Monday, January 16, 2012

Happy 2012: A Bus Ride from Hell

They say 2012 will be the end of the world, as we know it.  I’ve been hopeful it means a change of consciousness, a shift in awareness that we’re all connected on this planet, so we’ll start to act in accordance.  The first day of 2012 was a Sunday, and it felt like it might be the end of my world.  Period. 

Our second day in Bukavu, Congo, our Saturday trip to the village of Mumosho, a mere 25 kilometers away, had been canceled after a rainy night had wreaked havoc on the dirt roads.  Sunday morning, Cate and I woke early to the sound of rain, and wondered if Amani’s plans to celebrate the new year with the kids of Mumosho would be foiled by weather once more. 

Amani met us outside the gate of the Swedish Mission compound, standing next to a compact, four-door taxi that, under the caked-on mud and sprays of dust and grime, appeared to have once been white.  The rain had stopped, but Amani informed us the roads were a mess, and since this car could not make the hilly drive to Mumosho, we would travel to meet another driver on the other side of one of the connecting roads. 

We slowly bumped, skidded and slid our way through the city streets of Bukavu, Amani joking that we could fish in the lake-sized puddles that were the color of Willy Wonka’s river of chocolate.  The ruts in the road are made worse each rainy day as heavy truck, bus and car wheels dig deeper in them.  We watched locals on foot carefully stepping their way through the deep mud, mothers and older siblings holding small children by their arms to keep them upright.  We drove by, spraying mud and puddle juice on them all. One kid caught sight of our white (“muzungu”) faces in the back of the cab, and shocked, cried out “Muzungus in a dirty car!” which is now our Congolese theme song, sung to tune of “Fat guy in a little coat.” 

Shortly after we stopped, our cab unable to drive any further, we saw the station wagon hired to drive us to Mumosho equally mired in the mud.  Amani told us we’d have to walk the length of this road that now looked like a swamp, to find another ride.  He looked at me and asked if I’d be okay, what with my balance issues.  Holding onto our backpacks as a few people were begging for money, we started walking, setting one foot carefully in the sludge before raising the other.  Pausing too long, the mud suctioned your shoe, throwing you off balance.  We crossed what could loosely be defined as a bridge, a few boards built over a deep ravine, slippery and crowded with people.  On the other side, our ride was waiting.  A local bus, these vans cram nearly 20 people into the narrow seats, the leg-room calculated for Congo, where, at just 5 feet tall, Amani is not considered short. 

Putting her bulky camera bag on her lap, Cate scooted close to the window, and I angled my back toward the door, wedging my knees toward Cate.  Soon, the bus filled with passengers, who did not care about my comfort, forcing me to sit straight ahead, my knees jammed in the metal seat in front of me. 

To describe the entire 2 hour trip would be as painful to read as it was to endure.  On a good, dry day, in a rented car of 4x4, the rutted road to Mumosho has been called a “Congo massage.”  After two nights of steady rain, it was an amusement park ride from hell.  We ascended the hilly, narrow road, the driver veering to each side to avoid the largest holes.  Each time the tires lost traction, I gripped Cate’s arm.  To one side of our van was a deep ditch, to the other, a cliff. 

I don’t know if prayers change physical events already set in motion, but staring at a cliff inches away, my panicked mind hoped they did.  I considered saying a Hail Mary, but I’m so WASPy, all I could remember was the Whoopi Goldberg song from “Sister Act.” “Hail Mary.” “Hail sisters, what’s up?”

Still bumping over, in and out of deep holes, the skidding and sliding became the constant, which was great, as it gave me time to consider death.  And the likely lack of control over my death, or this van, for that matter.  My attempts to embrace and accept what I couldn’t control were interrupted by my seatmate, the Grim Reaper’s PR guy, who kept jostling my arm to point out only those sick or dead, being transported by hand-held cots down the wet road to the hospital, or the grave.

My mantra was that the driver didn’t want to die either, right?  At that moment, he turned a bend and spun a full 90 degrees, the van nose at the edge of the cliff.  While I stopped breathing, about five kids with shovels full of dry-ish dirt from the hillside appeared, slip-sliding toward us to dump the red earth under our wheels, giving us the traction to right the van.  As it slowly turned road-wise again and the back wheels spun, threatening another cliff-view, the men in the van cheered “Congo! Congo!” and Cate joined them with a raised fist, the hand I wasn’t gripping. 

That bend being the worst of the ride, we simply spun around and got stuck in a village, men pushing on all sides so we wouldn’t plow into the roadside shops or that old man walking with his cane. 

We arrived in Mumosho, unable to feel our feet or hands, numb from the long ride and a claw-like grip on the seat ahead of us.  The rest of our time, we shelled out the money for a 4x4 and driver, vowing never to do that again, and not to tell our worried mothers until safely on paved ground.  

Happy 2012 to Congo. May your year be filled with hope, change, and asphalt.  

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