From Rangoon to Berlin with AEROFLOT

Rangoon Int'l Airport in the good ol' days ...
Gary Larson says it as it is

As many of you will recall tourists were allowed to stay in Burma only for one week (7 nights) until the 1990’s. I frequently booked Aeroflot flights from Berlin to South East Asia because they were the cheapest you could get. And they had a further advantage: on the outward flight I stopped over in Rangoon and again on my way back, thus saving one return flight from BKK. Killing two birds with one stone.

I vividly remember one Aeroflot-flight from Rangoon to Berlin in the rainy season in the late 70’s. As far as I remember the plane came from Hanoi or Saigon, then stopped in Bangkok and next stop was Rangoon. I had safely passed customs with my black market handicrafts (after a hefty bribe, it is understood) and enjoyed the scent of the typical Aeroflot* disinfectant which reminded me of the smell of rotten apples. And – not to forget – the almost 2 inches of legroom. Except for one seat (luckily next to mine!) the plane was fully booked. The gangway was pulled away by workers in the pouring rain, the engines started roaring – good bye, Rangoon! Then suddenly silence! I looked out the window and saw a rugged man running towards the plane. The gangway was pushed back, the door opened and in came a freak with long hair and granny glasses. And of course he occupied the seat next to me.

His name was Effi and as it turned out he was from West-Berlin, just like me. After some time I realized that he was a colleague from the flea market at Straße des 17. Juni in West-Berlin. What a surprise! I asked him which places he had been to in Burma. Pagan? He shook his head. Mandalay? Same reaction! Inle? Same! “Then you must have been to Pegu at least?” I asked him. “No!” was the answer! “Oh, I understand: you haven’t been here for the full seven days!” said I. “Yes, seven days!” he confirmed. “What the heck did you do in Yangon all the time?” – „I stayed at the Strand Hotel the entire time. Haven’t even been to the big pagoda!”. “Why, for heaven’s sake?“ He told me that he only left the hotel in order to buy pot from the sidecar drivers on the corner. “It is the greatest stuff I’ve ever smoked. Better than Black Afghan!” he told me.        

Ruhla from the GDR - simply the best!

Then we were interrupted for a while. A Russian who introduced himself a Jewgenij engaged me into a conversation. I really wasn’t in the mood but on the other hand I wasn’t very keen either to be put against the wall in Moscow because of ‘conversation sabotage’ or similar trumped up charges. So I put on a brave face and endured his babbling which got less and less coherent with every vodka he had. Na sdrowje! Drushba! We were only interrupted by lunch (fried chicken). My new friend Effi obviously wasn’t very hungry as he hardly touched a thing and drank very little. Jewgenijs favourite subject seemed to be German poetry and his favourite poet was a certain Jendrich Jenne. I felt ashamed: Who the heck was Jendrich Jenne? I’m a German and have never heard of him. Shame on me! When he wrote down the name ‘Heinrich Heine’ the scales fell from my eyes. After he had compelled me to trade his worthless Ruhla watch from East Germany against an even less valuable ruby from Burma he fell asleep shortly before we reached Calcutta.      

All yours for 10 bucks
Aeroflot's mighty ladies

We continued to Delhi and enjoyed fried chicken on the way, served by mighty stewardesses with a threatening air. Then a short hop to Karachi during which we were granted a piece of cake. On we went to Dushanbe, the capital of the Tajik ASSR. On the way we savoured delicious fried chicken. After a short stop the plane took off for Moscow. As it was a long flight we were served fried chicken* twice. Completely knackered and stuffed with fried chicken we arrived in the Soviet Union’s capital at an unearthly hour. I had to promise the meanwhile completely drunk Jewgenij to write him a letter immediately after my arrival in Berlin. I’m afraid he’s still waiting for my letter until this very day. In Sheremetjovo II we had a five hour stopover before we finally boarded our flight to Berlin. Generously, the airline granted us a free brekkie. We asked our way to the restaurant and finally arrived in a giant dining hall that made us shiver with coziness. A stout waitress that made the Aeroflot stewardesses appear delicately built barked “Coupon!” at us. Too scared to say anything we handed her our coupons. She brought us a breakfast that made us yearn for the muck they’d served at the Strand Hotel in Rangoon.

* I remember that those days German travelers called Aeroflot Aeroschrott (Aeroscrap) or Chickenflot!

After a while Effi asked me: “Would you mind ordering a coffee for me?” – “Are you nuts? Why don’t you order it yourself? Do you think I’m your waiter?“ – He replied: „I’m sorry to bother you but I don’t talk to fat people on principle”. That of course fully convinced me and I ordered a coffee for my new friend, who thanked me from the bottom of his heart. Finally, the flight to East Berlin’s Schoenefeld airport was announced and we boarded our plane. Much to our surprise we weren’t served fried chicken but delicious bread, sausage and cheese. Paradise!

Effi had told me that he was going to Frankfurt and from there to West-Berlin but somehow he wasn’t in the mood for another flight. Or two. “Why don’t you get down at Schoenefeld?“ I asked him. “Easy for you to say in your youthful abandon!” he replied. “Why do you think I haven’t eaten during the flight?” – “How would I know?” I answered. „Man, my butt is stuffed with condoms full of pot! If the East Germans nab me I’m going to jail for years.“ – “Do you really think you’ll fare better in Frankfurt? And if you get away with it in in Frankfurt, there’s still the customs in West-Berlin!”. “You’ve got a point there” he said. „I’ll get down in Schoenefeld!” He passed without problems. Later on we became good friends and even after my emigration to Burma I never forgot to pay him a visit at his market stall when I was in – unfortunately – reunited Berlin. One day he asked me: “Say, what is worse, Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s?” – “How would I know? Fortunately I’m not suffering from any of it!” I replied. “Well, but that’s an easy question: Parkinson’s of course!” – “And why’s that?” I asked him. “Better to forget three beers than to spill one!” he said jokingly. Effi passed away a few years ago.     


Effi (he later became a Sadhu) and the author at Berlin's flea market