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This is it. We're going down."
A painful grinding sound from one of the engines heralds a sharp drop in altitude. And painful grinding sounds of any kind on a plane are never good, right? I've seen documentaries. First comes the grinding, then you smell smoke. And from there it's all pretty straightforward: you crash.
With a violent shudder we tip suddenly to the left.
Yup, here it comes.
Bags somersault to the floor. Tasha, our field producer, is thrown forward, almost banging her head on the seat in front. My Gatorade is jolted from my fingers and skitters away, disappearing into the cockpit.
That's me panicking, by the way, not the pilot. A trained professional, he's busy surveying the ground through a small triangular panel of plexiglass to his left, no doubt trying to figure out how long it'll be before we hit something.
Immediately he sits up straight again.
Uh-oh! Not much farther now, then.
As I'm hanging on, mortified, five rods of brilliant sunlight burst through the starboard windows and sweep the tiny cabin from front to back like deep-sea divers searching a sunken wreck for bodies, something that could actually become a reality very shortly if we don't level our descent. Although, of course, you learn not to express such things out loud. For a start, it might annoy Eric, our field production coordinator. And you never want to do that. It was he who booked us on this bucking clockwork junk heap in the first place, following a minor altercation at check-in back in Australia over the staggering amount of equipment and other luggage we'd wanted to wheel aboard the aircraft, the combined weight of which was so preposteriously excessive that, according to the waspish airline clerk, it would have "negated every one of the laws of aerodynamics." (She probably had a good point. I have no idea how many laws there are, but let's say for the sake of argument fifteen. I mean, who in their right mind would choose to break all fifteen laws of aerodynamics? It's crazy.)
"Okay. Here's an idea," Eric argued, running a thin hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. "What if we redistribute the equipment between the various cases? How about that?"
"Er . . . you could, I suppose. But . . . wouldn't . . ." Her brow corrugated into a frown. ". . . the total weight . . . be exactly the same?"
"In a way."
"Then no! No, you can't."
I saw his round shoulders quiver with suppressed rage.
Sensing a small mutiny in the making, one of many this trip, I exchanged an "uh-oh" glance with Tasha, and distanced myself by flopping down on a suitcase, cracking open The Da Vinci Code, and letting the rest of them get on with it.
Letting other people get on with things is very much my way. I'm terribly hands-off as far as problems are concerned.
"Look, darlin'," Eric growled, hooking himself over the desk, "here's the deal, okay? We're trying to make a television show . . ." Ooh, clever. Playing the glamour card. ". . . so what would it take to get us o--?"
But the poor woman had heard enough. "Sir, please stand to one side. You--everybody in this group--stand to one side and let the other passengers through. Next."
With great relief, the young couple behind us shuffled forward in line, tickets at the ready . . .
. . . only to stop again with a groan. Eric wasn't budging.
". . . we bought more seats for the bags?"
"Sir, the flight's full. If you like, we can put the excess on tomorrow's flight. That m--"
"Nope," he cut her off, then sighed heavily. "No, don't worry, it's fine. We'll go elsewhere." Turning his back: "You're not the only major airline that goes to Vanuatu, you know."
This brought a smile to her face.
"Well, actually, sir . . ."
The phone call that started it all came out of the blue.
"Hi, is that Cash?" a male voice said. Cordial, controlled. "How's it going?"
"Great. Why . . . who are you?"
"I'm the new vice president of development at ------" and he named a certain TV network, one I was not entirely familiar with. But who cares? He was a TV executive! A TV executive calling me--that is to say a complete nobody, a non-TV person-at home. ". . . and I'm a big fan of your work. Big fan . . . love your radio stuff . . ." His words drifted in and out like AM static. ". . . I listen to you sometimes when I'm . . . great stuff. . . . Anyway, look, you might be interested in talking with us . . . maybe we could meet up, and . . ."
Meet up? Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!!!!
I leaped up onto my washing machine and sat there, legs crossed to prevent myself doing cartwheels across the kitchen, possibly tearing a ligament.
"Thanks," I said, not really taking anything in. "Er . . . I mean, sure. Yeah."
"How about Wednesday? I'll be in L.A. for a programming conference, so I'm thinking, how about we get together over a coffee?"
I didn't bother checking my calendar. To do that I'd have had to buy one. But I knew that, in Hollywood, it's important that you play hard to get. The other person must hear you struggling to rearrange your schedule, otherwise they won't respect you. Everything's politics. A game.
"I'm only in town for a couple days. As I said, Wednesday's best for me."
