I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made it in the Air Force. Aside from being too big to fit into pretty much any cockpit ever designed, I simply don't have the stomach for it.
I hate roller coasters. For some, the sensation of rapidly climbing to dizzying heights and then plummeting to earth with the objective of having your intestines in your throat is exhilarating enough to pay for. For me it's the equivalent to being restrained with a folding metal harness and punched in the stomach (and head) repeatedly. I remember my dad driving the family down country roads in rural Nebraska. He knew the terrain better than any of us, and when the opportunity arrived he'd hit the gas right before a little dip in the road, causing our stomachs to rise a bit. Unlike my mom and my sister who would shriek and laugh, I'd yell my displeasure, to which he'd reply with a grin, "you wouldn't make a very good fighter pilot."
I'll get back to this in a minute.
I arrived in Lima, Peru on Wednesday, February 7. "Darkest Peru" as Paddington would say. Just the sound of it is exotic. I spent a day sight-seeing in the capital, walking around the city center, exploring the cliffs of Milaflores, and sticking my big feet in the Pacific as the sun went down (the latter of which ended with me in the back of a Lima Tourist Police car. They said the area of the beach I was on is a good target for robberies at sunset, and they kindly decided to help a gringo out. Saved me a cab ride home anyway).
The next day I boarded a bus to Nazca, Peru, home of the Nazca Lines. Save what little I retained from High School and college art/history classes, I didn't know a lot about the lines. Massive drawings of geometric shapes and animals in the middle of the Peruvian desert not discovered until the advent of commercial air traffic over Peru in the 1920s. To be honest, I hadn't even considered a visit until a friend of mine from London (who herself is traveling around the world at the moment), mentioned it was on her agenda. Since Lima was pretty much just another big city, and Nazca is on the way to Cuzco (the jumping off point to visit Machu Picchu), I thought "why not?"
(Editors note: I'm sure we'll talk about this later on, but for you ‘planners' out there, I'm sure this trip is going to drive you nuts. About 20% of my agenda/itinerary is known. Everything else I'm making up as I go - including destinations, travel plans, lodging, etc. For you procrastinators and spontaneous folks (my people) - this one's for you).
The bus ride to Nazca was mildly amusing. We were scheduled to leave at 7:30 am, so I got to the station around 6:00 or so. After checking in with a distracted and uninterested teenaged attendant, I found a little corner to wait in and overheard two jolly middle-aged, overweight guys talking in Spanish-accented English about finding something to drink. I too was looking for some water or a Coke. None of the concession stands were open in the terminal. After about 30 seconds of deliberation the longer-haired part of the duo took off. I talked briefly with the other guy. Turns out they were brothers, and had been drinking since about 2:00 yesterday afternoon. His long-haired brother figured there was no reason to let an early morning bus ride kill the buzz. About 5 minutes later, he returned with a white plastic bag containing 3 cans of Cusquena, a national beer, with a fourth already opened in hand. 6:33 am. Wow. His brother (apparently the more level-headed of the two), didn't seem overly excited about another drink, but he flashed a weak grin and said, "what'cha gonna do?", and grabbed a can out of the bag.
The scenery on the ride was nice. Once the concrete and glass of Lima fade away, the southern coast of Peru turns into a sandy, mountainous desert. To the right was the deep blue Pacific lapping at the grey rocks of the shore, spotted intermittently with some decrepit, seemingly abandoned beach "towns". On the left, rippled wind-swept sand hills turned into short, treeless grey mountains. The high peaks of the Andes were barely visible behind them.
We made a couple stops along the way, dropping passengers off at some sketchy locations I'm glad weren't on my list. The rest of the ride was uneventful - for the most part. After 3 or 4 hours of hugging the coastline, we turned inland, heading into the barren mountains. It turned into a white-knuckler for the last half hour - our decent out of the grey mountains. The bus driver handed the two-story bus like he was testing out his new BMW on the back roads. The big crate was leaning back and forth in ways that seemed unnatural - rules of gravity were being broken. I kept envisioning those high-speed road-course motorcycle races where they put their knees on the ground through the corners. I found myself leaning into the turns as they approached. We were passing cars, trucks, semis hauling petrol, other buses, you name it. Double yellow lines? Meaningless. No passing signs? Who needs them? There was an older couple behind me a couple rows - the female part of which I thought was going to pass out a couple times between shrieks.
