Sunday, July 29, 2012

Kolda or Bust...Better Not Jinx It

I awaken suddenly to rapping on my zinc door. “Who wants what at this hour?” I think. It’s still dark out and I can only assume it’s Moussa, my good friend and counterpart, waking me up to water our tree nursery. I sit up with a start and an expletive remembering I’m going to Kolda today, and since the skin infection on my shin still hasn’t cleared up after 3 weeks of antibiotics, I won’t be biking the 30 km from my village on the border of Guinea-Bissau to the paved road. I will have to take a car up to Diaobe, a large weekly market town to the north, before continuing another 90 km to the regional capital. I curse my phone as I check the time to see it’s 6:30 am instead of the 6 am I had set my alarm for.  Must have turned it off and fallen back to sleep; some things never change. Moussa insists we have time to water the nursery before I have to meet the car at the town center. He talked to the driver the night before anyway, so I will have a spot saved – most likely the front seat. We water the trees group by group with him pulling the nearly 17 m at the well and me shuttling the water through to behind my hut where roughly 1400 trees await. We have guava, mango, papaya, citrus, and three species of thorny live-fencing trees.

About 7:15 we head off down the road to find a lone station wagon with a number of people milling about around it. Like Moussa had arranged, the front seat has been reserved for me, and with about ten people standing around I assume it won’t be long before we leave. The station wagon, known commonly here as a “Sept-place” for the seven passenger spots in the car, can have up to eleven passengers inside the car: three in the front passenger/console seat, four across the middle, and four in the back. This however does not represent a full car. I’ve seen up to an additional fourteen loaded on the roof. I refer to these as “Vingt-cinq places,” and only for the lack of transport and distance do Pakour drivers get away with this severe offense in the face of the military checkpoint before Diaobe. Just once I even saw a guy ride on the passenger side of the hood! We load up a few more on top, I wish Moussa well and thank him, and we’re off.
Travelling from my village to the regional capital of Kolda requires a 40 km leg plus a 90 km leg punctuated by waiting at a garage to switch cars.  The first leg of 30 km north to the paved road along a rocky clay (latterite) road going from gaping pothole to gaping pothole, in a “sept-place” takes about 45 mins to an hour in the dry season (November-May) and 1 hour to 1.5 hours when the potholes give way to ponds during the rainy season (June-October). On a bike I can cover this distance in 1.5 hours. One infamous driver is known for taking this route at Mach 3, but since the accident that sent the car rolling down the latterite, most passengers opt-out of getting a ride from him. I don my cloth head wrap to shield myself from the dust, and the ride is rather agreeable.

As we get close to our destination, I take my headphones off and get into “Diaobe mode.” Diaobe consists mostly of a 2 km stretch of road flanked by vendors as far as the eye can see. Wednesday is “Louma Day” (weekly market) and Diaobe is transformed into the largest outdoor market in all of West Africa. Disembarking from my “Vingt-cinq place” I’ve zipped up all the pockets in my backpack, my camera bag hangs in front of me where I can see it in my periphery, and I clutch my laptop a little bit tighter.  I ignore the countless calls of “my friend,” “americain,” “toubab” and walk at a brisk pace through the market, much faster than anyone around me, trying to stay in the middle of the road where foot traffic is lowest.  This can prove difficult to maintain, however, given that on Louma Day the congestion can be so bad it could take up to ten minutes to cover the 2 kilometers of national highway in a car. I stick out, but I know it and I keep moving keeping one eye over my shoulder. I’ve heard of volunteers having the bottom of their bag cut out by attempted thieves, and even of a motorcycler alerted by his passenger as someone tried to swipe his cell phone from his shirt pocket while negotiating the crowded street.

Making it to the other end of Diaobe I relax with sigh at seeing the familiar garage workers Mammadou Baalde and Mammadou Jang; I’ve been here a few times. Greeting them with a smile they show me to an empty car pointing out that the car in front just filled. The more spacious front seat is a mixed blessing. I’ll have to wait until enough people come along willing to pay the slight premium for faster transport with the sept-place as opposed to the slower white bus known locally as a “Ndiak Ndaye” or “Alhum” in Peace Corps volunteer speak for the “Alhumdilulih” (thanks be to God in Arabic) painted on the hood of every single one in the country. Generally on Louma Day travel to and from Diaobe is easier with the increased market traffic. I wait about an hour, and the car is full (only seven passengers this time).

The second leg of 90 km starts with 40 km of perfectly paved brand-new road followed by 50 km of the worst road you’ve ever seen in your life. In simple quantities: it takes 2-2.5 hours to cover 90 km (60 mi).  The drivers covering this stretch of road are either the most skilled navigators or the biggest off-road junkies there are.  Literally swerving from one shoulder to the other attempting to avoid the worst potholes I can’t imagine ever succumbing to seasickness after going through this. There are also four military checkpoints along the road to Kolda.  I remember the first few times being a little unnerved by the man wielding an M-16 peering in our car, but such is the standard here. Most often they ask for identification and tell us we can move along.

Finally arriving in Kolda I grab a taxi, and I’m off to the Peace Corps Regional house for (normally) more reliable electricity and running water. I could use a western-style shower after my 6 hour, 120 km (75 mi) journey.

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