Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Going East

Last week I found myself at 4am, just before sunrise, being awoken by my alarm. I momentarily enjoyed the uncharacteristically cool breeze that was blowing on me in my outdoor bed, before throwing the last few essentials into a bag (pineapple, baby wipes and canned pears), then leaving in search of the bus station across town. Not being a person who particularly relishes such early starts or who lives in the city, this trip afforded a rare insight for me into the waking world of N‘Djamena.

Following a busy and very hot couple of months at the hospital I was taking a break and was off to visit some friends in the east of Chad. A battered old bus, with intermittent air conditioning and a television showing the same 10 minutes of reel, thankfully without sound, was my chariot for the next 6 hours. Grateful for a seat rather than the popular mode of transport atop an overloaded truck, I settled down. Leaving the dirt and bustle of the city behind, the wide wide expanse of sand and sparse trees that traverses the whole of this vast country took over. An hour into the journey I was aware of a slight shift in my centre of gravity and realised that the road was indeed curving just ever so slightly!  Five hours more and a roundabout later, striking rugged rocks rose forming an impressive break to the otherwise changeless landscape. Six hours on, of uninterrupted travelling, we chugged to a stop in the next major bus depot. Though I would like to say I elegantly hopped and skipped over rolled up mats, plastic bowls and bursting bags that littered the central aisle of the bus, I actually found myself clumsily clambering and stumbling, heaving my heavy bag with me, taking out a few ankles along the way. All negotiated with long skirt and large headscarf in situ!

On descent I was immediately surrounded by children begging or trying to sell their wares of biscuits and dates to me, chatting away in Arabic. The large dusty, chaotic space that formed the bus station, was surrounded by various eateries bbqing indistinguishable meats over open fires or ladies selling juicy mangos. 

Through the chaos I spotted my next ride- a land cruiser manned by two white faces, a distinctive sight in this scene. While my friends finished off their business in their nearest ‘large’ town, including a new game we called ATM Roulette- will it be working this time? Will it work long enough to complete a transaction and maybe even 2?!, I enjoyed the opportunity to stretch my legs and take in the stark peace that filled the town away from the bus station and the sight of hills and trees.

An hour later, we were back on the road, this time, no tarmac (sorry, asphalt. Nod to Mr Dawson!). The journey was fast despite the surface and the increasingly green countryside whizzed past with occasional halts and swerves to avoid the odd wandering pedestrian, goat, herd of cows, water laden donkeys and most dangerously, the camels who literally have no common sense or comprehension that a vehicle is coming towards them and react in unpredictable and sometimes astonishing ways!

Village after village, made up of mud conical huts with thatched roofs passed and four hours later, as pot holes and deep crevices became more frequent in the road, we entered my holiday destination for the next 5 days.

The wide central road running the length of the small town, provides an open space for football matches to be played alongside, braying donkeys, pecking chickens, women wandering to and from the market and the passing of an occasional vehicle in a disorganised but calm fashion. At the end of the road, I am welcomed by my smiling friend and her young son as the sun began to disappear behind the horizon.

Self-dehydration was the method I had employed during the day to tackle the ‘unpredictable and severe shortage of facilities’ during the journey. And so, amongst the excited chatter of reunited friends, I guzzled down a few litres of water and experienced their ‘al fresco’ WC, reflecting on the great opportunity an open air toilet and shower offer in star gazing at night, and yet, the potential severe sun burn during the day!

The following day then set the pattern for the rest of the week; early morning and early evening were the times for making visits or receiving neighbours. The week proved a great opportunity for me to experience some of Chadian hospitality.

The first morning my friend took me with her to visit a sick neighbour who took a break from sifting her grain to receive us on her mat under a tree where we watched the children play together and they caught up on local news and the state of her and her families health, while I desperately listened out for the odd word of Arabic I could understand.

Through the week, having heard of my arrival, neighbours and co-workers of my friends called round to greet me. This entailed sitting on mats together, wearing head scarfs and drinking small glasses of incredibly sweet hot tea. During one such visit, while my friend prepared the obligatory refreshments, I found myself sat next to a lady, who as far as I could tell was extremely lovely but I had no way of actually talking to her! 
Having only partially successfully mumbled my way through just some of the long Arabic greeting, I found myself desperately looking around trying to find something to point to or talk about to break the painful silence. I was transported back to my first few months in Chad where I experienced this on a daily basis as I grappled with French. To realise I can now make conversation in albeit, not the most eloquent of French, was a happy moment.

Being in a rural setting I adopted the local dress of wearing a lafai, a long piece of cloth wrapped around me, covering my head to ensure modesty. Despite the challenge of wearing an extra layer in the heat and the practical side of trying to walk, move, do anything useful in swathes of material, I actually enjoyed my alternative holiday wear.

The rest of the week was taken up with eating, chatting, sleeping, playing games and generally relaxing. One afternoon, as it began to cool down, we all piled into the vehicle and went off to explore the dried up wadi on the outskirts of town to search out a place for a picnic. Some serious off road driving up and down the banks and through the bush found just such a secluded spot and we passed a very pleasant hour or so walking, admiring the trees, playing a game, munching on cookies. While walking along the wadi my eye was caught by large round pools formed in the centre of the dried river bed with packed mud rims. Each shallow pool had a piece of plastic draped over the rim next to a small but deep hole. It transpires that this is the camel watering system used here- the small holes go down 2 metres deep to reach water which is drawn up and poured into the large shallow pools, the plastic protecting the fragile mud rims from being washed away by the water. Yet another example of me learning so much more of this vast country.

The final morning was spent wandering around the low stalls of the market examining local produce, negotiating prices and generally enjoying the buzz found in many markets across of the world.

The end of the break came too quickly but as the return journey started the sights and enjoyment did not cease. Leaving the town behind, we regularly passed water laden donkeys ridden by young children and passed a huge camel train as a group of Nomadic people were on the move in search of their next camp. The camels were piled high with tents, various cloths and canvases as well as cooking utensils and tools, led by robed men and guided by children and women with their distinctive thickly braided hair.

As was the case on the previous bus journey, seats were much in demand and I was not able to get my preference of a seat near the front to see the way ahead, but was squished at the back. However, we were not on the paved road too long before I was grateful that I couldn’t see what was coming ahead. I eased into the swerves and frequent emergency stops that were pulled, as slower vehicles were over taken and local wildlife, mostly goats and cattle were negotiated, taking a deep breath and adopting the local saying “Inshallah”, “God’s will”.

The hotter, busier city awaited to welcome me back, but as I have returned to work, I have been struck as I have met and interacted with some of the patients here that I have a little more understanding of where they have travelled from, the challenges of distance and cost that brings, as well as the responsibilities they have left behind in their villages to come and seek health care. I also returned feeling excited, refreshed and eager for my next sugar packed glass of tea.

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