Tuesday, November 13, 2007

mud & the relentless quest for H2O

October 31, 2007

After a long weekend in Dukkor it was time for me to travel back to my new home, Voinjama. Over the course of the weekend I felt myself stretched for time and had the unfortunate feeling of spending a little bit of time with everybody and not enough quality time with anybody. One of my identified gems in the midst of sea of lovely precious stones was also dealing with the pressure of multiple interested parties in his time and energy, leaving us sans a moment for our much appreciated b & g time. Even though he hosted me graciously, we were ultimately denied that piece of quality time we almost instantly learned to appreciate when it comes to our friendship dynamic. The time we share is typically filled with reading our most recent literary ideas, appreciating a stunning or even subtle sunset or slowing sipping on coffee while chatting about the nuances of life, love and patience.

Although I should consider myself lucky that I have finally reached a point where I actually have to be planful about how I spend my time in the big city (rather than sitting around hoping someone, anyone, would take the time to befriend me) I also know one my weaknesses has always been saying no when it comes to requests for my time. From here on out I will need to be thoughtful and cognizant of my wants and needs, otherwise I will disappoint everyone, including myself. I left Dukkor feeling as if I had finished a huge bag of unbuttered, unsalted popcorn – saturated yet unsatisfied.

I spent one day and one night in Gbarnga. Scheduled to hit the road early the next morning, we hoped to hit the most difficult parts of the road by midday. It seemed we had a good plan. It was dry and it was bright and if something did happen to us, plenty of other NGO or UN vehicles would be on the road to offer support.

Sylle my driver for this leg of the trip is much different from Ab who I mentioned in the last post. Both trustworthy and serious, somehow they embody similar traits in very different ways. Ab is private, predictable and somewhat disconnected in his interpersonal style. Sylle is chronically outgoing, engaged and thoughtful. Last month when we traveled to Guinea, Sylle was friendly with everyone we encountered and even purchased a bagful of tea and gave it out to the soldiers working at the numerous roadblocks. A Guinean by ancestry you can tell he is proud and connected to his country and wants others to appreciate all the nuances of its beauty without forcing it down your throat. Persistently generous, I frequently witnessed Sylle giving things out and purchasing food items in bulk so it can be shared by all. Just yesterday I watched as he quietly gave a few bucks to a small boy who was genuinely working on the roads. Here in Voinjama we get so used to seeing entitled, slightly harsh ex-combatants sitting around and demanding money from passerbyers on the road (via makeshift roadblocks and false claims of progress) one is inevitably at risk of losing the ability to notice when someone is actually trying. Sylle always notices.

About an hour into our return trip Sylle noticed something, actually we all noticed. After struggling for 10 minutes in 4 wheel drive to get through a 6 foot deep ravine, we surfaced only to realize something was seriously wrong with the car. I suppose I should mention that when I say ‘we’ I mean myself, Sylle, Augustine (our security coordinator coming to investigate the 1500 gallons of stolen fuel), Fatima and Special, Augustine’s mother and niece, and Amatu the elderly mother of one of our local counselors who wanted to visit her dying brother in a village, deep in the interior.

Due to a hard knock to the underside of the engine, the water tank had been punctured. I was quickly informed that the water tank is important because it prevents the engine from overheating. Once the water is finished the engine is quick to start smoking and parts get spoiled. No worries however - Sylle had a plan. We would continue moving until the indicator light showed us we were in trouble and then we would add more water to the tank. His hope was that we would need to stop two or three times before we hit ZorZor and then our colleagues in Voinjama could send another car.

Although a good plan for water tanks with hairline fractures, or tank’s injury was much more severe and we quickly realized we would only be able to travel 2-3 miles before needing to fill the water tank again. A completely empty tank seems to need approximately 10 gallons of water for it to be restabilized and cooled off. For a car full of people stranded with no water around, that’s a lot of water. Dear sweet Special put it right when she whispered “this car can drink” while witnessing Sylle fill the tank for the fifth time.

The good news is there is small village after small village scattered along the major highways in Liberia and it is a rare occasion that one travels too far with out reaching a small collection of mud huts and some people. Unfortunately for us not all of these villages have a well, let alone a water pump. First stop, second stop, third stop we were lucky enough to find small huts with some combination of an extended family milling around. At each hut a young girl was typically cooking or washing; the boys were sweeping or trying to knock oranges out of nearby trees. Each time we stopped, Sylle would get out of the car and do a big ‘hello how are you what news’ kind of introduction and then proceed to beg for water. More often than not the young woman found cooking would simply get up without pause, find a large bucket or bowl and go get some water. Every once in a while we witnessed a small inkling of hesitation cross one of their faces – this pause was tied to the fact these poor women had trekked all morning with 20 gallon containers on their head to bring this much needed water to their households. In the interior water is a hot commodity. It became even more evident that we were indicators of bad karma when Sylle kept saying ‘a little more please…just a little more.’ Kindness to strangers was customary so they couldn’t dare say no as they were being quietly stripped of something they constantly work so hard to have around.

