I missed the pilots shout of Emergencia that came across the intercom system. I don’t know why. I was told later that it sounded faintly hysterical – a pitch or two too high for comfort. I did hear the only English announcement – a garbled one at that – about oxygen masks. It was then that my half finished breakfast began to slide downwards. My desire for, and the thought of requesting a second cup of coffee began to morph into other strange thoughts. I slid the shutter upwards. It revealed nothing but pitch pure black. I looked at my watch and knew it should be approximately 3 or 4 am if we were anywhere near our destination of Bogota. But I had lost track of time. Now I was not sure where we were and my mind began to play tricks. Could we be over the ocean ? Could we be closer to the mountains that surround Bogota. Nothing else was being communicated. An eerie silence fell over the plane. I looked behind me. The young man directly behind me looked flush with fear. He said “it’s not good”. Beat (like the directive from a movie film script). “We’ve dropped 20,000 feet and we’re still going down”. I looked to my left. A beautiful looking Colombian woman travelling with her two young children looked on calmly, and was stoically quiet. “I have to be brave and strong for my kids”, she whispered to me. Another woman behind her, stared back at me wide eyed. My heart started racing and I could hear the plane’s engine revving loudly. The term ‘rapid descent’ took on a whole new meaning as the sensation of just that took hold. I put my shoes on, as if to ‘neaten up’. I put my belongings in the new yellow bag I had bought in Chennai and zipped it up. I stashed my breakfast tray under the seat to the left of the one in front of me. I wondered how Pierre was. He had moved several rows behind me adjacent to the emergency exit. I had suggested he go there as there was more leg room and I wanted to sleep. Two seats in economy is better than one. The man behind leaned towards me as I turned back. “The plane has changed direction” he said. Weird thoughts. Why had I given my ex husband’s number as the emergency number when I had filled out the departure form for the airline, Avianca. I remember thinking, ‘how strange, I don’t ever recall being asked that before by any airline.’ Now I had to entertain the thought of him having to tell our children that a bad thing had happened. I stopped myself. “This is not happening” I said to myself. I had to flip the negative thoughts and push away the dark picture I had begun to paint. The brief prayer felt like it happened by accident rather than design. ” Please God, this is going to be okay,” I said to myself. I looked behind at the young man again hoping to gain some more information. His name was Eric and he was Dutch, I later discovered. “We are turning again - it seems we are going towards Caracas”, he said. Soon after…by now maybe twenty minutes after the first announcement about the oxygen masks, which, by the way, never appeared…there was an announcement in Spanish about depressurisation, about flying at a much lower altitude and about a ‘landing in Caracas in twenty minutes’ . By now it was close to 5 a.m. The landing in the dark in the flat of the Venezuelan plain away from the mountains that surround Caracas, was normal and accompanied by a relieved, slow collective exhalation of held breath and released tension. We had to wait on the tarmac until the airport opened at 5 a.m. We waited a long time, it seemed. An hour, I think. We disembarked and there followed another wait of four hours without any offer of water or sustenance by the airline. The odd things one does faced with a life-death situation. There seemed to be a small fashion store open as we came out and entered the airport complex. I walked in and impulsively bought a necklace which was rounded off with a strip of light brown leather, a small pink tassel, yellow beads and a fake gold emblem, a tree. My tree of life. All $7 worth of it, and so much more. Soon after that a man from North London helped me connect to the wifi. He was reassuring his mother that he was okay. He told me that he had a pilot’s licence and explained to me how lucky we were that the depressurisation had happened when it had. “You see”, he explained, “we were flying at 10-12,000 feet max, and if we had been closer to Bogota we may have hit the Colombian mountains”, and then, rather alarmingly and graphically he started describing how it may all have ended up rather differently than it had. When he finished talking about body parts, I disappeared to buy a strong coffee.
Finally we were told that we were going to go to a five star hotel in Caracas and that we needed to go through customs, and immigration after which we were herded onto several buses for the one and a half hour bus ride into Caracas. The dumped rubbish sightings in the dried up rivers, and on the side of the roads rivalled that of India and China. “Don’t walk in the streets in Caracas”, said Gabriel from Salavador via a Viber call. “It’s meant to be very dangerous”. I needed no warning – with only three hours before we were due to leave again, a shower (albeit that I had to put the same clothes on again), a coupon meal in the buffet restaurant, a brief lie down and a bit of socialising and story exchange with my new ‘Emergencia’ connections, seemed way more attractive than actively seeking any more danger or adventure than I had already totted up. It all went by in a flash before we were back on the buses and en route to the airport again. Dismayed I watched as the bus driver negotiated the busy highway with one hand on the wheel and the other firmly attached to his phone and his ear. I calmed my rising fears with thoughts of having, to date, survived near aeroplane disasters, death roads, and illness brought on due to unsanitary conditions. The scene at Caracas airport reminded me of any Hollywood movie where the first world person is rather high mindedly entertained by the chaos of a third world situation. There was one Avianca representative assigned to hand out boarding passes to the approximately two hundred passengers. The official only spoke Spanish and began to call out the names of each and every passenger. Yuuleeeeun Uhdulsteeeen. Peeeuur Mulzaar. Unna Mareeuh Haarbohttell. The flight number was unchanged from the original AV121 that brought us to Caracas instead of Bogota. We began to applaud as we were each identified. A faint hysteria had begun to envelop the over fatigued group as we resolved to go through customs, immigration, the scanning of our luggage for the third time since leaving our homes and Heathrow almost twenty hours ago. We still had another ten hours to go before finally touching down in Barranquilla, our final destination. We arrived there at 1 am. Our bags did not. As we finally checked into our hotel at 2 am the prospect of wearing the same sweaty clothes for work starting at 9am did not fill me with joy.
