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Wheels Up….

Oct 30

In Stories at 10:25am

Sitting in Atlanta Airport, a very familiar place, and trying to get home. This all started because of a capricious, nasty girl named Sandy, an evil child of Mother Nature. I started my trek in Copenhagen, where, looking back at home, and knowing trouble was closing in, I started making changes. I moved my flight up, as best I could. Re-routed, changed the itin, threw a dart at the wall, and Delta got me to Atlanta. Grabbed a hotel, and made my way back to the airport this morning about 5am. They said, incredibly, a flight to Westchester County Airport was gonna go. Pinch me, I’m dreamin’!

And, of course, I was. So I sit a bit, and have now placed my bets on Hartford and a flight that goes (???) in a couple hours. If it goes, I go. If not, I’ll continue to conjure a path home. My bag? Well, that puppy’s in for its own version of “The Incredible Journey,” one of my favorite books as a kid.  I have confidence I will see it again, in a few days, or, perhaps more.

Here’s the thing. I’m pretty calm about this stuff. Resigned, perhaps, but also, it’s just another turn of the page. Whenever travel goes smoothly, I’m surprised. As I look out the window here in Hartsfield Airport, there are so many moving parts out there on the tarmac, all churning and chugging at once, I’m amazed anything works, at all, ever. And there are worse things than cooling your heels at an airport like this, which is basically a super sized mall. Sandy has done her worst to the folks on the ground who took the brunt of it. It’s heartbreaking to see the floods, the fires, and lost homes.

Part of the zen I have about travel is that I’ve done a lot of it, to be sure. My current account at Delta puts my history with them at about 1.6 million miles. They have their moments, to be sure, but they are basically a good airline. I’ve flown on airlines that are not good, and on flying machines that have definitely spoken to the virtues of a long walk.

I got on one such plane in Mogadishu, Somalia. I was working there, and the calendar was veering close to Christmas. I had gotten in on a Red Cross plane, but getting out on one of those was doubtful. The holidays were approaching, and the Red Cross personnel naturally, rightly, had priority on the limited seating over the lowly journalist. My guys, the Somalis who were translating and protecting me, told me they could get me out on a drug plane. They were strong with the Aidid clan, and that particular warlord controlled a dirt airstrip south of Mog where gutted Cessna prop planes would fly into Somalia with bales of khat, which the Somalis chew voraciously. It’s a plant which, when masticated, gives you an all day buzz. Which is an advisable thing, if you live in a place as strife torn and bereft of hope as Mog.

The “airport” itself was a cluster of dust, noise and third world chaos of Spielbergian dimensions. People were swarming up to these planes, trying to stuff goods, mail, and notes onto them, to try to get word to relatives in Kenya, which is where the planes would head back to. I struck a deal with a pilot, fought my way through the crowd, and threw my stuff in the back of the plane, which was stripped of seats to make room for what was basically enormous bags of weed.

People wouldn’t disengage from the plane. The pilot stepped forward on the small gangway, and struck the nearest person to him with two roundhouse blows that sent him reeling backwards into the crowd. He simultaneously shouted orders to his co-pilot to start the props, which he did, right in the middle of this swirling mass of people. The plane became like the center of an explosion, with engines roaring to life and people radiating rapidly away from it in a 360 degree pattern, like so much fast moving shrapnel. He slammed the door shut, slipped into his seat, and pushed the plane down the runway. A few seconds later, we were airborne.

I had been a month in Africa. I slumped, exhausted, on the floor of the Cessna, relieved to be going home two days before Christmas. The co-pilot twisted in his seat to look back at me. I looked back and raised my hand, and said, into the din of the props resounding through the empty shell of the plane, “Excuse me, I ordered the special meal?”

He tilted his head, and I think he was possibly thinking of shooting me. But then he smiled and turned back to the controls. I hit Nairobi Airport, walked to a counter, and found a flight home. More tk….

Paul Howard says:

on October 30, 2012 at 11:02 am

So you don’t get bored often…..

craig krizek says:

on October 30, 2012 at 11:04 am

Great perspective!!

John Crocker says:

on October 30, 2012 at 11:15 am

Joe, without a doubt that is one of the best stories you have told. What a heck of an experience. Thanks for all you do.

William Chinn says:

on October 30, 2012 at 11:27 am

Another great travel story. Hope you are home or will be there soon. Try not to remind yourself that you left Copenhagen for this. Numnuts!