By the grace of God, we arrived in Nazca in the early afternoon. I walked across the street to my hostel, and then set about finding a flight over the lines. The Nazca Lines are spread out over a few square miles of barren desert, with many of the figures being hundreds of feet in length. You simply can't see them from the ground (hence being undiscovered until late into the 20th century), so tour operators offer flights over the area in small planes. It's really the only way to get a good view of all the figures. I read as much as I could about the flights in my guidebook, went over the brochures and asked a few questions of the guy behind the desk. For whatever reason, I had absolutely no qualms about booking the flight, even though I'd never been in an aircraft with a propeller. The smallest plane I'd ever been in still had jet engines and room for 100. I saw the small planes on the brochures, and for whatever reason, it didn't even phase me. It seemed a standard, logical, almost pedestrian thing to do - like taking a red bus tour of a city - it's why I came, and everyone does it. I went to the travel agency next-door to my hotel and ended up booking my flight for 8:00 am the next day for just $40.
I didn't get into the details.
I met small middle-aged guy in the travel agency who booked the same flight. He spoke decent good English, and we talked for a while. Finding we were hungry, we went down to a local eatery and had some pasta. It turns out he was finishing up his 3rd week of vacation in Peru (a 50th birthday present for himself), with a flight over the lines. He was an interesting fellow - He was born and raised in Costa Rica, worked in upstate New York as a Catholic missionary, quit a few years ago (didn't ask why), and moved back San Jose where he became an RN. Apparently about the same time he moved back, his sister (to whom he had been sending money to for years) won the Costa Rican national lottery. Juan now had a house in San Jose, an apartment in a beach town on the Pacific side, and took long vacations whenever he wanted.
After lunch, I walked around the town a bit. Nazca itself is pretty much a hole. Hot, dirty and in the middle of nowhere. There would be little reason to visit were it not for its proximity to the lines. It's admittedly nicer than a few of the other places we passed on the way, but I quickly found I didn't really want to spend much more time here than necessary. I walked through open markets with little ladies selling livers of some animal, tongues of something else and half-plucked chickens which had obviously been sitting in the sunlight for hours, their yellow feet pointing at me threateningly as I passed by. Packs of mangy stray dogs walked the streets and curled up in the small corners of shade in front of small shops. There was trash everywhere, more being added all the time by children and adults simply casting into the streets the remnants of whatever they were finished with. After sitting in a loud, smoky internet cafe for about an hour, I walked back to the terminal and booked a ticket to Cuzco on the first available bus after my flight.
Morning came quickly, but I was relatively excited about the flight. After a quick shower, I headed to the lobby around 7:30. I purposely didn't eat anything as the words in my guide book echoed in my head: "The small aircraft bank left and right, so sufferers of motion sickness may want to skip breakfast". I don't suffer from motion sickness, but I didn't want to take any chances. I was soon joined in the lobby by Juan, a German couple in their early 30's I recognized from yesterday's bus, a bald Dutch guy who was about my age, and one other guy who ended up being a native of Cuzco. As we boarded a small van to the airport, seeing our group of six actually put my mind at some ease. I'd read about flights taking 6 to 8 people up. "A plane for six and a pilot/copilot would be pretty good sized - should be a little smoother. Sweet", I told myself.
We arrived at the "airport" (i.e. a strip of concrete with worn white lines surrounded by a bunch of dilapidated "hangars" with torn blue plastic waving in the wind from their windows) and went into the main lobby where we saw a group of 6-8 people watching a documentary on the Nazca Lines in Spanish. We were asked to sign into a registry with the standard information - Name, Passport number, age, weight... Ok. Weight? A few nervous ripples came up from my stomach. So, they are actually concerned with how much I weigh. Great. Then I reasoned with myself - Perhaps it's just a standard question. Since there were 6 of us, it would be a larger plane, and it won't matter that much. Yeah. That's it.
