By Chris Dixon
"How do we get in touch with the customs officials?" asked John. "I don't think they have aviation radio."
"Well, if you circle over the town twice at low altitude, they'll send a contingent out to meet you. Then we get a lift into town and clear customs. I want you guys to see this town too - it's amazing. The last time I was here, I was heading out of town and I wanted to find this guy to take me out bonefishing. Well, I tracked him down to this little disco that had two speakers in front of it that were each about as big as this plane. And they were spewing out this horrible island rap. It was as loud as Studio 54. So, I go in and there's this one lady there, and it's so loud that talking to her was essentially impossible. And there was just one drunk guy slouched over at the bar in the whole place. From the sound, you would have thought it was the party of the year."
The pass over Mayaguana was incredible. Surf, nature, perfect fishing habitat and rootsy settings as far as the eye could see. At 100 square miles, the island is about the size of Bermuda, but it is mostly set aside for a nature preserve. Jimmy said that the Samana Keys, as these islands are called, were actually reputed to be the first place that Columbus made landfall. Here on Mayaguana, most locals make their livings through agriculture or fishing, because the one big industry on the island is long-gone. That industry is plainly visible from the air in the form of an 11,000 foot runway that once was used by NASA during the Mercury and Apollo space programs. The runway is easily long enough to land a 747, but there is nothing here now but a couple of decrepit buildings, several crashed drug planes and jungle. "It looks like something from Dr. Strangelove, or a Stephen King set," said Jimmy. "It's a serious outpost."
Within a few minutes, we were dropping the plane over the little town of Abrahams Bay, where we circled low enough to see people walking below. Then we turned and headed for the abandoned runway, hoping our signal was effective. Coming in for a landing, I saw the old Mercury outpost on the hill and a number of derelict planes, including a bright orange DC3 off the taxiway. The plane touched down, bumping over several potholes, and we headed towards the taxiway, where a jeep and a Sentra were already waiting with a number of local dignitaries -- one of whom stood menacingly in a full outfit of camouflage and combat boots.
Climbing out of the plane, Jimmy immediately walked over and shook the hand of a guy who smiled and obviously recognized him from his last trip here. The camo dude soon followed. The group made some small talk and then Jimmy asked if we could go into town to clear customs. "No sah," the official replied, "I don't think so. Ya don't hafta go into town. I'll clear ya right 'ere." Now that was service.
While Kelly handed the guys our passports, Jimmy hoisted Cameron over his shoulders and said, "Let's go check out those planes."
The first was an old McDonell-Douglas DC-3, still sporting an amazingly bright orange and yellow paint job after what had obviously been years of sadly sitting waiting for a pilot who would never return. The rear door of the plane was long gone, revealing an interior whose contents were mostly long-gone too. If wings could talk, the tales this plane would tell. Built mostly in the 30's, DC3's were the workhouse of commercial air-carriers, and after that, they were longtime favorites of drug runners and smugglers because of their hardiness and the fact that they could be landed on short, rough airstrips. Long after they went out of commercial service, the planes kept many an underground economy functioning. There are still a few of them in the air today.
Walking out to the plane, JB told me the tale of his first landing here: "I found out that they had boat customs here, so last year in the Bahamas in the Pilots Guide to the Caribbean, I found a number here. So I called the number up on the cellphone and the guy couldn't have been nicer. He said, 'oh yeah, we can clear your plane.' So I came in and we "swagged" em. They were very nice people and they just said, 'well hell, we'll just clear you right here.'"
Jimmy and Cam peered into the aged hull of the plane, and dad made an announcement: "Cammy, tell mom this is our new plane!" Cam was not swayed by dad's enthusiastic announcement, so we visited a newer, smaller propellor plane that had also obviously been sitting for a number of years. It was riddled with bullet holes. Apparently this one's last days had been something straight out of a Pacino movie and Cam was duly impressed. "Hmm, let me ask the sarge if he knows about that one," said Jimmy.
As we walked back over toward the Caravan, Jimmy talked fishing with one of the locals. The local said, "mon, you nevah come back to fish wit' us last year. Fishin' good here ya know." Jimmy raised his hands in surrender and replied with a laugh, "I've been busy." He promised a return visit nevertheless.
The last order of business was swag. Swag is a common down-island currency, and Jimmy's swag consisted of a number of t-shirts for all the locals and advance copies of his next album, for which the locals were quite grateful. "I think it's somehow appropriate," said Jimmy, "that they now have copies of my new album in Mayaguana, but it's not out in the States." We taxied to the runway and once again took to the sky.
Heading south over another Mayaguanan surf-fringed reef, Jimmy said: "a place like this, where I can surf on one side and fish on the other. This is where something like the flying dinghy comes into play. He pulled out a brochure for an outrageous but amazingly functional product.: a dinghy with an ultralight airplane attached to it. "What do you think dude?" he asked me. "Check the brochure, it says right here 'no one dead yet!'"
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