MaryT says:

on October 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Sounds like fun to me! Wish I could have experienced that. Oh well, I just have to live vicariously through you. Not that I haven’t had my own adventures … just far fewer. Thanks for sharing.

Laura says:

on October 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm

I feel that we are lucky you are such a gifted storyteller on top of being a world-travelling photographer. Thank you for taking the time to share! You usually make me chuckle 😀

Mike Lyons says:

on October 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Wow!, lets fly home on a known drug smuggling plane.. sounds like a great plan! Reminds me of the time I almost died on a plane that “almost” took off, overweight from all the fish, in the Philippines. It does give one a more clam approach to delays in a modern airport. I hope you and your family and friends are doing well after Sandy.

Patrick Mc Donnell says:

on October 30, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Hope you get back home safely and that all those you care about are safe and well when you get there.

callmebob says:

on October 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm

Makes Hartsfield seem pretty nice, eh ?
Great memory for you :)
Stay safe in finding your way home.

Mark says:

on October 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm

… The “airport” itself was a cluster of dust, noise and third world chaos of Spielbergian dimensions.

No picture needed. You paint with words with tremendous skill as well…

You never mentioned anything about the inflight duty free though.

Greg Kunz says:

on October 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Come on out to Seattle til the lights come back on in Ny i will pick you up at Seatac!

Gerry Johnson says:

on October 30, 2012 at 9:46 pm

Hope you make it home tonight Joe.

Ken says:

on October 31, 2012 at 12:23 am


I wanted to thank you for your suggestion on a lens for my new D600,. My age 66, is my first attempt to go “full frame throttle”.

All my dealings with Adorama was smooth with a wrinkle or too…nice folks.

Our mutual friend sandy did a number on me too. When I called today, Sandy closed down Adorama and B&H. Delayed gratification is not a proper use of my time. Plus I have a shoot Friday. So , Roberts Camera in Indy, fine folks. They are doing a overnight, no charge to me. I got the nikon 2.8mm VR 105mm. About $990 and change.

Again, thanks for your reply, I as shocked you replied. Did not expect that. Most kind.

I am not that good really as a photo guy, but man I love shooting. So if you of your pros need a 2nd hand, check me in. Work for food and a pound of Starbucks, lol., Willing to spend the winter in St Thomas too.

Most kindly

Ken Ho says:

on October 31, 2012 at 4:44 am

Hi Joe,
Hope you get home soon and Sandy didn’t affect your patch too badly.
Greetings from Oz.

Don Bromberg says:

on October 31, 2012 at 7:58 am

This puts our everyday problems, like a delayed flight, into perspective. I hope you get home to find that first and foremost your loved ones are well and unharmed, and that your property and possessions faired well.

Wilfried Feder says:

on October 31, 2012 at 8:30 am

great read, Joe! For a minute i just felt like in a movie. Sort of Blood Diamonds.
love your posts

Patrik Lindgren says:

on October 31, 2012 at 8:59 am

Your stories, they just keep coming and of a quality that i rarely see these days.
It is possible that you could fill a few, or actually a lot, of books with your stories. :)

Thanks for sharing!

DougC says:

on October 31, 2012 at 8:59 am

GREAT story Joe. You need to make a book about this kind of experience. I’m sure it would be a great read.

Van says:

on October 31, 2012 at 9:41 am

Hey Joe,
Loved the story. Patience is “The Word.” I hope you are on your way to NYC by now, but I doubt it. I live in the Atlanta burbs, and I can put you up a few days, while you wait on air travel. I can take you to the North Georgia mountains, and we can shoot some fall color on the Appalachian Trail.

Dan Milham says:

on October 31, 2012 at 10:25 am

Strange thing about working in 3rd world countries and 4th & 5th world; the hardest part is often the travel to and from. (not counting when people want to shoot you)

tom shue says:

on October 31, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Joe, you write as well as you photograph. I love everything that you do. Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful story and invite to your incredible life as a tog.

Karen B says:

on October 31, 2012 at 8:43 pm

You have some mighty crazy stories….safe travels.

htet says:

on November 1, 2012 at 11:17 am

That was total chaos! Great post, love it and all my wishes to victims of Sandy.

Robert Emunds says:

on November 1, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Any plans on a memory book? Life of a photographer? I can only imagine the stories.

Rob Rossington says:

on November 4, 2012 at 2:54 pm

I’d certainly pay to read that!

Bob says:

on November 5, 2012 at 5:43 am

“I ordered the special meal”…hysterical!!

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