Monday, September 25, 2006

How a simple bike ride turned into a swimming trip

This story starts off a bit flowery and I haven't edited it much, rather just took it right from my journal. Hope you enjoy! I'll try and post a more general update as to what I've been up to and where I'm headed in the next while.

The bike ride started off just like the two previous endeavors – early in the morning with the fresh smell of rain from the night before still lingering in the air. The roads were puddle ridden, but then of course it was the rainy season so the roads were always puddle ridden. It just meant the road, if you can call it such – and sometimes it was far from anything even resembling one – was softer and muddier in between the puddles that were already there. From the beginning, one had to submit to the fact that they were going to get dirty. There was just no avoiding it and to try to do so made the entire experience un-enjoyable. You just had to accept the fact that your host family was going to watch you with angst as you rode back into your compound dotted or, in this excursions case, covered head to toe in mud.

It was just before 6:30am when I approached our Karamogo ka so (teacher’s house) where Isabelle, Evan, Kyle and I had arranged to meet the day before. Evan was waiting and, unsurprisingly, Isabelle arrived fifteen minutes later. The storm had barely stopped its torrential downpour only an hour earlier, but we were determined to take advantage of our first morning off since we arrived in country almost seven weeks earlier. Sure there was mention of whether or not we should go or rather we exhibited our insanity by choosing to continue. However, we were already up, there, and we were determined to go for a bike ride. Only if we had known then what an adventure it would turn out to be, maybe we wouldn’t have been so bold in our decision to embark on our fateful journey.

We saddled up in the crisp air and ventured out in the direction of Kobe about 7 km perpendicular up a very puddle ridden and muddy road. Of course the road was just fresh mud with freshly bigger and murkier puddles all the 7 km to Kobe. There aren’t any mountains or even anything that resembles a hill anywhere around, but this road maintained a steady and slight incline the entire length. As we set off, we encountered the odd Malian who gazed at the three Toubabs, part astonished to see three white people riding bikes so early in the morning on that remote stretch of road, but mostly bewildered to why we might be so crazy to be out on a presumable “pleasure ride” in such inhospitable conditions. There was considerably less traffic on the road for only the desperate dared to venture out in such conditions. This really meant we passed one donkey cart and only a handful of moto and bicycle riders instead of two or three donkey carts and a slightly larger handful of moto and bicycle riders. Besides, Malians tend to sleep in if it stormed all night and especially if there was the perspective that it might continue through the morning if not all day. Thus, rainy days usually were lazy days; another reason the people we encountered were so surprised to see us. They surely thought we were crazy and they were right – we just didn’t know it yet.

Originally it was to be a foursome, but Kyle, having poorly slept the night before and seeing the muddy conditions decided to stay in bed and sleep. Sure he may have made a rational decision to stay indoors, as most Malians tended to do that day – one could otherwise say he “was becoming culturally integrated” by doing so. He was in fact taking part in the great African pastime of being idle.

In the early part of the ride, about 3 km up the road to Kobe, we darted back and forth between puddles thinking to ourselves how venturesome we were to be out after such a heavy rain. We acknowledged how crazy we were and accepted that were going to fairly dotted with mud by the end. Most of the puddles were somewhat small and could be skirted around without too much difficulty (i.e. direct routes through the puddles). However, at that point in the road one third or so of the way to Kobe, we came upon the biggest one yet stretching all the way across the road. It required a direct route through -there was no way around. The problem, towards the second half of the small pond, was that the mud was so soft to the extent that our tires would sink so deep and did this so quickly that the mud brought us to an abrupt halt. I managed to hop off at the right moment, as did Isabelle, and got to the other side by walking our bikes. Isabelle and I had barely reached the edge when, hearing Evan’s splash, turned around to see him stuck, just as we had been in the bud. Evan had seen both of our crossings and surely expected to meet the same fate; he just was unlucky in the fact that upon putting his feet down he lost both his sandals. Isabelle and I watched from the edge for a few minutes half laughing half sympathizing with him. Eventually, one sandal popped up to the surface a few feet behind and to his right but he couldn’t find his left one. Reluctantly, out of pity, and seeing that we might be there for a while I waded in to search. It apparently was difficult to hold a bike with one hand and search for a sandal with the other knee deep in mud – who would have thought? Not wanting to put my hands into the chocolaty-red water, I resorted to squishing around with my toes. After a few minutes of this as Evan and I exchanged smirks and remarked on how ridiculous a situation we were in, Isabelle thought she better come in and help.

