Sounds like a light day of flying...come to find out, Mulita is 300 nautical miles Southwest of Bunia, in the heart of the rainforest. That translates to about 5 hours of flying, and a whole lot of sitting. Nonetheless, I'm excited. I've never been to Mulita before, and it sounds like fun...a lovely old missionary lady, a beautiful flight, final approach over a river. Sign me up!
I go through the usual routine in the morning, and for once, I leave about 5 minutes early. Taking off to the East, I gently bank the airplane and turn to the West. I decide to climb high for this leg, as the winds are usually blowing from the East. My suspicions are confirmed as I level off at 10,500 feet and accelerate to a ground speed of 145 knots...not too shabby for a 206. Since it's an unusually long leg, I also take advantage of the winds and pull the throttle back a little more than I normally do. Instead of guzzling 50 liters an hour, I get it down to 40 an hour, saving a jerry can along the way. The only bad thing about a great tailwind is that it is always a headwind on the way back.
Along the way, I look out the window, pull out the navigation charts and follow along, and listen to a little BBC on the HF radio. I take a picture as I cross the Equator into the Southern hemisphere. Then I get to thinking...man, I sure could go for a Barbacoa Burrito from Chipotle right about now! So I pull out a few heart-shaped Valentines cookies that Joy made for me, and I munch on those. I think about the Chipotle close to my parent's house and how my mom takes me there on special occasions. I think about how much I miss my sister and brother-in-law and wrestling...inside...with nephews, even though they don't like me to :) I think about how much I miss playing video games with my brother until the wee hours of the morning. I miss laughing with my dad and sister-in-law. I miss spending time visiting and playing games with Joy's family.
I could take the easy route and just shrug it off. This is what God has called me to. I could remind myself of the verses in Matthew that tell me to forsake my family and follow after Christ. And honestly, that sounds a whole lot easier than navigating through all this emotional stuff. That's what girls do, not guys, right? But I just can't seem to get it off my mind. I'm missing home.
I miss the people, the English, the family. I miss the familiarity, Walmart...just fitting in. Here we are always in the spotlight. I can't go anywhere without being called mzungu 500 times, people laughing and pointing, or folks pinching my child. I miss driving on roads that don't knock all your teeth out and turn your brain to jello. I miss ice cream, gas stations that don't run out of gas, electricity I can actually use, and brushing my teeth with tap water. I miss getting pulled over on the highway because I actually did something wrong, not because someone wants a payoff.
Then for some reason, I start to think about when we leave Congo, what will I miss? I think I will miss the simplicity, the weather, my friends. I will miss the incredible beauty, the people I know, the relationships. I will miss the adventure, improvising solutions...because there is no other way. I will miss my guards and the national workers, especially the one who's sole purpose is to teach me one measly sentence in Swahili. I will miss listening to incredible stories from an unbelievably resilient people, the hospitality (if you can call it that) of the people here. It's not really hospitality when you literally give all you own to your guest...maybe sacrifice is a better word.
All of a sudden, I hear, "Uniform India, Alpha Uniform," and it snaps me back to reality. I'm almost to my destination, so I'm preoccupied with getting the airplane ready for landing. I find the airstrip, circle over head and study it for a few minutes before making my approach. As I turn on final approach, the airstrip looks very narrow and short, but as I get closer, I realize it's just because it's surrounded on all sides by 200' tall trees. After touching down, I taxi to the end where the entire village is awaiting our arrival. My passenger is returning home after having surgery in Bunia, and I am returning to Bunia with an eye doctor, who I soon learn did more than 80 consults/surgeries in less than a week. And I thought I was working a lot!
As I am unloading, a sprite, elderly missionary lady practically runs up to me and shakes my hand with an unexpected enthusiasm. I am also greeted by the local official, who asks for my passport, visa, and pilot's license. No problem...or so I think. I quickly find my license, but the passport and visa copies are nowhere to be found. Great. I try not to make a big deal about it, but immediately, he scolds me and tells me it will cost me a $200 fine for not being able to verify my identity. So we get into why I don't have it, where it could possibly be, why he shouldn't charge me a fine, etc. The sprite old missionary lady catches wind of my dilemma and tells me to continue with my pilot duties, "I will take care of this guy, I've known him since he was in diapers." So I take her advice and continue with the loading, verifying fuel, and getting things ready for the return trip as she rips into this guy. I'm a little surprised at her ability to be so...animated...at such an age as hers. I can hear bits and pieces of the conversation. "I know your mother, I know where you live, how could you treat our guest like this!" "Yes, but I'm just doing my job, it's necessary to have all the paperwork, you know this." "You're doing your job if it involves stealing from the Lord (as she shakes her finger in his face)." Then she turns to me, smiles, and says with a wink, "Don't worry Chris, I've got him right where I want him." Several minutes later, this guy calls me over to a meeting with him and his buddies. He says, "Look Chris, I know we are friends, but that doesn't mean you can take advantage of me. You don't have your papers in order and I could fine you but I won't, because you are like my brother. As a man of rank close to mine, I respect you, and I would expect that the next time you come, you will show me the same respect and bring the right papers." I promise him that I will, that it was just a mistake, and the next time I come, I will bring him a Coke and a Bible as a gift for my screwing up.
After saying goodbye, we're ready to head back to Bunia. But, not before I get someone to chase the goats off the airstrip. We're off with a right turn over the river, heading Northeast into some building clouds. For the moment, I climb up above the layer of growing cumulus clouds to 7,500 feet. I'm surprised to find that the strong tailwind I had has died down and I should make it back sooner than expected. Soon, I am dodging the building thunderstorms, and eventually, I end up descending below them while I still can. The weather can be very volatile around the Equator, and today is no exception. Looks like I have my work cut out for me the rest of the way. I dodge a few rain showers and try to do some paperwork, but it's just too bumpy for anything.