On a Saturday morning we ride our motorbikes to lunch and then to the village where Lachlan and Nik live. They live in a quaint four-bedroom house on the grounds of a Swiss-funded, private school. The house belongs to the school, which is known locally as ‘Ma Ellen’s School’ and Nik is the school’s administrator. Lachlan is her advisor – mostly unsolicited, I imagine – and he also works for a local USAID program and an Australian pharmaceutical company.
The house by the school in the village is about 40 kilometers outside of the capitol along the good highway that goes towards the international airport. From our place in the Sinkor neighborhood near the downtown, you drive through the Congo Town neighborhood until you reach where there is the busy intersection. We are going fast as we approach and then we slow behind the taxis that load and unload passengers. I ride behind Jessica, which has become our norm by mutual preference. She likes it because she gets to set the pace and I like it because I can watch her and watch over her. After the taxis, we wait for the cars in front of us to turn right. Beside us as we idle the ‘pem pem’ boys (motorcycle taxi drivers) watch us. Their bikes are arrayed in a phalanx along the curbside and they sit perched and waiting to take a passenger.
From the corner of my eye I see two of them laughing and then one leaps down from sitting cross-legged upon his motorbike. He approaches Jessica and makes to throw his leg over to ride pillion behind her. I see this and my blood turns hot. I honk and I mutter a few curses into the microphone, which runs from my crash helmet into my iPhone and, through the mobile network, into her iPhone and out her earpiece. She looks behind her and waves the pem pem boy away. I start to pull alongside but now the boy has gone and the car in front of her has made its turn. Jess moves forward and makes her turn and I follow, looking for the pem pem boy as I go.
‘I nearly went into a rage,’ I say to Jess through the microphone in my helmet as we accelerate away.
‘Yes, I know you did, love,’ she says and she lets me spit a few more curses until the venom is out of my mouth and the riding begins to calm me down.
After fifteen minutes along a straight highway flanked by clearings in the vegetation where large homes and small businesses are built, we pass Kendeja Resort where there is a pool and a private beach and the food is expensive. We continue past and, after another fifteen minutes, we reach the turnoff for Silver Beach. We take the turnoff and we follow the sandy wash that is a road. I take it in second gear and I feel the light motorbike swish through the sand. Jess follows in a high first and, looking back often, I see that she is nervous but not overmatched.
After crossing two large puddles and more sand traps, the road opens to a large car park beside a house. On the grassy opening there are two plastic tables and some chairs that overlook a gully and then the ocean. It is deserted accept for an older boy who sits on a log. Probably he is the server. We park and we choose the closer of the tables. I unlace my boots and strip my socks. The grass and sand is good beneath my feet. We order a beer and a cola – Jessica refuses to drink when she rides – and we order food for four because Lachlan has told us that the fish is good but will be very long in the preparation.
We talk and we read and then the older boy who is the server brings the drinks and we drink them while they are cold. Then we read and talk as before. When the four-wheel drive pulls into the car park, I am into my second beer. My shirt is off and Jess’s pant cuffs are rolled as high as they will go. Lachlan wears shorts and a straw hat and Nik is dressed for the sun.
‘As long as I’m with you I’ll never get to wear a nice dress like that!’ Jess says as an accusation.
‘Not on riding days,’ I say.
More drinks are ordered and the older boy who is the server goes off. When he comes back, Lachlan and Nik have settled in. They have been in town all day with their mechanic to buy parts for the new Jeep that they have bought. The traffic is very bad on Saturdays and much worse if there is a football match at the national stadium, which is just past the intersection along the airport road. Today the traffic is as bad as on any Saturday and Lachlan and Nik look very tired. The beers help and the quiet and the sunshine, and they are plenty relaxed when the food is finally brought.
I am an introvert by nature but through travels and several moves during my early twenties I taught myself to be outgoing as a sort of survival technique and then because I learned that it is a professional asset. Now, between having few friends and having overdeveloped this outgoing act, I dominate the conversation. I know that I am doing it and I know that I do not want to be doing it, but it is a hard forged habit that is hard to break.
