.

Elevating up over Juba is always magnificent. Tin roofs, dusty streets, cows, and the beauty of seeing utter chaos blend together from above. This time was a bit bumpier than usual, but as soon as the main pilot took off his shoes, leaned his chair back ever so slightly, signed something in the logbook and started to eat a sandwich, I dozed off to sleep. Probably not the right reaction in hindsight but I was really just jealous he had a sandwich.

Some turbulence woke me up about halfway into the two-hour journey. Glancing outside at 8,000 ft I saw... well... absolutely nothing. Imagine the feeling you get when flying over the ocean... just not over the ocean. No tukul. Nary an animal. Nothing decipherable. Where was I going??

After another quick nap I found out the answer. Wait, where are we going to land? Just over those trees and down onto that piece of dirt? Hmmm. Ok...? I wonder if I missed lunch...

Again I come back to the Cessna; an excellent machine that made the Pagak's 'runway' seem like glass. Even better were the pilots who not only got me here safely, but were able to avoid a herd of cows running across to the runway just before take off........

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Jet boating... Mekong triathlon... Juba jet skiing... great white shark diving... Vietnamese motorcycle road trip... helicoptering... elephant riding... bungee jumping... small planes in South Sudan... for a guy who's the self-described opposite of an adrenaline junkie, 2012 has been quite the year!

Although, to be fair, I am marrying a woman who thinks that everyone just naturally wants to jump off a bridge with nothing but rope around your legs...