Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Trip to Home Depot- South Sudan Style


Here is a bit of the experience I had driving home from shopping in our nearby town.  I went to Malakal on Thursday to try and pick up some cement and other supplies for the building of our home.  I got a ride down to Malakal with our neighboring organization FAR.  The trip was eventless except for the poor little four year old who kept throwing up from all the “dag-dag”.  This is local Arabic for “rough roads”. 

So the plan was to load the lorry with cement and leave Saturday morning.  Then it moved to Sunday morning at 11am.  Around 2:30 pm we finally got all the stuff loaded and the driver that I had been negotiating with the whole time suddenly handed the keys to another driver and sauntered off.  The new driver was Abdullah and he weighed in at about 250 lbs and was clearly addicted to chew.  We greeted, his bottom lip bulging with chewing tobacco and I noticed his bottom incisors were missing, I suppose it makes more room for the chew.  He blessed the journey by appealing to Allah for protection on the road and I prayed to Jesus that he would protect me from the driver. 

We made it out of Malakal town at 3:30pm and stopped at the first check point.  What happened there was to become an established pattern for the next 47 (or so it seemed) checkpoints.  The type of truck I rented comes with two young apprentices and a driver.  The young apprentices are hired to grease up the truck before every trip, fill the gas tanks (which usually involves drinking a bit of diesel as they start the siphoning process), and most importantly, and most dangerously, to hop out of the truck when it wants to stop and put a large wooden block under the wheels to stop the truck and then prop open the hood of the truck so that it won’t overheat while it is stopped.  Of course, turning off the engine would mean push starting the truck.  No small feat when there is 6 Tons of cement in the back.  Maybe now would be a good time to describe this Lorry.  It is a 1964 Austin Lorry.  The British imported thousands of these and even though the Austin company has gone belly-up, their wonderful trucks just keep chugging along.  However, the Sudanese have a found a few ways to make them more suitable for the conditions here.  First, the cabs were just too small.  So they have chopped off the roof and doors on both sides.  What remains is the windshield and the steering wheel.  They have removed the entire back of the truck and replaced it with a wider and fairly sturdy metal frame.  The front has been filled with cushions and decorations, painted an assortment of bright colors and various voodoo-like fetishes hang from the rear-view mirror.  There are pieces of feather, beads, a carved wooden hour glass, and my driver’s glasses which he never wore.  The front piece from the old Austin is not attached to the new metal box in the back (which you lean back against) so you get an odd feeling whenever the Lorry tips one way or the other because the back part leans much further side to side than the front part.  The shirt gets a bit of a work out moving back and forth while your pants stay in the same place.  Perhaps it is just one of those things you have to experience.

Anyway, we stopped at the first check point, the two apprentices hop out and throw the wood under the tires, prop up the hood and then take the driver’s license to the police.  The police look it over and then call the driver out the truck.  The driver climbs down, exposing me who is in the middle seat (my Eritrean friend who helped me find the cement and speaks no English is sitting on the far right).  The police do a double take (yes, this happened at each of the check points) and then call me down out of the truck.  So, now there are two apprentices, the driver and myself talking with the police.  However, it is not just police.  There are police and then there are the soldiers.  Each needs to see the documents, each needs to ask the same questions, each needs to figure out what a 250 lb Sudanese, a sun-burned white boy and an Eritrean have in common.  The same answers are given at each check point and usually everyone leaves happily after the driver pays a small fee of 10 Sudanese pounds for the pleasure of stopping and talking.  This happened over and over again as we stopped at the various check points on the road.

