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Remote-Airstrip
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The Feeling of Landing on a Remote Airstrip

remote-airstrip

You appreciate the big cities. Tokyo, Hong Kong, London—all of these you visit often and love well.

But sometimes, your adventures take you further afield. You fly to a big city, then to a smaller city, and eventually on to an airstrip that could be anywhere. Stepping off the rickety commuter-jet stairs into the void, you’re tempted to shout in expectation of an echo.

Hello … ello … lo … o.

But just because it’s remote doesn’t mean you’re alone.

***

It’s hard to explain to those who aren’t similarly addicted why you would go to the ends of the earth for such a moment. Coming back from Comoros, a small, island country in the Indian Ocean, I took the Madagascar Milk Run. My flight to Comoros was direct, but getting back required a shuffle through what seemed to be every airport in Madagascar.

After a three-hour ground delay in HAH airport, we finally left for Madagascar stop #1, which I believe was the small city of Mahajanga. I was the last person to board the crowded flight, sleep-deprived as usual. I accepted a box of sugar water disguised as orange juice, looked out the window, and dozed.

I knew to expect one stop before arriving in Antananarivo, the capital, but I didn’t know there would be three. Since the first one was the first point of international entry to the country, everyone had to get off the plane with their belongings. Immigration was easy enough, and I schlepped over to the domestic terminal for the onward connection on the same plane.

Unfortunately, there was some confusion about my travel plans from Mahajanga to Antananarivo. “You’re not on the manifest,” a clerk told me. “I was just on the previous flight and I have an onward boarding pass,” I said, not backing down.

This went back and forth for a while. In travel, you must follow the Kenny Rogers rule—know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. In this case, I wasn’t folding. If you stand in one place at the airport counter, eventually they get the hint and things start to happen. After a bit more waiting, I received a new boarding pass and joined the remaining passengers in the departure lounge.

We walked back on the tarmac, up the rickety stairs, then flew on to another city with another dusty airstrip. Everyone had to disembark again, even though this was now a domestic flight and they weren’t refueling. I wandered to a sleepy transit area and dozed for another twenty minutes.

Back on the plane again. The same endless saga, the same “Where is your boarding pass? I don’t see you on the manifest” and the same hurry-up-and-wait process that every traveler knows well. The milk run came to a conclusion when I finally made it to Antananarivo, exhausted but high on travel. I hired a cab and rode forty minutes to my hotel.

***

After setting down my bags, I wander the streets to a Thai restaurant with a doorbell that announces the arrival of each customer. The fact that a man is employed solely to ring the doorbell announcing each patron seems entirely appropriate for some reason. I settle into a chair and look at an enormous menu as they bring me peanuts. Whitney Houston is playing on the stereo, where all of her dreams are a heartbeat away and the answers are all up to her.

Inside, a flank of nine staff members stand on guard near my table… but only one of them does everything. The same person takes my order and brings the beer, while the other eight stand in one place the whole hour.

I drink the beer, which is cheap, local, and good. I’m reminded of the rule that to be a country, you must first have a national airline and a national brewery—after that, you can figure out things like governance and electricity. (Look out for “South Sudan Airlines,” coming soon to the world’s newest country.)

My noodles arrive, brought to me with a smile by the same guy who greeted me and brought my peanuts. I look back at my flank of nine waiters. Is it a lottery? Did the guy who does everything draw the last straw? Do they rotate responsibility every night?

***

On one of the milk run stops, I was informed by a sign in the tiny airport that the #1 “core value” of the baggage handling company was “smiling.” On-time baggage delivery was #3.

This, I thought, was a good representation of traveling in this part of the world. You might lose your bags, you might not get a boarding pass for a confirmed ticket, and it might take a while to get home—but eventually, nine people will be summoned to do the work of one in serving you, and they will all be smiling.

###

Image: Kahuna

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37 Comments

  • I’m sitting here in SoCal at my kitchen counter with my coffee. You transported me. Fun to read. Love hearing of your adventure. Smiling here too.

  • Abby says:

    So true! I travelled to Haiti with a group in June, and it was my first “developing country landing experience”, so to speak. 🙂 Very similar experiences as far as many people helping you out and only a few doing anything.

  • “I was informed by a sign in the tiny airport that the #1 “core value” of the baggage handling company was “smiling.” On-time baggage delivery was #3.”

    This made me laugh, but at least smiling is what beats out actually doing the work. In plenty of places on-time baggage delivery would still be #3 with things like “free time for employees to chat on their personal cell phones” as #1.

  • Headed to a remote (albeit PAVED) runway this morning.

  • Roger Ellman says:

    I love this. Love it. Know the feeling of the airstrip. You have a great experience again, long live travel!