The look on her face was priceless, absolutely priceless. Just two steps in, so that both her feet were in the squishy mud, she let out a shrill squeal accompanied by, from Evan and I’s point of view, completely hilarious expressions. They were of complete and utter disgust – the ones you might expect to see on Fear Factor, when a contestant dives their hand into a bucket of fish-eyeballs or is having live cockroaches poured over their entire body. But no, she was just walking into some slimy mud puddle in the middle of Africa. I guess I can’t really blame her, but nevertheless, Evan and I would have been rolling on he ground in laughter if we weren’t also watching her cringed up face from the very same puddle. That was definitely a moment I wish I had my camera, with every step she took, her expression became even more and more pronounced and the creases on her face tighter and tighter. She persevered until she was calf deep to join us, in what must have looked like a grape wine smashing session. Only the liquid color was reddish brown and we were in a country of non-alcohol drinking Muslims in Africa. At last, we gave up the search and Evan, after a little coercion, decided to continue the bike ride minus one flip-flop. Least did we know that was to be the tamest part of our morning.

We continued up the road the rest of the way to Kobe occasionally passing and greeting the Malian we passed. The road was much of the same, some puddles much larger than others, but we just kept darting around and with increasing frequency going directly though them as they were just impossible to go around. By the time we got to Kobe to the left-hand turn into the bush, we were thoroughly dotted in red mud. At the turn off, we greeted a group of Malian men perpetuating the great African pastime drinking tea in the shade. When we told them our intended route to Sinsina via Sikaro, they tried to dissuade us from going. They insisted that the roads (really only narrow paths at this point) would be impassable. They said the water would be up to our necks along that way. Of course, they all said the road was horrible and impassable the last time we came though and did this ride. So, thinking they were just giving us the same banter, we pressed on into the bush. Turning left, we passed by what just about every town has – a soccer field – and went into some very green and lush middle-of-no-where. This was the picturesque scenery I had pictured Africa to be. The sun was shining in a virtually clear sky with but a little cloud on the horizon and the three of us were biking though the middle of Africa!

This was when I had one of those moments, those “Africa” moments when you say to yourself, “Holy shit, I’m in Africa!” They can be quite simple and come every once in a while:

The entire group of trainees from my homestay village during training were driving for our first time out of the Peace Corps training facility of Tubaniso to our village of Sanankoroba. All nine trainees plus the driver and a staff member were crammed into to the typical aid organization white Land Cruiser loaded down with a full truckload worth of baggage strapped to the roof driving through the streets of Bamako listening to the radio playing stereotypical African music.

Another moment was being surrounded by my host family in the evening. My entire family, if all present, consists of: my host father, his three wives, their 13 children, and all the extended family adding up to 28 people living in my compound. The two little infants starring at me, for all I can tell, their total amazement by a person with white skin – something they virtually never see. Then there is my “togoma,” person with the same name, little five year old Djine Moussa and his seven year old sister, Doussuba, crawling all over me vying for my attention. The two of them tend to be my biggest fans in the family. The four other brothers between 12 and 16 sitting chatting and I’m squatting on the ground sharing my dinner with my two older host sisters of 16 and 18 – we’re scooping rice and sauce out of a bowl with our hands under a moonlit sky.


I could on as I have many “Africa” moments, but just then on our bike ride, peddling through the bush, I was having another.

We peddled on for another half-hour or so not covering too much distance as the road (or paths) really were quite bad just as we were warned. Nevertheless, they were passable all a bit slowly. Coming upon a big open field, we stopped for a rest, a drink of water, and a snack on Evan’s oh so prized trail mix from a care package he just received from the U.S. While enjoying the treat and posing for a group photo, we noticed that what had been a tiny cloud on the horizon only a short time before was now a giant menacing storm barreling directly towards us. After a quick discussion about the situation – something that amounted to: “We gotta go now! We’re about to get drenched!” We sped off down the path into the bush hoping we might miraculously make it to a refuge before the storm hit.




Less than five to ten minutes later, it was upon us. With no structure in sight or any other form of shelter, we became thoroughly soaked. We got wet not just from the rain but from the puddles, then small streams, and eventually the large rivers we found ourselves splashing though in our haste to get to shelter. The adrenaline kicked in and rational thoughts got trumped by our flight instinct. We were now plowing right into thick water not hesitating to gauge the depth, let alone find an alternative route around. Both practices we had been doing up until now, but in the heat (or in this case the wet) of the moment, we just rode. Luckily, before setting off from the field, I had the forethought to put most of my backpack’s contents, including my camera, into a sealed plastic bag. By the time we came to the in-between village of Sikaro, we were totally saturated. Not knowing anyone there, we charged on. We felt it more awkward to explain why we, three Toubabs, were crazy to be out in the first place with or limited Bambara than to just press on to Sinsina where we knew people. With every passing minute the ground became more and more inundated with water and combined with the heavy rains from the night before. It just couldn’t absorb any more water. All the surrounding fields naturally drained the excess water into the very paths we were trying to use. What had started as puddle ridden became ponds and then full blown flowing streams. The water was no longer just a few inches so that sometimes our feet got wet, but was now so deep that when your leg was fully extended the water splashed up to your knee. The illusion of the running water gave the impression that we were going fast but in reality our pace had slowed to a crawl. To even be able to try to peddle, we had to be in our lowest gears.

