musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Just a regular 'ol Friday night in South Sudan

If there were a list of 101 things for which a sarong is useful, ‘holding in place the fuel tank of a Toyota Land Cruiser’ should definitely be one of them.

Let me explain.

On Thursday afternoon I was asked if I’d like to go to one of our field offices about two hours from Juba to meet some new staff and monitor some payments that were being made. I don’t get out nearly enough to the field, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Payments were interesting but largely uneventful, with the most unique part being the man who showed up to our vocational training session for electricians mind-blowingly drunk at 11am. No, sir, you cannot participate in the training.

Staff meetings were quite useful, though again, nothing extraordinary. It was shaping up to be a very worthwhile, and altogether routine, visit. I had made plans for the evening and was looking forward to having a nice, easy Friday evening.

That's when the fun started.

But first a bit about our vehicles. As seems to be the case with many NGOs, we have several vehicles that, under normal circumstances, would be considered good only for a demolition derby. South Sudan tends to destroy even the meanest of vehicles, reducing them to cannon fodder in 2, 3 years tops. When I arrived we had 6 vehicles broken and unused with one and a half in the rotation. I’m not joking.

One of the ones resurrected from the dead was affectionately named Mortimer (Morty for short), in honor of his sorcerer-like qualities. Periodic ticking noises from the glove box are mixed with regular whirring of the tires, topped off by eerily flickering lights that are usually reserved to creepy haunted houses on my least favorite day of the year. He’s a great car – tough, plenty of personality, and surprisingly reliable. Until Friday that is.

No doubt wanting to get home before dark, our driver decided to push Morty that little bit harder on the way home. This was met with regular requests to slow down by those of us whose lives were in his hands. Nonetheless, about half way into our journey, his exuberance was rewarded with a sound akin to ceramic plates shattering right underneath our feet (think Jewish wedding). Full on blowout – Morty’s back right tire didn’t even wait for us to pull off the side of the dirt patch some call a road before completely deflating. Problem #1 of the afternoon.

Luckily changing a tire was second nature to our driver and something I had quickly learned how to do as a freshman in college when a friend and I came upon a very attractive/distressed young lady with a flat on the side of the road. Problem #1 of the afternoon solved.

With the tire in place it was time to hit the road again. “Not so fast” purred Morty as we attempted to start him up to no avail. Problem #2 of the afternoon.

After trying unsuccessfully to jump start him using techniques well-honed by car burglars worldwide, we finally succeeded after a gaggle of Kenyans hanging off the side of a truck (they’re called ‘lorries’ here) stopped and pushed us out of the ditch in which we had successfully lodged ourselves. This earned them a smile from a now impressively dirty white guy and ~$5 from our senior finance officer. Problem #2 of the afternoon solved.

At this point there are two thoughts going through my head. 1. Perhaps Morty is actually female… I don’t know any men who are as temperamental as this. I wasn’t giving him/her enough positive reinforcement and encouragement - I know that's it. It was my fault. And 2. nothing  else can possibly go wrong now, I have dinner plans!

Wrong again.

In what turned out to be my favorite noise of the day, less than 5km from the site of the first problem we heard what can only be described as a wrench thrown into a hack saw. Upon further inspection it wasn’t a wrench, but rather a fallen fuel tank dragging along the ground underneath our vehicle that was making the God-awful noise. Problem #3 of the afternoon (now evening).

Hmmm. So the fuel tank – situated underneath the car towards the middle of the chassis – had fallen after some of the steel brackets meant to hold it in place had broken. Ok. New one on me. Didn't even know that was possible.

With night fully upon us and not another vehicle (nor sound for that matter) anywhere near, the search for a solution began in earnest. Our driver quickly gathered the jack from the back of the vehicle, pumping the tank back into place. But, unfortunately, that didn’t solve the issue of keeping it in place so that we could continue on what by then had already stretched into a memorable journey.

Approximate inventory of items in the vehicle at the time:
  • Two tires (one of which had an inner tube recently blown to pieces)
  • A one meter rubber string
  • Jack
  • A short canvas rope
  • 3 tired expats and a still-giggling driver
  • Discarded banana peals
  • One uneaten egg sandwich with fries (or chips if you're a non-American)
  • A sarong
(Cue MacGyver music)

The driver on his back underneath the vehicle and me on my hands and knees holding the flashlight/miscellaneous car fixing materials, we managed to 'secure' the gas tank in place with, you guessed it, the sarong. The canvas rope was used for additional support, but it was the colorful red, purple and blue bit of fabric that ultimately saved the day. 

Problem #3 of the afternoon/evening owned.

After that I drove, not wanting the driver to reach 4 strikes. I drove slowly. Very slowly... in first/second gear in fact because the car would die if I let my foot off the accelerator (I'm no mechanic but that was probably related to the gas tank coming dislodged). Avoiding pot holes like the plague. But alas... successfully. 

So yes, we finally limped back to Juba, only to have Morty finally give his last breath as I removed my foot from the accelerator and onto the brake in front of our compound. 

That was 2100 on Friday night. By 2130 I had already finished my first beer.