We waited for a few minutes, then watched as a small man in a pressed white shirt and a blue tie enter the room and then lead the entire group watching the video outside toward the airstrip. This somehow made me feel much better. Our group then sat down to an English version of the same documentary. About 10 minutes into the film, another guy in a white shirt and blue tie came and called out three names from a list, corresponding to the German couple and the guy from Cuzco. They got up and headed out the door. The ripples from my gut turned into waves. Shit. No 6-person plane. The visions of the little planes on the brochures came buzzing back into my mind. I focused on watching the video - unsuccessfully trying not to think about it. A group of 6-8 people came into the lobby behind us, and began recording their weights in the registry. About 5 minutes later, a guy with a white shirt and blue tie came to gather myself, Juan and the Dutch dude. Holy crap - here we go.
We walked outside, passed through a turnstile toward the "tarmac". We approached a tiny little plane which looked like something one could order from a magazine and put together yourself. I looked around for the guy with the remote control. We walked past it, and I thought to myself: "Some of the poor suckers behind us are going to be in that little POS... Good luck". I then looked up, and saw three more planes (and only three) identical to the last one. We stopped in front of the last one in line - a tiny little craft about half the size of a Ford Escape. If the wings were folded, it probably would have easily fit in someone's garage back home. My stomach sank, and I could now hear my heart pounding.
The pilot (who I now recognized as the smiling face on the brochure - offering a .002 increase in my confidence level) talked to us about safety (which I found amusing), mentioned the flight would be about 30 minutes long, and then described the method of seeing the lines themselves. We would pass over each figure twice, allowing both sides of the plane to see them clearly. "Look under the wingtips when I tell you to see the figures", he said. Ok. Seems straightforward enough. However, that last part was key, and I didn't know it yet.
I didn't get into the details.
The pilot looked at a piece of paper pulled from his pocket. He told Juan he would be sitting up front, and the Dutch guy and I would be in the back, presumably to distribute the weight properly. Juan jumped in the co-pilot seat. The Dutch guy (who was about 6 feet tall) folded himself in, and then it was my turn.
When we first moved to Missouri, my dad had to drive about 30 miles from our home town of Neosho to Joplin for work every day. To save on gas, we needed something practical and economical. We ended up with a Geo Metro. In my high school days I ended up driving it around from time to time which, yes, was comical. A 6'9" guy driving a 3-cylinder metro is a funny vision even to me. As I attempted to squeeze myself into the body of this tiny plane, I thought about how spacious that Metro was. Using some contortionist skills I didn't know I had, I somehow got my butt in the seat, then drew my feet inside. Some guy outside the plane slammed the door shut. It was tight. The Dutch dude and I were shoulder-to-shoulder, he on the left, me on the right. My right shoulder was touching the window. I looked behind me to find about a foot of carpeted space, and another window. It smelled like cleaning agents - bleach and Pine-Sol, or its South American equivalent.
From the outside, the plane actually looked fairly well-kept and dare I say, even new. Gleaming white paint, and even some .com addresses strategically placed on the wings and support struts. Inside, however, was a different story. The instrument panel looked circa 1960's, the seats were covered in fake leather, worn and cracked, and the floor had badly faded carpeting with stains I could only assume originated from "sufferers of motion sickness". Sweet.
