Just another flight to Cali

Mini-dramas unfold on a Colombian odyssey. First of two parts.

By Elliott Neal Hester

Published May 30, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Having finished with the dinner service, halfway through a three-hour flight from Miami to Cali, Colombia, I am sitting in the last row of passenger seats, reading a disturbing article in the Miami Herald. Yesterday, Elvia Cortes, a 55-year-old rural Colombian woman, was literally blown to bits when she refused to pay a 15-million peso ($7,500) extortion demanded by leftist guerillas. The assailants had placed a tube containing explosives around her neck, rigged it to a detonator belt around her waist, and demanded that the Cortes family pay up. If they refused, the bomb would be set off by remote control. While police and military bomb experts tried to disarm the device, it exploded. Ms. Cortes and one officer were killed, four others were injured.

I shake my head while reading, finding no comfort in the fact that this particular act of violence occurred outside of Bogota, rather than Cali -- our destination. As is the case with most large Colombian cities, the government and police control Cali. Venture past the outskirts of the big city, however, and the roads give way to unimaginable lawlessness. Here you're likely to run into leftist rebel groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the group suspected of murdering Elvia Cortes) or the National Liberation Army. If you manage to slip past them unmolested, you'll probably be stopped by right-wing militias who've been known to slaughter those who they believe support the leftists. Then there are bandits, and of course the drug cartels ...

When a passenger call light blinks on, I place the newspaper on the adjacent seat and get up to answer the call. The last six rows of seats are empty, save for one male passenger from Arizona. He asks for another Budweiser. When I return, I ask what brings him to Colombia. He hesitates. His eyes flicker suspiciously as if he were a stockbroker deciding on whether to give insider information to a stranger. Suddenly, he breaks into a big smile. "I'm going to get married," he says. He whips out a photograph of his fiancie. She lives in Cali and is drop-dead gorgeous. I stare at the photo a couple of seconds longer than I should. Judging by the number of attractive local women on the airplane, however, it seems that beauty is abundant in Colombia's third largest city. The women sitting in 14-C,16-A, 21-A, 21-E, 22-B & C, and 25-D, E, & F could easily be finalists in the Miss Universe Pageant.

My Lonely Planet guide to South America claims that Cali has the most beautiful women in Colombia, and Colombia has the most beautiful women in all of South America. I take another look at the photograph and agree with LP's assessment. Las calenas, they are called. After another sip of beer, Mr. Arizona tells how he and his senorita hooked up.

The fiancie, it seems, had registered with an agencia matrimonial, or marriage agency. The same agency to which Mr. Arizona belongs. He tells me that Cali is rife with similar organizations. He heard about marriage agencies on the Internet. "You fly down, look through a book of photos, pick the woman [or women] you want to meet and the agency arranges an introduction," he says. "The rest is left up to you." Mr. Arizona goes on to tell me that some women are looking for a green card, others are looking for excitement. Most are hoping to find true love. He confesses that on a previous trip, he fell head over heels in love with his very first date. But after subsequent meetings she confessed her true feelings. "She told me I was too short."

I wish him luck with his marriage, then walk toward the aft galley and begin a conversation with a passenger from Oklahoma. He is not traveling to Cali to meet women. He is coming for sport. As it turns out, he is a wrestling coach for the U.S. Olympic team. The Pan American Games are being held here in a few days, and a few spots remain open on the U.S. freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling teams. "The team to beat is Iran," he says, in a soft-spoken Oklahoman twang.

"Iran?" I say.

"Iran. They've got one of the best wrestling programs in the world."

A few minutes before landing, I walk through the cabin to do a seat belt check. The man seated in 10-C does not have his seat belt fastened. I suggest that he do so, but he doesn't respond. I look at his face more closely and notice that his eyes are wet. I ask if he is OK and he shakes his head. No. He is definitely not OK. I drop to one knee and listen to his story. As it turns out, he is traveling to Cali for the funeral of a friend. His friend, a young Colombian man, was driving a Ford Explorer near the better-watch-your-ass zone on the outskirts of the city. He was killed for his automobile by leftists rebels or right-wing militias or members of a drug cartel. Maybe it was an independent car-jacker. Nobody knows for sure. The funeral is tomorrow. The murder, he says, will probably go unsolved.

I squeeze his shoulder and look directly into his eyes. He really appreciates the fact that I am taking the time to listen. He does not say this, but I can tell by the sad smile that struggles beneath his moistening cheeks.

While walking down the aisle toward my jump seat, I remember an incident that occurred on a flight from St. Thomas to Miami. It happened a couple of days after the island had been battered by a killer hurricane. On board was an American woman traveling with her young daughter. Their clothes were dirty, their blonde hair greasy and unkempt. But the strangest thing was that they had no carry-on luggage -- not even a purse between them. After take-off, the woman began to sob uncontrollably. I sat in the empty seat beside her and put an arm around her shoulder. She cried non-stop for nearly 15 minutes, then regained composure long enough to tell her story. As it turns out, her home was completely destroyed. She had no insurance. No job. No money. No belongings, save for the clothes on her back. Because water was scarce on the ravaged island, she and her daughter hadn't bathed in three days. She apologized for the smell. I told her not to worry about it. They were flying to Connecticut "to live in my mother's tiny living room," she said. This revelation opened the floodgates once more. She let loose the miserable gut-clenching cry of a woman whose life had been completely destroyed. I held her for the entire two-and-a-half-hour flight, abandoning my role in the meal service without protest from an understanding crew.

The memory fades as I strap into my jump seat in the rear of our Boeing 757.

