The first thing Dr. Seth Queller saw out his window as the plane rattled down the runway was the rusting, worn-out shell of an airplane. It sat by itself, between the lone runway and the single hanger which itself, did not appear to be usable. Why leave a broken-down plane for passengers to see? Random windows missing, both engines stripped off, stacks of wooden pallets and a few metal stands bearing the load as the landing gear no longer could. But also, where were the other planes, the non-broken ones, the ones capable of flight?
He could just make out ‘Air Burundi’ on the side of the abandoned plane’s fuselage, a throw-back to an era when the country had an airline. Back when the west was pumping hundreds-of-millions of dollars a year into a post-conflict nation, which turned out to be merely intra-conflict. The donors intending to help it accelerate toward a better future and away from its bloody, ethnically fueled, 12-year long civil war. Now, many of those bridges were burnt, and much of the money dried up.
The heavy-set Kenyan in seat 1A saw Seth staring at the plane and informed him that ‘Air Burundi’ did still exist, at least in one form. Someone close to those in power was appointed Directeur Nationale de Transport Aerienne. What he did to earn his minister-level salary since there were no planes, no employees and no flights, was unclear. It was hard to make out any details on that lone plane as the Kenya Airways 737 bounced across the uneven tarmac. It wasn’t the worst landing he’d ever experienced, but the peculiar thing was the lack of response from everyone else on board. They must know this is how planes landed in Burundi since many didn’t even look up.
‘Aeroport International de Bujumbura’ the sign proclaimed but he would argue any place referring to itself as an ‘international airport’ should have more than one plane on the ground. At least it should have the capacity for more than one aircraft at a time. There were no jet-ways at all, no bridges allowing the basic act of walking into an airport without going outside. There was only a single set of worn metal steps now being pushed up to the front cabin door that spilled passengers down onto the airport apron itself. Dr. Seth Queller had stepped down the air-stairs leading from a plane’s cabin, but those had been the ten steps that led from a Gulfstream-IV to a waiting car. This was something different.
The first thing he felt, was the visceral blast of hot, sticky, humid tropical air. It was mixed with a stinging level of jet fumes, and what he was grappling to accept must be the body odor of the passengers exiting in front of him. That pungent, boiling, air hit him, a blast of equatorial heat, rainy-season moisture and all those smells. It shoved him in his chest, and he stumbled back on his heels at the top of the stairs leading to the ground. Three passengers stood to deplane before as he got up from seat 2A. Two men and a woman jumped up, grabbed their bags, and stood in the front galley before the aircraft had even come close to a complete stop. He didn’t want to imagine what it would smell like if any more of them were upwind of him as the depressurized cabin filled with this caustic air.
The airport terminal itself was something to behold. A cluster of five half-dome structures of various sizes, slightly overlapping with each other, painted white time ago. The whole thing screamed early 1960s utopian optimism. It was like glancing back to what everyone in that era hoped the world would look like a half-century in the future when ‘The Year 2000’ would finally arrive. The rest of us seemed to have moved on to rectangular office buildings, and airports that can only be described as airport-shaped. Meanwhile, this one-runway aérogare in the middle of east Africa looked more like a rejected Disney proposal for a secondary pavilion at Epcot Center.
As passengers descended the stairs and scurried across the airfield towards this retro-futuristic marvel, he noticed two long, covered sidewalks leading into the largest of the half-domes. One which almost everyone headed under; and a separate one with “V.I.P.” in just-off-centred, blue lettering. He darted to the left with visions of expedited customs and getting out the other side as quickly as possible keeping him going.
A man in uniform held out his hand, obstructing Seth from moving any further. By reflex, Seth flashed his first-class ticket.
“Non, non,” he laughed “passport.”
Seth handed over his passport, and without even opening it the man mumbled, “Non, c’est le VIP only.”
“Surely you jest?” he said, fortunately only to himself. Still fuming about the pathetic level of service on the last leg where all he got was a slightly wider seat at the front of the plane. If a full-price first-class ticket for someone with million-mile status wasn’t enough for “VIP” then what the heck was?
A man approached Seth from behind, topped with thinning hair, his face framed with thick-rimmed glasses of clear-plastic with purple spots. The kind Seth identified as those only middle-aged German men wear.
“It’s only for diplomats,” he said with a certain French accent Seth immediately recognized as the man handed over his burgundy passport.
He was close.
Seth swiped his passport back from the policeman. Only then did he notice the AK-47 hanging from a worn leather strap over the man’s shoulder. It had what appeared to be four extra magazines of bullets strapped onto the one mounted in the gun with a section of a spent bicycle inner tube. He lost his insolence and headed back to the line where everyone from the economy seats now queued up, forcing him to shuffle to the back. The wheels of the Belgian diplomat’s aluminum carry-on rhythmically calling out as he made his way down the sidewalk, mocking Dr. Seth Queller. He now stood behind a large African woman with an over-stuffed reusable grocery bag wrapped with twine as a substitute for carry-on luggage. She shouted some incomprehensible language into a Chinese-brand phone she held out in front of her mouth like a megaphone. Through it all, a child wrapped onto her back slept soundly, sweat pouring off its head. Due to the recent Ebola scare, a woman in uniform at the front of the line scanned foreheads making the painfully slow process even more prolonged.
He had been on the ground for two minutes of a five-day trip, but he already knew he would not like it here.