Friday, 16 December 2011

Found in my memories box!


This was written in 1977 so will not read as cynically as I might write these days! 

It all started when my husband* said “why don’t you come away with me.”  I should explain that he is a pilot with a cargo carrying airline and his company allows wives one trip a year with their husbands.  The aircraft operate rather like a tramp steamer, hopping from one port of call to another, dropping off cargo and collecting a new load.  As the flight was going on a round trip to Hong Kong and it was mid winter in the UK, the idea of a couple of weeks away from the cold and fog was very appealing.  However, there were details to be arranged, most important of which would be a visa for a certain Middle East country.  As we had been given only a few days’ notice, frantic phone calls and telexes were exchanged and we eventually received the information that it could all be fixed up when we got there.   

So, with a suitcase packed for all eventualities we set off to the airport at 7.30 on a cold, windy, rainy February morning.  The aircraft was carrying what seemed to be Hi Fi equipment for Hong Kong (coals to Newcastle, I thought) and it was going to be a working trip for me, as chief cook and bottle washer, which included tea at very frequent intervals for the crew of three.  I took the orders, weak, no milk, 1 sugar and lemon for the Captain, weak, milk but no sugar for the 1st Officer and strong, milk and two sugars for the Engineer.  Tea was requested to be served 20 minutes after take off and thereafter as regularly as I care to make it.  As we had an eleven hour flight I was going to be busy!  Having solved the eccentricities of the “hot cup” and avoided scalding myself on the first attempt, I settled down to enjoy the flight.  As the cargo bay opened directly on to the flight deck there was no feeling of being shut off and I felt I was participating in the whole thing.  My first fright was as we climbed, some large drums of paint or similar sent out loud cracking noises due to pressure changes which had me leaping onto the flight deck, where it was all explained to me.  The next fright was a slight pressure leak around the door (quite normal I was told) which the Engineer quickly stuffed up with paper towel!  I caught myself wondering whether British Airways had to do the same, and what the reactions of the passengers would be! The tedium of the flight was broken, apart from the tea and sandwich making duties, by being allowed to sit in the pilot’s seat and having the dials etc explained to me.

We landed at 1 am in Oman to find only minor officials on duty, none of whom spoke English, so we handed over our passports and were drive to a very welcoming bed.  At 9 am the same morning, we awoke to an insistent knocking on the bedroom door and on staggering to open it, found a very beautiful local policewoman outside, who asked that I should dress and accompany her to see the Chief of Police.  In a slight panic we dressed and were escorted to a police Landrover.  I was not allowed to ride with my husband in the back but was ushered into the front between the policy lady and a stern policeman driver.  I was feeling decidedly uneasy as we bumped out way over the rough roads to the airport.  The Police Chief turned out to be a charming man, but he wanted to know why I had no visa.  We explained the situation but this wasn’t good enough and we were told that I would have to see the Chief Immigration Officer.  We discovered later that quite a few people had been hitching rides to and from the Far East and arriving in this country without visas and it was very unlucky that I was the one they picked on to “make an example of.”  Anyway, we were all piled into the Landrover, this time without the police lady as I think they realised I wasn’t going to make a break for it, and set off.  100 yards up the road, the policeman swung off into the bondu and drove towards what I was certain was the local gaol.  I immediately had pictures of being locked up in a small airless cell with dozens of locals with bread and water being pushed through the bars, but he drove round the back to some small houses, stopped and got out.  We sat there for a while feeling hot, sticky and more than a little hungry until he suddenly appeared again in a gleaming Datsun, bedecked with dangling furry things and charms etc and invited us to climb in, saying he thought we would be more comfortable.  He was obviously very proud of his car and his 8 track stereo which he played at full volume all the eight or so miles to the town, stopping occasionally to chat to friends and wave at other police patrols.

The Immigration Offices are set in a very imposing modern building with mosaic floors, high ceilings and long corridors.  The Immigration Officer was ex Hong Kong police and had obviously been used to dealing with hardened criminals.  He sat us on the other side of his large desk and proceeded to tell us that he was going to complain to the Foreign Office about me, there would be a diplomatic incident, the aircraft would be impounded, the Captain personally would be fined $100,000 and I would have to leave on the next aircraft.  At this point I burst into tears, which I think was the best thing I could have done, because he softened somewhat and after a stern lecture he said he would stamp my passport and allow me to stay until our aircraft left, two days later.  Feeling much relieved, we were driven back to the company’s rest house, where we spent a pleasant couple of days sitting in the sun.  Even so, I was even more relieved when we got out to the aircraft to leave for Bangkok, only to find that one of the engines wouldn’t start.  At that point I very nearly refused to leave the aircraft again as I was convinced that this time they would lock me up.  However, we dashed over to the air terminal where we just caught the Chief of Police before he went off for the normal three hour “lunch hour” and explained the position, whereupon I was given permission to stay until the aircraft was mended.  To cut a long story short, we had to wait another 18 hours whilst a ground engineer was flown out from UK with parts and the poor man then had to work on the aircraft in boiling temperatures, having missed a night’s sleep.  He promptly fell asleep in the bunk when we finally got airborne and slept for the entire next leg.

