Désirée, the mechanic, used spares and parts we had on hand to rebuild the master and slave cylinders. He did all the work on site, in front of the Botanika Hotel. While working on the clutch, Désirée discovered a crack in Ndoto’s frame causing Scott to exclaim, “Oh my God”, so we had some welding done too.
“Thank you for stopping but I’m sure we need a tow. The clutch is totally dead,” Scott said after Justin asked how he could help. Justin used his cell phone to call for a tow truck and drove off wishing us luck. As we waited, we watched the charcoal boys (‘boys on a suicide mission’ Scott called them) whiz by. We witnessed countless near misses as mini buses and trucks passed one another on the blind curve just ahead of where we sat in the road. With nowhere to pull over, we were parked where we stopped, in the right hand lane. I leaned against the mountain with my feet in the ravine, until a sudden downpour caused me to move back into the car. I had to close my eyes against the trucks and bicycles speeding by next to me. It was most terrifying.
The owner of the Botanika hotel, Adrien, was ever accommodating. When I explained the reason we were on our way back to the Botanika to stay for a few nights Adrien exclaimed, “Oh my God!”
“Très facile! ” An easy fix, Emile said in French. But now that we had seen the road we would have to conquer in order to visit Rwanda, when Emile dropped us back at the Botanika (where we had checked out 9 hours earlier), we handed him a checklist of items for the car, including a few things I had long wanted fixed such as the passenger side windshield wiper and door lock. For months now, we had been locking the passenger door with a piece of wire, attaching it to a loop on the metal box that holds a second battery under my seat. Each time we arrived at our destination, I would get out of the car and Scott would have to lean across the seat to secure the wire to lock my door. Not that our car is or ever will be Fort Knox, but this was a very good thing to finally have fixed. Emile also sourced much needed replacements for the front brake pads. It would take some days to do all the repairs, but they weren’t wasted.
We spent one day walking around Bujumbura’s markets. Our favorite was the textiles street. Its shops practically burst at the seams with colorful bolts of cotton. Outside the shops, dozens of women and men sat at old treadle operated Singer Sewing Machines, which lined the street, and busily turned raw fabric into appetizing apparel. In Bujumbura I could have designed an outfit, bought fabric, had it custom made, all within 100 meters, and wore it out to dinner that night.
Bujumbura has a surprising number of wonderful restaurants. We spent the next afternoon on the rooftop terrace at the ex-pat frequented Gourmet Café where we discussed spending Christmas in Kigali instead of Juba. We enjoyed several good cappuccinos, one quiche, and free wifi on a patio situated high enough over the city to catch a welcome breeze above the dusty smog.
“Nooooo! Not again!” wailed Scott as we slowed to a halt. It was my turn to say, “Oh my God,” as I looked down to see the gear stick lying limp across the floorboard.
“This doesn’t look right. It’s too flat,” Scott said. “Plus I’ve yet to see a mini bus, truck, or charcoal boy.” For whatever reason we kept going, though it made no sense at all. We knew that at some point we would have to climb or turn around, but we kept going. “At least it’s different,” Scott said, “and flatter,” I said. We mostly drove in silence, neither of us wanting to say aloud that the sensible thing to do would be to turn back and start over.
We kept going. After 8 kilometers, the tar narrowed and turned to dirt. The hills all around us, no matter how steep, were terraced with every square inch under cultivation. What could be called a road came to dead end at a hectic market where hundreds of people and produce tried to find a match. There were a few motorbikes but there was not a single other vehicle in sight. Scott continued to inch forward and the crowd barely made room for us to pass, but we kept going.
A little later we drove by a school built on a narrow ridge atop two steep valleys. It was an impossible sight. The crest of the hills came right up to the schoolroom doors. As we drove by, the children starred at us in shocked surprise. What are these crazy muzungus doing here? their expressions seemed to say. That was the moment we really knew we were in deep do-do. But our GPS indicated we were on what was, at one time anyway, a route to a Rwanda border and that if we kept going we would hit tar road in 13 kilometers. So we kept driving.
“Camion something-something-something,” said the child while pointing downhill and around the bend. Meanwhile some of the children from the village approached to observe events unfold.
“I’ll stay with the car,” I said, while Scott started down the muddy track to see why we could not pass Go. Ndoto gathered quite a crowd while Scott was gone. No one spoke English, though I’m sure some were remarking how strong Ndoto was. To keep things interesting, I took out my Swahili dictionary which I read aloud. The men who knew some Swahili translated some of the phrases for me such as “Please, thank you, I am stuck in the mud” and “Do you know where I can find a mechanic?” into Kirundi, the language of Burundi.
