Category Archives: Cargo

The perfect storm

That there was a pedestrian accident on the Metra affecting Northbound trains, an afternoon Cubs game at home, and an extra-alarm fire at Fullerton shutting down the Red, Brown, and Purple line El trains was sufficient ingredients to cook up the perfect commuter storm.  I was stuck on the Red line of the El underground for about an hour Monday, awaiting word on where we could move to, and where we could escape our interment.  They finally allowed us to proceed to the North/Clybourn stop, and disembark.  The underground platform was crowded with confused and inconvenienced sojourners.  Body to body we were moved en masse towards the narrow escalator and stairs–and I thought to myself how easy it would be to get trampled or knocked off the platform onto the ominous, electrified third rail below.  Shudder.

We emerged from our dark womb and stood squinting in the bright sunlight.  There were shuttles off to one side, promising to take folks around the disaster to the next strain stop to the North, but there were also thousands standing in line, waiting for said shuttles.  I turned and walked the opposite direction, getting caught up in the sweep of the crowd.  It took me several blocks to get clear of people enough to figure out my bearings.  I could see the skyline and determined the best thing for me to do was head towards the lake.  Perhaps, even, if I headed slightly South I’d have a better chance of catching a cab or bus.  And so I walked. And walked.  And walked.  I wished I’d worn better shoes to the office.  My computer bag was beginning to weigh heavily and my feet became inconsolable on the hot concrete.

I paused to take a break and wipe the sweat from my eyes, and looked around. I was standing on the edge of one of those large city blocks designated for construction–fenced off, but for now, just a large overgrown field.  In the bright sun, the tall grass shimmered in the heat.  And I was transported to another world.

I’m 11 and sitting on a grassy airfield with my 13-year-old brother in Irian Jaya.  We’d been dropped there with the plane’s cargo the day before, and were patiently waiting for the pilot’s return.  We’d been on our way to ‘the village’ from boarding school, but cloud cover had made the hour and a half flight into a much longer series of dangerous holding patterns.  Running low on fuel, the pilot set us down on an open airfield and promised to be back once refueled and the cloud cover had receded.

24 hours have passed.  We don’t speak the language.  We don’t entirely know where we are.  We sit.    I wandered off for a bit, only to have my brother (big brother) yell at me, concerned I’d get hurt, uncertain of the wildlife in the area, and just generally being controlling.  “What if the pilot comes and you aren’t close by?  We might have to wait for you and the clouds might come back!” We worry about being on the wrong side of the border–given we don’t have our papers, and border fighting is common.

I begrudgingly come back to the pile of cargo we’ve been left with.  We are dirty, hungry, and mildly scared.  Our thoughts turn naturally towards abandonment, and whether or not any one has even missed us yet.  We fight–verbally and physically.  Finally, we are silent and sullen.

And the sound of the plane comes over the horizon…

Back in present day Chicago, I’m struck as to how very vulnerable I feel.  Vulnerable and alone.  Would anyone notice I was missing?

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Why do whites have so much cargo?

The opening narrative of “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond depicts a man named Yali from New Guinea asking the question, “Why is that you white people developed much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”  I was 34 when I first read this book, and the question Yali posed made me smile.

When we moved to Papua New Guinea from the United States, we were afforded by the mission a certain sized crate to ship belongings over.  We were warned that at best, the shipment would arrive 3 months after our arrival by plane, thus we were encouraged to bring as much as the airlines would allow with us on the journey, knowing it needed to last us that whole time. My folks had two small children in tow: so our suitcases contained not only clothes and towels and toiletries, but toys as well. At that time, the airlines would allow one carry on bag, and two checked bags free of charge.

Our flight left St. Louis, with a layover in Los Angeles, and another in Honolulu.  My parents scheduled us a few days in Hawaii as a means of adjusting to the time change, climate and temperature change, etc.  When we arrived in Honolulu, and attempted to hail a cab to take us to our hotel, we realized this could be quite a production.  We’d need a van or a large station wagon to carry us as we had so much ‘cargo’ along for the trip.

When my father finally flagged down a large station wagon cab, we crowded to the curb with all our luggage.  The driver opened the back of the wagon, then rounded the car to the curb we were waiting on.  He eyeballed our bags-all twelve of them-with obvious amusement and skepticism.  “Just how long are you visiting Hawaii?” he asked.  Mom’s response was quick “Three days.”  He stood there gapping, then shaking his head laughing, loaded the car.  When we arrived at the hotel, mom quietly asked dad why the cabby acted so strangely.  Dad explained, “He thought we each had 3 suitcases for our visit to Hawaii.  That’s one suitcase a day for each of us.”

Little did we know that this interpretation of our baggage would serve as a metaphor for our whole tenure in New Guinea.

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