I don't think I've ever felt so lost in my life, either before or after the night I spent in a village somewhere in the middle of Brazil. I don't remember where exactly. I don't think I ever knew.
Some of the details are hazy, now -- this was, after all, 23 years ago -- but I have no trouble at all recalling how my most unpleasantly memorable travel experience began: The small two-engine prop I was taking from Brasilia to Bele'm got caught in a horrendous storm at night and was forced to land at a tropical outpost.
We had been scheduled for a five-hour flight and were more than halfway into it when the storm hit. We bumped and pitched for much of an hour, so wildly at times that some passengers shrieked in fear. In fact, I've never really been a comfortable flier since, because I now know what can happen.
Coats and sacks and hats came tumbling down from overhead, cluttering the aisle. Suddenly, the pilot got on the intercom to announce that the storm was overpowering the plane, and he was headed for the nearest town with an airport. We were going to make a forced landing.
My mind immediately conjured all the worst possibilities. We would crash, somewhere in the middle of an Amazonian jungle. I would survive, but I would have to trek out alone through an endless snake-infested swamp. Would I rather go quickly in the crash?
Down we headed through the turbulent blackness. The airport lights were on, and they were waiting for us. In a few very long minutes we touched down safely on a slender airstrip.
Where were we? I was too numb to ask and saw no signs. The airport was little more than a cluster of weather-worn, one-story buildings, a perfect setting for a Hollywood action film filled with horrible disasters.
After moments of uncertainty, the flight crew trooped us through the rain to shelter under an open-air shed. It proved to be a restaurant, where we were served up a quick plate of beans, a Brazilian staple, and then directed to an old bus. As we rumbled away toward town, the airport lights flicked off.
Except for the headlights of the bus, the dark was absolute. No moon, no stars, no street lights, no other vehicles. I thought: "No one in the world I know knows where I am. Not even me."
My fellow passengers afforded no solace. Mostly country folk on a domestic flight, they seem gripped by their own fears, and anyway I was an object of curiosity. My red hair made me the obvious outsider. They were shy and wary.
The village was small, but it had at least one main road that was paved. I remember it took me only about 10 minutes the next morning to walk from one end of town to the other. And it had a hotel, perhaps three stories high with two dozen rooms -- enough for our group. We seemed to be its only guests.
Before pulling away, the bus driver warned us not to wander far from the hotel the next morning. If we missed the bus, who knows how long we would have to wait until the next plane came along. He couldn't say what time to expect him. Whenever our plane was ready. I felt like a prisoner.
My room was basic -- like a cell. It had a bed with a bare mattress -- a single sheet, still folded, was provided to wrap up in; mosquito netting -- a necessity, because there was no window glass, only a shutter that was open for any breeze; and a rusting sink. I knew enough not to drink from the tap. Did I even want to wash from it? I bought a couple of bottles of water in the lobby for drinking and bathing.
I didn't sleep much that night, listening to the rain and the wind and sometimes what I took to be the squawking cry of a bird. Finally I dozed, and when I awoke, the storm was over and light was beginning to slip through the window. I was up immediately, eager to be aboard the plane and on my way. I wanted out.
In the tropics, such haste means you spend a lot of time waiting for everyone else to catch up. I had a long wait that day.
About 8 a.m., two hours after I'd stationed myself hopefully at the hotel entrance, the village began to awaken. The hotel opened its dining room for a breakfast of coffee and rolls. A donkey cart paraded by, stopping while the milkman ladled fresh milk from his large container into a small tin on the hotel doorstop. A picturesque touch to momentarily ease my anxiety.
My companions seemed more communicative on this bright morning. We asked each other in stumbling translation when we might leave and shrugged in mutual ignorance. The hotel clerk couldn't find out. Meanwhile, we fretted and grumbled.
In small groups we strolled up the road and back again, careful not to lose sight of the hotel entrance. The village was a humble one, mostly of single-story homes with doors and shutters wide open. We could see croplands on the outskirts and beyond a thick wall of green foliage. The sun beat down, and insects buzzed ferociously. Finally, most of the passengers settled in the hotel cafe', nursing sodas or beers.
Suddenly and unannounced, the bus made its appearance. We were aboard it in a flash, and soon back in the air and on our way again to Bele'm.
In retrospect, I think I should have paid more attention to my surroundings. There I was out in the countryside, away from Brazil's big cities, getting a chance to see the real life of the people. On the other hand, I was an airline passenger, intent on arriving at my destination quickly, annoyed and frightened by the delay. Back then, it felt like a nightmare. Now it seems a big adventure