Flying with missiles

Flying with Missiles 

The plane from Bogota landed in Mexico City around 11.00, but it was nearly 12.00 before I emerged from Arrivals because my luggage was thoroughly searched for the second time that day. Maybe being a gringo with a beard made Customs think 'smuggler'. But my onward flight to Paris didn't leave until 10.00 in the evening, so I had plenty of time to see some Aztec sculptures in the Museo Antropologico, have a relaxed lunch and then pick up the package.

My good friend Teresa had asked me to go to an art gallery and pick up a package of paintings and drawings that her artist husband had exhibited there, and which were expensive to post back. "Sure!" I said, "No problem." Which was a mistake.

So I counted my pesos, calculated that I had just enough for the Metro there and back and a decent lunch, and set off - after squeezing my suitcase and the laptop bag into a left luggage locker, and simply taking my shoulder bag. Arriving at the gallery at 5.30 (plenty of time before check-in), I told the owner who I was and why I had come. "Ah yes," he said, "Teresa emailed me - I've got them here." Them ...?

The 'package' was actually two enormous rolls wrapped in brown paper and plastic and sticky tape, with rope carrying handles. They looked about the size of portable surface-to-air missiles. Well - 'portable' if you happened to be a very fit, muscular soldier.

     "I'll just call a taxi," said the gallery owner.

     "No, no - it's OK, I'm going on the Metro," I said.

He looked at me. And then presumably figured that I was English, so there was no point saying anything.

Fifty metres from the gallery, I dropped the missiles and hailed a taxi.

Once we'd squeezed the things into the little green Volkswagen and set off, I suddenly thought of money. A taxi back to the airport had not been in the budget. The driver took it in his stride and went looking for a cash machine. By 6.30, we'd found one - with a big sign flashing 'Out of order'. The next looked as though someone had tried to operate it with a pickaxe. But the third gave me 200 pesos, which would cover the price that I had agreed, with a bit over for emergencies.

The driver eventually found his way back to the motorway to the airport, and the usual traffic jam was moving (most of the time, at least) but it was still 7.20 by the time we reached the terminal - Door 14 for Air France. (Still plenty of time - just.) Given that we had toured substantial bits of Mexico City looking for a cash machine, I gave the cheerful driver all 200 pesos, and waved goodbye.

I picked up the missiles - and put them down again. The left luggage locker was ... where? Near Door 2.

So, humping the missiles, I hurry down the full length of the terminal, find the left luggage, pay, get the key and open the locker - but the suitcase won't come out. It's jammed. I get down on the floor, feet against the locker, and pull. An interested crowd gathers around this red-faced, sweating gringo having problems. The locker starts to come away from the wall. The boss of the place watches with fascination, and eventually says "Looks as though you'll have to take the locker with you on the plane." The crowd find this very funny.

Suddenly, a bit of the locker gives way and the suitcase is out. I stand up and get organised ... right, everything's here - shoulder bag, laptop rucksack, the suitcase and two missiles. But there's not a trolley in sight, I've only got two hands and there's a whole terminal to go to get to Air France. And it's now 7.55. (Still time - perhaps.)

Then the Dwarf appears. He's underfed, spindly, and the biggest thing about him is a bright red and blue baseball jacket. He's one of hundreds who hang around the airport, looking out for something - anything - that will earn a few pesos, and he's just seen an opportunity. So I give him the missiles (which he's not happy about), gather up the rest myself, and we stagger off up the concourse.

But how do I pay him? The taxi driver's got practically every last peso. Find another cash machine. Which gives me a 100 peso note ... but I can't give him all that ... so find a shop to buy a bottle of water just for the change ... and after all this zigzagging, we finally reach Air France. I give him 20 pesos and he totters off to recover.

So, at last I'm in the queue for check-in. Or rather - the first of four queues, because they're re-building this end of the terminal. There's a queue to get into the queue to get into the building site, then there's a queue for security, then there's the real queue for check-in. And it's 8.10.

When I FINALLY get to the security man (8.53), I already know what's going to happen. I've seen him looking at the missiles ... and yes, I'm going to be searched for the third time today. Fortunately, the missiles are so wrapped and taped and roped that he can't be bothered, so he just makes a mess of my suitcase, and I'm through to check-in (9.03) ... where the attendant looks at my little mountain of belongings and says "You can only check-in two objects." "But ... but ...but ..." "You'll have to pay excess baggage - over there."

Where there are two attendants because one of them is a trainee who seems never to have seen a Visa card before. Or a computer. (9.07) (9.09) (9.13) ...

Yes! Back at check-in, the suitcase and the damned missiles disappear, the attendant hands me my passport and the boarding card - and I've made it!

