Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rolling On The River

There are several things in life that are difficult. Living here especially, one can think of many!

But I can attest, now from personal experience, that there is nearly nothing worse than needing to pee more than you can ever recall and being in a wet, sloshing-water wooden boat, miles from anywhere, surrounded by water while being bombarded constantly with the sounds of lapping water chafing against the four paddles.

Things often take longer than they ought to in some parts of Africa, and many fondly refer to it as Africa Time, as it is perpetrated here even by those rare few who wear watches. So when we were told that it would take twice as long to get home as it had taken to get to Andé, going UPstream, it was surprising so we resolved to be patient and just take our time and get there.

It had rained the entire night before our departure, so we figured (hoped immensely) that perhaps it was done raining for a little while.

How wrong we were! Though the first day on the boat was enjoyable, filled with singing and merriment and Olivier at the helm, dancing, the second day after another torrential night rain, the rain just didn’t seem to want to recede in the sky.

An hour in a wet, soggy boat, when all of your clothes are wet and it is continually raining on you is difficult. Twelve hours in a wet, soggy boat is another story.

We stopped only a few times on the second day, our brave paddlers trying to get us home that day. We’d hired two extra paddlers, Myumbe and JP, to help us combat the current but it was still a slow trek. It was often a race against the rain, and we took shelter under the big tent, propped up with paddles and sticks.

The merriment and singing from the day before were mostly absent, as we all huddled, trying to stay dry and stay warm. I pressed myself against Adam’s back, mooching his heat, but there were times when a cold rainy wind blew across the river that it was impossible not to be chilled to the core.

Tempers flared when JP, a man we’d already had trouble with, insisted that we all stop to eat and rallied, trying to unionize and subvert our efforts to get home. All the other paddlers were equally eager to get home, arguing with JP, but JP accused us of treating “them” like prisoners.

We stopped at a corn bagging station and JP sat in the rain shelter there, refusing to leave until Emmanuel had cooked him some food. Emmanuel and Olivier planned to walk the last 9km to arrive at the house early and make preparations for all of us, so we just asked that JP go with him. It was quite dramatic, though also quite funny, as Cleve shooed him away, telling him to take his bad attitude somewhere else and that he was no longer welcome on our boat.

In all the commotion, I decided not to use the bathroom, which was definitely my fault, but certainly for women on the river, it’s a bit more difficult than men. Not only can I not pee off the side of the boat, but most of the places we stopped just had one place to use the bathroom, relatively exposed, and not really at all private or ensconced in leaves.

And thus began my pain, struggling to hold it in, as we continued along the river.

Finally, my eyes bleeding yellow, Cleve spotted a huge root of an overturned tree by the side of the river, and I had to continue waiting while we maneuvered the boat to the enclave.

What a laughable comedy -- after all, a comedy of errors is still a comedy -- as Adam stood on the root, keeping me from slipping, and I squatted and all the boatmen turned the other way to keep from looking. Meanwhile, Cleve was right in front of us, holding onto Adam’s hand to ensure that the boat wouldn’t float away from the root.

After, though, I felt so much better, and as we continued on the rest of our journey without stopping, the sun finally came out and we reveled in its last rays before it set, beautifully, over the still river water.

As night came on, it was amazing to realize that all of the Belgian husks of technology that we’d seen on the way down, rusty and disused and laced with vines, were invisible against the night enveloped forest silhouette. You’d never know that there was a town behind that forest canopy, let alone a former Belgian colony.

We didn’t get home until 9 pm, too late to do anything but eat and crash. We knew the following day we could take hot baths, but it felt nice just to change out of our soaking wet clothes.

What an adventure it was -- it not only makes you appreciate the forest, but gives you such a sense of happiness to be back in Aketi too!

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