Our next stop was Bangkok and we only had about 18 hours on the ground during which time we had to sleep but we did manage to go shopping for rubies!  The jewellers were like Aladdins caves to me and I could have spent hours just looking, but we were soon back in a taxi heading for the airport.  The driving in Bangkok is bad and our driver was appalling.  He had apparently been working all night and was ill, and kept dropping off to sleep and awaking with loud retching noises!

The flight to Hong Kong was uneventful but I was rather disappointed that we had to land on the runway from the sea direction, rather than heading for the chequer board in the middle of the skyscrapers and then suddenly turning to approach the runway from the land.  We had a bit of luxury in Hong Kong and, after bathing and changing, we spent a couple of hours sitting in the lounge at the top of the Sheraton Hotel watching the lights on Hong Kong island.
A small incident took place on the way out through Immigration in Hong Kong.  I had, in my handbag, a penknife and this was picked up on the x-ray machine which all the baggage had to go through.  A small Chinese lady rummaged in my bag, produced the knife, opened it and went into consultation with her colleagues.  Oh dear, I thought, here we go again.  I tried to explain that it was for cutting up lemons for the Captain’s tea which, to my relief, she accepted and then tried to close the penknife again.  Her small fingers couldn’t manage it and she handed it to me; I snapped it shut whereupon she uttered a scream and covered her eyes with her hands, no doubt expecting to see my fingers drop to the floor!

Our next port of call on the round trip was Karachi where again we only had a night stop.  I was very tired by this time and after a superb meal we crashed out in the motel.  Sometime in the early hours, we were woken by a scuffling, rustling noise and, on putting the light on were horrified to see a large rat on the table opposite the bed, trying to gnaw its way into the polythene bag which contained the butter and cheese we had brought off the aircraft to keep cool.  As the light went on, the rat shot off the table, scuttled across the room and disappeared.  Being too tired to do much about it we dosed off again, to be woken a second time by the same noise.  This time we came wide awake and hurled an empty lemonade can at the rat, which shot off the table again and this time went under my bed.  I was horrified by this and after taking my courage in both hands, I hung over the edge of the bed to see if I could discover where it had gone.  I could see no holes in the wall and we eventually assumed that the rat lived in the divan base of my bed!  We decided to leave the light on but needless to say I didn’t get much more sleep that night.  When we told the receptionist next morning, he shrugged his shoulders, and we assumed that it was quite a natural occurrence for them.

A brief refuelling stop in Baghdad and hours flying over nothing but sand, Istanbul was our next stop.  We stayed outside the city and caught the train to take a look at the bazaar.  We were minutely examined from head to toe by the other passengers in the carriage who seemed fascinated by our jeans and shoes!  Unfortunately it had been raining and the streets were awash with mud but we picked our way through to the Bazaar which was a huge arcade filled with little shops laden with all kinds of goodies, leather ware, brass, copper, rugs, cheesecloth clothes etc.  We were immediately recognised as being ‘tourists’ and as it was off season, we were pounced upon as soon as we set foot inside the arcade.  Men were clutching at our sleeves and whispering in our ears and we nearly backed out again rapidly until one of them asked if we were Australian.  Upon our reply that we were English, they all faded away in disgust and we were left to browse without being disturbed!  Despite our slight mortification at being considered the poor relations, we did manage to find a few bargains.

When we finally emerged, blinking, into the open air again, we found that we had come out in a completely different part of the town to where we went in, consequently had completely lost our sense of direction and could recognize no landmarks.  We could find no-one who spoke English and wandered around for about two hours until eventually we fell exhausted into a taxi, told the driver the name of the village where we were staying and indicated in sign language that we wished to go by train.  He appeared to understand, but after travelling for ages, we arrived at a hotel with the name of our village!  By this time we had more or less given up, but a stroke of luck as we set off again, we recognised a Mosque and there was the station.
Our last evening in Turkey was made very pleasant by the motel proprietors who invited us to eat with them and their family.  About 20 of us sat down to a huge spread of lamb, dozens of vegetables and salads and many bottles of delicious wine.

The rest of the trip was uneventful and, apart from being ogled by the burly Austrian handlers in Vienna where we stopped briefly to unload some cargo, there was no more excitement. 
Our family was pleased to see us back.

* now ex husband

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