During Harry’s early days in Trans Polar, Harry had stayed for a couple of weeks with Tomas Wilman who was to become the Chief Pilot. Whenever the telephone rang, Wilman would say, “If that’s for me, I’m in Ouagadougou.” Harry had assumed that this was some imaginary place Tomas used to avoid taking calls; so it was with great surprise when, one day in Jeddah, he was called by crew scheduling and told that he would, the next day, operate a flight there. It was not until the following morning that he learned that Ouagadougou was not only a real city, but that it was in the country of Burkina-Faso. Harry had never heard of Burkina-Faso, but a
glance at his charts showed that it was in the horn of Africa just below Mali. Harry had never heard of Mali either.
Harry’s passengers were pilgrims who had overstayed their welcome in Jeddah after the Haj, been rounded up, and were being sent home. This happened regularly, Harry was told by his Saudi first officer, and the airplane was full. The cabin crew was all male. That was because some of the pilgrims were known to be reluctant to leave the airplane upon arrival and had to be disembarked forcibly. Also on board was an English ground engineer to deal with any mechanical problems that might arise in Ouagadougou.
The flight would pass over unfamiliar territory with the usual communication problems of third-world countries. Guided by the Inertial Navigation System, Harry would fly across half of Africa to Ouagadougou. That system was, to Harry, a miracle. It used extremely sensitive gyroscopes to detect changes in direction. These changes were translated into airspeed, wind, ground speed and the position of the airplane. The INS displayed both the latitude and longitude, and the time and distance to the next waypoint.
Great care was needed to insert the correct waypoints as the autopilot simply took the airplane from one point to the next. Nine waypoints could be inserted and, after passing number nine, the autopilot took the airplane to number one; so the points had to be updated as the flight progressed. One airliner had crash-landed far off track when the crew had neglected to do
that; so when the airplane passed waypoint number nine, it turned back to the original waypoint number one. As often in life, the right buttons had to be pushed at the right time.
At flight operations in Jeddah, Harry had been handed a flight plan cranked out by a computer. That sheet of paper was all that Harry needed to fly from Jeddah to Ouagadougou. It listed all the points over which the plane would pass, along with their geographic coordinates. It also listed the
magnetic heading, the distance, and time of fl ight to each point. These points were inserted into the INS computer on the airplane. After departure, the INS was connected to the autopilot, and it flew the airplane from one point to the next, hands off all the way.
The INS found Ouagadougou, and Harry landed routinely in clear weather. They would spend the night there, but Harry was uncharacteristically unenthusiastic about exploring the city. That changed when his telephone rang a few minutes after he entered his room. Calling with an interesting proposal was the Saudi cabin chief.
“Captain,” he said, “I have spoken with the concierge here and he has provided a list of places for us to visit this evening. A night tour of Ouagadougou. Very lively, he says. We are going and we would like you to join us. What do you think?”
Harry did not think long. This sounded too interesting to miss and he agreed to meet the crew in the hotel lobby early in the evening.
The enterprising cabin chief had arranged taxis, and off they went in a gaggle of three ancient cars for an evening of excitement in the great city of Ouagadougou. Their first stop became their last and they spent the entire evening in the same bar. “Bar” was using the word loosely, thought Harry, as he entered the dark and gloomy room. With a cement floor and cinder-block walls, it looked more like a garage than a bar. The only person there was an exceedingly dark man behind the bar. He was polishing it with great vigor and it was almost as bright as his beautiful teeth when he smiled to welcome them. How was it, Harry had often wondered, that these third-world people
always had such perfect teeth?
The barman, speaking English, asked “How can I help these good gentlemen? What can I get for them?”
Glancing about the room, Harry got up on a bar stool. “What can you suggest?” he asked. “How’s the local beer here?”
The dazzling smile reappeared as he answered. “Oh, our beer is famous, sir, and I am sure you will enjoy drinking it. Please try one bottle. If you do not like it, no need to pay.”
Harry smiled back. “You talked me into it. One bottle of beer, please. No glass.” Drinking from the bottle was always safer in places like this one.
Everyone ordered beer or Coke and the barman served them with cordiality, smiling throughout. Then he turned, picked up a telephone behind him, spoke urgently for a minute or two, then turned back to Harry.
“And how do you find our beer, sir? Tasteful, is it not?”
Harry had to admit that it was indeed “tasteful” and wondered how such beer could be made in such a place. He inspected the label, which told him only that Tasty Beer was made in Ouagadougou by the Tasty Beer Company.
Good enough, thought Harry, as he took another drink. There was no need to be confused by the list of ingredients in the beer.
Before he had drunk his first beer, a shaft of sunlight penetrated the darkness -- it was still broad daylight outside -- as the door opened and a pretty girl came into the room. Ah, thought Harry, the telephone call. Within minutes several more girls appeared, almost like magic, and began talking with the crew. All spoke English, in one form or another. The first girl went
straight to Harry and offered her hand. She was lighter complexioned than the barman, but her teeth were just as perfect and she displayed them in a stunning smile. Although black, she did not have Negroid features. She reminded Harry of Lena Horne.
“Sir, hello, my name is . . ..” She spoke a name which Harry was unable to repeat, despite several tries.
“Never mind,” she said with a musical laugh, “it means ‘flower’ so you can call me that. Would you like to buy a drink for me? I am very friendly company and the drinks here are not dear.” Still smiling, she perched herself on the stool next to Harry.
“Sure,” said Harry, “have one on me.”
She smiled that smile and spoke to the barman in the local language. The barman looked at Harry, questioning. Harry nodded.
“Yes, please give Flower a drink, whatever she wants.”