In the Departure Lounge, near Gate 12, Air France 309, I buy a coffee and sit down and "... relax ... haven't relaxed all day ... soon be on board ... I asked for an aisle seat - did she remember? ... check the boarding pass ... here we are, with the passport and the ... WHAT? where's the Immigration Certificate? ... the Immigration guy this morning, what did he say? ..."Señor, you keep this ver' safe ... ver' important - you lose this, you lose the flight, and they fine you 6 billion pesos" ... OK, not billion as such perhaps, but ... but where? how? ... I had it in the queue ... must be Air France they must have it ... hang on, there's that 'Immigration Enquiries' office ... explain ..."

At the desk, thank God, there's no-one waiting, just the big, dignified man in uniform.

     "Hello this morning Immigration Certificate I was in the queue Air France can't find it I'm sure I had it because flight going right now wouldn't lose it what ...?"

     "Señor. Señor. You have this boarding pass, so Air France have seen your Certificate, and if they have seen it they have kept it. That is the rule. So, no problem. Now you have a nice flight and get home safely."

And I did - but without the missiles. They turned up two days later, having been torn open and crudely repaired with masses of plastic tape that said Douane.

David Ripley 2010

Handout:  Flying with missiles   This includes guiding questions, and author's comments

Teaching points

This story really happened, and I have used it to make some points about fictional treatment - about using reality to make a coherent tale. I'm not a natural story-teller - I can make any joke fall flat - but the fact that all of this really happened to me, more or less in this way, made the story easier to write. Point out to the students (or photocopy the comments below) that writing an effective story involves keeping the following important principles in mind. (Leading questions for discussions are in italics.)


At university, I went to a lecture by the reputed English novelist John Fowles, then hugely fashionable, and recall vividly something he said: "Story-telling means getting the hook into the reader - you have to make him want to know what happens next and keep turning the page."  The hook here is the simple, understandable fear of missing a flight - will he catch it or won't he?

? How many references are there to precise time ? Why?


The point of the story is, to a large extent, about haste, and so events had to move quickly. Things had to happen one after another after another ... Secondly, the pace had to get faster, as the pressure built up, and this had to be done in phases (see below). Lastly, if you want to avoid boring the reader - move fast.

How would you describe the pace of the story? Slow? Fast? Gentle? Hectic? ... Why?

Key details only  

The need for pace meant that what actually happened had to be severely cut. For example, I got lost on the Metro going into the city, which was a whole other story ... and I had a fascinating conversation with the taxi driver about his life and hard times - but both these had to go, because they would distract from the main stream of the story. So - keep your attention firmly on the main thrust of the story.

? Which parts of the story seem to you to be irrelevant, or a digression ? Are there any?

Phases + pace of narration  

The speed and the pressure had to build, and this had to be clearly signalled to the reader. This has been attempted by (a) changes of tense, (b) changes in patterns of sentence structure, (c) changes of 'voice', of how the voice of the narrator is written, and how the narrator's thoughts are organised. This is easier to do if you imagine what you would do or say in that kind of situation.

? In which sections of the text are the following used ...

- measured past tense ?

- shorter sentences + present tense ?

- fragmented grammar and sentence structure ?

Character versus action

The people in a story need to be identifiable - the reader has to know who they are, and have some sort of impression or picture of them. The problem is that spending time describing people in detail will inevitably slow down the action - and pace is vital here. So, how do we find the balance?

Looking at the various characters mentioned, how is each described, or made identifiable? 


The key purpose of this text is to explore narrative technique and how stories work. So it would be sensible to ask students to write some sort of narrative. Basing the story on personal experience is recommended, since that way students can think more about how to tell the tale, than about what happens next ... but if someone comes up with a good fictional idea, fine. 

The obvious starting points could be :-

  • Problems while travelling
  • Experience of tension
  • Getting somewhere on time
  • Losing something important
  • Regretting doing a favour

Links & extensions

LifeWatching ... it must be good for students to practise the close observation of real life, and then write about what they see, lucidly, honestly and expressively. Various pages in this site provide a range of different models of how to carry out this process...

> Narrative observed ... a section from a graphic novel which skilfully shows the first person narrator observing other characters and drawing conclusions - what we all do all the time, really...

In the restaurant ... a short story - the narrative is about the process of observation, then insight ... suggested writing tasks are based on close observation of daily life ...

> To make a play ... a poem about the writing of plays based on the relationship between observed reality and constructed fiction ... good use of simple grammar and vocabulary to express complex ideas...

> The blood of strangers  ... a powerful short story about a doctor in Emergency who nearly makes a wrong diagnosis... obviously based on close observation of real individuals, since the author writes on the basis of his own experience as a doctor... points out how we assemble our ideas about people from very small clues...

> Nationalist myths  ... from a book exploring national identities - but the text is written in a lively 'novelistic' style, the kind of journalism or reporting which uses techniques like direct speech and dialogue to involve the reader in a dynamic 'narrative present'...

> Tourist tribes ... an example of the primary process of observing, then thinking about what you've observed and formulating some kind of analysis ... also includes quotes of different points of view, by different observers...

> Observing behaviour  ... watching people from a cafe terrace - specifically students, in this case... how you can infer a great deal from small details, and how you can develop humour... or satire... from this


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