It’s been two months. I’m not yet settled. From Uganda’s airport at Entebbe I hopped to Nairobi then to Khartoum then Cairo. Egypt was funny. A stew of ancient high culture peppered with moments of anarchy, beautiful crumbling buildings to riot police in black with shields and bats. I guess revolutions do that. I took a train down to Luxor to see the ancient ruins at Thebes. They were neat. And on the way back, the train was delayed for eight hours because mobs were killing Coptic Christians over the train tracks. It was fascinating though. They joked about who would be president and it was funny because no one has half a clue. I got seriously scammed and apparently that’s normal. A solider dragged me across Tahir Square for taking photos. Egypt, intimidating, but also beautiful.
Kapoeta, South Sudan. Never mind that half the building was blown out and the walls were peppered with bullet holes, we were lounging in the restaurant to the town’s finest hotel and we were going to enjoy ourselves. A couple more beers, then we would camp in a local businessman’s backyard. Before we could leave though, a man wearing a yellow Hawaiian shirt announced, “I am from the government. These two are my responsibility. Nothing bad will happen to them.” It was arranged that we would stay in the hotel. Awkward, but okay. Not okay, and way more awkward, two hours later Ben was at the bottom of a twenty foot hole screaming for help.
Keep in mind, this was the day we witnessed a truck shot out by bandits. This was the day we were guarded by soldiers wearing pouches full of banana clips. We were in deep, in South Sudan, the world’s newest and probably poorest country. There is no Flight for Life, there isn’t barely a hospital. If something goes really wrong, to put it bluntly, you’re just screwed, left adrift in a land devastated by fifty years of civil war.
Luckily for Ben, things hadn’t gone really wrong, only fairly wrong. He had accidently fallen to the bottom of a 20ft hole, which, by the way, was a latrine. Meanwhile, Spencer was naked, taking a sponge bath in a tin shack, probably only 30ft away, as the worm crawls. Between Ben and Spencer was an overflowing latrine; the poo slush sloshed out, it smelled so much like poo, the whole situation just really really sh*ty, like it’s hard to imagine a situation to which the word could be more appropriate
Anyways, so Ben was yelling for help. Spencer was like, huh? But, regardless, snapped on some shorts and ran out, through the poo slush, barefoot, wondering how many AK wielding bandits he was up against. Ben? Ben?! Down here! Oh. He was so small. Slash, oh holy sh*t wow you’re at the bottom of a 20ft hole in Kapoeta, South Sudan.
Spencer didn’t know what to do. Get help. Run to a hotel attendant to say, “so my friend is at the bottom of a hole…” He didn’t get it. English comprehension too low. Try the restaurant. Be more frantic. Yellow Hawaiian floral print government dude is here. Let’s work this. Attention received, run back to Ben. He looks down the hole. Oh holy Jesus. Yuppers, oh holy Jesus.
The attendant swung into action and climbed down the hole to join Ben in the latrine. “What are you doing? Why are you coming down here! Don’t you have a rope?!” No, Ben didn’t want company in the latrine, he wanted to get out. As the hotel owner frantically apologized, the whole hotel gathered round to watch the white man get pulled out of the latrine . Eventually they found a rope. They got Ben out. Miraculously, he wasn’t hurt. Everything was okay. The government man even said so, “it is okay.” No one is going to get taken out back and beaten because they let the American walk into a 20ft hole. It’s okay. Everything’s okay. Everything’s okay.
It almost wasn’t. Ben fell 20ft and was unharmed. He was so lucky. If someone had left a shovel down there, if he had landed differently, it’s scary just to think about. How far away was appropriate medical care? How long before a serious infection would have consumed a limb? We put ourselves in that situation. Were we crazy?
At least a little. After I got them to Ben, after it was clear he was going to be okay, I ran to grab my camera. They were appalled. “You cannot be serious.” Nah, I wasn’t serious. I was practically giggling. This was too funny. Don’t get me wrong – I also was still shaking in terror from Ben’s screaming, the guns, the violent ambience that hung in that air. But deep within it’s like I wasn’t capable of grasping the seriousness of our situation. Ben would be okay. Bad things don’t happen.
I have never seen someone die. Not even a chicken. Death is so far removed from my life that even when it comes right up next to me I barely recognize it. If Ben had landed to bleed out, a cracked bone protruding, how scary it would have been. A frantic rush to find phone numbers we had lost, to make calls to the embassy in Kampala on a mobile phone that didn’t have service, to wait for a medvac to Nairobi at ten at night, with airstrips that have no capacity for night landings, when the road back to Juba was blocked by bandits.
