Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stranded, Running Barefoot in the Rain

Rainy season in Northern Uganda means the near cessation of reasonable transit options. Roads often become so poor that buses cannot pass, tires sink in quicksand, and only the most daring or determined attempt to journey long distances by bicycle or motorbike.

On the morning of my expected arrival to the home of Chief Okot, I searched long and hard for a driver willing to brave the roads in a hired vehicle. With no takers, I weighed my remaining options: cancel my visit and thus, resolve to never meet the chief, or brave the several hour journey from the back of a boda boda—a cross between a Harley and a bicycle, less sturdy than a motorcycle, but with an engine and long saddle making it decidedly more than a bike.

I climbed aboard behind two riding mates and braced myself for the helmetless ride along the soggy and pitted road. At times, the bike slipped and slid along, as the driver walked his legs on the ground to steady us and regain balance. At others, the road became entirely impassable, forcing my friend and me to wade through the muddy waters while the boda driver found an alternative path through the grasses.

After more than two hours, we arrived at our destination.

By late afternoon, thunderclaps could be heard in the distance as dark clouds engulfed the nearby mountain.  I hurriedly said my goodbyes to the chief as his family ushered me off before the storm. Francis, my driver, knew as well as I did that if we were to have any chance for safe arrival back to Pader, we would have to beat the approaching storm.

He sped off down the dirt road at reckless speed, sending us flying over bumps and swerving to avoid pot holes. After only thirty minutes, we came to an abrupt stop.

“What is it?” I asked, looking behind at the now black clouds quickly racing towards us. His gaze directed mine toward the tire below me, now flat with no hope of carrying us the rest of the way to Pader. Our options were few: stay together, stranded on this deserted road, or proceed by foot as he attempted to bring the motorbike back to the village we came from for repairs.

I nearly leaped with each long stride as I tried to gain distance walking down the road away from the storm. My friend and I lasted about 10 minutes before being struck by heavy wind against our backs so strong it propelled us running forward. The wind was soon accompanied by rain, hitting us hard enough to sting.

I laughed as I registered the entirety of our circumstances, taking off my sandals as I ran, soaked, feeling the squishy earth beneath my feet. Of course I should find myself stranded on a deserted road in the middle of a torrential storm running barefoot on the same day as listening to folk stories at the feet of a tribal chief!

My friend worried. “Daniela, I am so, so sorry I have placed us in this terrible situation. Let us look for shelter and if need be, we can stay until a bus passes at three in the morning.”

I suggested a large tree, but my friend thought that would make us even greater victims of the harsh wind, rain, and striking lightening surrounding us.

Finding no suitable covering, we continued running along the long road to Pader.

Eventually, we saw a homestead in the distance, likely the only structure we’d see for miles. My friend and I hashed out a plan: she would approach a hut first while I hid at a distance and would give me a signal if the inhabitants seemed safe and welcoming.

She bent low and entered the hut. A few seconds later, her hand gestured out, telling me to enter.

Karibu! [Welcome!]” A woman within greeted me. Inside the hut, it was nearly too dark to see, but the aroma of homemade alcohol and wooden embers sent a sudden feeling of warmth through my body.  The woman sat upon a mat on the dirt floor, removing pebbles from a basket filled with large white ants which she would eventually fry. On a mud oven, she boiled a container of waragi, a local alcohol made from sorghum.

My African dress, now soaking wet, weighed heavily upon my body. The woman’s husband offered me their only stool as his wife poured me a steaming cup of her brew.

My friend Nighty used to make this alcohol and once refused me a sip, claiming it makes muzungus sick. I now held the warm drink cupped between my hands and sipped from it as I watched my sandals float outside the hut’s entrance and ducks swim by. 

My saviors seemed delighted by their surprise visit and entertained me with Acholi music played on a battery operated radio. I began to plan my next move.

I called my landlord in Pader—no answer.  I called again, still nothing. On my third try, I heard a voice. “Daniela, what is it? Where are you?” She asked. I explained my situation and asked if she could find someone in town willing to pick me up.  In about a half hour, my phone rang. A Land Cruiser was on its way, and in a few more hours, I would be home.

With the end now in sight, I reveled in my good fortune. I swayed to the music with my new friends as we listened to the rain falling outside.  The man and woman urged me not to drink too much from the cup they had given me. Drinking a whole cup of waragi would make me drunk, or at least, so I gathered from the charades of the couple within the hut.

When the ants came off of the fire, crisp and golden, I cringed. “Ants, twice in one day?” I thought to myself. For weeks I had avoided the flying white ants offered to me by people in Pader, and here I was, taking one gingerly from the smiling woman in front of me, making it dance in my hand instead of my mouth.

They don’t taste like chicken, nor do they taste anything like the firey, acidic Argentinian ants I sampled in the raw as a child.  I do know that locals warn against eating too many, as they are famous for causing bad diarrhea. I exercised restraint as the rest crunched on them by the handful.

After a couple of hours, my phone rang again as the driver of the Land Cruiser approached.  I found my sandals and waded barefoot through the waters to the side of the road.

Unlike the motorbike, the Land Cruiser barreled down the road at high speed, crashing through the puddles and sending water splashing as high as the roof. I held onto the side bar of the passenger’s seat as we shifted steeply left and right.

In no time, I was in my room again, sipping hot tea in my warm, dry clothes.  In only a couple of weeks, I would be far from dirt roads and rainstorms, mud huts and white ants, reunited with my parents in the Tuscan countryside. 

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