I've blown a head gasket, literally and now I'm sitting on a bench by the side of the road. My scrub shirt sticks to my back; it's soaked. The front is covered with grease. I've been on the road since 4am. I'm 30 km from my destination, N'Djamena, and I'm not going anywhere soon. The car has been overheating for the last 100 km. Every 20 km or so, I add 1-2 liters of water to the radiator. I pull over in this nice village under the shade of some trees and pour in my water. Now it won't start, and it's making a real funny noise I've never heard before. The "Scalded Dog" is known for funny noises, but this is definitely new, wrong and we're not going anywhere.
To my left is a water pump. I've been searching those out all day to fill up my two water bottles and one jug for the constant replenishing of the radiator. Just a couple stops back I found one and freed it from tyranny.
I'd pulled up in the shade. Thatch roof tops poking through the bush let me know there was a village there and therefore probably water. A young man passes as I gingerly and slowly remove the radiator cap to let the steam out slowly.
"Is there any water here?"
"Sure just 10 meters farther on."
I finish filling the radiator, close the seat back over the engine, hop in, start her up and drive to the well. Someone has put a bolt across so the handle won't move up and down, thus impeding access to water someone in Europe or the West paid good money to provide these people with. I'm suddenly on a short term mission with easily obtainable objectives. The young man is unperturbed and just takes my water bottles to his house where he probably has stocked up a supply. Meanwhile, I go get my socket set.
The bolt doesn't stand a chance against two 12 mm sockets and it is soon in may hands. I wait until the young man comes back and with a leer on my face I show him the bolt right before launching it across the road into a dense thicket.
"NO ONE SHOULD LOCK UP WATER!" With my mission accomplished, I get back in the van and drive off into the sunset.
Back in the present I watch a little kid bouncing up and down on the handle trying to get the water to come out. He's only about 3 or 4 years old but already has his chores. Another kid about his age is trying to catch the unsteady stream in an old 5 liter oil jug as the excess runs off into a stagnant pool in front of a small store. The water is green with algae and littered with plastic bags and tin cans. The store has a veranda made of a straw mat balancing precariously on some gnarled tree branches stuck in the ground. There are three old fired clay water jars covered with metal plates with an upside down plastic cup on top and a plastic teapot at the base of the jar.
One man, covered from head to toe in sand has just descended from the dump truck across the street which is filled with...you guessed it, sand. He walks up and greets the group of robed and turbaned men on the mat.
"As salaam aleikum!"
"Wa aleikum as salaam!"
He goes and shakes each man's hand in turn before sitting before one of the jars and washing his arms to the elbows, his feet to mid calf and his face, ears and mouth. He's preparing for mid day prayers, but he's a little late.
When I first realized I was stuck I felt kind of awkward. I kind of mill around before sitting on the small bench in front of some mats. I greet an old man in Arabic and ask him about the food in the clear plastic garbage pails on the rickety, homemade table.
"There's donuts here." He points to the middle pail.
"What's this?" I motion towards the bucket to my left that has some whitish meatball looking things swimming around in a red sauce. "Is it meat? Fish?" My Arabic is limited.
"Fish, yes fish." His face brightens up, communication has happened.
I decide to pass for now and I go get a small watermelon from the van.
"Do you have a knife?" I ask the old man, knowing the answer as no respectable Arab would be seen anywhere without one.
The man graciously smiles and pulls up his robe, unsheathing a homemade dagger about a foot long. Looks kind of like a toy and feels light in my hand, but it's razor sharp and cuts through the watermelon like butter.
I haven't eaten all day and hardly drunk anything since I contaminated my water bottles with radiator fluid. I devour one quarter of it, but start to feel awkward. I've been here long enough that some good things have rubbed off on me. No respectable African, much less a Muslim would think of eating alone in front of people. I slice up the other half into manageable portions, arrange it on a tray a little girl has brought out and offer it to the old man and those resting with him on the mat.
"Faddal," I say in Arabic motioning him to partake. As I sit on the bench the munching and slurping behind me is reward enough for the tiny sacrifice of my coveted watermelon.
As I finish my piece at my leisure, I realize why the others are hurrying as the call to prayer rings out from the mosque across the street and men get up from all over where they've been resting in the hot afternoon son and make there way across for the 2nd of the 5th daily ritual prayers. The roadside is suddenly empty and quiet with only the occasional "Allahu akbar" ringing out over the microphone from the Imam. Then, after a few minutes, the roadside is a bustling, noisy thoroughfare again.
Soon, an old French army Land Cruiser with it's all important yellow license plate pulls up. Out jump two Chadians I've never seen before. We greet each other and they get to work. A mass of rope is pulled out and quickly untangled and doubled then quadrupled and lashed from a hook on the front of my van to the rear bumper of the land cruiser.
"You, go forward. Me, I drive." The man says in poor French with a heavy Arabic accent. I oblige, having not really wanted the daunting task of driving a car being towed by a rope on roads barely wide enough for two vehicles and crowded with broken down trucks, cows, goats, pigs, pedestrians and bicycles and motorcycles weaving in and out amongst the whole mess. Not to mention the potholes.
And so, without even a look back or a fond farewell, I say goodbye to my roadside friends.
11 November 2010
Posted by jj at 3:45 AM