“I wish I’d visited Bukavu during my stay,” I concluded as I gave my farewell speech. “I understand it’s Eden on earth.” We were enjoying an informal lunch with colleagues and friends in Leopoldville, Congo, where I was stationed for three years in the early sixties.
“You still can,” offered Ed from the travel office. “Our plane leaves for Goma tomorrow morning.”
“Yes. Come to my office later.”
Naturally, I made a beeline to Ed’s office after lunch.
“Just sign here,” he said, extending an authorization to me. “You understand it’s a commuter plane, don’t you?”
I nodded. I wasn’t about to show my ignorance at the eleventh hour.
“Thanks, Ed. What do I owe you?”
“A smile. Staff travel for free.”
“Wow! How about Bukavu?”
“They’ll arrange for your transport there from Goma”.
“I’m so grateful, Ed!”
Upon arrival at home, I fished out a flared print skirt, white linen top and two-inch high sling sandals from my packed valise to wear for the trip. I stuffed my carry-on with bare essentials of clothing and toiletry. No need for cosmopolitan chic in the jungle. The next morning, I took the earliest bus to the airport. I flashed my UN passport past the single employee at the desk. No other passengers were in sight, not even a plane for that matter, just a truck in the middle of the tarmac being unloaded.
After an hour’s wait a young man came by:
“Are you waiting for somebody?” he asked.
“I’m on my way to Goma,” I muttered.
“That one! It’s not here yet.”
Great! Another long delay in a bare airport building or warehouse? No coffee shop or convenience store in sight. Two hours later the young man returned. He took me to the private jet I had dreamed about, a toy-size plane lost in the middle of the expanse. Could I trust myself to its wings?
“You can go up and settle down,” he said, pointing to a rope ladder. I started my ascent clutching the ropes for dear life. Barely had I stepped on the threshold when my carry-on bag whizzed by me in a new-moon trajectory from the ground. The cabin was a little ragged, somewhat musty, and empty except for four seats in the center. No stewardess in sight. Half an hour later I heard some noises that sounded like an incomprehensible language.
“Company!” I rejoiced.
Workmen started loading. The mail bundles appeared first, thrown in from the tarmac, basketball style. Then vegetable crates, including fresh radishes, onions and cabbages, were carried in, up the ladder. Files followed, packed in cardboard boxes, bound by a string, the addresses hastily scribbled. Finally the young man came up to make a neat pile of the mess. He asked if I was comfortable. Then he leaned out to take over three dozen fowls, a bouquet of chicks you might say, each dozen tied together by their feet, facing each other. He placed them on top of the pile, like icing on a cake. I would have flown out of the plane had the bundles not been in my way. The man exited, banging the door shut behind him. The pilot climbed into his cockpit and we took off unceremoniously. Was he aware that there was a passenger on his flight?
Hungry and without the prospect of lunch during our five-hour flight, my only option was either a live bird or a mud-soaked cabbage. Those chicks cackled without a moment’s rest. Beaks wide open, shrieks at peak, pushing each other for an iota of space, they were obviously fighting for territorial rights. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry at my predicament. I yelled to silence them but their voices overpowered mine.
An hour into the flight a thick white fog enveloped us reducing visibility to zero. Lightning beamed, followed by rumbles of thunder a minute thereafter. For a split second the fowls stopped their negotiations, stupefied by the roar. Then, as the torrential tropical rain pounded the windows relentlessly, they screeched in unison with each roar of thunder, a thirty-six member chorus keeping in tune with nature. In the absence of a conductor to orchestrate this celestial cacophony, I attempted to bring some order to the chaos by stepping forward but changed my mind immediately. Despite the benefit of height for once, the lack of equilibrium, or probably dizziness, prevented me from carrying out my mission. Being henpecked by a bunch of chickens was no laughing matter.
As time went by the heat in the cabin mounted. The pungent odors emanating from the radishes, cabbages and onions, combined with those emitted by the fowls, overpowered my perfume already worn thin by my own sweat. An occasional feather flew in my direction. I beguiled myself by counting the banana trees in the plantations below, hoping to reach destination before we used up all the oxygen in the cabin.
I must have dozed off from heat exhaustion. A few jolts warned me that we were descending. Earth looked closer by the minute. Four men stood outside the airport building. The plane hit ground with a bang. I waited until the cargo was out of the way. The chickens were taken out first. The vegetables followed leaving a last whiff of pungency behind. The bundles landed on the tarmac, following the law of gravity. I must have looked like a ghost when I showed up at the door with my flared skirt, high heels and disheveled appearance.
“Bienvenue, Mlle. Terzian!” yelled one of the men, signaling me to come down. I worked the ropes gracefully until my heel caught on the third rung from the bottom, flinging me flat on the tarmac, legs up, skirt flared like a flag. The "yeller" rushed forward:
“Allow me,” he whispered, pulling me up. “I’m Chuck, the travel officer here.”
He led me to his truck, saving me from the embarrassment of meeting the members of his group, who apparently were the top brass of the organization on the East Coast! Our meeting could not have been more “intimate.”
The epiphany of “travel by commuter plane,” struck me then. It meant being part of the cargo.
Published in the March 7, 2011 issue of www.thelaughingtrzpezezine.com. The magazine does not keep archives.