Monday, January 13, 2014

Stairway to Heaven, Ascent to Rwanda



After months of relative smooth sailing in our 1973 Series lll Land Rover, we were suddenly faced with a variety of mechanical issues that needed attention. Serendipity was with us once again. But not for a series of breakdowns, we might well have been in Juba South Sudan at the time of the recent violent outbreak, instead of Kigali Rwanda.
                                              
In Kigoma Tanzania we had all six bushings replaced for the second time in 7 months. Not surprising since Ndoto takes a beating on the roads we choose to take. Sometimes I feel we ask too much of her.

In Bujumbura Burundi our clutch needed repair. Not a big deal. Just some fluid where it shouldn’t be. Désirée 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.

FIRST ATTEMPT

The next day, as we were halfway through our ascent on the one tarred death-defying road that leads to Rwanda, the clutch gave out completely. There was not a gear to be had, but Scott kept trying, pumping his foot on the pedal like Chuck Berry bouncing down the stage while singing Johnny B Good. Inertia did what it should but it was only seconds before we came to a dead stop because this two-lane road bordered by stone-covered deep ravines is practically too steep to believe.  For almost 30 continuously twisty miles it does nothing but gain altitude. Traffic consists of a conga line of trucks, buses, and vans that pass on blind curves. Not to mention the bicycles laden with bundles of charcoal as wide as cars captained by boys who tear down the hill at break-neck speeds. These “charcoal boys” take their lives in their hands several times a day. At the base of the mountain in Bujumbura, they latch on to the back of a passing vehicle, usually a truck, and sitting sidesaddle on the bicycle cross bar, they hitch a ride all the way to the top. Three boys even grabbed on to Ndoto but quickly peeled off when we broke down. They coasted backwards until they could grab hold of the next passing truck.
Once at the top the boys load up on several enormous sacks of charcoal and race back down the road to find a buyer for their load. Burundi is one of the poorest nations in the world so risking your life for even a few pennies, which is what they earn, makes some kind of sense. We couldn’t believe we didn’t witness a fatality.

Guardian angels seem to be working overtime on our behalf too lately. Within 2 minutes a Rwandan man named Justin who works for the World Food Program (one of the many NGOs in Rwanda), pulled over to help. “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 were broken down. With nowhere to pull over, we were parked where we stopped, in the right hand lane. I sat 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. Most terrifying.

The tow truck arrived a nerve-racking two hours later and carried us to Azad’s City Motors in Bujumbura. Emile, our rescuer, mechanic, and tow truck driver and his assistant Bongo both proclaimed, as every single African who has encountered Ndoto does, “This car is strong!” If I had a nickel for every time we’ve heard “This Land Rover is strong!” I would have enough money to buy a Toyota Land Cruiser. 

Emile stopped a few times on the way down the hill to buy meat fresh off carcasses hanging from racks alongside the road. “Much cheaper than in town,” Emile explained in French. Except he said “Nyama!” using the Kiswahili word for meat.  Bongo rode in Ndoto’s driver seat saying later he did not like riding backwards One Bit. 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!”

Emile diagnosed the clutch problem as a loose connection between the master and slave cylinder. Maybe something Désirée missed, maybe not. But each time Scott had pressed down on the clutch, fluid had spurted out undetected – until it was all gone. “Très facile! ” An easy fix, Emile said in French.  But now that we had seen the road we would have to conquer to 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 my windshield wiper and my door lock. For months now, we had been locking my 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 and 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 with its shops bursting at the seams with colorful bolts of cotton. Outside the shops, dozens of women and men sat at old treadle operated Singer Sewing Machines that 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, and wore it out to dinner that night all within 100 meters. 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. Bujumbura has a surprising number of wonderful restaurants.

Two days later we picked up the car. We considered it a blessing that we had broken down, met Azad, Emile, and Bongo and had so many items fixed on the car. We decided Kigali for Christmas was a wonderful idea. The tow cost $70 and all the work plus parts came to less than $80.

SECOND ATTEMPT
After one more night at the comfortable Botanika Hotel, our home away from home, off we went on our second attempt at the mountain. Ndoto was running well – better than she had in a long time. Some of the people in the villages we passed upslope seemed to recognize us from our first attempt. “Bonjour Muzungu!” shouted one charcoal boy as he zoomed past. Word gets around. Not one charcoal boy grasped on to Ndoto for a ride up. Then, just 500 meters from the top, I kid you not, the stick shift snapped off. “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.

                                                    As usual, we drew spectators.
We asked if anyone had a phone we could borrow. “I do,” said a young man. But he had no time left on it (a very common problem) so we gave him a little money to buy time and off he went to buy a mobile phone scratcher card in the nearest village. Twenty minutes later he was back as promised.

