Flying on a Military Airplane

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After almost a month, we left Atalaya, filled with impressions and memories of lovely encounters with people and nature.

It makes you want to build a house somewhere in the village, plant a banana and coconut tree, some cassava and sugarcane, and simply live naturally like the native Indians. Perhaps one day when we’re older. But for now, we must go on.

An Opportunity We Have to Take

Our experience with Atalaya wouldn’t be perfect if we didn’t take the opportunity that presented itself when we headed back to Lima.

A month of heat and high moisture was pretty tiring, so we weren’t exactly looking forward to driving in a truck for 8 hours on wet and bumpy macadam to Satipo and then extra 12 hours in a bus via Andes to Lima.

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We knew we had two other transportation options. One was boat ride to Satipo and then bus ride. This way, you avoid the macadam, but you can’t make frequent stops.

The other option was taking a commercial flight to Lima, as Atalaya has a small airport. But since this option was expensive, we quickly discarded it.

But Fr. Alejandro told us about the third one. Flying on a military airplane – which was something new!

To Lima with Soldiers

Military airplanes are not designed to fly civilian passengers from Atalaya to Lima, but the state offers this option at a significantly reduced price so that the aircraft doesn’t fly empty.

The flight is scheduled every 15 days, and they accept only passengers with recommendation from someone who is known to Atalaya’s municipal authorities. In our case, that person was Fr. Alejandro – everyone in this small town knows him.

After calculating the price, we realized that flying on a military airplane (only one hour to Lima) actually costs less than driving for 20 hours in a truck and bus. Who wouldn’t take this opportunity?

We used to be fancy and got Fr. Alejandro to drive us round with his trike

We visited the municipality, paid the registration fee and booked the flight. We were extremely pleased with this cheap and fast transport option.

Besides, military airplane was one of the few means of transport that we haven’t yet used on our 3-year trip around the world (excluding helicopters and submarines).

It Might Come, or It Might Not

Booking a military airplane comes with a twist. It’s not that flying in it is uncomfortable, but that it’s about as reliable as a Paraguayan when it comes to arranging meetings, as they say.

‘The airplane might come, or it might not,’ Alejandro explained. ‘It can be five hours late or more, so get ready to have your patience tested.’

Our trip was in God’s hands (including all the waiting at the airport), but I must admit that our patience was truly tested during the following days. Based on Alejandro’s warnings, we knew that not everything would go smoothly and according to plan, but we didn’t expect it would take three days.

The Flight Was Postponed

The flight was scheduled for Thursday. We were supposed to be at the airport at twelve o’clock, and take off at two o’clock.

On Wednesday, one day before the flight, the municipality called to inform us about last-minute rescheduling of the flight plan and that the plane would land in Atalaya one day later.

‘Great, it’s started,’ we thought. Our bags were packed, but we weren’t in a hurry, so the postponement wasn’t a problem.

It was already Friday, but the municipality hasn’t called yet, so Fr. gave us a ride to Atalaya airport at 11 o’clock.

We were the first ones there. The plane from Pucallpa was scheduled at 12 o’clock, but it wasn’t before about 1 o’clock that the other passengers started to arrive. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry. I guess they knew better.

Waiting in the Heat

‘This will be interesting,’  we said when we saw a gentleman with branches of bananas and an older couple with hens in crates in the waiting room. Have you seen ‘Who’s Singin’ Over There?’?

Even the chickens in the crates are waiting to fly to Lima

It was incredibly hot and damp. The waiting room was already full by 2 o’clock. We were sweating, moving around and looking at the clock. Vendors arrived to the airport’s courtyard to sell refreshing beverages in order to make some money at the expense of hungry and thirsty passengers. They also knew better.

At 3 o’clock, which was an hour after we were supposed to take off (but no airplane in sight), three policemen arrived to check our luggage.

… and a lot of fruit

One hour later, the lady from the municipality who took care of bookings arrived. That’s when the police started to thoroughly inspect our backpacks, bags, suitcases, fruit, crates with animals and other cargo.

Luggage Inspection

The lady called the passengers by name. They had to approach their respective luggage, open it in front of police officers (and others in the waiting room) and let the police rummage through their belongings.

Silva and I were fairly exhausted by then. And we weren’t the only ones. Most of all, we felt sorry for the elderly who had to sit on the hot floor in front of the waiting room, since all the chairs were already taken. None of them complained about the exhausting waiting.

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Luggage inspection was thorough mainly because of drug smuggling from Atalaya to Lima. I haven’t talked much about this topic, but the fact is that Atalaya and some rainforest areas are production centers for cocaine and other drugs.

Luggage inspection lasted almost two hours. We should have been in Lima for four hours at that point, but there was nothing to indicate that we’d depart any time soon. There was no airplane, and the policemen left after inspection. Only the lady from the municipality, airport security guard and fifty passengers remained.

It’s Not Happening

The Sun began to set when the security guard approached us and told us to go home, because the airplane is not coming due to time constraint.

When he told us to leave, he said we need to arrive on time tomorrow

Calmly and slowly. We’re grateful to God for instructing us to take it ‘calmly and slowly’ throughout our year in South America.

Passengers grabbed their suitcases, bananas and chickens without any complaints and headed home.

Arrive at 8 o’clock, because the airplane will depart from Pucallpa early and will head for Lima as soon as 9 o’clock. Be on time!’ shouted the security guard.

Six More Hours in the Waiting Room

Fr. Alejandro wasn’t even slightly surprised by how the situation turned out. ‘Let’s hope you succeed tomorrow,’ he said on our way back to the mission.

‘Be on time,’ echoed in our heads. Like any good Westerner, we were at the airport at 8 o’clock sharp. We were the first ones – again. But this time, the others arrived sooner than the previous day.

The military airplane landed. We were finally able to board

Even the lady from the municipality was only one hour late, while the police didn’t show up that day at all.

We thought we’d have our luggage inspected again, but having the inspection previous day was apparently enough. Nobody could think of packing drugs and guns overnight, right?

We were spared from luggage inspection, but not from waiting. After four hours of waiting, the airplane arrived. But it took two more hours before we could board.

Back in Lima, Finally

Flying on such an airplane is a unique experience. It’s not equipped for picky passengers who are accustomed to comfort and service.

Soldiers Instead of Flight Attendants

We sat close together in four rows. Instead of flight attendants, there were four soldiers who pushed us even closer together to make room for the others. There were no pre-flight safety instructions and no greeting from the pilot.

Ready to fly

But after three days of waiting postponing and hoping to get to Lima, comfort was not one of our priorities. Despite everything, we were sure we made the right choice. One hour of flying over the rainforest and the Andes saves more than twenty hours of driving.

It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but way faster than taking the truck and bus

The plane was noisy, but we arrived in Lima in no time. When we stepped on the ground, we were greeted by fresh and pleasantly chilly spring. Now’s the time for some real rest!

Disembarking in Lima. Finally!

We knocked on Claretian mission’s door. This was the place where we spent a few days before departing for Atalaya and left some of the luggage during our trip to the Amazonian wilderness. We have plenty of time to plan our future travels – Colombia is next.

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We are not paid for the work we do; the money is not our motivation and doesn't drive us in our endeavours working with (and for) the poor from the edges of our society. But of course, without financial resources, we could not implement our goals and activities.

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