Each one of us kept jockeying for lead position as if you fell or got stuck in the deep water, it was best for the others to pass you and keep going. Stopping was avoided as much as possible. We would just frequently glance back to ensure we were all still together. The consensus was just get there [to Sinsina] as were beginning to see flashes of lightning in the distance. That was our biggest concern. We would have stopped in Sikaro if there had been thunder and lightning, but at that point it had been nothing but pounding rain and wind. Our new threat made us more determined to keep going. The sense of urgency grew with every flash as the sounds of thunder drew nearer.

Isabelle had just taken the lead and gone a little ahead around a curve in the stream; when I approached her, stopped at the edge of a giant body of water visibly flowing perpendicular to our path, I just kept going. I figured she had become stuck and as I came closer she was unintelligibly yelling at me to “stop!” She was saying that it was really deep but either I didn’t understand what she was saying or I was too stubborn and determined to keep going. I hit the water and it was immediately up to the axles on my tires. Half a second later what that man in Kobe had warned us about became true. The ground dropped away and I literally dove into a moving river up to my neck. Evan, being a little behind, was able to slide to a stop before meeting my fate. After another quick discussion void of any rational thought, Evan and I hoisted our bikes onto our shoulders and started to walk through the river with water flowing up to our necks. Not wanting to loose my flip-flops as Evan had an hour and a half before, I had my bike over my right shoulder and my sandals in my left hand as I trudged through the current resisting it’s desire to sweep me away. Evan and I had almost reached a shallow section (shallow being quite relative and at this point meaning less than 18 inches deep) when we looked back with disbelief to see Isabelle floating down stream.

Unable to hoist her bike onto her shoulder, she resorted to pushing it under the water. This acted like a sail with the current and the river swept her and her bike downstream. With little hesitation, Evan and I tossed our bikes down, shoved our flips-flops under a bungee cord on my luggage rack and went after her. Evan was yelling at her to let go of her bike as her head barely bobbed above the surface. She refused and kept moving downstream with one hand on her handle bar and the other arm and legs swimming to keep her afloat. I reached her first and after a few sweeping motions with my hand joined her in swimming with one hand on the bike and the rest of me trying to keep myself from sinking. Finally, Evan reached us and still not being able to touch the bottom, the three of us swam our modified version of the breast stroke to the shallow ground 30 meters or so downstream from where we left our bikes. The scene could have easily been in one of those Hollywood movies where the friend falls in crossing a log and the rest of the group goes chasing after her. Thankfully, we had made it across the deepest section and had to make it only another 100 meters until we would be back on the comparably tiny streams to Sinsina.

Looking back, the whole situation was totally surreal – we were swimming! There was no time to think – it all happened so fast. Evan and I both dove in with our backpacks on our shoulders and went after her. Only after we got things under control did the warning speeches from the Peace Corps Medical Staff come to mind with their advice not to go swimming in anything other than a chlorinated pool but especially not a running river. The Schisto, Guinea Worm, x parasite, y bacteria, and z virus all came to mind. I had just finished my three-day regimen of four pills each does of Tinidozle to kill off the amoebas and giardia that had been ravaging my body for the past four weeks. I am hoping the residual medicine might fight off anything I might have contracted on that swim. Of course, it has only been a few days now and most symptoms take about 3-7 weeks and up to 20 years to turn up at which point, who knows where it came from. We made it to the edge of Sinsina and found or way to their Karamogo ka so and took refuge from the rain in Abdoulaye #2’s hut. He treated us to some hot tea just as one does in the winter with a hot cup of coco. Cold, soaking wet, in Africa! We recounted our adventure and warmed ourselves on his propane stove in the middle of his 8ft square mud hut.

Eventually after almost 2 hours of drying off, we set out again on the last 7 km back to Sanankoroba. At that point, we just wanted it all to be over with, to take a cold bucket shower and put on some dry clothes. Leaving Sinsina, we had to cross another moving river only it was only about a foot deep. It was amazing how much our perspective had changed from when we set off that morning. We just didn’t care. No hesitation, we just biked through it. Or, in Evan’s case, fell about a third of the way and carried his bike on his shoulder the rest. Another long 20 minutes later we were back in Sanankoroba. Evan came over to borrow my extra Negen sandals, as his half pair was his only pair of footwear. Lastly, we all retreated to our home stays to be greeted by our families unable to communicate in any true depth what an adventure we had just been through.

1 comment:

Britne said...

Kudos to the 3 of you for braving the trip!! I remember that ride when it was dry and it was pretty intimidating. That's one hell of a story!! And I definitely have some care package ideas now!! Just wait...

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