Thursday, June 9, 2011

Overnights, Escargots, and Medivacs...Part I

I've got a long day ahead of me, and it's nice to get an early start for once.  I have 7:30 minutes fuel on board as well as another 55 gallon drum to get me home.  I'm off for Kisangani, two and a half hours west into the jungle.  I like going here; it's a beautiful area nestled next to the mighty Congo River.  I don't like going here because it takes forever to get anything done.  It's an old military base and army guys are everywhere.  They are all too eager to help with anything they can, even if you don't want them to.  And, of course, they expect to get well-compensated for their efforts.  Today is no different.  I drop off the drum of avgas; I'll be returning for that later.  I'm supposed to pick up 4 passengers and a bunch of cargo for a town called Buta, but it turns out there's 6 passengers.  That kind of throws a wrench in the whole deal.

I make a few quick calculations and decide I'll have to pump all 55 gallons into the wings on my second trip so I can take the empty drum with me (can't carry avgas in the cabin with passengers).  After an hour of paying taxes, I quickly load most of their belongings and 4 of the 6 passengers, then it's off to Buta, a little over an hour north of Kisangani.  I've never been to Buta before, and along the way I'm kind of dreading another long stop arguing over taxes and fees.  Plus I'm not feeling too well now.

I'm very pleasantly surprised though.  After landing, I walk in to pay for the taxes, and all the paperwork is already filled out and waiting for me...and it's even correct!  She hands me the bill, I hand her the money, she asks for a free ride to Kisangani, I say no, and I'm off, just like that.  That's how it should be!

Back in Kisangani it's more of the same, it's takes almost an hour to complete all the paperwork and get my taxes paid, then it's off to load cargo and pump the fuel.  I don't need any extra fuel right now, but I can't leave the drum here, so I have no choice.  With the last two passengers, I have to be a little creative in how I load the rest of their cargo.  In the end, it all fits, barely, and I have to lean into the back door a little to get it closed.

By now it's late afternoon and I really don't feel good.  Thunderstorms tower over my little tin can of an airplane as I make my way back to Buta for a second time.  Also for the second time in my pilot career, I discreetly reach for the little blue bag, just in case.  I'll be spending the night here in Buta, although I don't know where.  After unloading and securing the airplane, I make a quick call and figure out that I'm staying at the Catholic mission, and I was supposed to hitch a ride into town with my passengers, but they're long gone.

Uh oh

I find a nice guy who gives me a ride on his motorcycle.  We're not supposed to take "taxis" here in Congo, but I figure it's not really a taxi, since I don't pay him anything, and it's a 125cc bike, so it doesn't go fast enough to really hurt if you fall off.  And I figure it's safer to take the bike than sleep in the airplane.  As we cruise down the road, I notice huge patches of bamboo, and everyone we pass yells and laughs at me.  15 minutes brings us to the Catholic mission...and it sure is Catholic in every sense of the word.  Cathedral ceilings and towering archways, pictures of a rosy-cheeked Jesus, rosary beads, the works.  And it's not just one building, but dozens...and they're massive.  The folks are nice and inviting, and after a few phone calls, we find out where I'm staying.

It's pitch black inside my room, but I can make out an office type room, and a bed on the other side of the wall.  I'm promptly greeted by a young man and a young woman, who bring me soap, a towel, and a bucket of water for taking a shower.  Boy am I ever grateful.  I have an hour until dinner, so I quickly hop into the dry bucket, then hop right back out again.  In the dark, I jumped right into a bunch of spider webs, and that's just creepy.  I grab my flashlight, brush all the webs away, and do a quick sweep for any spiders.  Nothing on the right wall, nothing on the back wall...AGHHH!!!

One of those big, palm-sized spiders jumped at me!  Lucky for me, he crawls right behind a loose brick, so I smash it into the wall...and smash it a few extra times just because he scared me.  A quick peek reveals only parts, good enough for me.  I hop back into my bucket with a smile on my face.  The water feels so refreshing.  I never knew the air could hold so much water.  I'm glad to get out of my soaking clothes, but I realize as soon as I pick up a fresh shirt out of my bag, it's already soaked.  Oh well, such is life.

Dinner is quite interesting.  All the priests stand up and say their prayers to Mary while I say my prayer to Jesus.  After that, it's antelope meat, rice, sombe, carrots, bananas, peanuts, and escargots.  They beg me to try the escargot, so I figure I should probably oblige.  Let's just say we'll leave those things for the birds.  The antelope, on the other hand, was quite good, along with everything else.  We talked about catholic theology...well, they did, I mostly listened.  My French isn't that good anymore.

Unfortunately, my stomach viciously said "no" to something I ate, and suffice it to say I was up half the night "making things right."  It's not like I could sleep anyway, the humidity made laying on anything unbearable, and the bugs were horrible.  I spend the rest of the night thanking the Lord I live in Bunia, not Buta.  Props to the Catholics, but next time I'll pass.

A boy with bamboo, reaching for some fruit

The building where mass is held

Just outside my door
The morning brings no relief from the heat and humidity, but at least my stomach is ok for now.  Breakfast is sliced bread with butter and coffee.  Then it's off to the airport for the flight home...or so I think.

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