After lunch and another cold drink, Jess is signaling to me that it is time to finish the trip to Lachlan and Nik’s house. It is another forty-five minutes until sunset and there are only a few kilometers left to cover but they are all off pavement and the rains from a couple days before have probably made puddles. We leave money with Lachlan and Nik who will settle the bill and we ride off ahead.
We ride out the way we came in and we turn back onto the highway in the direction of the international airport. A half-kilometer ahead we see the sign for the school and we take the inland turnoff. The road is very wide in the beginning and there are long patches of mud that are hard to avoid. We ride slowly, passing shacks and modest houses. The ‘pem pem’ boys drive very quickly past us. They wear shorts and flip-flops and no crash helmet. I shake my head as they pass because I have taken a hard fall before and, even on dirt, I was glad for the jeans, boots, and crash helmet.
The road narrows as we move further from the highway and closer to the village. Ahead where the road skirts the village, it becomes very muddy and there are no alternatives but to power through it. I have told Jessica to keep her throttle on as she goes through it so that she will not bog down. My experience with mud comes from South Sudan where the back cotton soil will stick to your treads and your chain and, if you do not accelerate hard, it will be as if strong hands have reached out from the puddle and taken hold of you. Maybe I do not explain myself well or maybe she misunderstands me to say ‘into’ rather than ‘through’ because she accelerates into the puddles and I see an enormous brown wave rise up. Then, through my earpiece, I hear, ‘I’m all dirty!’
‘You went in hard,’ I say. ‘Anyway, the splash was very photogenic.’
‘I’m all dirty!’ she says again, then I hear a breath and she repeats, ‘’I’m all dirty!’
Probably she is a bit startled, I think. Just a few weeks before she had a whole list of things that she would never do on a motorbike. Riding was the first on that list but we had crossed that off. And then it was riding in the rain and in the after work traffic and we crossed both of those off a few weeks later when we went to meet Lachlan and Nik at the Blue House for dinner. Then it was riding off the tarmac and we had done that when she had followed me to work one morning and then, miserably, had to ride herself back out to get home. Next on the list was riding in mud and then through water where she could not see the solid ground beneath her. Now, she had just done both and she had done it stoically and with great dignity. It had been all quiet in the earpiece until I saw the huge splash. Now she was saying ‘I’m all dirty!’ over and over again and I think it is like she is letting out a sigh of relief. Also, I hear the way she emphasizes ‘dirty’ like as if it is as foul a word in its usage as its meaning.
We go through two more large puddles, around a sandy bend, and then skirt another large puddle by following a trail through the bushes. At the gate, the guard is expecting us and he lets us through. He tries to explain where the house is but I am not understanding him, so he throws a leg over the seat and rides pillion. He directs me across a field, around the main school building, and past another until we arrive at a walled enclosure where a mechanic is working on a Jeep. Lachlan and Nik have arrived and Lachlan is speaking with the mechanic who is packing to leave for the day. I park beside the vehicle and when I have taken my helmet off and removed my earphones, Jessica is reviewing her clothes and her motorbike.
‘I’m all dirty!’ she says. She is smiling but she is still unsteady.
In the house we use the restroom and Jess changes into a clean pair of jeans that we have brought in my daypack. We take a tour through the house and the gardens and we see that it is all very nice. Nik introduces us to the puppies that are in a doghouse with their mother and she takes one with a white patch on his head and gives him to Jess.
‘Awww, I want him!’ Jess says.
Then we sit on the porch and take cold drinks. Jess has the puppy on her lap and we listen to music and Lachlan and Nik tell us about life in the village and the administering of the Ma Ellen’s School.
‘He was building cement blocks and he explained his other ideas for his business,’ Lachlan is saying as we open a third beer. ‘I told him to write a simple business plan and if I liked it I would make an investment – a loan really.’
‘Was he able to put a business plan together?’ I ask.
‘Anyway it was something like that if you ignore the spelling and all that,’ Lachlan says. ‘But it was a bit ambitious, so I helped him to narrow it down. I told him, “If you want to follow this, I’ll loan you the money.” It was about a thousand dollars and I think there’s a decent chance I’ll get some or most of it back.’
