That paradox – during South African sanctions and the height of the Cold War – defined U.S. global relations that finally today may be changing.
He (it was never a “she”) was headed southwest or northeast, to Havana or Moscow. I and my fellow passengers (with a remarkably few “she’s”) were traveling northwest or southeast to the U.S. or South Africa.
We crossed because our 1981 flights ran out of gas in Cape Verde.
We westerners were ushered down the staircase of our South African Airways 747SP, which we fondly called the “stubby” and for all the world looks like a child’s drawing of a jumbo jet. The Russians and Cubans took just a few fewer steps down their slightly lower staircase of the Aeroflot Ilyushin Il-86.
I always felt the Cape Verdeans, pawns in this international loophole, intentionally then directed us into the “transit arrivals hall” in two distinct lines, side by side, pushing us awfully close to one another as we slipped through the narrow railings entering the hall.
Normally when big planes land at an airport there’s all sorts of action: luggage carts pulling up, yellow lights flashing, cargo holds belching. When you step onto an active airport tarmac there’s an annoyingly loud distinctive din, a mixture of a buzz and ting that pervades everything.
Not in Sal.
When I stepped onto the tarmac I heard the screams of nightjars penetrating the chorus of crickets. I could actually hear my steps as I walked on the tarmac.
On any other stopover during which you can leave the aircraft, you’re told to remove all your belongings. Not in Sal. We were ordered to leave everything in our seats, even our hats and handbags.
In those days I carried bundles of cash to pay for services in Africa and it was always in my locked leather briefcase. I had to leave it in the luggage hatch.
I carried books, left on my seat. An attendant even told me to remove my precious notepad stuck in my front shirt pocket and return it to my seat. When the passengers behind me didn’t want to give way, she smiled and offered to safeguard it for me, removing it herself from my pocket.
I marched off the plane feeling naked.
The only ambient light seemed to come from the landing guides on the runway we’d left behind and the poor illumination inside the “arrivals hall” we were headed to. Nobody and nothing was getting off or on at Sal. We were all just in transit.
There is terror in the vacancy of expected action, but the smell of jet1 fuel permeating the air and old croaking dark trucks carrying tons of fuel slithering into the darkness on the opposite side of the aircraft gave us some confidence.
A couple partially bearded and seemingly curious Africans in jumpsuits displaying the South African Airways logo sat expressionlessly on the low concrete wall around the arrivals hall. I don’t know what they were supposed to do: luggage carriers? Often I tried to engage them with a smile, but it was too dark at a distance and up closer we were not allowed to slow our march.
The arrivals hall was a cubicle warehouse in which there was no shadow. I’m not sure how they did it. Either the light was just too dim and I’m not remembering well, or clever Cold War spies were surveilling the place and agreed on mutual background lighting, but it was an annoying almost amber light that filled every nook and cranny of that boxed room.
There were no chairs. The heavily shellacked wooden floor was painted with three dull red lines, as if demarcating a sports court of some sort, but it actually demarcated the lines the passengers were supposed to walk between.
The vast center of the room remained empty throughout.
The Cubans and Russians walked in the opposite direction from the westerners. Nobody told us to do this. There were no minders, no announcements, we just did it. We had 45 minutes to exercise before our interminable journeys continued.
It wasn’t long before the lines started to dissolve. Older people slowed down and were overtaken by the few fit, and sometimes even turned around. Nobody stopped them. By the end of the 45 minutes the lines had lost definition.
It was then, in those last few minutes before reboarding, that people actually milled about. Silly and bold as I’ve always been, I’d wander into a pod of easterners. Sometimes they were very young Cubans, many wearing medical outfits like blue or green orderly scrubs.
They were probably younger than I was, and I was pretty young, but virtually always they moved away from me.
The Russians were a different matter. I guess we both knew there was much less likelihood of being able to speak to one another than with the Cubans, so twinkling eyes and surprised expressions and even smiles often greeted my approach.
But then it stalled after a few embarrassed body movements of kindness.
I don’t know what went through their minds, but mine became overwhelmed with missiles and Hungary and mushroom clouds. I’ve since shaken that umbrella over my psyche, but I was young, then. We all were.
Thirty-five years is an awfully long time to wait for a door to open. But I’ll always think of Africa as the place where American and Russian and Cuban anxieties and hostilities began to diminish.
In the arrivals hall. Sal, Cape Verde. The middle of some night too long ago.