A minute later, a tall drink was placed before her. She raised it towards Harry, said “Thank you, sir,” and took a sip. After the first few minutes, Harry forgot that she was black. She was charming and pleasant and she had what Jack Rooney used to call “a dynamite body.” It was covered in a gownlike dress, brightly-colored, and although it fitted loosely, it was plain to see
that it curved in and out in all the right places when she moved.
Harry looked around and saw that the bar was suddenly full of girls. Just then, the door opened again and several young men sauntered into the bar. They were musicians, Harry saw, and each carried an instrument. One wore a New York Yankees’ baseball cap. Ah, thought Harry, the entertainment has arrived. The band took up a place in one corner of the room, smiling and
laughing. Harry noticed they all had perfect teeth. Without bothering to tune up, they broke into a local version of “Come Fly with Me,” an old Frank Sinatra favorite of Harry’s. Tasteful beer, pretty girls, and now Frank Sinatra. Their night on the town of Ouagadougou was off to a promising start.
After the song was over, Harry went up to the band and spoke to the man wearing the baseball cap. “You a Yankee fan?” he asked. He was answered with a blank stare. “Your cap,” Harry said, pointing to it, “where did you get it?”
Not in Yankee Stadium, that was for sure. The man’s face was split by a wide grin displaying more perfect teeth. Miraculous, thought Harry, how a smile could change a face. “Ah, sir, this cap,” he said, and he pointed to it, too. “It was given to me by an American man long ago. He told me to guard it with my life. No idea the meaning of the letters,” he said, still smiling. Harry smiled back.
“Just as well,” said Harry. “There are some people who don’t like the New York Yankees. I, myself, am one of them.”
The grin disappeared and was replaced by the blank stare. “Sir? Is it not a good cap?”
“It’s a good cap,” Harry assured him, and he felt foolish for bringing it up. The door was opening and closing often now as other patrons began to fill the room. They were spectators more than patrons, thought Harry, and although each ordered a drink, it was clear they had come to see the
foreigners, not the band. Now the cabin chief, who was a Saudi, stood, led a girl to the center of the room and began to dance. Harry was surprised to see a Saudi dancing. Soon, others joined in, and over the next few minutes, the place took on a festive air. Here we are in the middle of Africa, thought Harry, and this place is beginning to look like New Year’s Eve; and outside it was still broad daylight!
Obviously, thought Harry, not all Muslim countries followed the same rules; or perhaps they followed the same rules in different ways. In either case, some Muslim countries seemed to be more Muslim than others. Alcohol and dancing were not allowed in Jeddah; but here they were apparently normal.
And the girls who had appeared so quickly were plainly looking for business. That also was not allowed in Jeddah. Women were almost never seen in public there. The Saudis in the crew lost no time in taking advantage of the differences in the rules. Even Muslims had to strike when the iron was hot. Well, thought Harry, who could blame them? Here, in a dark bar in the middle of nowhere, they could enjoy the fruit that was forbidden at home.
“Sir,” Flower asked, as she placed her hand on his arm, “would you like to dance with me?”
By now, Harry had drunk two bottles of Tasty beer, and dancing seemed like a fine idea, even though he was not good at it. The tempo of the music had increased and they danced without touching. Flower moved with easy grace and rhythm, smiling with pleasure as she did.
“Sir,” she said after a minute or two, “you must relax and listen to the music. Listen, then let your body and your feet follow.”
There was no way Harry could do that, even after two beers. He did his best, and he enjoyed watching Flower, who seemed taken over by the music, which was now unfamiliar to Harry.
The Saudi cabin chief had gotten, from the concierge, the names of several restaurants, but it was beginning to look like dinner would be a casualty of the festivities. They were all getting hungry, but no one wanted to leave. The cabin chief spoke to the barman and, ten minutes later, several platters of fried chicken were carried into the room, along with heaps of fried potatoes.
They tasted delicious and went well with the Tasty Beer. Before long, the food, the beer, and the dancing took their toll and it was hard for Harry keep his eyes open. The curtain, as he liked to say, was coming down. It had been a long day and now he was feeling every minute of it. He noticed that several of the crew, including the ground engineer, had left with girls, and he decided it was time to go back to the hotel. Flower seemed genuinely disappointed when he told her he was leaving.
“Sir, I was hoping we might have the night together, perhaps in your hotel. I am pleasant company in the bed, too. You will not be disappointed. Do I not please you?”
Harry thought of the sensuous way she danced. In earlier years he might have considered taking her to his hotel. But those days were over.
“Yes,” he said, “I’m sure you’re good company in bed. And I’ve been very pleased to be with you. But now it’s time for me to go.”
He slipped a hand into his pocket and withdrew several folded banknotes he had obtained before leaving the hotel. He separated a large one -- they came in different sizes -- and pressed it into her hand. As he did, he bent over and kissed her lightly on her cheek. She smiled a disappointed smile and tucked the bill into her bodice.
“Thank you, sir, and please visit Flower the next time you come to our city. The barman, he will know where to find me.”
Harry was unsure if she was disappointed because he was leaving or because she had missed an opportunity to earn some money. Some of each, he hoped. It would probably be a long time before Harry returned to Ouagadougou, but he promised to call Flower if he did.
On his way out, Harry asked the barman for his bill.
“All paid, sir. Your companion paid the entire amount, including yours.”
Which companion, Harry wanted to know. The barman described the Saudi cabin chief who had, by now, left with one of the girls. This was the traditional Saudi hospitality, even in a far-off bar. Harry smiled and made a mental note to thank his cabin chief in the morning. Then, he took from his pocket a card printed with the name of his hotel and handed it to one of the taxi drivers waiting outside. He had not seen much of Ouagadougou, he mused as he rode back to his hotel, but it was most certainly not an imaginary place.
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