Monday, November 5, 2007

escaping the olive green veil

escaping the olive green veil only to get stuck in the mud

October 26, 2007
Rolling onto my side on the hard mattress, underneath an olive green mosquito net, I listen to the now familiar background soundtrack to my mornings: rosters crowing, the call to prayer at a nearby mosque and Dama’s muted squeaks of joy as she rustles around in the gravel. I clean the sleepers from my eyes and I realize today I travel. For an idle moment I sit at the edge of my mattress with the mosquito net resting like an olive green veil on my back: slowly I surface from my cozy cocoon.

In that moment I feel almost rested but well aware a tough day on bumpy roads is going to wreck havoc on my settled state of mind. Who would have thought sitting inactive in a land cruiser can make one feel as if they had finished a triathlon. In an effort to return to a state of mindless grace, I shuffle to the kitchen. With Dama at my heels, I start to prepare my percolator to make a hot cup of coffee. Before I ignite the flame I take slow deep inhales of the aroma coming from the cylinder of the greatly appreciated French coffee I carefully carried from Guinea.

My idleness is short lived. In the faint, delicate light of a new day I receive a call informing me that one of the drivers has been fired and approximately 1500 gallons of fuel had been stolen from our already scarce supply. I hang up the phone feeling slightly deflated as I tend to take all these unfortunate events against our well meaning NGO personally. Today it feels like I was once again figuratively kicked in the gut.

I start packing for my long journey to my old home, Gbarnga. This time Dama will travel with me because she needs to get her shots and there is only one vet in all of Liberia. This vet was trained in Denmark in the late 60s, speaks fluent Danish, and returned to Liberia in the late 70s. Rather than leave (something he could have done with a valid passport) he remained throughout the war. Suffering direct attacks and a number of armed robberies due to the fact he and his family was well known, he felt he had no other option than stay. His family was here and here was where he felt he belonged. His house, what used to be a beautiful 70s style villa, is centrally located in Mamba Point, Dukkor (the local name for Monrovia, the name I prefer to use as I am constantly disturbed by all the references to American presidents in this country). Presently, if you don’t take the time to look closely enough, you will not notice the gentle doctor and his entire family still live in this house. To the naked eye it looks like an unlivable abandoned burnt out casualty of the war.

The road between Voinjama and Gbarnga is approximately 320 miles and should take at a maximum 5 hours but in the rainy season, anything is possible. In the moments I am packing for this journey I feel my heart quicken with excitement just like it does every time I prepare for a new journey. Propelled by the idea of discovery I move quickly and feel energized by my coffee. Somewhere along the way, in the split second it took me to gingerly place my beloved headlamp into the secret pocket on my well used backpack, something in me shifts: the electrifying excitement from a moment ago is replaced by a hard merciless feeling of exhaustion that has lived inside me ever since. But then just as quickly, it shifts again. A synapse in my brain fires and I am struck by an idea that reminds me to charge my tiny gifted I-Pod shuffle. I contemplate the fact that I will be looking at some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen with an exciting new mix of music playing softly in my ears. I am once again brisling with excitement.

Ab, my very muscular Dukkor driver with a gentle disposition arrives promptly on time and we are off. The road is less familiar than the recognizable road between Dukkor and Gbarnga but the landscape is even more stunning and I sit comfortably with one foot out the window. All of a sudden Ab is struck by a memory, clicks and shakes his head. I ask him what he is thinking about and he begins to tell me a long story. I am delighted by his openness and pleasantly listen as he tells me a story about living in the bush for two years as an adolescent.

At the age of fourteen Ab had decided that he needed to know what it felt like to live deep in the interior. So, he packed up his things and moved to a farm his family owned hundreds of miles away from his childhood home. On the day he departed he made one simple agreement with his father: he would go into the interior and build a small little palm hut and farm their land. He would remain there until something happened suggesting he should do otherwise. There was no time line put in place but Ab sensed he would be there for a while. The work was hard, harder than he had expected, and after 27 months he finally decided to resettle in Dukkor. The event that occurred giving him permission to leave was a fallen tree, or should I say two fallen trees.