“Oh my God,” said Azad when Scott relayed the reason for our need for another tow. Again, Emile was there within 2 hours.  Scott rode in Ndoto’s driver seat because Bongo refused to. Bongo stood out in the rain on the tow truck bed next to Ndoto for the 55-minute ride back to town. Scott got a good look at what we would come to call our Unattainable Summit. “An interesting perspective, being up so high, traveling backwards,” Scott said when we arrived at the repair shop.
Though he lustily eyed the nyama hanging from hooks along the road Emile didn’t stop to shop this time. He did give two women a ride into town. Cozy with the 4 of us across the seat.

Back at the shop Emile, and all the guys employed at City Motors, (“This car is so strong!”) got to work on welding the stick back on to the base. It was tricky but they got it done. Again, we were charged for towing but Emile didn’t charge for the welding, which gave me pause at first but it has held tight and doesn’t look like it could be detached with anything other than a grinder.

It was 7PM by then so off we went back to the Botanika for another great meal and sleep. The next morning we got an early start for our third and last attempt. If we didn’t make it this time, we would leave the car in Bujumbura for a week and travel to Rwanda in one of the many mini busses adorned with names like “Yahoo”, “What God Wishes”, and “Volcano”, which do the Bujumbura to Kigali route daily.

A WRONG TURN

We still don’t know how we did it. We should have known every twist and turn, every banana stand and nyama market along the route by now, but somehow we took a wrong turn. “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,” we said, “and flatter.” We 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, 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. 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.

FEELING VULNERABLE

Shortly after passing the school we were descending a particularly slippery patch when a small child appeared from out of nowhere and motioned that we should STOP! Conveniently, there was a patch of flattened earth (tamped down former slide) where we could pull off the road. “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 translating some of the phrases 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 the fifth poorest nation in the world. Most of the children were dressed in dirty and 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. 
One boy climbed on Ndoto’s ladder and toyed with the zipper on the rooftop tent. “Hey! Hands off the vehicle!”  I didn’t want to loose my cool but I couldn’t let the kids climb all over Ndoto. It wasn’t that I was worried about dents or scratches. (HA!) But Ndoto is like a 7-11 on wheels. All that stuff inside…. It doesn’t matter who we encounter while driving; a policeman, a child, a beggar, or someone we ask for directions, they all stick their head in the car and time stands still while they silently window shop. Sometimes they give voice to what their eyes desire. “Give me some shoes,” said a man working a control gate after he noticed one of Scott’s two pair of shoes (the other pair was on his feet) on a shelf in the rear of the car. “I need my shoes,” said Scott, which the man understood completely so off we drove. When we arrived at our campsite on Lake Tanganyika I said to Scott, “I’m going to make some curtains for the back windows. There is no need to tempt people with our shoes or anything else we have on display." Five days later, when we drove back through the same control gate, Scott’s shoes were hidden from view but the man remembered. Again he said, “Give me some shoes,” and he pointed through the window to the exact spot they sat behind the curtain. He even described them! “Yes, I know they are there!” he said with a big grin. “I still need my shoes,” said Scott so off we drove.
Anyway here I was with quite a crowd of people pressing into Ndoto while Scott was out of sight down the hill. “Madam, I am hungry,” said one of the children. Oh dear. I wanted to unlock the car and give them something. Everything. On board we had pasta, rice, lentils, olive oil, spices, a bag of onions and some canned goods. We also had some packets of crackers. But I would have to pull out bins from underneath to get at any of it. Ndoto and her contents would be at their most vulnerable. And there were so many stomachs! If I put the contents of our mini mart on display I couldn’t think about what might happen. When you drive your own vehicle through Africa, you hear stories. Not always good ones.
I stalled. I have a map of Africa taped to an inside window so we had a geography lesson – countries, capital cities, lakes and rivers. I asked to see the workbook of one of the students; I guessed he was in 5th grade. One of his subjects was anatomy. With a dull pencil tip he had drawn incredibly good representations of lungs and of an appendix. His detailed notes were neatly and beautifully written in French. “These drawings are wonderful! Do you want to be a doctor?” No answer. Anything I asked in English sounded like “blah blah blah doctor?” to the children who spoke no English at all. Seeing his workbook gave me pause. This boy was bright and he appeared to be getting a good education. But not for the fact that he was born in an extremely remote part of impoverished Burundi and not in the North America or Europe or Australia, he might indeed become a doctor.(The thing about Africa is, he might still.)
My tension disappeared. I felt disheartened that this bright boy might not have more opportunity in his short life (life expectancy is 56 years in Burundi). I am sometimes accused of wearing rose-colored glasses in Africa but as times like this, hopelessness washes over and clings to me like used motor oil to a kitten.

Just then Scott arrived explaining that the reason we couldn’t proceed was that the road had washed out and that a truck carrying a ton of sand was stuck in the muck at the bottom of the hill. We weren’t going anywhere until the truck was moved. 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 we passed 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. 