‘That’s a really nice thing to do,’ Jess says.
‘It’s a great opportunity for him because Lach is giving him plenty of time to pay it back,’ Nik says. ‘You know the banks require collateral and they charge so much interest, and the repayment period usually so short that you’re certain to default.’
‘Pretty soon you’ll be a micro-lending institution,’ I say.
Then Jessica makes a gasp and we look over.
‘He just peed on me!’
We continue like this until it becomes very dark in the garden beyond the light of the porch. Then we finish our drinks and rouse ourselves to make a drive into the village. We take the four-wheel drive and Nik drives because she usually stops drinking before Lachlan does.
The first place is a general store with a few plastic tables on the porch and a sound system playing Liberian and Nigerian hip hop. This is an entertainment center where you can buy bags of rice and cans of corn or sit and drink cold beer that you buy by the bottle. We watch the boys dancing and I try to imitate their movements but I am hopelessly uncoordinated and I have no rhythm.
Later, one of the boys is drunk and he makes an advance at Jess. She fends him off effortlessly. She has become very expert at this over the last few years and I know that he need get quite pushy before it becomes necessary for me to intervene.
The drunk boy begins to leave and then stops and, unsteadily, he looks us over again. He sees Nik at the far end of the table and begins to stagger towards her. But Lachlan is seated between them and he stops the boy with a hand raised to his chest. I watch him and the boy is not happy but he is too drunk to be a threat. In another moment he has turned and he is retreating down the porch steps again and then a moment later he has disappeared into the dark night.
After we finish our drinks we pay and we leave. Nik drives us to another place that is the same but nicer. On the way we stop at a deep puddle in the road where a small sedan has foundered. It is an unmarked taxi. Two women stand off to the side while several men try to dig the wheels free. They ask us if we have a cable but we do not. I jump out of the car to review the situation.
‘It perfect!’ I say to Jess. ‘I’ve had a few drinks and there’s a problem to solve. And it’s not my car, so if I can’t solve it…’
I try to help the others push the car but the clutch smokes and the wheels do not turn and it will not budge. We try a few maneuvers but before long another vehicle arrives with a cable. In a moment the sedan is freed and we are all back on our ways. In the vehicle as we drive I am musing about ‘real mud’.
‘This is not real mud!’ I say as though I have taken an insult. ‘This is sandy mud. In South Sudan you get stuck in the mud and you’ll be there all day. It’s black cotton soil, you know.’
Nik follows a narrow road into and out of another puddle.
‘My first month in South Sudan, I got stuck in the mud. The whole right side of the Land Cruiser sank into a bog and the wheels on the left were barely making contact. The whole axle was stuck! I was there all day – from eleven to six. We broke the winch on another Land Cruiser – we were using it wrong but there were no trees around. It wasn’t until we found a tractor that we finally got it free.’
‘Yes, love,’ Jess says in that way she says when I am drinking – or not – and I have gone into a rant.
‘I’m just saying – that was getting stuck!’ I say and then I reach to the front seat and grab Lachlan by the shoulder. ‘That’s black cotton soil, you know.’
At the entertainment center Lachlan and I drink another beer. Lachlan and Nik talk to a young woman whose child attends the Ma Ellen’s School. Jess listens and I listen and I watch the football match that is on the television. I am mellower now and I like this version of myself better. In the corner a man and a woman play a game of backgammon.
In the morning Lachlan and Nik wake early to go to the airport. Lachlan has a morning flight that will take several legs and almost two days to get him to Sidney where he must go for business. Jess and I sleep in and when I wake up my head and my stomach are very bad.
‘I told you you would feel bad!’ Jess says in triumph. ‘ You drank too much.’
‘I drank fine,’ I say miserably. ‘You don’t let me practice enough.’
When we emerge from the room, Nik is back and has slept again and now she is doing chores. We sit on the porch and I drink a glass of water. Then Nik calls to us that she has prepared breakfast and it is very good and fresh, and she has fried Greek cheese into sticks.