I have to admit I was a little nervous. Burundi is incredible poor. I think it’s one of the poorest nations on earth. Most of the children were dressed in torn clothes. All were barefoot. The Burundi school uniform is made from a dull beige fabric that looks scratchy and hot. Every student wore hand me downs.
I walked down to take a look at the truck while Scott stayed with the car. Here’s the scene: men dug around the deeply embedded muddy tires, sometimes taking a shovel-load of what seemed to be precious sand from the back and placing it in front of the tires for traction. The driver tried again and again to accelerate out of the bog. Each time the men (around a dozen) pushed the truck from behind shouting encouragement to the truck and driver. This could take days, I thought. One man spoke a little English. He conveyed that since getting the truck un-stuck would help us too we should contribute to the effort. He was right. I walked back up to the car to discuss our options with Scott. “If it starts to rain,” he said looking up at the sky, “we'll need to turn around and go back towards Bujumbura before we get stuck for good. Or maybe we can camp at the school and try again tomorrow.” In any event, the guys needed water so Scott carried a jug of our water back down the hill. About an hour passed. I went on learning Kirundi and tried to think of a way I could get at those crackers. Also, I wanted to make any food donation just as we were leaving and not before. I kept one ear tuned to the sound of the truck at the bottom the hill. The louder and longer the men shouted the greater was the progress up the track.
Every mother, granny or auntie the world over knows that when children are too quiet, they are probably doing up to something. The silence was deafening. I walked down the slippery road and as I came around the bend I found the children quietly, quickly, and hungrily dividing the crackers fairly among themselves.
Just then I heard the truck on the move again, this time with more gusto. The men were shouting as if their team had just scored the winning touchdown at the Super Bowl. I quickly returned to Ndoto and readied the remaining packets of crackers and bags of lentils to give to the men. The truck groaned past me with all the men, including Scott, shouting and pushing and sweating. Once the truck was on somewhat graspable soil I distributed the crackers and beans to the men. They were as eager as the children had been. One man was particularly interested in the zip lock bag that held the beans and he repeatedly checked that the zip was doing its job.
Ndoto had been nicely straddling an eroded ditch (a ditch deep enough to resemble a mechanic’s bay) in the center of the road when one wall suddenly collapsed inward dropping the passenger side of the Landy three feet down into the rut. Ndoto was in a rut so deep that the right front tire was completely up in the air and the back wheel was splayed out at such a weird angle that I thought we were done for good. No tow truck was coming to rescue us here. As we scrabbled our way out of the vehicle to survey the situation people began appearing from the nearby village. They wanted to help but they wanted money first. Much discussion in French ensued with Scott interjecting, “First dig, then pay, see?” every few minutes. Once again I felt a little nervous. So many people surrounding Ndoto with her skirt up. And I was frustrated. Why all the talking when we were just getting more bogged by the minute? “Okay! I’ll do it myself,” I announced to the crowd and I began carrying stones and chucking them under the car near the tires. Dead silence. Africans can’t stand to see a muzungu woman toiling while they stand idle. Scott said, “Tris if you would just sit on the hood on the driver's side I think we can drive out of here.” It was at this moment that the Prado rambled up and stopped. I tossed another stone under the car and walked over to the occupants – four well-dressed Burundians on their way to Bujumbura. “Bonjour. Ca va? Parlez vous Anglais?” I asked. Their English was perfect. Ever the optimist I asked, “How is the road in the direction you have come?”
|Bogged on a slippery uphill blind curve.|
Finally after seven hair-raising unpredictable hours we could glimpse a group of people and goods at the crest of a hill. One last steep upgrade with a hairpin right turn at the top, and we joined the illusive tar road. I thought I would ask Scott to stop the car so I could get out and kiss the ground but the road,, though tarred was still incredibly steep so it was best to carry on. Plus, I’ve been French-kissed by a giraffe, which is as icky as you can imagine. I’m sure kissing a tar road in Africa would be far ickier.
All through the day with every rut, every bend, every bog my admiration for Scott grew. “Nothing today has fazed you one bit.”
“I’m so turned on right now,” I said reaching over to give his leg a goat squeeze. But the road was relentless so, eyes ahead, we concentrated on our ascent to Rwanda.
That night in Butare we celebrated with a Primus, or two, before bedtime.