Barranquilla, often referred to as Arenosa (the sandbox in Spanish) due it’s lack of fertile soil, is located close to the Caribbean sea in the north of the country. Colombia’s largest river, the Magdalena meets the sea here. Barranquilla is reputed to be the home of magical realism. An installation and tribute room to the novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez takes pride of place at the new modern, local regional museum. Projected films depict his characters on a backdrop of shelves of books as the visitor is seated at an oversized writing desk. A group of revered writers, philosophers and reporters, including Marquez were part of the ‘Barranquilla Group’ made famous in his book One Hundred Years of Solitude.
When I surf the television channels in search of a news channel in my hotel room, the choices are riveting and reflect the proximity to North America as well as the sexiness of the South America’s. I can’t find CNN, but I can find Seinfeld, Ellen De Generes, ‘Dr. House’, as well as endless programmes about love, marriage and sex – ‘Matrimonia por Amor’, ‘Falsa Seducion’, ‘Hot Lesbian Love’ and ‘Naked Happy Girls’.
At 10 am Estefania Montoya arrived along with her colleague Dr. Vicky Alicia Manjarres. As the FXB representatives, beneficiary identifiers and fund raising operatives in Colombia, they would guide us around the city which is surrounded on all sides by the barrios – the slums. Strewn garbage features prominently. The houses are all surrounded by security bars that surround the verandas in their entirety – a veritable personal prison cell – very reminiscent and noticeably similar to the security systems of the homes that I have seen in the ‘Coloured’ townships of Cape Town . We drove out of the city and left the car in a backstreet car park-parking lot. There we met the first beneficiary and entered the barrio, Benedicion de Dios, on his bicycle tuk-tuk. In the thirty nine degree heat that is accompanied by sweat inducing humidity, we braced ourselves on the slow moving contraption, the cameras precariously placed underneath the passenger seat, at the driver’s side and in the ‘cab’. Sometimes we had to get off and walk if we encountered any incline. After a few hours of meeting and greeting and listening to the stories of the FXB beneficiaries we returned to the lot. Stefania had somehow managed to lock her keys in the car, with the engine running. “The consolation will be that the car will be cool by the time we manage to get it open”, she said. We laughed in nervous unison trying to find somewhere to sit in the dodgy lot. There was one occupied hammock and a wooden plank. By now the heat was oppressive. The comings and goings of the lorries, trucks and produce of the lot were beginning to look and feel a bit surreal. I asked if the large bags that were being off loaded were filled with ‘arroz’ (rice). No, I was told, it was fodder for the animals. By now the muscular bare chested men understood that we were in a predicament. One produced a huge rustic machete that looked like it has been put to good use. He wanted to prize open the car door. No thank you Stefania said graciously. Soon after, a young man walked over with a long piece of wire folded back on itself, a customised coat hanger. He was about fourteen years of age. Stefania asked him how many cars he had broken into. “Four…but the owners didn’t even know they had been broken into”, he said with a smile on his face. Then an additional group of men attempted to peel off the sealing of the window. We rejected further offers of help as more strange pieces of equipment appeared on the scene. When Stephania telephoned the insurance company, the man who would come to open the car, asked for the details of our location. When Stefania told him, he panicked and refused to come. Stefania would not accept this. “I am here”, she said, “if I am here, you can come”. He arrived sometime later via motorbike. An armed policeman was his escort. He opened the car deftly and quickly and hot footed it out of the area immediately. Luckily the running engine had not drained the battery.
The next drama was a flood in my bathroom the following morning but this was minor by comparison. In fact it was dance in the park.
The last barrio we visited was Malambo – the most harrowing story told by Angela. She has six children, one of whom is handicapped. Her eldest daughter has a small baby who also lives with her. She had seen off the daughter’s abusive boyfriend. Anyela had been gang raped by the Farc, she had been locked in a room and had somehow managed to escape. The Farc came back to her village to look for her. They killed her neighbour whom they believed was harbouring her. She ran away from her village for good. How is it possible to have lived through all of that and be happy. She showed us her new fancy dress up frock for special occasions, her gleaming new refrigerator that took pride of place in the living room. She told us proudly that her children now ate three times a day.When FXB met her the children were malnourished and she was desperate. Apparently she used to beg the neighbours for food, offering her domestic services in exchange for a few left over morsels. How, my friend Andrea says, is that I, by accident of birth, end up here and you end up here, or should I say, there ?
Our last visit was to the area called Las Estrellas (The Stars), a suburb of Barranquilla. It felt like a fitting end to all the visits of all the FXB beneficiaries. Thirty four year old Saray owns a mobile phone and washing machine business. She rents them out. When FXB met her she and her, then, two year old daughter, they had both recently been diagnosed with HIV. She no longer wanted to live. That was seven years ago. Now she has a thriving business, making a couple of hundred dollars above the minimum monthly wage. She was the first beneficiary I met who had ambition. She announced to us, in front of her daughter Nayeth, now nine years, that she wanted to own a house up the coast at the beach resort of Santa Marta. In Africa,when working on the captions for all my images, I asked the question ‘what makes you happy?’. The response mostly was “Now I have a roof over my head”, “I am happy because now my children can go to school”, “I can feed my children”. Saray was the first person I encountered who had seized the FXB lifeline, used it, benefited from it…. Now she dared to dream… and to dream big.