On two separate occasions a tree fell on Ab, pinning his leg and his arm to the ground. This he states assertively was the sign – nature telling him he was wanted there no longer. I silently and selfishly appreciate the fact that nature had pushed him away; otherwise, I would not have been given the honor of getting to know this exquisitely stoic and exceptionally serious individual.

The road was bad but maneuverable. Unfortunately it was bumpy enough to cause Dama to suffer from car sickness causing her to vomit fresh rice all over the back seat. At first I actually thought she must have knocked Abs lunch over because the rice was so undigested. This discovery was not as intriguing to Ab given he was barely tolerating the fact the dog was in the car, let alone puking all over it. Throughout our journey I frequently caught him looking at me with a raised eyebrow and a suspicious look suggesting he found the fact that my engaging with Dama in a loving motherly sort of way (a way we in the west frequently tend to treat our canines) was ever so slightly disturbing. The equilivant in the West would likely be something like having to ride cross country with a guy and his pet chicken.

Only once did we hit a spot where we spun out of control and found ourselves balancing on two wheels uncomfortably close to the raven that ran parallel to the roadside. Fortunately for us, aside from the fact that Ab is a brilliant story teller, he is also an exceptional driver and after some maneuvering and digging we were safely set free. The next time we passed a rough spot I actually saw someone point at Ab and say – “oh I know that guy; he’s good he won’t be getting stuck in no mud today.” You have no idea how good it feels to know they are talking about your driver at times like these.

Just as we near Belefani (the district site that houses five of my counselors) a young boys starts waving his arms and screaming. At first I ignore him because people are frequently waving down cars for rides or small dashes for pretending to do work on the damaged roads but then something about his behavior causes me to pause,
Ab, What’s he taking about?
Oh, he’s just saying that there are some baboons in the trees back there.
Baboons!!! Stop! We must go back!
You want to see some Baboons?
YES! Of course – Ab they are in the wild!
Ok we go back.

Gingerly, we slowly back up. Approximately 14 children and teenagers are resting casually underneath the Tuesday market stands near the side of the road. I jump out of the car and scream, Baboons! Where?

A few of them casually lift their arm and point to the trees behind me. I spin around. At first I see nothing. Like a bad hunter I squint and shuffle around but again I see nothing. Ab gets out of the car takes one look and then stands behind me and points over my shoulder so I can follow his finger. I try but again see nothing. Ab starts to get a bit annoyed and says, Gomah – they are right there can’t you see. Right there!

Finally he says, Gomah look at where all the braches are moving. They are there. I look and then finally I see! The branches are moving because a baby is standing on a branch while hanging from another. He is jumping up and down playfully. He waits and does it again and then waits and finally a few trees over I notice a much larger baboon doing the exact same thing. I realize it must be his father and they are mimicking each other. After a while it becomes clear dad is getting tired of the game but his son can’t get enough so they continue playing. A third baboon rests against a thick branch a few feet below – in my mind it is mom getting a much deserved rest.

I can’t believe it! Real live baboons in the wild swinging in trees 200 feet away from me. I start to dance around a little and do that mini-squat thing we primates tend to do when we get excited. My excitement and squeals of joy intrigue the group of kids at the market and they all get up and start acting as excited as I am about spotting the baboons. They start asking questions like, haven’t you seen baboons before? And I’m like, Ah no! And, then their like, Oh have you seen monkeys? Even though I may have seen a few, I’m like, Ah No! They all crack up and try to help me find the best angle to see these amazing creatures with whom we share 99% of our DNA. I settle in as if I have arrived.

Ab waits patiently for a while but then finally says, Gomah it is time. I pout and make a big deal out of it, which cracks up the kids who are gathered around watching me watching the baboons. With my head bowed and my bottom lip pouted I shuffle slowly to the car.

I realize that I have yet to arrive at my stuck in the mud story and have not relayed the details of my 12 hour trip back to Voinjama; but, rather than wait, I will post and teach those of you who are curious enough a little about what it feels like to be engaged in the business of waiting.

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