I have to say, this couldn't have come at a better time. He'd caught me at a highly pivotal stage of my broadcasting career, in the sense that I didn't have one. In fact, the technical term for what I'd experienced so far in broadcasting, I believe, is "a slump." A twenty-three-year slump as a travel journalist on public radio, first in England, then later, after that flopped badly, in America, where my career had continued to flatline in spectacular fashion, going nowhere, doing nothing, and impressing absolutely no one. Well, except for this guy apparently, the deputy-vice-whatever-he'd-said-he-was of a remote cable network I'd never watched. It was a miracle.
"What day do you have in mind?"
"I just told you--Wednesday!!"
Er . . . Wednesday . . . Wednesday . . . hm, let me see.
"Act breezy," I told myself. Nonchalant, like you don't care. Never gush in negotiations. The less you appear to want what the other person is offering, the more of what he's offering he'll want to offer you.
After a lengthy pause to suggest I was flicking through a list of engagements a mile long, debating if there was even one I could drop to squeeze him in, I concluded that--oh look!--there was. What luck!
"That's okay. I'm sure I can switch things around," I said eventually, closing my imaginary calendar. "Yup. Wednesday it is."
"Excellent. I'll call you later with a time and place."
"Sure. One thing, though: how will we rec--"
"Looking forward to seeing you."
"--ognize each other?"
The Twin Otter is listing badly. We're battling fifty-mile-an-hour headwinds from the southeast. With each monstrous gust, the wings flap, as if the charter plane, suspecting all may be lost, is pondering flying for real. Each time it does, the cases containing our delicate camera equipment convulse erratically, emitting the kind of noise a box of tools makes when you drop it from a second-story window.
Below us, far below, but approaching faster than any reputable flying manual would advise, I'm sure, a Band-Aid of trimmed green swings into view among the trees. An air_strip! This is it--we're here.
Mark, our cameraman, twists around, and, steadying himself against his seat across the aisle, turns the camera on me, eager to capture the about-to-be-buried-alive look on my face.
"I'd rather you didn't," I tell him. "I'm not feeling too good."
The brutal rotations of the plane have left me dizzy, weightless. My breakfast is working its way back up my throat.
For a moment Mark looks concerned. But only for a moment. Then he sticks his eye to the viewfinder and shoots me anyway, his smile on full beam.
Bastard. I've never met anyone so determined in all my life.
Oh wait, yes I have. One person.
And he died.
It was a sound engineer at the radio station I used to work for in London years ago: Adrian. Wonderfully gregarious guy: blond, craggy, debonair in an English-nobility kind of way, yet also, by some weird quirk of genetics, one of those type A daredevils--like certain reality TV cameramen I could name--who are convinced they're utterly indestructible. Not only that, but they're driven to test out this crackpot hypothesis again and again and again, until, inevitably, something bad happens.
After radio, Adrian made a radical life change. He became a professional skydiver, notching up ten thousand successful drops and in the process making quite a name for himself. Until one day not too long ago, he was up in the sky experimenting with a new type of parachute, one that doesn't open before you hit the ground, apparently, when he plunged to his death in a tangled frenzy of wires and nylon sheeting. Terrible, terrible tragedy. And an awful loss. In a world seemingly crammed with gray, timid people leading lives of humdrum conformity simply because they're afraid to take risks and live out their fullest potential, heroes like Adrian, those who stipulate the terms of their own expendability, should, I feel, be treasured (though never, ever emulated) and looked up to, if only to teach us as a culture that we're looking up to the wrong people and may want to rethink our priorities a little.
I worry about Mark sometimes for similar reasons. He's a wonderfully talented man: totally solid, dependable, you couldn't wish for better. But . . . well, the word "limitation" appears to be as alien to him as "adventure" is to me. That stocky frame of his, which is more athletic than it looks, belies a tremendous strength of character that I quite envy. He's able to smile through most difficulties and see light at the end of a tunnel even as it's caving in on him. That's what makes him such a great cameraman, and so perfect for our show, because he's willing to go right out on a limb and get what he wants in situations where less impulsive people--me, for instance--might hold back.
Right now, despite the brutal rocking of the plane, he's perched on the edge of his seat, belt unbuckled, camera steadied against his shoulder, relishing each violent bump and jolt and every last smoky cough of the propellers on our rapid descent.
"Eric! You're in shot," he yells.
"Sorry." The producer yanks in his elbows, and everyone else does the same.
Circling the clouds in uneven condor swoops, the plane bobs through a thermal current into a crossword of air-pockets, ten feet down, twenty across, up seven, down nine, causing Tasha to almost bang her head on the seat a second time . . .
"Holy . . ."
. . . as we try to align ourselves with the runway.
". . . sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeyit!"
Braced, with teeth clenched, I glance at the cockpit for some sign, anything will do, that we're not about to die. The pilot, in a crisp white shirt to suggest competence, with impressive yellow epaulettes like the ones real pilots might wear, is sitting with his head erect, back stiff, gripping his half-moon steering wheel with the intensity of a six-year-old on his first go-kart ride. Or maybe he's praying--hard to see from this angle.
Undeterred, Mark wedges the camera in against the seat and continues. This could be his one and only chance to shoot our landing.
I do my bit as host, squinting through the porthole at the sun-speckled ocean below, and our destination: Tanna Island, a mysterious paw print of brooding jungle fringed with misty beaches and rippling banks of submerged coral that fan out from the shoreline like frilled cuffs, visible only to birds, air travelers, and, I guess, if things don't go their way, skydivers in free fall. To my left, two raised cat's tails of drifting smoke carve up the horizon, one from the distant smoldering volcano, which I know from my guidebook to be Mount Yasur, the other belching from deep within the hardwood forest, cause unknown.
If you imagine this archipelago to be shaped like a catapult, then Tanna is halfway down the handle, and contains some of the last few virginal tracts of land on the planet. For the next week, this Stone Age wilderness will be our hellhole away from home, and the closer we get to it, the more trepidation I feel. I think perhaps Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was right. Maybe dinosaurs do still walk the earth. If that's true and they're going to be anywhere, it's down below us. I can feel it.
Dinosaurs, or something far, far worse.
No one really has a clue where Vanuatu is. In that respect it's a bit like the human spleen. But basically, we're talking about a cluster of eighty-three cyclone-battered islands in the South Pacific between Fiji and the Solomon Islands.
Until tourism happened here--and it took a long time to happen, for reasons that will become obvious--the only people who'd ever been able to say with any certainty that this remote Polynesian country existed at all was a ragbag assortment of mariners and missionaries who stopped by to say hello during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Many scavenger nations--among them the Spanish, the Dutch, the French; oh, and the biggest trouble-makers of them all, I'm sorry to say: the British--came barreling through the Tropics at some point, colonizing every lump of land they could find. Perhaps the most notable visitor of all was Captain James Cook in 1774. Bright guy. Though very full of himself, from what I hear. Also a bit of a prancing dandy if you believe the rumors. Spent a lot of his life sailing cavalierly back and forth across the globe chasing down someplace called Terra Australis Incognito, a legendary land that people raved about and said was really worth finding, but without ever finding it. In portraits, he's often seen in tights and a wig, poring over a map like an expert. But don't be fooled; he had absolutely no idea where he was going.
According to records, many early visitors, including Cook, when they first stepped off their ship onto Vanuatu's mist-enshrouded, palm-fringed beaches pounded by ten-foot waves, were held spellbound by the primitive, uninhabited magnificence of everything--its untouched savanna overrun with wild horses, the brooding hinterland embroidered with groves of coconut and banana, waterfalls tumbling into clear pools shaded by lush banyan trees and neck-high vegetation--and driven to conclude that they'd found Paradise.
What records don't show, however, is if, once these visitors had settled in, their enthusiasm faltered any, or they had second thoughts. Especially when:
a. It became clear that the islands weren't uninhabited at all and were in fact littered with indigenous tribes, known collectively as the ni-Vanuatu-or ni-Van-most of whom were distinctly hostile to intruders; and b. They were subsequently set upon by the ni-Van, thrashed with sticks and clubs, run through with spears, dragged by their hair into the hills, and finally--just when they thought it was over and the natives were roughing them up merely as a precursor to releasing them back to their ship with a stern warning never to return--boiled alive and eaten, a common fate in those days for anyone who stopped off in Vanuatu to say hello.
Though not Captain James Cook, you'll be pleased to hear.
Sensing a certain antagonism from the welcoming committee--"They by no means seem reconciled to the liberty we took in landing upon their coast," he wrote in his journal at the time--he made his escape, giving the place a sparkling new name as he left.
Explorers used to do that a lot. Upon arriving in a new country, and overriding all wishes of the locals, they'd sweep aside centuries of tradition and instantly rename it, the way you might a litter of puppies. "This one I shall call Whitsuntide," Cook would say as he wafted by, "and this one over here Desolation, and that one Cape Circumcision." He was a menace. And, true to form, the day he saw Vanuatu, he cried, "From now on this shall be called the New Hebrides--because it reminds me of Scotland, which I discovered while I was looking for Brazil." Then he pranced off back to his ship, HMS Disoriented, and sailed out to sea once again to renew his quest for Antarctica.