I am no fan of Air France Airlines. Our family has used the term “Air France” with the force of epithet for almost forty years, now. It is an insult just this side of “Belgium”.
And yet.... the trip we took with them in 1978 left me with a debt I just realized I still owe.
While we were in Brasil, we had to leave the country every six months to renew our visas. Now this renewing took place when Jimmy Carter was President of the US. During this time, Carter was supposed to come to Brasil to meet with some officials, to talk about helping the economy. At the last minute a conflict arose, and he was unable to go. Instead, he sent his wife.
If you don’t know about Latin American countries, you probably don’t understand the seriousness of the insult. The result for us was that the Brasilian government decided to act as though they were not particularly well disposed to Americans, and threw up bureaucratic roadblocks to anything we tried to do. Foremost among these was that we were not allowed a permanent visa, which would allow us to stay in the country for the entire two-year stint. Instead, we were issued a tourist visa, requiring us to leave the country twice a year to renew.
Through the hoop we jumped. Grandmama and Granddaddy Lawton came down to “run things” while we were in French Guyana. Neither spoke any Portuguese, so the plant was left to run itself, but there was a figurehead in place while we were gone (and they got to experience the beauty of the country for a couple of weeks).
So after going to Belem (7 hour trip), we boarded a flight to Cayenne, French Guyana. Since we were only going to be there for one hour, just long enough to get the visas stamped and return, we took only what we needed. We arrived in French Guyana on an Air France jet without incident, got the visa stamped, turned around to get on the plane, and… there were about a hundred people in front of us.
By the time we got to the front of the line, we were informed that the flight was overbooked, and there was no room for us on the flight.
“But we have CONFIRMED reservations!” my father explained to the ticket agent.
“I am sorry, but you cannot get on that flight.”
After a number of useless repetitions of the same information, we finally agreed on the point that we were not going to get on the flight that was leaving. So when was the next flight? Seven days.
Did I mention that we traveled light? We were carrying about $200, the clothes on our back, and a paperback – a biography of Sandy Koufax. My dad demanded that the airline provide us with a place to stay. They refused. And as if the problems were not bad enough, the language card was played. “I am sorry, monsieur, but I no unnerstan’ Eengleesh. Mais vous parlez français, n’est-ce pas?…
Portugese? No. Français, s’il vous plaît.”
So my dad was reduced just that quickly to sputtering in a language he had not spoken since college.
“You are responsible for this, and YOU will put us up for the night.”
“Then we will sleep here.”
I was not too keen on the idea. The mosquitoes were ferocious, and the seats were uncomfortable.
The issue was made moot, however, when two guards, complete with Tommy guns, escorted us out of the airport, and unceremoniously left us on the curb. 4 miles outside the city of Cayenne. At 3:15 in the morning. In the drizzling rain. Welcome to French Guyana.
So there was a single cab left (everyone else either had transportation waiting or was not surprised by the delay, hailed the first cab and immediately left). Dad approached the cab driver.
“Listen; I have almost no money. I have a wife and two small kids (we were 8 and 4) and need to get them in out of the rain. Can you take us to a motel to stay the night?”
The cabdriver was sympathetic, but could not do it. He did know a guy that could, however, and when he dropped off the last fare, would get him to come out. Sure enough, some time later, a cab drove up and out steps an enormous man. Mac Lawton was a big man; this guy absolutely dwarfed him. The look on Dad’s face was clear – he was totally convinced that the other cabbie sent a buddy to rob us.
And then a huge grin broke across the cabdriver’s face.
Turns out that the cabdriver’s daughter had been stranded in New York, and a couple had taken care of her while she was there. Since that time, he had looked for an opportunity to repay someone else for the kindness of strangers. So he took us downtown, met with a lady he knew that was willing to put us up in her motel, and promised to come back and drive us wherever we needed to go.
Now everyone back in Brasil expected us to return immediately; worse still, the lumberyard has no communication with the outside world. The closest thing to communication was a radio (with intermittent reception) a couple of miles upriver. So not only did our lawyer in Belem not know where we were, but my grandparents were equally in the dark, with no way of finding out what had happened after we left the plant.
Meanwhile we are stuck penniless for a week in Cayenne, where we do not speak the language, owe our shelter to the kindness of a new friend, and have no way of getting money. The owner of the motel went each day to Air France, argued for a half-hour about whose fault it was that we are there, and departed with money “for just one more day”. Her response every day was the same:
“Fine, I’ll be back tomorrow.”
In the meantime, we ate daily in the motel restaurant. The Museum of Natural History has nothing that we did not see on the menu (tiger, by the way, has a very sweet taste). Flies were terrible. We had contests to see who can trap the most flies in a bottle of coke. Twenty-four remains the record. And we read and re-read the Koufax book. We bought a t-shirt each, and washed everything every day, so that we didn’t have to buy an entire wardrobe.
Finally, after a week of killing time, trying to find another way to get back to Brasil, the time finally arrived to go back. We headed to the airport early (oddly mistrustful of our Air France tickets that are "confirmed reservations"), and the cabdriver turned to us and says “For one week you have seen all the things in this country that are ugly. Let me show you some of its beauty.” And he drove us around through some of the most beautiful houses, gardens, and subdivisions I have ever seen.
He took an experience that had been negative from start to finish, and made it lovely.
It might be about 36 years late, but seems like I could do something similar. I can find somebody in a bit of a bind, and help them out.
Maybe I'll look for that chance today.