After breakfast we take a walk through the village. While Nik contributes a few purchases to the village market, Jess and I wander about. Most of the huts are mud and some are red brick and stucco. Some have deeply rusted iron sheets and others have long palms for roofs. The nicer ones have both. There are no roads; only footpaths and some are wide enough for a car to pass. There are old cars parked next to a few of the huts and all but one looks permanently grounded. There is a mobile phone charging booth in the area that looks like it might be a plaza. Boys play pickup football here and the small children with their few clothes and snotty noses and distended stomachs come from the houses and gather around us. On one side of this clearing cement blocks are piled high and moss has grown in the shady parts between them. At the other end is a borehole that does not produce because the tap is broken.
‘It’s the same village as you’ll see anywhere,’ I say.
Later, I will feel bad for saying this because it will occur to me that, by belittling their place, I have written off these people. No one deserves that. Then I will wonder how being an aid worker has made me so cynical about some things, but right now my mood is bad because of how my head and my stomach are from last night. My mood is also bad because Jess’s mood is bad. Her mood is bad because she is worried about having to ride out today. Somehow, she feels that managing the muddy, sandy roads yesterday has increased the pressure on her today. She feels unready and in over her head, and she feels pushed into this. She holds this against me but she hasn’t told me that yet.
‘Look at this borehole,’ Jess says. ‘They didn’t build a trench around the tap – maybe so there wouldn’t be stagnant water for mosquitoes to grow in – but instead it empties right into this hut here where this family lives.’
She will say that she is not a ‘technical person’ but she has been around good boreholes and bad ones long enough to know what she’s talking about as well as any other non-engineer.
‘It was probably missionaries who built it,’ she decides. She is hot and tired and, probably, she did not sleep well. Also, she is more stressed now about the ride home that will come after we leave the village. ‘Why don’t they leave it to people who know what they are doing?’
The sun is very high now and it is very humid from the dense vegetation that surrounds the village and grows up from everywhere where the tending has been neglected. Nik has finished her shopping and we decide that we have seen all that there is of the village. On the way back to the Ma Ellen’s School, we meet Lachlan’s block maker. It is Sunday afternoon and hot as life and he and his man are shoveling sand into a wheelbarrow. They smile and wave to us and we wave back. Then they wheel the sand to the back of the house where they will mix the cement into it.
At the house we have a cold drink and a sit on the sofa to cool down before we ride out. Jess is quiet because she is brooding about the ride and blaming me for pushing her into it when she is not ready. Nik and I talk until it is time to say goodbye. Before we go, we collect our things and I discover that my iPhone has a glitch. Probably it has happen because I plugged it directly into the outlet to charge and the Chinese generator produces an unstable current.
‘So we can’t be talking on the ride?’ Jess says.
I shake my head.
We have said goodbye and we are outside now. She is very overwhelmed and her mood is foul. This makes my mood worse and I am grumbling miserably to myself as we drive off.
When we get home the ride has been fine but we are both very foul. When our helmets come off we begin to spit venom and we continue until there is a stalemate and we are quiet for a time. But our angers have not been validated so the venom builds again until we must let it out. We do like this during the evening but when it is bedtime we are exhausted but we are still nowhere. Finally in the night the venom is all used up and now we are good to each other again. We are good again because we listen, and because we talk about themes and behaviors rather than specific words and actions.
We talk about how she can feel overwhelmed by doing something even when she appears to be excelling, and we talk about how I can acknowledge this rather than take her success as reason to push her harder. We talk about our attitudes about this place and about the kind of people we want to be amidst adversity. We acknowledge that this has been the hardest country for us, even if it carries the least hardship, and this lets us drop our pretensions of being seasoned travelers. We talk about our goals and the sacrifices they require, and we agree that they are our decision and that we take responsibility for them. Finally when we turn out the light we feel good and we feel silly for all the not feeling good from before.
The next day I send Lachlan and Nik an email. I thank them for the fun and for having us. I apologize to Nik that we were a bit out of sorts before we left on Sunday. I smile at the reply because she says that we were fine and it was her who was feeling a bit off that day.