“You cannot be serious,” they said again as I held up the camera. To all the people who told me I couldn’t, to the South African who said I’d end up a pile of bones, to all their seriousness, I reply simply, “yes I can.” That is who I am. I can do anything I want. Let me take out my phone, I have the facebook slideshow to prove it. That is the reality I know. I wonder how different I would be if Ben had landed just a bit different. I wonder in all of history how many have been so lucky to remain as blind, crazy and ignorant as me.
It took me three days to upload this video… Someday (maybe stateside) it’ll come to you in the full HD glory that was intended. Meantimes, I hope you enjoy!
The Blue Danube composed by Johann Strauss.
When Morning Came written by Tim Durian and performed by the Trolleys. thetrolleysband.com
Every Dog Has It’s Day written and performed by Flogging Molly. floggingmolly.com
Burundi rarely makes the news. It’s a nation about the size of Massachusetts, but with more people and extreme poverty. It’s the twin to Rwanda, same ethnic strife, Hutu vs Tutsi, same Belgian colonial legacy, but Burundi is poorer and more forgotten. In the entire country, we saw but one working traffic light. From the Tanzanian border, the road was dirt. Our hiking trails are in better condition. In Burundi, most children suffer from chronic malnutrition. I have never been in a land so poor.
People were surprised to see us. Outside of the capital, especially closer to Tanzania, people would cheer as we cycled by. It’s like we were famous, like we were world class cyclists, like we were doing something noteworthy and important. And in a sense, maybe, we were. One man told me that I was the first white person he’d seen outside a car. It was just incredible.
At every little town, a crowd would gather. Once, the police asked us to move because the crowd around us blocked the main intersection. They would stare and gawk and sometimes manage a few questions in English. They asked us where we were from. America. America! They asked us why we were in their village, their town, in Burundi. We come as tourists. Tourist? And they would shake their heads, like they knew what the word meant but they’d never seen one before.
Making videos from a bicycle! It’s challenging! These edits are a bit rough. (I’m actually being kind of rude, holding everyone up to upload!) I expect when I have more time I’ll re-edit, but as it stands, we have miles to make. Burundi calls!
The music is by a Zambian musician, Dali Soul. I hear he’s a cool dude ;). Most of his music, including this song, promote progressive causes. The lyrics are mostly in Nyanja. This song, if it’s not very clear, promotes condom usage. HIV / AIDs and other STIs are a big problem. You see signs everywhere yet the infection rate exceeds 10%.
The English manor is called Shiwa Ng’andu. It’s in the middle of nowhere, miles off the main road on a dirt track. The two historical photos are by C&J Harvey.
Once again, it was all the wonderful people who welcomed us into their homes, truck stops, back yards and huts, they made this so worthwhile. Thank you!
This isn’t how I planned it. A month late and only four minutes long! We’ve met some incredible people. To the dozens who have helped us, thank you. As we continue down the road, we hope to share more stories of people like you.
The awesome music is the Jimenezi Hop, written by Tim Drinan, preformed / recorded by The Trolleys. http://www.thetrolleysband.com/
Bicycling through Africa, excluding the big cities, I can easily imagine myself in a classic Western film. The land is dusty, sun omnipresent, buildings stout, industry absent, law more a suggestion and at every turn there’s the palpable sense of both opportunity and danger. The highway is littered with the hulking remains of automobiles stripped to the frame. Subsistence farmers with goat powered carts trot along as a 2011 BMW whizzes by. The highway is sparse, uninterrupted but for potholes and the few occasional cows.
Looking for that all too rare dilapidated decrepit feel? Well, do I have the abandoned guest house for you! Complete with spiders, creaking doors and a rotting ceiling, it’s conveniently located only one kilometer out of downtown Pemba. From the market, head northeast along the dirt path, over the train tracks and past the three huts, it’s the only brick structure on the left; watch out for the cows.
(Also, there’s a very nice, generous family who lives on the property.)
I’m at a hostel in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. I’ve been here for three days and all I’ve paid for is internet and beer. To save money, I’m sleeping in a mosquito net, under a tree, down the road, but because it’s just safer I sometimes fall asleep at various locales within the hostel proper. In other words, I’ve become a tramp.
Being a tramp raises various ethical concerns. (more…)
Serious bicyclists use “clipless” shoes and pedals. They lock your foot to the pedal, making the cycling more efficient. Previous to this trip, I had only used clipless pedals once. Figuring out how unlock myself (basically you click your heels outward, Wizard of Oz style) in downtown Johannesburg surrounded by dozens of unemployed drunks at dusk was an intimidating experience, especially as I keeled over a few times. (Watching white people fall is funny!) But that’s another story.
This story begins on the road to Mazabuka, where one of the screws that attaches the cleat to the bottom of my shoe came out, meaning I couldn’t detach my foot from the pedal. This makes stopping problematic. What to do?