“Welcome to the Middle East, now throw your shit in the Bongo; I don’t have all day”
These were the first words I heard after a grueling 18 hour flight half way around the world for my first gig Security Contracting overseas. Besides immediately being annoyed by this little troll-looking shit with stains on his shirt and dirty sneakers, I didn’t know what the hell a “Bongo” was.
So after a “Hey Yoda, what the fuck is a bongo?” he begrudgingly pointed at what looked like a minivan that had been shrunk, had the rear 2/3 chopped off, then had a pickup bed from an old Datson PU welded to the back of the front 1/3. After tossing my bags in the bed and squeezing in between Yoda and another new hire, all I could think was “You are not in Kansas anymore young man”.
This was the first of hundreds of drives I would eventually take in a bongo, officially known as the “Kia Bongo”, all over the world. From crashing a Bongo head on into Soviet era Yugo in Cambodia, which I somehow walked away from unharmed, with a bottle of 1 dollar Super Whisky as the only casualty. To riding around in Baghdad low-profile with my translator driving and an AK at my feet in 2006.
The Bongo is as basic as it gets. This ugly bastard has a 2.7 liter engine that you are practically sitting on, a small walled in pickup bed and tiny tires that remind me of the donut tires cars used to come with. No airbags or any safety features of any sort outside of the seatbelts that are surely buckled up (so the driver won’t be annoyed by the “bing-bing” of the seatbelt alarm) and slung over the headrests.
The thinly insulated engine compartment beside you keeps the inside just comfortable enough for you to fall asleep, until you are woken up with the left side of your body knowing what an egg in a frying pan feels like.
Despite its little four-banger motor and small bed, if you have enough twine you can strap on and haul the possessions of an entire village up the side of a mountain in a Bongo. By some sort of sorcery, this SOB somehow has the ability to cross over hundreds of miles of busted up dirt roads that would kill a Jeep.
And then turn around and go all the way back home.
On one tank of gas.
After spending as many years working and traveling in the 3rd world as I have, there are always the little things that make you suddenly feel at home no matter where you are. Like having a scotch with a lady friend at an expat pub in Kurdistan, eating a pizza in Thailand, or going to McDonald's in Mexico.
But nothing gives me that baby in a basket feeling like wrapping a Shemagh around my neck, jumping in the back of a white Bongo and driving through a crowded Souq with the sounds of hajji music blaring out of the single working speaker in the background and a rusty AK bouncing around on the floorboard.
Ahhh, there is no place like home…