The pilot put on a headset, jabbered something into the mic, then pushed a button to start the engine. The little plane sputtered coughed to life and everything started shaking. The propeller started to spin violently, then became a circular blur of speed. We slowly pulled forward, my heart pounding, the practical voice in the back of my head calling me a fool and asking me again if this was a good idea. We taxied to the end of the runway, and spun around a bit quicker than I felt appropriate. We were ready, our nose pointed in the air, waiting, waiting... It felt like an eternity - like tripping and knowing you're going to hit the ground, but can't do anything about it - the pain's coming; you just have to wait for it. The pilot revved the engine a couple times, and we lurched forward, gaining speed rapidly. It felt like it took us less than 5 seconds to get off the ground. Surprisingly, it was actually relatively smooth. My stomach had no complaints, and the desert floor started to recede. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
We leveled off, and the pilot yelled something to us. We didn't have headsets, and between the old rattling engine and the wind screeching in from the sort-of sealed doors and windows, it was hard to hear anything. I looked out my window, straight out under the wing, then down, thinking to myself "this isn't so bad". The pilot then yelled something about "trapezoids", and I looked over the Dutch guy's shoulder and saw what he was talking about (one "good" thing about the plane was that seeing outside the opposite windows and the windshield was pretty easy, as they were only inches away). Interesting. There were lines all over the desert floor, a lot from flowing rainwater, and obvious tracks of vehicles, but the large geometric shapes were unmistakable.
We went straight for a few more seconds, and I was gaining confidence with each of them. Then, without warning, the view out of my window became blue sky and clouds as the plane jerked into a violent left turn. And by turn, I mean the left wing was now pointed at the ground. While trying to process the destruction of my equilibrium, we inexplicably started to elevate as well, mashing me down into my seat and shoving my stomach into my groin. "On the left you see the whale!" the captain shouted. I didn't see a damn thing. I was too busy looking for my stomach, trying to find something to focus on, and internally cursing the pilot with every bad word I knew. We mercifully leveled off, and I regained a bit of capacity. Was this how it was going to be the entire trip? I don't think I've ever had one, but I was pretty sure I was having a minor panic attack. 30 minutes of this? I could feel sweat beading up all over my body, and blood leaving my head. We then banked hard right, this time filling my window with the desert floor. This one wasn't as bad, as he apparently didn't feel the need to add the extra 8 G's this time. I actually had the wherewithal to get my camera up to take a couple shots of the whale. We leveled off again.
I quickly figured out there are only three states for this little flying coffin. 1) semi-level, 2) left wing pointed down at an 80 degree angle, and 3) right wing pointed down at an 80 degree angle. Coming to grips with this, I took a few deep breaths, said a super-speed power prayer, and sucked it up. The next 25 minutes was simply pain and discomfort with varying degrees of intensity. We'd go straight for a while, then he'd bank the hell out the plane and shout "On the right you see the astronaut!" Then crank it to the left and yell "On the left you see the hummingbird!" It was surreal. I felt like I was watching the little plane from the outside. "You dummy. What the hell are you doing in there?" I asked myself. I didn't answer.
I had no idea if the pictures were coming out or not, and to be honest I didn't care. We were thrown back and forth, the glass was so close I hit it with the lens about 50 times, the plane was vibrating, and my hand was less than steady. After the first 5 minutes, photography was simply something to keep my mind occupied with - distracting it from the intense desire to blow chunks all over the back of the cabin. By the time we got to the last set of figures, my shirt was nearly soaked through with sweat, and my arms and legs were starting to feel tingly. I knew this wasn't a particularly good sign. After one last spin, the pilot leveled us off, then said, "Now we head back to Nazca". I can't tell you how sweet, sweet, SWEET those words sounded. My eyes nearly teared up. I took some more deep breaths, shook off a little light-headed dizziness and congratulated myself again for not eating breakfast. We descended quickly, and were on the ground as nearly fast as we left it. After taxiing for a few seconds, we rolled to a stop. I opened the door and forced my way out. All sensation came back once my feet hit the ground. It felt like a dream. Someone else must have told me about it, and I was re-living it. Then I looked at my shirt, and saw the sweat.
Looking back, it was something I'm really glad (and semi-proud) I did, but doubt I would ever do again. I love the fact that actually I got in that plane, but even now I can still feel that first gut-wrenching turn to see the whale.
Dad, you were right. I wouldn't have made a good fighter pilot.