Monday, 24 May 2010

leaves on the track

Just as we actually get into schools and speak to some children, it is time to return again to the Kombo for yet more meetings. Oh the hardship. A relatively easy journey sees us in La Parisienne in time for lunch and cake. A brief visit to the bathroom for a wash removes the majority of the visible orange dust before too many people notice, however there's not much I can do about my clothes at this point. A few days of absolute luxury commence with a stop at the office for an entire afternoon arguing, sorry meeting, about Small Project Funds.

Lucy and I while away free days at the beach and sat in Blue Bar drinking away our Dalasis. I throroughly satisfy my craving for wine of both colours andwe indulge in plently of eidble treats. Eventually the rest of our batch of volunteers arrive for the education sector workshop and we enjoy several evenings catching up. Friday afternoon sees a group visit to Afrimed (I went to the bar) where thorough testing is carried out regardless of symptoms and everyone is sent away with a selection of medication. Lucy has been miserable as sin for days and is diagnosed with a virus and a urinary infection and in one fell swoop my normally hard enough job of reminding her to take one malaria tablet a day has been increased to four lots of antibiotics and a malaria tablet a day. At least we'll have something new to talk about! After dinner on our final night we plan to meet Liz, Pete and Phil in Banjul in time for the first ferry. When it comes to setting the alarm though panic sets in and we decide we'll stay another day after all. We wake up at a reasonable time the next morning and realise the journey home has to be faced sooner or later so we might as well get on with it. An awful lot of faffing around with taxis eventually takes us to Brikama, which is miles away but seems to be the transport hub for travel along the South Road. As we arrive just before lunch and not just before dawn, there are no vans going to Soma, so we sit in a filthy corner or the enormous 'car park' and wait. Roughly an hour later a van pulls in and the inevitable argument about how much we'll be charged for our bags begins. Now we know with some authority that the going rate for a bag is about 25 or 30 Dalasi. Today the starting price is 250. The ticket price is only 100. Eventually he drops to 100 for the lot and doesn't listen to us disagreeing. We get in and wait. These mini-vans only leave once they are full, which can take some time. Lucy spends this time telling the guy next to her that even though it's nice to meet him, she doesn't give her number out. We could have this conversation in our sleep now, but it doesn't get any less annoying. Eventually the man in charge of bags returns and demands our money. I give him 25 Dalasi. He has a little hissy fit and tells us to pay 100 or get off. Well we're defeated and pay, but I sulk for hours.

Eventually we leave, with the help of some handy men who push us out of the car park so we can jump start the van. The journey should take roughly 4 hours. About 10 minutes down the road, we slow to a stop and the driver pulls the plastic casing from around the gear stick to provide some urgent maintenance. We set off again. There is not much in the way of leg room (or any other room) in these vans and I find the most comfortable way of dealing with this and the horrific jolting is to sit up relatively straight and hold my book in front of me in a way that allow my arms to provide extra structural support in addition to my bra. The man behind me taps on my shoulder repeatedly trying to initiate conversation. It's impossible with the noise, and follows the standard lines of give me your email address, I want to be your friend. At one point the man in the row in front of me pokes his finger into the rusty hole in the roof above our heads that has been dropping rusted bits of metal onto us for the last hour. This makes it much worse. The noise of the bags banging on the roof has become so loud that the 'apperante' (boy who takes fares and rips you off with bag money) keeps hanging out of the window and looking at the roof. I start to wish I had my helmet on. Not to worry however, a hole in the roof is the least of our problems. When the guys in the back start shouting, the driver slows down and we all see that the side window fell out a few hundred metres ago. We turn around and go and retrieve it. The broken glass and perished rubber surround is laid on the floor under their feet. Luckily for the small baby who was sat right next to it, it fell outwards. Another half hour goes by then we gently slow to a stop. A woman in front turns and explains, 'finished' she says. We all get out, Lucy and I insure what is happening. It becomes clear quite quickly that we have broken down and no-one expects to go anywhere in a hurry. It is 3 o'clock. We're in the middle of nowhere at the side of the road, there's a compound with some houses here, but no village centre or shops. We have a mouthful of water between us, no food and barely any phone battery left. Brilliant. We sit down and wait like everyone else, not sure if we wait for it to be fixed or wait for something else to come past. After about an hour, someone explains that we ran out of fuel. The driver is an idiot, he thought 10 litres would get us from Brikama to Soma. He has been sent to neighbouring villages to find some. After some time he returns, there was no fuel. He heads off in the other direction and again returns with no fuel. The other passengers share mangoes with us, helped with the thirst but left me sticky and with mango in my teeth. Regardless the man who claims he owns the van (why he's boasting about this I've no idea) asks me to take his picture, then asks for my number and asks about my husband. I tell him my husband doesn't like me giving out my number. He makes some comment about my husband not being here and that he is very 'hungry' and hasn't seen his wife for a long time. Brilliant. We're stuck in god knows where with three perverts, no water and no food. It only get better. The driver returns from the other direction and still has no fuel. Where he goes next I've no idea, but after phoning Liz I'm near to tears. At least we're not by ourselves Lucy and I reassure each other.

Eventually the driver returns with fuel, but it has taken four hours and it is now 7 o'clock. There is no chance we'll be home before dark. Because the van is so new and modern, clearly the front and back light have been smashed out, but after some fiddling with wires, we get the front light on as it's getting dark. In we pile and the engine doesn't start. Of course not. So the men all pile out and start pushing. Eventually we're on the road again and I send texts to all the people I've worried updating them of the situation. An hour later we reach a police check point, as we slow down the engine cuts out. Brilliant. The casing is pulled out again and more work done on the gears. The police won't let us go until the back lights work. This takes some time but eventually after jump starting again we are back on our way. Every half hour we break down again and this procedure is repeated. I wonder if we'll ever get home. Around half nine, at some speed the driver hits some severe bumps in the road. We career across the road several times nearly turning over. I swear very loudly and wait to crash. When it doesn't happen the driver still only slows down when the rest of the passengers hurl abuse at him. As the adrenaline leaves me, I feel incredibly sick and have to try very hard not to cry.

Another 20 minutes and we reach Soma. I have never been so happy to get out of a van ever.

We trudge home with our bags in the dark wondering if the benefits of visiting the Kombo outweigh the travelling. Undecided. Give me a slow train anyday.
I'd been dreaming of this moment for weeks.

Less than impressed by the side of the road.
"this is my car" - why you would boast about that I've no idea.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

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