As the aircraft descends into Cali, something goes wrong. Suddenly, the aircraft pulls up. Or so it seems. There is a powerful thrust from the engines, a noticeable trembling of the fuselage. I trade a glance with my colleague who is seated across the galley. "Are we aborting landing?" he asks, in a voice much calmer than one would expect. I peer out the tiny galley window, unable to tell for sure. "Dunno," I say.

We are both a little nervous, and for good reason. It was here, on Dec. 20, 1995, that an American Airlines 757 headed down a valley toward the Cali airport, veered off course and crashed into a mountain. Four people survived; 159 did not. Neither of us mentions this. Working flight attendants rarely discuss airplane disasters. Especially while the plane they're on is vectoring toward a landing strip. I close my eyes and try not to think of the mountains, focusing my attention instead on the beautiful images flickering on the dark screen of my eyelids: 14-C,16-A, 21-A, 21-E, 22-B & C, and 25-D, E, & F.

When the gear wheels kiss the runway I am relieved. I do not mention this to my colleague. If he is relieved, he does not mention it to me. (Later, the captain gives a very rational, albeit technical explanation about our approach. It was routine. "No, the landing was not aborted," he adds.) We stand at the back of the plane in silence, watching as passengers deplane. There is a knock on the right-hand galley door. Airline security. A small uniformed woman enters the aircraft and asks if I locked the liquor carts. Of course I locked the liquor carts. I nod my head, she smiles and turns to frisk a catering representative who enters the plane behind her.

For obvious reasons, security is a huge issue in Colombia. Tomorrow morning, when we arrive at the Cali airport for our return flight to Miami, we will pass through three security checkpoints. At the second checkpoint all passengers are frisked by hand. Sometimes the crew is frisked, sometimes we are not. Carry-on items are subject to inspection at all three checkpoints. The last time I was here, two security officers at the first checkpoint were playing with an automatic hand gun. After my bag passed through the X-ray machine, I reached down to grab it. I noticed then that the security officer was holding a gun in his outstretched hand. He pulled back on the slide, pulled the trigger several times, and nodded approvingly to his comrade. On a previous pass through the first security checkpoint, a different officer toyed with a nickel-plated revolver. He spun the chamber once and smiled at his co-worker, oblivious to the widening eyes of me and my crew.

This is what we'll go through tomorrow morning (minus the gun play, perhaps), exactly ten hours from now. At present, the entire crew -- four flight attendants and two pilots -- are waiting for me in the jet bridge. I am the last to leave the aircraft. Together, we roll our crew bags down the jet bridge and past the immigration checkpoint. There, in a long queue of passengers, I notice familiar faces: the groom from Arizona, the Olympic wrestling coach, the grieving friend, the lovely occupants of 14-C,16-A, 21-A, 21-E, 22-B & C, and 25-D, E, & F. I wave to all of them as we skirt immigration. They all wave back and smile.

Outside the airport, a mob of maybe 200 people are waiting to greet their loved ones. The faces are black, white, brown, olive -- the Cali region, according to my guidebook, is one of the more ethnically diverse areas of Colombia. The crowd is like a solid, multi-hued wall. We push through a crack in the surface, dragging our roll-aboards over shuffling feet that seem oblivious to the parade of tiny wheels. Above the crowd, I see the curved slope of our crew van. The driver sees us and gives a quick wave. One by one, he places our bags in the van's rear compartment. We pile in through the side door, but when the driver turns the key in the ignition, the engine fails to start. He tries again and again without success. Suddenly, the captain loses it. "This is the third damned time this has happened this month," he cries. Because the driver doesn't speak English, he fails to respond. The Spanish-speaking flight attendant chooses not to relay the captain's message.

After a few minutes, we crawl out of the van. The captain rushes into the airport, toward company operations, to arrange secondary transport to the hotel. While he is gone, I mention that in 14 years of flying, I can't recall a single instance when the crew van has broken down: not in Buenos Aires, Madrid or the Dominican Republic. Not in Brussels, St. Martin, Mexico City, Ecuador, Venezuela, Jamaica, Boise or anywhere else. "We take van transport for granted," I say. The crew shares my sentiments. And so does the crew van, apparently. As if by magic, the engine turns over and roars.

When the captain returns, we pile into the van and pull away from the curb. He makes a few abrasive comments to the driver and tells the Spanish-speaking flight attendant to translate. Patricia, an English-speaking flight attendant, interrupts. "Why don't you learn Spanish and tell him yourself," she says. Patricia and the captain begin to argue. "He needs to get a new van," the captain exclaims. "How do you think passengers would like it if our airplane engines failed to start?"

"It happens at least once every day," I say. The Captain ignores my comment.

For about five seconds, a peaceful silence settles inside the van. As if prompted by some unheard question, the captain barks at Patricia. Seems he didn't get a chance to make his point. Patricia barks back. They go back and forth, back and forth, yelling at each other like an old married couple. The other crew members are quiet. I look out the window, watching a South American moon play peek-a-boo from behind a drifting veil of clouds.

In less than 30 minutes we are in downtown Cali. There are a few glittering high-rise office buildings here, and lots of neon lights. But the surrounding area is rife with stubby, one-story buildings that are beaten and shabby. While waiting for the green light, just one block away from the hotel, we hear a loud popping noise. This is followed by a five-second hiss. It's the hose to the air conditioning unit, the driver says. He'll have to fix it before picking us up tomorrow morning. And as we pull into the driveway of the Intercontinental Hotel, a palace fit for kings and queens, the captain starts bitching again. Apparently, the Cali Intercontinental does not receive the satellite television channels he prefers.

Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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