Time stands still when you are stuck. We had been stuck before, delayed by a day or two a couple of times but this was different. The road through Zaire to Uganda was a red dirt corridor in the jungle with frequent dodgy bridges and mud holes. A mud hole big enough to suck an ex-army truck up to the axle is not easy to escape from. Our driver had avoided dumping the whole truck, we had one side on solid ground which was better than nothing. With sparse traffic we couldn’t rely on a truck coming along and winching us out, we were on our own.
Our route had taken us overland from London through to the heart of Africa, our truck and our bodies were fatigued. Uganda was the promised land – showers, restaurants, cold drinks, showers, hotels, shops and, did I mention showers? The jungle had been an amazing adventure but we were very ready for a change of scenery, a chance to restock and recharge.
We were there for nearly a week, I think – as I said time stands still when you are stuck. We set up a camp kitchen on a small bridge and set to work getting out of Zaire. We all took turns digging and bucketing water but it was immediately apparent that the men were more effective at clearing out the soggy earth under the truck so the women took on the responsibility of meals and keeping the fire going. However, when the men couldn’t fit into tight spaces under the truck the women were able to squeeze under and clear mud gumming up the works as well as scooping water out of the hole with buckets. Equal rights aside, survival meant utilising the available skills to our best advantage, plus we wanted a decent meal in the evening.
The guys weren’t bad cooks but our food supplies were limited and they would be the first to admit the women could make more out what we had. Without markets our meals were made from the trucks dry stores and whatever we could buy from the locals. Once word got around that we had camped on the track villagers came to sell whatever spare food they had, their visits always cheered us up as well as provided fresh food.
We ate a lot of mushroom and manioc soup fortified with rice but as time went on we began to worry – how long could everyone keep working so hard without a solid diet? We made it through with careful planning and rationing – but only just.
Life shrank down to the bare essentials during those days; meals to prepare, stores to audit, fires to keep going, cleaning the bridge kitchen. For the men it was even more basic; eat, sleep, dig. Each day was the same, they all merged into mud, demoralising daily rain and monotonous meals. Staying healthy was a priority, illness or injury would have been potentially disastrous but physical survival was not our only concern.
The mental and emotional strength required to get through those days was huge. Our group was large enough so that when some felt dispirited others were in a more positive mood, we always had balance. We carried each other through knowing that at some point we would all need encouragement and support before we got on the road again.
It’s a strange feeling, stuck, days away from any practical help not knowing what was going on in the world. We had to adjust our outlook to accommodate the very narrow confines of the situation. The environment regulated our day – waking at dawn, working all through the daylight hours, lighting fires and eating between the afternoon rain and dusk. Surrounded by thick jungle we couldn’t put up tents so we slept on the track or in the listing truck. Sleeping was difficult despite us all being exhausted. Cocooned in the solid darkness and humidity was cosy but the stars were startling and hoots, cackles and rustling from the jungle made it hard to relax adding to the pressure of a heavy workload.
The time spent in limbo was not wasted, we bonded together tighter than we had been before, uncovering our individual strengths and holding each other steady through hard times. Zaire taught us all that even when we’re stuck, bored, frustrated and scared we are still on a journey of discovery.
When we got the truck on the road again there weren’t any high fives, we had narrowly avoided a very serious situation and we were too relieved and wary of the road ahead to celebrate. We continued on our way to Uganda subdued, hungry, tired and filthy dreaming of showers, restaurants, cold drinks, showers, hotels, shops and, did I mention showers?
About the author: Debra Youthed lives in New Zealand and has travelled mainly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. An award winning fiction writer, Debra is extending her writing to include travel writing, creative non fiction and poetry.
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