  • Chris, thanks for the fun read. It made me think of several interesting landings, most of them in central Idaho. If you’re ever putting down at the airstrip next to Moose Creek, just close your eyes. I discovered in Turks and Caicos that it’s best to never travel on business. You can certainly have the necessary conversations and negotiations in between your more leisurely activities, but don’t even bother to say you’re there “for research.” Saying that you’re a writer only makes things worse. But you’re right: when speaking with people in airports, or anyone associated with your travel plans, for that matter, you win with patience and a polite, but firm, insistence that someone do what you ask. Raising your voice only embarrasses everyone and exacerbates the problem. People will help you eventually if you wear them down with kindness and audacity.

  • Ha, ha ha, so funny Chris. But I felt for you. I call it third world confusion. Don’t you love it when your plane stops somewhere not on the itinerary. You have to get off the plane, no visa to that country, not a scheduled stop, but the airline did it anyway. Thanks for mentioning “forwarding” airline ticket. Very important to make sure you have and say it to the airline personnel. The nine people, reminds me of when I went to a small village India bank. I was at the bank counter, one rep comes to the counter, says “Yes, Sister I can help you,” then he disappears to the back. Twenty minutes later I walk back to see where he went. He is eating lunch with his three buddies in the back, while I am waiting at the counter during normal bank hours with no assistance. The bank was only open for about 3 hours each day.

  • vina lustado says:

    yes, i’m smiling here in southern cali also, trying to visualize whitney houston belting out her tunes as the nine waiters stand patiently beside you. too funny, chris 🙂 hope you get plenty of sleep soon.

  • When I’m traveling and feeling exhausted, jet lagged,hopped up on sugar water – I mean fruit juice, and in need of an adult beverage, sometimes that smile from a stranger is what gets me through!

  • But the most important question – at any stage of your journey did you feel the need to start singing “I like to move it, move it, I like to, move it!”?

    Love the Whitney Houston image. Funny, was just telling someone at lunch about the time I ended up at an Oktober Fest event in Namibia watching a Smokey cover band singing ‘Living Next Door to Alice’…

  • Roj says:

    Smiling as number one? Priorities exactly right. Because being grumpy is actually counter productive. It gives people a great excuse to refuse your request: they can frame grumpiness as aggressive behaviour, up with which they do not have to put. And it truly p155e5 the people in the queue behind you off.
    We all need to smile more, and laugh.

  • Karl says:

    How entertaining. I like your analogy to “hold em or fold em.”

    It reminds me that people are usually willing to go beyond the bureaucracy of their organization (in this case airlines) if you don’t accept “no” as an answer.

  • Duane Solem says:

    Even without more description you transferred the space, smells, feeling, and ennui from a sleepless travel. Great job!

  • Jeremy says:

    When I first saw the picture without reading the article the airfield reminded me of the one I learned to fly at here in America. The nice thing about learning in a small airfield is that you can land anywhere :). As for the article it does make me miss being in a developing country and our different point of views as to service. To me I would prefer delays, missing to have service with a genuine smile than to be on time and have that fake I smile cause I have to.

  • Maia Duerr says:

    Chris, love how this post captures the feeling of travel to remote parts of the world… and the photo that goes with it (of the airstrip in Mahajanga, I assume?).

    The photo reminds me of one of the most thrilling plane landings and take-offs of my life, at the Simikot airstrip in the Humla District of Nepal. Simikot is at 9,200 feet, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and the airstrip is perched on a sort of mesa. So when you land and take off, you’re headed over a drop of thousands of feet with the Himalayas soaring around you. Usually in a small prop plan. Reminded me of those old E-ticket rides at Disneyland! Nothing like travel to wake us up…

  • Tom Ewer says:

    Love your writing style Chris. You really bring me into your situation 🙂

  • Arti K says:

    “This, I thought, was a good representation of traveling in this part of the world. You might lose your bags, you might not get a boarding pass for a confirmed ticket, and it might take a while to get home—but eventually, nine people will be summoned to do the work of one in serving you, and they will all be smiling.”

    Haha… Chris, thanks for my first big laugh of the day. You reminded me of the best part of traveling – it’s these small moments, and not the grander ones, that are more memorable at the end of the day.

  • Kristopher Reif says:

    Ah, this reminds of my first landing into Kosovo roughly five years ago where the airport was nothing more than a slab-of-cement tarmac with a deteriorating warehouse baggage claim. There’s something about the inefficiency and under-development that I loved when landing on that below freezing January evening. The people there weren’t rushing about. Returning four years post, I was shocked at how large and efficient the airport has gotten since Kosovo claimed independence from the Serbian government. I think I appreciated the first time I flew there because it allowed me to experience a completely different kind of airport than in developed countries.

  • John Cunningham says:

    Chris, the Great Red Island is my favorite place in the world! Yes, there are antiquated ways of doing things; yes, the service sometimes seems strange; yes, the traffic can be reeaally slow; BUT the people are so warm and friendly and open and loving and kind. And the land is the most unique place that I’ve ever traveled to…and I love it there! I spent three and a half of my life’s years there and can’t wait to go back to visit…hopefully in 2012. I’ve done the milk run by air…but it’s a whole lot more fascinating doing it by Landrover or taxibrousse across the island! Keep up the great writing, Chris!

