Monday, 7 February 2005

A Comedy Of Errors

Imagine if you will, a road surface quite similar to a ploughed field, furrowed all over. Furrows which are as hard and compacted as cement. Picture this road undulating up and down hills as steep as a rollercoaster. See in your mind’s eye the potholes which are six feet wide and three feet deep. Envision the bends, and the way the road falls away in a sheer drop at the edge.

Climb into a 45 year old Land Rover and bear up for the 40km journey which will take you two hours.

We decided at the weekend to go visit some friends who live in a village 40km away. In real terms the road is actually worse than the depiction above. If we break down on this road we are screwed.

The road sees no traffic. There is no mobile phone reception. It would be about a 6 hour walk either back to the project or forward to the village. Our friends in the village get in and out on another road, but to use that one would involve a roundabout journey of about three days in the Land Rover.

There are however, lots and lots of people living in communities off this road, and I cannot comprehend how they get anywhere, as they have no vehicles and even bicycles are rare. Forget about schools or medical supplies. Get sick here, I think you’d die.

We have two checklists, one we go through before leaving, and one we go through on arrival. The first checklist is in case of breakdown. We must carry:

Litres of water. Dehydration v v bad.
Litres of fuel. The fuel gauge doesn’t work and the mechanics keep screwing with the carburettor so the LR eats fuel.
Blankets, in case we have to sleep in the bush.
Matches, in case we need fire.
Torches, in case we need light.
Penknife in case we need to perform emergency surgery. Just kidding. Well, not really.
Serious First Aid Kit. This includes magic bandages which Doc SIL swiped for us, which apparently will staunch a wound and stick you together even if you have a limb hanging off. I hope I never have cause to write and ask the manufacturers for a refund.
Gallons of suncream, hats and covers in case we need to walk in the sun.
Money for booze! V v important.

Huh. All that for a weekend having a few drinks with some mates. The LR just about makes it to the village, chugging along. Everyone stares as we drive up. It’s not surprising really, given we are making a noise like a herd of mechanical elephants.

The on-arrival checklist goes like this:
Fillings still in teeth? Check.
Ribs still attached to ribcage? Just.
Position of stomach? Somewhere around the throat region.
Physical appearance? A fine overall coat of red dust with a scattering of bruises.
We’re good to go.

We are actually staying with a friend who lives outside the village, but decide to stop off at the bars first and see some other people. Due to cholera-induced gluten intolerance I am not supposed to drink beer.

The Husband comes out of the first bar waving a bottle of brandy. “It’s a quid! You have to have it!”

Hmm. Sure I do. Later, it gets worse. In another bar they have no bottles of brandy. They do however have generic ‘grain spirit’ in a plastic pouch. It ain’t no London cocktail bar, that’s for sure.

Night falls like a fast curtain on a bad theatre production. You raise your drink to your lips in daylight, and when you put the glass down it is dark.

We get the LR going and head off to our friend’s house. The engine fails. We push the LR. It goes. Then the lights blow. Darkness. Silence. Outside stars are flung across the sky as though from an infinite barrel of twinkle.

We drive for half an hour with our torches out the window barely lighting the way. The rear door of the LR is screwed and keeps banging open. On about my tenth time jumping out to close it I peer in the back and realise that one of the back seats has slid out entirely. At home I would say the chances of finding it on the road in the morning would be relatively good. Here it is probably already ensconced in someone’s home as a sofa.

We carry on. This road is worse than the first one we have taken. We end up in a gulley and I fear we are about to tip over as we coast along on the two left wheels.

I think The Husband should be awarded the title Champion Off-Road Driver. I laugh to myself as I think about challenging one of those Mommys in their big SUVs to come and drive it out here.

We pull up outside our friend’s house. She has made cabbage curry. It is a windy night.

The next day we try to leave. We try very hard. By now the High Tension lead has worked its way loose and burnt up. The engine keeps cutting out. We have lost our penknife and cannot clear away some new wire. We poke it back and try to fix it with some twigs.

Some men help us push the LR again. Every time someone helps us push they ask for a lift. One man packs his bicycle precariously in the back. I laugh and tell him he would be quicker cycling. The starter motor dies. So does the alternator. We stop and look at the engine again. In the absence of a knife one man offers to clear some wire with his teeth. We decline.

A flock of bright orange birds darts back and forth in front of the shattered windscreen. The LR makes it back to the village mostly by wishful thinking.

We have to take the battery out to charge it. Luckily someone can do this for us. We spend the night in the village. I am not feeling well after my previous imbibing of grain spirit so I stick to soft drinks. I try not to think about tooth rot and Zambian dentists.

The guys find a pool table in the back of the bar and proceed to play endlessly. I fashion a lounging spot out of some sacks of maize and nod off, watching out for rats. Michael tells us someone in the market has offered to sell him a monkey. I don’t think it’s to eat. The going rate is £5. I say it is a bargain, especially if it comes with a woolly jumper and can do chores.

This morning we put the battery back in the LR and push start it. Despite my best Charlie’s Angels high kicks I cannot get the back door to stay shut. Now we are in danger of the spare wheel falling out and rolling away into the bush. We are about half way home when the LR breaks down again. In a dip, with a steep hill on either side. A bunch of women washing in a river nearby start laughing.

One skinny lady comes running out. She wants a lift so she offers to push. We strain at the vehicle while I mutter to The Husband that he is so lucky I am not a Princess. The engine goes. I yell at the lady to jump in.

She has two daughters. The four year old carries a one year old on her back while their mother heaves at a giant bag. We are probably the only vehicle which will go on that road this week. Angela was prepared to walk with her kids for several hours to get back to her home. She has been to a relative’s funeral. Out here the coffins are tiny.

On our way we pass barefoot women walking on the hot sand, 20 litre drums of water on their heads. Just as we are about to run out of petrol the LR approaches the project. Lovely Milly is a sight to behold. She is decked out in full African celebratory regalia, including headdress and big skirts. She is hoeing the garden.