Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Slow Start

When my little travel alarm went off at 3:45 a.m., I felt for the clock next to me on the bed and hit "snooze." Why is it that now I wanted to sleep, after barely sleeping throughout the night? I'd woken up constantly—what if I missed the blaring horn of the truck that was going to take me through the mud away from the border?

There was really no chance of that. I was in rural Congo, in a tiny border village where almost no one had a car or even a television, where a goat's sneeze would probably have woken me up. Aside from the crickets and frogs, nothing stirred.

I pulled on the clothes I'd placed next to me under the mosquito net, unlocked the door, and went out into the dark night.

No truck.


I went back inside until 4, then checked again.

Still no truck.

Now I went back to sleep until 4:30.

No truck.

At 5, I checked again. Now I paced up and down the village dirt road in the dark. Had I gotten confused about where the truck left from?

Two other men stood in front of the guesthouse now. One of them was on his mobile phone. They both looked uncertain, like they too might be out at 5 a.m. looking for a giant truck to give them a lift.

The man on the phone finished his call, hung up, and explained to me (in French) that the truck had a problem and was stuck in the mud. "We can go see."

Really? I'm in. Let's go see.

My tiny decade-old Maglite had quit working last night, and changing the batteries hadn't helped. But these two men had a bright light, which they used to light the way through the puddles and mud ridges as we walked two kilometers up the road.

I was just starting to get paranoid. Why had I followed two strange men out into the mud on the edge of Congo? What if the light went out in the near-total darkness? What if one of us slipped in the mud or tripped over one of these mini-mountains built by years of cargo truck tires tearing through the dirt?

But then we saw the dark outline of not one but two giant trucks just past the halo of our light. And then they were inside the perimeter, lit up by our intrusion.

A single figure emerged from slumber first, his features taking shape as he materialized out of the dark and approached us.

"Hello," he said in French. "My name is Mike."

Mike was clearly the driver. He didn't say it, but he was obviously in charge. He was bald, wearing a too-large tank top with low-cut armholes that slung way below his armpits and cover his beer belly, and he was covered in mud. But in spite of looking like a sleeveless (and dirty) Congolese Mr. Clean, he exuded authority.

And humor. Mike was smiling and happy to see us. He shook all of our hands.

"Good morning."

The chatting woke everyone else up. Now other men emerged from the shocking bog of mud that had sucked two massive Mercedes freight trucks into the ground.

These men were unbelievably chipper for people who'd just spent the night in a hopeless situation in the mud. And they were all caked.

Mike—ah, he'd driven the guys in the blog I'd read—smiled. "We'll be out soon."

No way, I thought. I'd been bogged before in Dragoman trucks. This Mercedes was going nowhere fast.

The crew stretched and blinked before passing out shovels and pickaxes. They got to work. Mike got into the cab, turned the key, then skillfully rolled the truck back and forth using gears and acceleration. But all he managed to produce was thick, black smoke from the tires and cranky passengers, who abandoned ship to walk to town.

They must not have known how close they were last night, or they would all have walked.

Nope, they weren't getting out of this any time soon. Or maybe soon is relative. Maybe to Mike, it means eventually.

I watched this filthy scene for a bit, and once there was enough light to walk back to the guesthouse, I announced I was going back to have a nap.

The truck would come to town when it could move. There was still unpacking to be done, and then re-packing, before we'd start our 12-18 hour journey south to Dolisie.

At 9:30, an engine woke me up in the heat of my room. The fan—the electricity—it must have gone off at dawn. But the truck! I jumped up and went outside, and sure enough, there was the Mercedes, triumphantly blazing into town. They'd spent four hours digging out of the mud.

The auberge owner explained to me that the truck would reload right here in front of the auberge. I placed my luggage on the cargo pile, and cowered in the shade on the guesthouse porch.

The truck pulled up and stopped. Mike strode off, loudly announcing something in French that went like this:

"Sure, we'll go to Dolisie. But first, I want some food and I want A BEER!"

The mud-caked crew roared its approval. Plastic chairs were un-racked and spread out for the triumphant warriors, and they all sat down in the guesthouse yard to rice and beer.

Two teenage boys from the village watched them forlornly. One of them had tried to carry my bag for a tip yesterday, but I hadn't let him because one thing I hate more than carrying my bag is arguing over the porter's expectations of the tip based on my tourist status.

"I am hungry," said one of the boys to me. "Do you have any food?"

I gave him the rest of my biscuits, which he shared with the other boy. Then I remember my loaf of sliced white bread, which was almost stale since I'd opened it last night and had no way to store it properly.

I pulled out my spork and showed the boys how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They *loved* them and were absolutely delighted. The three of us sat together, sharing one spork, the boys overdoing the spreads of peanut butter to extremes.

The truck crew found this amusing, these two boys using little slices of bread and a spork. They teased them in French, but the boys just said back, "This stuff is really good."

An hour later, the 5 a.m. mud-truck loaded up its cargo. Mike honked incessantly, then motioned me into the passenger seat. I asked him to wait a moment. There was one thing I had to do. I ran to find the auberge owner, the funny man who ran this small-and-simple outpost of comfort in this border town in the middle of nowhere.

"Monsieur, monsieur?"

He looked up from where he was adding credit to phones, one of his sideline businesses.


He nodded his acknowledgement. I turned and hurried to the Mercedes. The truck was a long way off the ground. I threw in my day pack, then climbed in behind it, into the cab with Mike.

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