Wednesday, July 7, 2010

And so we beat on, boats against the current...

Byron and Kenny's adventure
Byron and Kenny were complete heroes on their trip up the mountain. After getting into the Kedougou garage at around midnight (after their car hit a cow), they were up at 7, raring to go. I was not really feeling excited about the ride because I was still physically exhausted from my long ride and subsequent lack of sleep plus more riding. We rounded up what we thought were rideable house bikes for the two of them, grabbed some stuff from the boutique, and set off. We got to the barge to cross the Gambia River, and about halfway across, I realized that what I had thought was a big bundle in the back of the truck we'd squeezed on around in fact was a brown fleece blanket wrapped around a long package. On a stretcher. And then I realized that it looked like feet at one end (underneath the blanket). In one of my celebrated less-than-eloquent, less-than-articulate utterances I turned to Byron and Kenny and said, "Uh, guys? That guy, I think he's dead or something!" Disconcerting experience, but not day-ruining. But nor was it the best of omens.

On the other side of the river, Kenny's bike gave up. We fiddled with it, but after a couple kilometers, it became apparent that there was nothing we knew how to do to fix it. I think I was the one (but it may have been one of them) who suggested turning it into a fixed gear bike by shortening the chain. Over an hour later (just before the self-imposed deadline of "If we can't finish it by 11, we'll go back"), we'd finished fiddling with it, having been the object of fascinated observation by at least six passing groups of Senegalese people and two cows. Everyone commented, everyone would have tried to be helpful had we asked, and we were very glad when each moved on. The cows weren't that disruptive.

I switched to the BFG (Bike of the Fixed Gear), Kenny rode my bike (Blue Nellie), and we went along maybe 5km more. Then Byron's bike's back wheel's rachet started to give out, making the chain tension pretty erratic. We pressed on. I was exhausted, because riding a fixed gear when you're with two people who aren't is a tough proposition. But we made tracks, and I felt bad asking either of them to take the BFG because I don't know how much biking they do and at least I know the path. Plus, in spite of my reputation, I'm a lot nicer than I have obligation to be. At the forage at the base of the mountain, Byron and I switched bikes.

Kenny and Byron are possibly the most determinedly positive people I've ever gone on a Murphy's Law adventure with. Not once did they complain, whine, groan, bellyache, or otherwise indulge in negativity. Not even when they saw the path we were going to go up, not even when we had to stop and just sit for a while to get our breaths back. I tossed them ORS packets, they drank them, and when they started to smile a bit, we kept going. "We have SO MUCH respect for you right now!" they kept saying. Eventually, we made it to the top, then to my village.

Where my family had not saved us any lunch. We ate raw peanuts, bathed in water we borrowed from Aissatou, and then went to get water. They each scooped a bidon of water out of the spring, carried it up to the bikes, and pushed the bikes back to the compound. In spite of not being used to the biketrek with water, they never complained, not even when the gear of Byron's bike perforated his leg a bit.

Another wonderful thing about having them visit is that far from turning up their noses at my "just weird, but whatever, if you like it" (according to other volunteers) normal village standby of oatmeal, dried refried beans, flax seeds, and hot water, they wolfed it down with me. It rained, with terrific lightning and thunder, and we all slept like dead things. The next morning, I took them to the edge of the mountain, said goodbye, and went back to my hut.

Where I subsequently collapsed. It was, I think, mere physical exhaustion. In any case, it was a controlled collapse--a lot like when you get sick after a period of stress, except without the actual being sick, which was a nice change. I drank water, ate, and slept, reading intermittently. The next day I was less incapacitated, but not operating at full. I built a couple bamboo chairs, seeded my garden a bit, and mulched the bed to which I am planning to eventually outplant my tomatoes.

Mariama leaving
The lowlight (not highlight) of the last week in village was definitely Friday night, when I went out to ask Aissatou a trivial question, and her reply was something like, "Oh, there's a fire for the guest. Mariama is leaving tomorrow."
"What? Tomorrow? For where?"
"Her husband's house."
"In Tambacounda?"
"She's leaving tomorrow and going all the way to Tamba and she isn't coming back?"
I refused to eat, called my mom, sat in my latrine, and cried. It may be the best deal she is going to get out of life, and she will probably eventually like it more than village itself, and it gets her away from her terrible mother-in-law (the one I have taught that "Crazy Old Bat" is a term of respect in English) who refuses to feed her and beats people with large bamboo sticks. But it was still pretty upsetting.

The next day I tried to explain to Aissatou that the reason I was having such a hard time is because they gave me no warning. While I was trying to explain, I was tearing up and my voice got sort of scratchy. Aissatou said, "Don't cry! Don't cry!"

Initially I thought that was just another cultural thing, but she kept repeating it. "Don't cry! Don't cry! If you cry, I am going to cry!" And I saw that she was serious, that seeing me nearly cry was opening up all of the sadness she felt at having her daughter leave home with basically no warning, to live far away and not come back very often at all. So I stopped myself from tearing up anymore, and went to finish mulching my garden.

Three minor observations that are more positive:
Cinnamon rice
Rice with cinnamon and sugar is a wonderful thing to eat when the sauce tastes like rotten fish. Thank you, Aunt Teresa.

Is what it says on the back of one of the t-shirts I have taken to wearing in village. I was hanging out with my 12-year-old brother the other day and he said, "Sauce."
"I eat sauce on my rice."
"What are you talking about?"
"Your shirt. It says 'sauce'"
" it does..."

I am making quite a name for myself as unbeatable at Bananagrams, although often this involves Meera (for example) making much cooler words than I do.'s nice to know that all that solo practice up at site makes a difference...wherever I go to grad school, I will have to start a Bananagrams club.

And with that, it's up to village I go for another ten days or until I can't deal with it anymore. It's a difficult period, but so it goes. Soon, soon, soon, there will be water in the well and vegetables in my garden. And that will be nice.


Sarah said...

Great post! Glad to hear you're hanging in there, despite it all :-) I take it the rainy season hasn't made your mountain too muddy to ride up and down it yet?

canyon wren said...

yum, oatmeal and refried beans. we had potato soup for diner tonight. it was mediocre at best, i used whey from the chevre i made for the broth, and some chicken broth, and it just didn't work together..... we ate it anyway, with fresh bread and fresh chevre, and toasted vive la france with a growler of IPA, because it was/is bastille day.... ou bien "prise de la bastille" comme on dit en france.