It got to be about 7pm and so we stopped at one of the checkpoints that had a lady cooking some goat meat and making tea.  We ordered fried meat (it seems this goat was extra hairy as there was a lot of hair in this fried meat) and drank tea.  Our conversation wondered around many topics but finally the 250 lb hulk of a driver muttered something.  This was the first I had heard him speak in the 4 hours we had been together.  The question caused a bit of interest among the apprentices and they turned to me and said, “The driver wants to know why his teeth are falling out”.  Hmm, that came a bit out of left field.  I looked at the driver who was finishing off his tea that had enough sugar in it to keep the spoon upright.  He finished it off and promptly placed a wad of chew in his lip.  “Hmmm, don’t make him angry, whatever you do,” I whispered to myself. 

“Perhaps”, I said politely, “you should rinse your mouth after drinking sweet tea and stay away from the local sweets and dates that are common snacks”.  I wasn’t courageous enough to talk about the chew…they seemed to be an integral part of each other. 

By now the sun had gone down and we started off again but now the apprentices had to dive into the hood to connect the wires for the lights.  What came next shouldn’t have surprised me but it did.  I can laugh about it now but at the time it was one of the moments where I wished I was somewhere else.

Here we are driving down the road in a 8 ton behemoth with no power steering probably averaging 40km/hr on pot-holed dirt roads and suddenly I hear the ‘pssssttt’ of a can opening.  I look at the driver and he is opening up a can of beer!  Not one of those “I need a sip” beers but one of those “does this come with an IV?” beers.    

“Uhhh, is that a beer?” I ask.

“Is this bad?” He asks, laughing.

“Uhhh, YEAH!  You can’t drink and drive!”

He stops laughing because now things get serious.  He has oncoming traffic and the road is getting a bit rough so he extends his 5 foot arm across the cab to the Eritrean and yells, “Hold this!”  The Eritrean is wrapped in a blanket because the 1964 Austin had its doors and windows cut off long ago and the sun has gone down so the temperature is dropping fast.  He struggles to get his arms free and catch the flying frothing drink because the driver didn’t really have time to gently hand it over.  He needed both hands on the wheel (remember, no power steering).  He passes the other car, swearing at them because they didn’t give way to him, dodges another pot-hole and then yells, “Beer!”  The Eritrean obediently hands him the keg and we continue like this down the road.  

Two or three times more this event repeats itself until the beer is eventually finished, but the adventure is not finished.  Now it is time for a cigarette!  He holds the wheel steady with his knee as he lights the cigarette and happily draws back on it.  The red ash gets caught by the wind and because of the direction, sweeps the ash directly across the cab and onto the Eritrean who is wrapped in his blanket.  I pat the ashes out but nervously wait for him to burst into flames.  The cigarette finishes, the chew finds its way home again, and we continue down the road.

Now before you judge me too harshly for not demanding higher standards from my driver, let’s remember the facts.  First, he is 250 lbs, easily.  Second, if I demand to get down, where in the world am I?  My biggest worry was what the response of the police was going to be at the next checkpoint.  What would they do when they smelled something on his breath?  Turns out I didn’t have much to be worried about.

We pulled up to the next check point and the soldier had a blood alcohol level of perhaps 8.0.  There is drunk and then there is sloshed (thanks to my English friends for teaching me this one).  This soldier could hardly stand and yet there he is with his AK-47 demanding that we take him and his household to a town that we are not going to.  The driver and the soldier bat it around for a few minutes and finally the driver plays his trump card.  His shines the flashlight directly in my face and says, “Look, I need to take this (white) man home to his wife.  She is very worried”.  The soldier promptly let us go.  It was 10pm.

At midnight we rolled into the college and I was greeted by the bobbing of a flashlight coming our direction.  It was my loving wife who had stayed up, cooked a hot meal and cookies to welcome me home.  She wasn’t worried. 

P.s. I have tried to load a picture of the Lorry that we drove in but blogger isn't letting me upload pictures at the moment.  Type "Sudanese Lorry" into google images and looked for the bright colored ones.

1 comment:

Heather and Jeff Ladine said...

Eli, I had no idea you had such a gift for details--well done! :) Sounds like quite the adventure. I'm glad I wasn't along for the ride :)
Heather