On the way back from a recent trip to Canada, it occurred to me that although there are still airline problems in the Caribbean, it is nothing compared to the headaches that used to exist. These days we complain constantly about the difficulties of air travel, in and out of Guyana, and the complaints are not bogus, but I remember a time when the situation was even worse. I had worked at Timehri as a young man with B. G. Airways, but when I left Guyana in the late 1950s to live in Canada, with the family of my late uncle Joseph Barcellos, it was the first time I had set foot on an international jet. If memory serves, the aircraft was a Lockheed Constellation and it was full.
It turned out to be quite an introduction (I have mentioned it previously) because bad weather had closed the Toronto airport and we circled for a long time before it cleared and we could land. We had been in the air for a long time; all the meals and the snacks had been consumed, and even water was scarce. This was the time before jet ways which allow you to walk off the plane into the terminal. Back then, it was all stairways, even in Toronto, so the aircraft parked a good way from the terminal, and it was mid-December Toronto weather. This unsophisticated country boy, dressed only in a gabardine suit, stepped out of the plane into the shock of the sudden winter cold. Nobody had warned me about this; it was my first time with winter and it took about 10 seconds for my brain to unravel that the weird feeling in my body and face was from being exposed to low temperature. I later learned it was 20 degrees. I felt as if I had run headlong into a wall. My response was to take off running. The other passengers, in sensible winter gear, must have thought there was a madman among them, but my objective was “get to some shelter fast, buddy” and I made straight for the terminal.
In the years after that, starting in 1966 when Tradewinds began, I became familiar with all the vagaries of Caribbean travel, including late departures (sometimes outright cancellations), no-show baggage, and an onboard menu that was often less than savoury. As a group of Caribbean people accustomed to their condiments, we soon resorted to travelling with our own pepper sauce (BeeWee and Air Canada had never heard of the stuff) although we often had to claim “All done” when passengers near to us were asking us to share the condiments.
Delays in baggage, which still happens sometimes today, were common in those days. I recall coming on a trip to Guyana with my wife Angela, and our first child, Annika, just a baby, and all our luggage had been left behind following the aircraft change in Piarco, and we were here, comfortable in the house of my friend, the late Freddy Abdool, but completely out of diapers, baby formula, colic medication, etc., for over three days at a time when such items were hard to get in Guyana. Fortunately, some Guyanese friends who were on the same flight with us, had brought diapers in a carry-on, and they were able to lend us some until our luggage arrived. As it turned out, it took several days and many phone calls, and eventually the intervention of BeeWee pilot Randolph Roach, who used his contacts at Piarco, to ferret out the Guyanese baggage from that Toronto flight which had been packed up in some corner of the terminal, fully tagged, awaiting transfer. It took over four days to get here. I hate to think of persons who may have had the usual perishable items (ham; cheese; onions) in their baggage on that flight.
Options in air travel were limited back then, with smaller and slower planes and lost luggage was a very common occurrence. To be fair to the airline companies, however, in that time of shortages here, it was amazing to see the enormous suitcases Guyanese were bringing home (it would often take two of them to lift the bags out of the cars at the airport) and, in the frequent occasions where they would be overweight and have to unpack, it was an education to see what folks were travelling with. I ended up writing a song about it, West Indian Suitcase, based on what I had seen at the Toronto airport. One chorus went:
“We does travel with ten pound o’ flour, six pint o’ split peas, toilet paper, in we suitcase. Couple rounds ammunition, parts for a washing machine, icing sugar, in we suitcase.”
Obviously, the airlines bringing us home were dealing with a very taxing situation, and while there were times when frustrations boiled over, the airline staff usually kept things under control. The one exception I remember was a time in the 1990s at the Miami airport when a large group of Jamaican farm workers returning home were in a line two counters away from where I was checking in. I never found out what triggered it, but some irregularity at that counter must have taken place, because a huge uproar broke out, with people firing carry-on items at one another – folks were bobbing and weaving to avoid being hit; airline staff ducked down behind the counter – and security people running to the fray. I don’t recall anyone being hurt, but it took almost 10 minutes to restore order and the area was strewn with various travel items. Jamaicans don’t play.
While we often hear people reminiscing about “the good old days”, my recollection of Caribbean air travel back then was that it was worse than what we experience now. The expression that “the good old days talk better than they lived” certainly fits our international travel experience. Yes, I complain when travel problems crop up, but I don’t indulge in that “good old days” talk; I know better.