I decided if I could get the children to stand away from the vehicle I could get some food out without them clinging to me. I have observed many teachers in Africa and know that children always obey someone who speaks to them in a particular inflection so I put on my best teacher face, clapped my hands twice, threw my arms out as someone herding geese would and gathered the children into a line on the far side of the road. “Stay here.” I said indicating an invisible line at their toes. I think they thought a very important geography lesson was about to begin because they stood stock-still at rapt attention. As I unlocked the back door they began to inch forward. I shut the door and gently gathered them again to the far side of the road. They got it. I was able to open the door, unload two bins from underneath, extract several packets of biscuits and two bags of lentils, and put the bins away, all while the children waited patiently at the do not pass line. I handed two packets of crackers to the eldest girl and indicated that she should take them to the men working down the hill. After a bit more pantomimed explanation on my part, the children moved in a tight cluster down the road. Every mother 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 amongst 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 the car 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.

The rest of what turned out to be 7-hour day on the road was anything but uneventful. After we drove through the quagmire where the truck had temporarily taken root, the track became even more narrow and rutted. It there were to be another vehicle coming the other way it would be impossible to pull off the road. But what am I saying. In six hours we saw a total of 2 vehicles. The stuck truck, and a Toyota Prado. I’m getting used to strange coincidences happening here in Africa so it didn’t surprise me that we encountered the Prado just minutes after we put the Landy into a deep crevice. 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?”

“This road is very bad. I advise you to turn back the way you came, to Bujumbura. Your vehicle cannot drive on this road.” He pointed behind him. “500 meters from here the road has mostly disappeared down the mountain. You will not get through.” Africans don't like giving someone bad news so for him to tell me that it was impossible for us to advance on the road meant he was honestly concerned.
“But you have come that way,” I said.
“Yes, but our car is… stronger.” He meant newer but I got the picture. “And it was very difficult for us to pass. I wasn’t sure we would make it.”
As we spoke, I was unaware that the crowd had grown and, perhaps shamed into action by a stone lugging muzungu woman, had taken action. Suddenly, unbelievably, miraculously Ndoto with Scott at the wheel moved past me. With nothing but sheer brute force, men, boys and soldiers from the village had physically lifted Ndoto out of the ditch and carried her forward on to solid land. I’ve never been so stunned. I looked back into the Prado. They too looked surprised. “Maybe you can get people to help you further ahead when you get stuck but we still advise you to turn back to Bujumbura.” They drove off, the wider wheel base on the Prado negotiating the gap without difficulty.
Scott had distributed our few remaining Burundi francs to the men who had lifted Ndoto and only a young teacher named Innocent and a few children remained. Innocent stayed behind to wish us well. “God Bless you,” he said. 

I conveyed to Scott what the people in the Prado had said about our chances of continuing on the road and that 500 meters ahead was “a very bad patch.” Again Scott walked down the road to investigate while I stayed with the Landy. Ten minutes later he was back. “I think we can manage. Our narrow wheel base will work to our advantage up ahead,” he said with a smile. Plus our GPS insisted there was tar road now only 7 kilometers ahead. “If need be we can walk 7 kilometers to the road,” I said thinking ahead to plan B. Actually I think we were up to plan F by this point.
One boy remained with us. I asked in a mixture of French and pantomime if the road ahead was bon, good. “Non!” he said with feeling. But we carried on, the boy running alongside for a kilometer. Three times he alerted us to stop, get out, and survey the road. Some of the time I walked along with the boy. After we surveyed one curve where the side of the road indeed disappeared down the mountain I walked back to the car to get the camera. The boy, thinking I was going to ride inside with Scott said, “No Madam!” and indicated that I should stay safely next to him. Gallantry lives on in remote Africa! Scott drove slowly around the bend and I did film it but evidently I couldn’t bear to watch. Most of the footage is of the muddy road.

“Fini? No more bad road?” I asked the boy. “Non!” He indicated there was one more obstacle ahead. Again we stopped. It was another slippery uphill blind curve. Ndoto made it halfway around before bogging in the squishy mud. Each time Scott inched forward the boy and I threw large stones under the back tires. Ndoto slid back against the rocks, Scott inched forward and so forth until Ndoto was on solid ground.
“Fini?” I asked again.
“Oui! Yes! Fini!”


The last 6 kilometers were sometimes slippery, sometimes rutted, always narrow and steep. Finally after 7 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 but I’m sure kissing a tar road in Africa would be far ickier.

“You’re incredible,” I said to Scott as we chugged uphill. All through the day with every rut, every bend, every bog my admiration for Scott grew.  “Nothing today has fazed you one bit.”
“It was fun!” he said. “What a great day!” Scott exclaimed as we rounded the bend.
I looked at him with wonder. My heart swelled. How did I manage to luck out with such a man? “I’m so turned on right now,” I said reaching over to give him a squeeze. But the road was relentless so eyes ahead, we concentrated on our ascent to Rwanda.
An hour later we arrived at the Burundi-Rwanda Frontier with no other issues other than having to add a quart, or two, of oil halfway there.

That night in Butare we celebrated with a Primus, or two, before bedtime.





1 comment:

  1. Haha! Great blog. I've had a series III gearstick snap off in my hand twice - once in an Australian Army Landy and then again in our little Short wheelbase in Kruger. I always carry a spare now!

    ReplyDelete