Saturday, May 28, 2011

Time On The Ground

That's not something I normally have the luxury of doing.  But today it was planned.  I'm flying for Samaritan's Purse folks; seems lightning struck their internet system way out in the bush and I am taking a team to repair it.  Banda is way out there for the 206.  It's in the northeast corner of Congo, up near Sudan.  But before we head there, I stop in Faradje to bring the folks there some things.  It's very cloudy today with a thick cloud layer only 1000 feet above the ground.  Near Faradje, I find a hole and descend underneath the clouds for the rest of the trip.  From Faradje, it's off to Banda, and straight through Garamba National Park to get there.  Because of the clouds, I stay low, 500-1000 feet above the ground, and mention to my passenger up front that if he's lucky, he might see a few animals.

He quickly spots a herd of water buffalo on his side, then I spot some on my side.  Seems they are everywhere.  I circle around one of the larger herds so we can take a closer look.  After a few photos, we continue on track to Banda and a few holes begin forming as the sun starts to burn off the low layer of clouds.  I add full power and pitch the nose up when movement on the ground catches my eye.  I look down and spot what, at first glance, I pass off as more water buffalo, but then I take a second glance and realize these are much...much larger than water buffalo.  Hey, they're elephants, 20 or 30 of them!  They're huge and as we circle around again, I notice the grass surrounding them covers their lower halves.  That's some tall grass!

I've been to Banda once before, in the dry season, and the airstrip was not very nice to the airplane.  And when I say "airstrip," I mean the main road that passes through town.  The dirt was extremely hard and rough, and the edges were just wide enough for the wheels of the airplane.  The parking area was so overgrown that I didn't want to taxi through it, so I shut down and pushed the airplane back by hand.

As I circle overhead today, it looks very nice.  The edges look trimmed, the dirt portion is wider, and the parking area looks cut.  Landing confirms my observations and I let my passengers loose.  They will be gone for almost 3 hours, so I have lots of time on my hands.  Two guys in particular stick around the entire time I'm waiting.  I chat with them about their town, their families, the LRA, and what life is like for them.  One of them tells me he rides his bike 350 kilometers to the next biggest town for supplies and food they can't get in town.  If the road is dry, it takes him 3 or 4 days.  If it's wet, it can take more than a week.  Each family member takes turns walking 4 kilometers just to have 5 gallons of water.  And because the LRA is hiding in the forest, they are unable to hunt for meat; they live off rice and any vegetables they are able to grow.  If nothing grows, they don't eat.

It's a little sobering as I eat my PB&J and corn nuts from the US.  I try my hardest to imagine what a day-to-day life would be like for these people, but it's just so hard.  They are eager to hear about life in America.  How we always have water coming out of the faucet, and we can even drink it without worrying about getting typhoid or having to boil it.  How we always have food in the fridge and it never runs out, but if it does, there's restaurants and fast food to back us up.  How we always have a fresh pair of clothes to wear every day.  And the fact that there are no people hiding in the bushes, ready to take everything we have and then hack us to death with a machete.  How the electricity is always on, and if it goes off for more than 10 minutes in a 5 year time span, we complain and want our money back because it's not fair.  How everything is instant.

Fact is, I like it here.  It's different living without consistent electricity, drinkable water, and everything takes forever.  I like not having a TV or a cell phone.  I spend time with people, talk with people, get to know them, laugh with them.  I like thinking up solutions to problems.  I like the freedom.  And I've learned that if you stop trying to make your house  it's own little slice of America, you can be quite happy.  So what if the electricity is erratic and sometimes melts expensive equipment, or the water needs to go through a filter before I can drink it.  So what if everything takes forever and I sometimes have to wear the same pair of socks 2 days in a row.  So what if I kill rats with a spear.

The little things have now become blessings.  Like a nice hot shower, a well-cooked fish and an ice cold Coke.  An equatorial downpour when you couldn't take any more of the dust and heat.  5 minutes of air conditioning in the car.  An 80 year old missionary lady who tells you amazing and true stories that make you laugh so hard you start crying.  A nice local who wants to help you load 900 pounds of cargo without receiving any "compensation."  The cool, fresh air at 10000 feet after spending hours in the jungle.

Friends in Banda

Is it a road or an airstrip?
What are your little blessings?

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Next Stage

It's not easy keeping up with an almost 2 year old.  It requires patience, innovation, quick thinking, and above all, a great sense of humor.  We've been waiting for this day!

Watch Out!

Believe it or not, it's sometimes very difficult to see other airplanes when you're flying around.  I saw this guy as I was cruising along at 10,500 feet.  After a few evasive maneuvers, I quickly grabbed my camera and snapped a few photos so I would have some proof that this was a really close call!  You have to watch out for those MAF pilots!

