Flight in

I waited four days at the airport in Yakutsk for my airplane to Magadan to take off. Snowstorms raged over Kolyma; everything was covered over, buried under, and for that reason scheduled flights were suspended.

This is what traveling around Siberia is like.

The majority of airports are poorly lit; the craft that fly through them are old and break down frequently; sometimes one also has to wait somewhere for fuel to be delivered to the airplanes from another part of the continent. The entire time he is traveling, a person lives in tension, with nerves, in fear that these unexpected stops and delays will cause him to miss a connecting flight, lose a reservation, and then-drama, disaster, catastrophe. For here one cannot be capricious, change tickets, select other times and routes. One can get stuck for weeks on end at an unknown and always crowded airport, with no chance of getting out quickly. (All tickets are sold out months in advance.) What then would one do with oneself, where would one live, what would one live on?

I now find myself in just such a situation in Yakutsk. I also cannot return to town, for what if the storm in Kolyma suddenly abates? if it does, the plane will take off immediately, so we have to hold on with all our might, because if it flies off --- we are lost.

So the only thing to do is sit and wait.

Of course, it is a dreadful sort of idleness, an unbearable tedium, to sit motionless like this, in a state of mental numbness, not really doing anything. But on the other hand, don't millions and millions of people the world over pass the time in Just such a passive way? And haven't they done so for years, for centuries? Regardless of religion, of culture and race? In South America, we need only go up into the Andes or drive through the dusty streets of Plura or sail down the Orinoco River --- we will encounter everywhere poor mud villages, settlements, and towns; and we will see how many people are sitting on earthen benches in front of houses, on rocks and stools, sitting motionless, not really doing anything. Let us travel from South America to Africa, let us visit the lonely oases on the Sahara and the villages of black fishermen stretching along the Gulf of Guinea, let us visit the mysterious Pygmies in the Congo jungle, the tiny one-horse town of Mvenzo in Zambia, the handsome Dinka tribe in the Sudan --- everywhere we will see people simply sitting. Sometimes they will utter a word or two, in the evening they will warm themselves by the fire, but really they are not doing anything, only sitting idly and without motion; and moreover they exist (or so we can suppose) in a state of mental lethargy. And is it different in Asia? Driving along the road from Karachi to Lahore or from Bombay to Madras or from D'akarta to Malang --- will we not be struck by the fact that thousands, why, millions of Pakistanis, Hindus, Indonesians, and other Asians are sitting idly, without motion, and are looking at who knows what? Let us fly to the Philippines and to Samoa, let us visit the immeasurable territories of the Yukon and tropical Jamaica --- everywhere, everywhere that same sight --- people sitting motionless, for hours on end, on old chairs, on bits of plank, on plastic crates, in the shade of poplars and mango trees, leaning against the walls of slums, against fences and window frames, irrespective of the time of day or of the season, of whether the sun is shining or the rain is falling, phlegmatic and expressionless people, as if in a state of chronic drowsiness, not really doing anything, living with neither desires nor goals, and also (one can assume) submerged into mental torpor.

And here around me, at the airport in Yakutsk? Is it not the same? A crowd of people sitting wordless, motionless, an inert crowd which will not so much as twitch, which, it seems to me, isn 't even breathing. So let us stop getting excited and thrashing about, let us stop tormenting the stewardesses with questions for which they have no answers, and, following the example of our brothers and sisters from the sleepy village of San Juan near Valdivia, from the settlements on the Gobi desert crushed by the heat, and from the littered outskirts of Shiraz, let us sit motionless, staring off into space, and every hour sinking deeper and deeper into a state of mental numbness.

--- From Imperium
By Ryszard Kapuscinski
©1994, Granta Books

Go on to Part II.

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