Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Geogement Day or Judgement Day


Here's a little short story I wrote a few months back. It's mostly true.

I'm sitting outside in the morning sun, feeling the faint warmth of those golden rays, waiting patiently for a bus to town. But this ain't simply catching a bus like it is in the states. We're not into schedules or any of that here. How would we get our excitement if we knew the exact moment the bus was set to arrive? The excitement comes from not knowing whether or not you're going to get where you're going or what manner of vessel will escort you to that destination, wherever it may be.

So I wait, with the other travelers from my village, by the red dirt road on a bench that's threatening to collapse at any moment. After a little while a man on a bicycle rides by. I ask him if the bus, locally known as a gele gele, will pass today at all. He seems to think that it will. But is the man credible? What foundation is his word built upon? We raise our hopes up simply based on the fact that the man, now out of view, just so happened to be coming from the same direction that our small crowd expects the desired vehicle to emerge as the vehicles usually do, each one careening over the red Mars gravel until it slows, probably a little too quickly, to a halt near the roadside bench.

But it's not coming and it makes one wonder -I tend to use “one” when I want to think that the way I think is at least somewhat similar to the way other other people think, though I could be way off- if it will ever come, if it's even there, where is it? Is the driver on his way? Did he pass before I arrived? Is he sleeping? Still nothing. I'm antsy so I ascend a log and try some jumping tricks for the crowd. I was always a fan of freestyle walking as a kid. The show wows most of the onlookers with incredible aerial maneuvers, though a couple still appear skeptical of my skill and seem to suggest with their eyes that I could easily fall. I laugh and continue carelessly until I do in fact fall and scrape the shit out of my leg. But I play it off trying to avoid the “I told you so” lectures. I feign tiredness and sit back on the bench, attempting not to limp as I go. When nobody is looking I take a quick glance at my leg and sure enough, the injured area is streaked with red scratches and bleeding. I ignore the wound.

Humming tunes in our heads now to pass the time we still cling our foolish hope that the transport will come. Taunted and teased by churning motors in the distance we a re repeatedly disappointed by the sight of motorbikes coming our way. Motorbikes that often refuse to take along a single passenger let alone a ragtag bunch of four adults and one child with the absurd amount of luggage we are employing for our respective journeys. Motorbike after motorbike, creaky bicycle after creaky bicycle, old man after old man on foot leave us in their dust. It looks endlessly hopeless until I catch a glint of sun out of the corner of my eye and I rejoice as the gele gele comes roaring towards us.

This is it. Our hands grip our bags a little bit tighter and we start to feel at ease. But the vehicle refuses to slow on its approach. In fact, it doesn't appear to have the intention of stopping at all. As the gele gele, first appearing as a speck in the distance, a beacon of salvation, transforms into a raging beast before us, I realize how full it looks. Full to the brim. Actually more than full to the brim. Overflowing with people and their belongings, belongings stacked five feet high on top. There's even a few people taking each bump extra hard as they hang on to the precariously tethered goods on the roof. Needless to say the feeling of ease was premature. The vehicle zooms past, unconcerned with trauma it has just created, the hearts it has just shattered and steamrolled. It basks in its own self-importance as the only regular commercial passenger vehicle that passes our isolated village.

Disheartened and broken we all begin the walk home. We walk slower than normal or baggage just a little bit heavier with the weight of our resentment and humiliation. Solemnly we go on the sandy path. In the middle of mourning our somehow not entirely unexpected misfortune there is shouting about a seemingly supernatural sighting. A second gele gele is miraculously making its way down the road. Without hesitation I take off back towards the roadside stop. Some of my faithful companions are able to make the turnaround too. Looking out towards the vehicle to discern my chances I'm not encouraged. There are already a good six or seven people on top thus indicating the car has reached capacity. Regardless, it slows on its approach to check out the scene. Deciding he is not interested in adding to his already overloaded cargo, the driver continues past. My arms flail wildly in protest and in dream-like slow-motion the driver, second guessing himself and/or having heard my call, stops the car about 50 meters up the road. Together with one of the guys I'd been waiting with all morning, I run to catch up with the gele gele, still unsure if we'll get the ride. The guy I'm running with slows down and appears to be struggling under the wait of his bags. The driver casts us an anxious look like he's not going to wait much longer. I extend arm and offer to take the heaviest bag from my fellow runner and without reply he transfers it to my grip, his burden eased. We both stumble on, the contents of our luggage rattling with each stride. We make it, barely it seems. When we arrive the driver lets us in, but he makes it clear he in not happy and has done us an incredible favor. We both know he wants the extra 30 dalasi ($1.20). No matter now, I climb inside as someone gives up their spot and scrambles up the poorly welded ladder to the roof of the vehicle. My village friend goes up as well. In a cloud of illuminated red dust, we're off. Not fully tamed, the gele gele sputters and whines with each revolution of its wheels, but trudges onward.