After a few successful fill ups on the roadside we hit some wide open space. This beautiful stretch of land was filled with palm trees, thick green brush, and mid-land rice fiends. At this point we needed to get a little more creative about how we were going to get water. I had two empty water bottles and Fatima had a small bucket. So the deal became this: the indicator light would go on, Sylle would pop the hood and I would grab the bucket and scan the environment for water. Usually there were a few potholes on the road filled with rainwater for the night before. Sometimes this water was clean enough to use, more often than not it wasn’t. Sylle would start to cool off the engine with the small stock of water we had managed to save from the last fill up and I would start walking in search of water.

The women in the back couldn’t help due to the fact we didn’t have any other buckets and because Sylle had eventually forbidden them from getting out of the car. Earlier in the day when we were conquering the rough spots of the road Fatima had herself a bit of a panic attack and begged Sylle to let her get out and walk. The walk took too long and Sylle was annoyed. Fatima later told us that she had been in UNHCR transport truck that had flipped over during the war. Now she was triggered whenever she was in a vehicle on bumpy roads. Her anxiety was somewhat contagions and poor Amatu began to suffer from car sickness and periodically vomited in a small black plastic bag in the back seat. Sylle was tired of having to organize everyone while knowing that for every second he wasn’t driving after having filled the water tank meant less ground we would eventually cover. From time to time, if you listened closely enough, you could hear Fatima’s whispered prayers.

Approximately four hours later, only half way to ZorZor, something happened to reinforce poor Fatima’s phobia of driving. As I mentioned earlier NGO cars generally look out for each other during the rainy season. In Lofa County this connection is especially close, partly because everyone has needed something in the past. Karma, debts and a joint feeling of helplessness seem to connect people in Lofa. Due to this bizarre connection there is actually a delightful energy on the road and when one finds themselves stopped in the service of assessing the latest stuck truck and possible escape routes, it feels like we are all on the same team. Everyone has an idea and no one is afraid to get dirty.

Following our 21st stop for water, Musu and a car load of ARC workers pulled up and asked if they could help. Sylle and Musu knew each other from the refugee camps in Guinea; it was clear they were close because Sylle didn’t even bother with the pleasantries. He just said, I will hook up the chain from the front hitch and you will pull us. They hooked up the 20 foot chain and Sylle put the car in neutral. For about 3 miles it worked. Sylle's new idea was that they would pull us to ZorZor and we would transfer to another car; let’s forget about the water tank. However, every bump caused a problem because the differing speeds of the vehicles caused a significant amount of slack and the cars would eventually shake roughly when the resistance was checked. It even made me nervous enough that I turned to Fatima and said I think now is the time to pray, this doesn’t feel like a very good idea.

After approximately 7-10 miles of being pulled the resistance checked so hard the chain snapped off the front of our vehicle and flew at high speeds towards the ARC vehicle. The metal hook slammed into the back window and shattered the glass. Sitting just on the other side of the window was one of 7 civilian passengers. Shattered glass cut skin just above the left eye of one of the passengers. Her upper left arm was also cut badly. An exceptionally frightening experience, everyone was affected in their own way. The young woman who was cut and a few others fell silent in shock; two of the men became angry and agitated secondary to feelings of helplessness, others just paced around and shook their heads. All of this managed to re-traumatize poor Fatima

Slowly… slowly… we moved down the road. Within an hour I was covered head to tow in mud. We had probably made approximately 77 stops for water. Dama was also a mess and had brown mud all over her nose and feet. One stop carried Sylle and Dama and I approximately a mile and a half up the road and into the interior in search of water. I quickly learned how to listen to the sounds of the landscape and felt it in my bones when water was near by. Finding it was always a relief and I recall thinking thank God I didn’t take a position Afghanistan.

Once we hit ZorZor it was around 9 pm but Sylle and I were in some sort of trance. We didn’t want to waste time calling anyone in Voinjama or Monrovia and simply started discussing how we could get our hands on bigger containers so that we would have to make less stops to beg for water along the reminder of the journey. This leg of the trip should typically take about 2 hours. We figured we would be lucky if it took 6. Even though we had plenty of money, nobody was selling. All we wanted was to purchase one or two of those large plastic containers seen all over the country. Holding approximately 20 gallons of water, we figured it would allow us to get though two episodes of overheating. Shuffling door to door covered head to toe in mud everybody had a container but nobody wanted to give theirs up. Finally Sylle asked one guy if we could rent his. We would give the guy 150 liberties (roughly 3 dollars) and he would give half the money back when we returned it next time we drove though town. He agreed but made it clear he wanted his container back.

We started moving again and just like the previous 6 hours of the trip we did what it took to keep the engine cool and the car moving. We all were exhausted and Sylle and I survived on small bags of peanuts we purchased from some of the young girls who gave up their precious supply of water to muddy strangers. It was Halloween and the UN clubhouse was having a costume party in Voinjama; for one split second I figured I had a great costume – I could arrive covered in mud and report I was one of those roadside helpers who station themselves at the various rough spots to help stuck trucks with the hopes of getting a small dash. Upon arrival however the party felt like a distant dream and all I could think about was a shower. I drifted off to sleep dreaming of the relentless quest for H2O.

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