Friday, July 11, 2008

The alarm went off at 4:30 a.m.




My eyes opened to the canopy of the mosquito net that hung from the ceiling around my top bunk. My sheet laid at the foot of my bed, still folded and unnecessary on such a hot night. I grabbed my headlamp stationed next to my pillow and began to prepare for our long journey ahead. We were finally going to Banta Mokelleh – departure time: 5 a.m.

Before we even arrived in Sierra Leone, Scott and I had heard horror stories of the trip to Banta. One said the ride was more than 12 hours on a bumpy, dirt road; another said she had to get out and push the vehicle up a hill; another said the vehicles have a tendency to break down. Let’s just say we were prepared for the worst – but an adventure all the same. In our instance, because of some issues with the COTN vehicles, we chartered two poota-pootas (you know, the 1980 Mazdas). In or on these two vehicles, we were supposed to fit the luggage for about 15 people (Scott and I alone had 6 bags) along with food to feed us all for about a week and a half and a random mixture of soap, a boom box, step-down boxes for electricity, teaching supplies and donations. To look at the hallway full of stuff and then to see where all that was supposed to fit was just silly. It made no sense at all, especially considering that we were supposed to fit as well – for possibly 12 hours, mind you. Despite such doubts, however, about half past 5 a.m., with the help of Scott and Quami, the drivers had actually done the impossible with room for us to spare. The key? Everything goes on the top. So, we’re driving into the African bush in a vehicle from the 1980s piled high with heavy supplies. “This wouldn’t even be allowed on the road in America,” Scott laughed. As we wedged ourselves into place, I felt as though I was part of a cartoon. And yet, to Quami and the African drivers, this was absolutely normal.

Scott and I ended up in the vehicle with Arlene, Quami, Dave and most of the food, which was packed into the back of the van – chicken at our backs and lettuce at our feet. We were left with two benches and the front seats.

The roads in Freetown are a story themselves. Most of them are dirt. During the rainy season, the packed dirt washes away, leaving large rocks and holes for the vehicles to find their way. If you can imagine two poota-pootas, stacked high with heavy luggage and supplies, stuffed full with food and people trying to drive on a road made of big rocks and potholes, that’s exactly how we started our journey to Banta Mokelleh. We drove through Freetown’s streets, passed people selling goods from their heads and little makeshift shops. We drove past the ocean on our left and mud shacks on our right. We traveled by mothers cooking breakfast and fathers on their way to a job. After about an hour, we made it through the city to where the roads widened and the people were less – To where the jungle soon surrounded us.

Scott and I sat on the first bench in the van -- I next to the window and hunched over to take everything in that we drove by and Scott hoping to find as much floor space as possible for his long legs. The wind whistled in and blew consistently in our faces, which was a welcome relief from the heat of the vehicle. Behind us sat Arlene, who periodically leaned forward to give us the history of an area or the name of the village we were approaching. “This is the point the rebels reached before they took Freetown,” she told us as we passed through a town called Waterloo. “This is where the rebels captured British soldiers during the war and held them captive.” This is Moyamba Junction and later, this is Upper Banta, she said.

Out my window was a world that we had never touched or experienced. A world that only existed in our occasional reading of National Geographic or in the untouchable stories of travel photographers and high profile journalists. Traveling on a wide road of packed dirt with occasional spots of concrete here and rough rocks there, we entered the bush of Sierra Leone. In the midst of jungle and palm trees were small villages. Homes made of mud and cement with thatch or tin roofs were not what I couldn’t keep my eyes off of. It was the people. Families sat in front of their homes – busy with laundry, cooking food or nursing a baby. Children scampered after our vehicles full of white people, barefoot with a small pair of underwear or cloth covering them. We passed women carrying babies on their backs and buckets of food on their heads from miles away. Children followed behind them with 8-foot tree branches in bundles, balancing on their small frames, concentration in their faces. Kids played on the skeleton of a run-down van, women waved with an occasional smile and Scott and I tried to take in the images passing quickly by us. “This is National Geographic stuff,” Scott said to me.

Occasionally, Quami would ask the driver to stop at a home or junction area and he’d purchase pineapples, nuts, mangos or bread for us to eat the following week. We stopped for breakfast around 10 a.m. on the side of the road – jungle surrounding us on all sides. Aunty Chris, our cook for these two months, amazingly brought out hard-boiled eggs, cheese and peanut butter to go with the bread we had purchased on our way through Freetown. Nothing like eating bread and cheese in the middle of the African bush – was this really happening?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my feet were sitting on part of the engine, as the floor was extremely hot. I didn’t think much of it until about five hours into our journey when I started to smell burning and all of a sudden smoke started coming from my feet. We all stepped over each other in our effort to escape the vehicle as it quickly came to a stop. Scott dove back in for his camera gear – the precious equipment we’d taken such pains to transport all the way here. And then, there we were – standing in the middle of the dusty road, staring at a smoking vehicle as the noon sun quickly beat down on our already sweaty bodies. Now what? Quami and the driver inspected the problem and Arlene announced that we were getting out of the sun. She motioned the three newbie’s to follow. Arlene was taking Dave, Scott and I on our first real African adventure – what would happen?

We only made it about 30 feet away to a mud home with a shaded front porch. Arlene knocked on the door and asked in Krio if we could sit on the porch while our vehicle was being fixed. An old woman emerged and nodded yes, smiling. She left us to it, motioning for me to sit in the hand-made chair near the door. I obliged graciously. We sat with our waters, a granola bar and a melted candy bar to sustain us and marveled at where we were and what we were doing. I ran my fingers over the hard, caked mud that someone had plastered to form a wall and looked up at the thick, thatched roof. This was her home. The whole thing was honestly a bit surreal.

About 30 minutes later, Quami summoned the white people. The van had been fixed with the help of a few construction men who had stopped to offer any service they could. And, in no time, we were off again – such is Africa.

The poota-poota pulled onto the COTN property about 45 minutes later and there to greet us was Mama Angie, the COTN country director for Sierra Leone. Her smile and warm welcome made us happy – we were finally in Banta: Our home for the next two months.

1 comment:

kH said...

Wow--what a story, roommate! Please keep us posted on your continuing adventures!!
Miss you guys!
kH