Living in isolation as we do at the ends of the Earth, or at least at the furthest reaches of our beloved narrow country The Gambia, we do not expect to encounter any paved roads. There are none in these parts, in the most distant of provinces. Children have never seen pavement, they don't know what it is. Upon encountering it for the first time they probably think it's some impossible freak geological phenomenon that just happen to run with the occasional painted line down the middle of certain streets. Be we're used to no pavement, no flatness (that's for you Thomas Friedman), an absence of lanes and an overabundance of rocks jutting out chaotically. Actually we take pride in our road, it means the worst for us is the norm. It proves how strong we are.

An earthquake on wheels we drive. As I look out the lacerated windows towards the now harvested fields my eyes encounter seemingly misplaced pairs of legs, all hanging bodiless from the roof. They are slightly unsettling in their swaying, untrustworthy. Who knows what those people are doing up there. They could be eating ice cream for all I know. Looking past the legs to the fields I find them barren and dry, having been picked clean by herds of cattle and other ruminants. What grass remains is a combustible auburn brown, scatted across the tired soil. One, two villages down, past the crumbling health center with the staff who work themselves sick, on to the cluster of four villages with the friendly, yet deranged man who fancies himself a traffic controller with his reflective neon vest and whistle. He sends us by with grand gesturing. We are the only vehicle on the road.

Closer now. Only six kilometers to or so until we reach the river side, the finish line. We are packed uncomfortably close and I can no longer feel my foot, but we're a team and we're unstoppable in our crudely welded leviathan. Then the unthinkable occurs with a phhhhhheeeeww -actually the highly predicable occurs based on the massive amount of stress the tires must have been experiencing- and we roll to a stop. We descend to the Earth, mortals again by this untimely flat tire. A professional at changing tires the driver gets right to work. Professionals at watching tires being changed we pace around in the dust and make mental judgments of the other passengers.

She's kind of cute, but wow, only one attractive woman in the whole car. I wonder how many kids she has? Does her husband treat her well? Is he even around? Maybe he's abroad. Will he ever come back? Probably not for a few years. Bastard.

Shouldn't that girl be in school? Maybe that's where she's going. But it's Saturday. Could be Islamic school, but no uniform? I hope she's a serious student. I hope she has no life outside of school like American students. I hope she goes to school 364 days a year and is taking a well deserved holiday only today. Enjoy the vacation my friend.

Why do all men over 40 have that same hat with the Charlie Brown zigzag?

Heads nod in satisfaction. Relief is demonstrated with sighs. The signal is give to board and the dust begins to twirl behind us again. Before any of my limbs even have a chance to go numb we are somehow idling again, then the engine is cut. We've been expelled from the heavens once more, not 200 meters from our previous diversion. People are worried now. Will this flotsam ever make it to the river? It's walkable, but the distance seems just a little too far. Anyway, the driver owes us something; we're his responsibility. The shady driver disappears around the side of the vehicle apparently looking for tools. The passengers who boarded the gele gele first are complaining about us latecomers now. We should never have been picked up. We're scum and should blow away with the wind, but not in the direction of the river because then we might get there first. At this point a truck rolls up and actually stops. It's a full passenger vehicle with Senegal plates and a gigantic speaker mounted on the back. After checking out the situation they climb back in and take off, helping the best way they know how by blasting prayers through their speakers.

Motorbikes berate us going by, never stopping. With nothing else to do I decide to take a closer look at our vessel. Its front license plate is upside and there are no actual tail lights, just paintings of tail lights where the tail lights should be. As I continue to get acquainted with the car I discover that it has a name. It's called “Geogement Day”, a somewhat comical corruption of Judgment Day I assume. It's as if riding in this vehicle is some kind of test, its blowouts inevitable and purposeful as if it was designed to observe our reactions to its perils in order to discern the character of our souls. “What's done is done,” the car seems to say, “I have seen what I wanted to see.” I take a deep breath and ponder my fate and the fate of my fellow travelers.

I think our driver must really be sweating now, but he soon emerges tired, yet vigilant, carrying a second spare that must have been buried somewhere. I'm not sure what kind of sorcery the driver used to produce that second spare. Maybe it was the prayers or maybe it was a simple understanding of how much of heap his car was, but either way, I'm impressed. Before long the wheel is on and we're moving once more, ever so slowly now to prevent a third blowout.

The last bit of the journey passes uneventfully, we only make one small stop to let all the roof-dwellers down so we won't get busted as we pass the police check point just before the river. At the river we all unload , pay our fares and go our separate ways, reflecting on this small odyssey that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. This judgment day.

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