Ben Fell Down a Latrine

by Spencer

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.

the holeLuckily 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.

This Is Our Everest

by Spencer

The alarm is set for 5am. Ahead is the most challenging road of our journey. We leave Juba, tracking east into Kenya. The road will be rough and hot. Water will be scarce. It may rain turning road to river. Eastern South Sudan and northern Kenya are no man’s lands where the nation state is more an idea than something put into practice. Cattle raiding is common. Primary education isn’t.

The pavement resumes in Lodwar, capital of Kenya’s Rift Valley province, about 370 miles from Juba. We hope to be there in six days, but the desert sun and terrible road conditions may force us to shorten days. We may have to bush camp. We will be forced to be self sufficient. Everyday we will start with 20 liters, about 50 pounds, of water and enough food for two days. It’s going to be a challenge.

Luckily, the past couple days have been energizing. We came into Juba encrusted in sweat and starving. We found fellowship with Ryan and Kristen who work in South Sudan with Mission Aviation Fellowship, who help people by flying over the rotted roads. (Much more sensible than bicycling…) Though they have a ten month old son, Caleb, and we were disheveled dirty strangers, they took us in and gave us food and internet and showers. Much can be said how South Sudan lacks comfort and security and yet here in Juba there is a family that can only be described as loving.


We have been surprised how similar so much of Africa seems. A photo of a roadside store in Zimbabwe would be indistinguishable from one of South Sudan. Ahead of us lie the peoples of Lake Turkana. We’re excited to see how the tribal societies compare. We’re also intimidated by reports from last month warning of banditry. I’m curious to see how well I can maintain my health in such adverse conditions. My feet and knee are covered in umpteen dozen red spots. (Bug bites???) By the time we’re back on a road proper, we’ll find ourselves in the Great Rift Valley, the birthplace of mankind.

For more photos of our travels through South Sudan, check out our Google+ Album.
(Though we may be in one of the world’s  least developed lands, we do embrace the most developed photo viewing techniques.)

A Fork in the Road: To South Sudan

by Spencer

We are creatures of habit. Most often our decisions are less than tremendous – they’re exercises in functional efficiency, habituated patterns. I face an actual decision. A literal fork in the road. It’s unsettling.

Last week we discovered that Ethiopia has changed its immigration policy. They no longer issue tourist visas, except at the airport in Addis Ababa and to residents in their home country. Online, people reported month long turnarounds from the Ethiopian embassy in Washington. The only way for us to make it into Addis would be to fly in. Difficult and expensive as we have bicycles.

We’re cornered. We came from the south. To the west, the Congo is struggling after decades of war and a continuing insurgency. And they don’t speak English. To go east is to enter Kenya and end our journey early in Nairobi. That’s an option. Maybe the wisest. But there’s another option, to go north.


The Great North Road

by Spencer

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!

Two Wheels to Addis: The Journey Continues

by Spencer

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.

Once a Hospitalization, Twice a Hospitalization

by Spencer

An adventure! It’s often sought, rarely found, but here in the heart of Africa (surprise surprise) we have found one!!

Last week, Ben’s mother (code name: Red Eagle) descended onto Lusaka with the intention of cycling some 1000 kilometers with Ben through Malawi. I was then going to cycle up the Great North Road by myself and meet Ben in Kigoma, Tanzania. Unfortunately, 200 clicks out of Lusaka, she took a tumble, fracturing her clavicle and scapula, plus incurring a concussion, resulting in three days at one of Lusaka’s finer hospitals.

In many ways, as is usually case, it’s a story with plenty of good news. In short time, a truck driver found them and gave a ride to a nearby mission hospital. A safari operator picked up the bicycles. An ambulance happened to be going from the hospital back to Lusaka. (Sad back-story there: they shared the ambulance with an injured pregnant woman and the man who was responsible for beating her to that condition.) Though not ideal, we share the experience of Zambia’s healthcare system and the interesting stories behind the people who make it work. Adventure!

Drip drip drop drop

by Spencer

I can’t remember why or how; it was all too quick. I’m not used to riding a bicycle loaded with bags weighing 70 pounds and I’m not used to riding my bicycle on the freeway. I guess the traffic and crossing those four lanes got to me and I made the turn too sharp too fast and ended up with my head in a puddle of glass.
I can distinctly remember the asphalt, its ubiquitous scratchy dark texture. I remember flying towards it, the impact of my head crashing into it and then opening my eyes but being able to only open one, to see blood dripping onto broken glass. I remember Ben. F*ck. F*ck!! Are You Okay? He handed me an antiseptic pad. It didn’t seem up to the task. But yes. I am okay. I could open the other eye, though it blurred out and then hazed red. I realized it was only blood slipping under the contact lens. I’m okay.
I remember sitting up, standing up, kind-of, in shock, crouching over the asphalt, looking downward. There was glass everywhere. A condom dirtied black. And my blood. How did I end up here?
There’s the simple answer – I was inexperienced, the bicycle was poorly weighted, freeway traffic is intense, we didn’t know we were getting on a freeway, those were the directions we were given, there wasn’t much of an alternative. And then there’s the attempt at the larger answer. I wrote that we were riding bicycles through Africa to remind ourselves what it means to be human. I can’t remember her name but I do remember her. She was in her mid thirties, wore a head scarf and of all the people that went by, she was the one person who stopped and helped.
She took me to the hospital and I got my stitches and antibiotics. She got Ben the address of the hospital and got the police to help him get the bikes to the hospital. I can’t remember her name but she helped me remember how you react when you see someone in pain. You help.
I am humbled and now intimidated. The journey has only but begun. I wonder if I’m being reckless, if I’m needlessly worrying and inconveniencing others. But there isn’t much of alternative. Tomorrow I get back on the bicycle.