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?

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