Ok this whole thing was planned.  It just so happened that our Caravan and 206 were going to the same place at the same time.  I took several photos as Joey zoomed by.  I was actually descending, so I was going as fast as I could, but I still only had seconds to make the most of this opportunity.  This photo was actually taken about 8:30am in the morning; I added the "sun" and the warm colors :)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Missionary Longevity

GOLDEN RULE of missionary survival as quoted from a veteran on the field when I found this in my meal:

"Brand new missionary on the field for less than 6 months:  so grossed out you immediately stop eating."

"Missionary with 6 months--1 year field experience:  remove bug and continue eating."

"Missionary with more than 1 year field experience:  bug is a protein bonus and...naturally...comes with the meal."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Welcome Home

Today starts early for me.  I'm up at 5:30am, getting ready for the 30 minute drive to Kajjansi Airfield.  Kajjansi is half way in between Kampala and Entebbe.  I've been here all week, working on our 206's.  The air is crisp, the morning is cool, and a mist hangs low over the ground (and over my head until the coffee kicks in).  First I'll be flying to Entebbe to drop someone off and fill the wings with ever so precious avgas.  I've got 2 55 gallon drums strapped behind me already, but we need it desperately in Bunia.  After a quick prayer, we're off.

[ It comes from refineries in the US, on a boat to Africa.  From there, it get's trucked to Uganda, where we pick it up and bring it in to Congo on our airplanes.  By the time it reaches our depot, it costs $10 a gallon, on a good day. ]

The dividing line between Entebbe (Uganda) and Bunia (DRC) is a big lake called Lake Albert.  I've flown this route many times now, but this time is a little different.  As I begin to see familiar sights on the ground, I start thinking about our life in Congo, flying, living, spending time with people...and I get, of all things, excited.  I breathe a sigh of relief as I cross over into Congolese airspace, much like you do after a long trip, and you finally step into the front door and collapse on your bed or your favorite couch.  You just let go, relax, let your guard down.

That's what I'm feeling.  I can finally "let my guard down."  I have a full day of flying ahead of me, and on final approach into Bunia, I peek out the window and spot our house...I'm home.  The familiar landscape, the familiar voices on the radio, the people on the ground...everyone's happy to see me, and I find myself happy to see them.  I only have minutes though, as I need to be heading to my next destination.

Somewhere in between graduating from college and finally getting here, I think we lost our sense of "home."

Before I know it, I'm taking off for Isiro, 1:30 minutes into the jungle.  I'm picking up 3 Dutch folks from Canada that I brought in a few weeks ago.  They actually flew all the way out to Congo to visit family--what an experience! (right mom?!?)  Come to find out, you can't get away from Dutch folks anywhere, even in the middle of an African rain forest.  A quick discussion leads to the fact that my wife is Dutch (and I am not), and grew up in southern California.  They happen to know people down in the same area that Joy's family knows, and in the Dutch world, that makes you family.  All I can do is shake my head in disbelief.

I take them back to Bunia so they can catch the MAF-Uganda flight back to Entebbe, and then on to Europe and finally home to Ontario, Canada.  But my day's certainly not over.  I have a local Bible translation expert that needs to go 1 hour North to a place called Auzi.  I always like going here, the people are friendly, the airstrip is nice, and I usually can get in and out in 10 minutes or less.  After that, it's a quick hop over to Aru to drop off 4 more passengers and pick up 2 55 gallon drums of avgas and fill the wings again.

By now, there are rain showers everywhere, and it's a bit of a challenge to make it where I want to go, but hey, nobody ever said it was easy.  As I land, I notice a storm approaching, so I'm rushing and rushing to get things done.  In typical African gesture, everybody is standing around.  I take charge and start giving people tasks to do, but there aren't enough people to help me lift the drums into the airplane.  So it's just me vs. the 360 lbs drum.  I make short work of the first one, but I struggle with the second one.  I guess this sort of thing is what makes you old.

After those are strapped down, and they are almost finished with fueling the wings, big fat rain drops start coming down, one by one.  The storm is only 10 miles away, with big booms of thunder crackling overhead.  I don't mind them fueling in light rain, but lightning and avgas just don't sit well with me, even though I know the likelihood of anything remotely close to that happening are next to nil.

On the way back to Bunia, it's more of the same.  Watching out for lightning and flying my way through a maze of rain showers.  Back in Bunia, I leave the heavy unloading to the national workers.  My arms are like jello.  I smile on the way home--all the familiar sounds and sights and people.  It's good to be home.