All my previous emergencies on the Atlantic route have taken place just after take-off, allowing the pilot to jettison the fuel and return to the runway we had just left. High up above the ocean, our situation this time round had a potentially far gloomier prognosis, and the sudden sense of confinement was almost overpowering.
The most disturbing aspect of this incident was the length of time it took the cabin crew to call up the cockpit - this they did (from right in front of me) only after they had finished searching all the overhead baggage compartments, and after the pungent pong had dissipated somewhat.
Of course after this, a return to sleep was an absolute impossibility. Eventually the Captain decided to comment:
"Some folks at the back have reported a vibration. I can assure you that we have a good airplane here; everything checks out. It was probably just one of those pops you get from time to time."
I've flown with some dodgy airlines over the years, but interestingly, all of my high altitude close shaves have come courtesy of major carriers: American, Continental and British Airways.
Earlier in the day I had a left-side seat on take-off from Aurora, affording me a great view of all five of Guatemala's major volcanoes strung out along the curved spine of the Sierra Madre, plus a smaller one I don't know by name, just over the distant Mexican border.
That flight was full of pillagers − a few beady-eyed Guatemalans on their way to plunder el Norte, greatly outnumbered by packs of North American raiders on their return leg. The worst sort are always the ones wearing matching T-shirts and shorts: "Are you with the Canadian group?" a stewardess asked one of them as he stepped aboard the 737.
In the main they come not to filch Central America's material wealth, instead they are after its souls, its new-borns, or perhaps just the satisfying sense of superiority that comes from southerly travel or work experience in a region that is nearly always referred to as down there or down here.
The pair sitting next to me were baby brigands, brandishing 'Lucas', their month-old booty from a one week visit to their future heir's native land. (Or rather a characterless chain hotel in the capital.) An uncommonly ugly and stupid couple from Minnesota, they led me to reflect on the providential nature of their apparent failure to breed naturally. There were several similar threesomes on board, all traveling courtesy of different local adoption agencies. Gone, I hope, are the days when Guatemala's orphans were purchased and exported for the spare part organ trade*, but there's still something distasteful about this kind of human traffic.
The five hour interval between flights at Houston gave me a chance to catch a shuttle to the Galeria to do some high-speed shopping, and also afforded me an opportunity to tune into the amusingly paranoid world of American talk radio. Red-staters have but a few screws and clearly most of them are loose. Sean Hannity was yapping on FOX about the Democrats' new manifesto which apparently makes him "wanna puke", whilst another right-minded commentator informed listeners that the Lonestar State is being regularly subjected to illegal border-crossings by the Mexican army and that "these incursions should be CRUSHED."
* The baby-parts allegations may well have been apocryphal, but I happen to know that a suspiciously large amount of commercial money was spent to convince the outside world that it never happened. The fact that down on the ground these chismes had some of the adaptability and persistence of Internet canards (like the one about P&G being run by Beelzebub and a board of practicing devil worshippers) certainly had significant repurcussions.