  • Love it !
    Just got back from a whirlwind return trip to Laos and North Thai after 12 years away, and tho many things now very different up there, I recalled my first ever trip to Laos 16 years ago, no buses up country, only getting up at 5am and negotiating with a truck driver willing enough to transport me for 3 long dusty days sitting perched on top of his oily old fuel tanker ! Spectacular ride and scenery, if somewhat ‘exposed’ : the stuff travel and life are made of !
    Thanks Chris : keep on ‘remoting’ !!!!

  • GutsyLiving says:

    Every time I think of you and your goal to visit every country in the world by the time you’re 35, I keep wondering if your next move is to live in say 50% of the countries around the world for at least one month, or something like that. Don’t you feel the need to get to know some of the places a little better? Perhaps you’ve written about this somewhere else.

  • Your post made my day. Thank you so much.

  • Tristan says:

    Very engaging story Chris and I like how you can see the positive in everything, even delayed baggage 😉 Sounds like a true adventure.

  • Nat Power says:

    This is such a great travel report, I can’t get past how classic it is to hear Whitney in a restuarant where there is a guy to ring the bell to alert other staff of a new customer! Human labour and intelligence working in perfect harmony. I spent some time in India with a driver whose favourite tracks (all illegally downloaded) were all from Shakira! The passenger seat captivity did nothing for me dying to shake my hips like Shakira can.

  • Victoria says:

    Hahaha! Sounds like the Philippines. Despite hell and high water, there is always enough beer and laughter to go around.

  • The best fun I ever had was three research trips to Southeast Asia in the mid 1960s to collect photography in South Vietnam, Laos and Thailand of typical cultural features. These photographs were used to develop Photographic Interpretation Manuals (Keys) for the identification of insurgent activity in a jungle environment — i.e the identification of Viet Cong installations.

    These projects lasted four to seven weeks in length, and were supported by the State Department, Department of Defense, and the CIA. Some of the photography was collected through the use of STOL aircraft that could land and take off from a 500 foot strip carved out on a ridge-top. Others were taken from the cockpit of the Ambassador’s C-47 in Thailand. Still others, from miscellaneous military aircraft, and helicopters.

    This happened over 45 years ago, but I still have copies of some of the photography collected.

    Enjoyed your account.

    Thanks,

    Tom Farrell

  • Michelle says:

    Oh I miss that feeling so much. It’s been over ten years since I landed anywhere remote (and no, New Zealand is NOT considered remote! 🙂
    Thanks for transporting me back… I’ll be back on the road again soon.

  • TD Hollis says:

    A national airline and a brewery – sounds like a winning combination to me!

  • Deborah A. says:

    I remember my first (and only!) flight on an (approx. 60 seat) small aircraft. It totally freaked me out! I didn’t know my fear was showing until the flight attendant said with a very concerned look on her face, ‘Are you okay?’. Since then I stick to the big planes headed to long landing strips with plenty of room to land safely! lol

  • Roberta Carlson says:

    I love reading your travel commentaries, they transport me back in time (1960’s). As a Pan American World Airways flight attendant, rather than joining the other “stews” at the fashion shows and shopping emporiums of the world, I flew to the offbeat locations, catching puddle jumpers from Nairobi to Timbuktu (formerly Timbuctoo), or landing on a dirt strip in Katmandu. You bring back the scents and sounds unique to these out-of-the way, sometimes very exotic, locations. I learned to drink beer during my travels because the water was not safe to consume. Thank you.

  • Ryan says:

    If I ever travel to Madagascar I think I’ll try and find a ferry service, or a boat, a dingy….hell I’ll settle for a raft.

  • Another awesome post, Chris. I really enjoy these insights from your travels.

  • Maggie Dodson says:

    Ha ha! sounds like great fun. Love to read your travel journal………looking forward to the next episode.

  • Great story, Chris. We could smell the dust, hear the music. Nicely done.

  • emma says:

    Oh, Chris, this post, more than any in a long time, makes me yearn to leap on a plane, backpack in hand. You beautifully capture the essence of life on the road. As always, thank you for your eye and your words.

  • Monica says:

    Growing up in rural alaska, we always get stuck on the milk run, and always have to stop for refueling somewhere (usually in King Salmon). But I/we (fellow travelers) have been stuck in the Cold Bay airport, or the Dillingham airport. In those places, everything closes down at about 5, and nothing is open on sundays. For some reason, those times are when the plane decides to hang out for a while.

  • Mark Jackson says:

    Thanks for the great description of Ozone, the Thai restaurant! My wife and I love that place, and not least for the smiling service!

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