Pride vs. Protection

I would be willing to bet that I have walked more in the last eight weeks here in South Sudan than I walked over the last eight years in the US. I have been walking everywhere: to work, to the market, to church. I even have to walk a decent distance to my latrine! Some parts of the walking I have thoroughly enjoyed. I love being greeted by children on their way to school, welcomed into stores by shopkeepers, and even teased by the motorbike drivers. On foot, I am able to take shortcuts through small family neighborhoods and I cherish the opportunity to grab glimpses of their lives at home. The exercise I get from walking is also a major bonus, especially since most of our meals here are packed with carbohydrates. On the other hand, I don’t much enjoy some of the challenges that being transportationless presents. As you can imagine, in the middle of the day the sun here is intense. And, since we are just finishing the rainy season, if the sun is not beating down, chances are, the rain is; neither of which make for an enjoyable walk. The hours between four and six tend to be a bit cooler, which is really nice, but the sun has completely disappeared by seven each evening. Though this helps with the heat, the darkness prevents me from being able to go anywhere. There’s nothing fun about having a 7 o’clock curfew! The biggest obstacle that came from my only mode of transportation being these two feet was finding a way to get out to the village schools.
The other week I was scheduled to observe at the Ligitolo primary school which sits about 12 miles outside of Yei Town. Walking there was obviously not an option and the UMC vehicles were being used, so the big question was: How would I get there? We eventually decided that, since it really wasn’t a far drive and the road was relatively good, someone could take me there on a motorbike. I have always loved my occasional trips as a passenger on motorcycles and had been feeling pretty proud of the fact that I had ridden side saddle on my last few trips with motorbike taxis and hadn’t once requested that they slow down! So when Monday morning approached, I was pretty excited. It hadn’t rained the night before or even that morning, so I was confident that the road would be passable. I wore my longest skirt so that I could straddle the bike and still have my knees properly covered. I put on my backpack and sunglasses and was ready to feel the wind on my face and the warm sun on my back.
Alex, one of the guards from the UMC compound, arrived at my door a half hour before I expected anyone. I was a little surprised to see him, because the last I knew a man named Martin was going to be taking me. At any rate, I was glad to see his smiling face; I had come to know him well after my 5-week stay on the compound last summer. He greeted me and invited me to join him on the bike. I climbed on with only a little hesitation; the last time I had ridden on the back of his bike we had slipped in the mud and both ended up covered in it. But, as I said, it had not rained recently so I was sure we’d be safe. We headed out of town and I held loosely to the bar behind me. Shortly after we crossed the bridge at the edge of town, Alex told me that he was really just learning how to drive a motorbike. “I am beginning to learn these roads,” he said, “so I can begin to go a little faster.” With that my confidence waned a bit. I tightened my grip and said a prayer.
It may help you to imagine what this ride was like if I tell you that there is not one single paved road in all of Yei River County. The roads are made of packed soil that has a very high clay content which makes it as slippery as ice. When it rains and heavy vehicles pass over the road, you can image the deep ruts that are formed. When the rains are especially bad, huge chunks of the road are washed away and the deep holes fill with water. I have heard (and believe) stories of LandCruisers driving though puddles where the water comes as high as the windows! When the rains lessen and the dry season begins, the ground hardens, ruts and all. Tiny pieces of hard, dry clay break away and cover the road with a thin coat of gravel, which is also as slick as ice. The drier it gets, the more the dust rises with each passing vehicle. As you can imagine, travel in South Sudan is not easy.
As we rode along, I discovered the best thing to do was to try to keep my eyes off of the road. I found that if I focused straight ahead and I didn’t look at the ground I could relax a little. I enjoyed the two-hour-round-trip much less than I expected and was really glad when I finally climbed off the bike safe and sound at YVTC. Later that afternoon, I shared about the experience with Drs Lynn and Sharon Fogleman and the first question they asked was whether or not I was wearing a helmet. I was glad to be able to use the excuse that I didn’t have one, admitting only to myself that I knew better than to go without it. They reminded me that the Hodge’s had one that they were sure I could borrow. I agreed that I would. They went on to share with me horror stories about patients that they have treated after motorbike accidents: people with serious head injuries, numerous broken bones and painful skin abrasions filled with debris from the road. As I sat and listened to them I became increasingly convinced that riding out to the village on a motorbike was NOT a good idea.
Nonetheless, we had already made plans to meet at the school again the next day and the motorbike was my only way to get there. I decided that I could do it if I prepared myself accordingly. I made up my mind not only to borrow a helmet from the Hodges, but also to dress in my jeans and raincoat so that I could give some protection to my skin in case we crashed. I would also wear my tennis shoes rather than my sandals to protect my toes. By the end of the afternoon I was feeling much better about my upcoming ride.
I would like to say that I was smart enough to follow through with this plan, but I can’t. I know that I should be mature enough to not care, but I couldn’t bring myself to take the helmet home, because if I did I would have no good excuse not to wear it. I kept putting off going and getting it until it was too late and their house was locked for the afternoon. The next morning when I was getting dressed, I decided I didn’t want to show up and meet the teachers “improperly dressed for a lady” in jeans and tennis shoes. The sun was beating down much too directly for me to put on my black raincoat, so I climbed onto the bike no more protected than I had the day before.
Once again, I tried the method of staring straight ahead instead of at the road, but this time it didn’t work. As hard as I tried to not look at the deep ridges, I could not help but think about hitting one in the wrong spot, flying over the front of the bike and cracking my bare head on the ground. I couldn’t stop looking at the tiny, sharp pebbles and imagining sitting on a table having Lynn or Sharon pick them out of my skin with tweezers. I couldn’t forget the story they had told me about watching a motorbike crash when the woman’s skirt got stuck in the spokes, so I bunched my skirt up a little more to ensure that it wasn’t in the way of the wheels. I remembered the many times as a teenager that I had ridden my bike on the newly “paved” tar and gravel country road; I remembered the way the tires would slip and before I knew it I would find myself on the ground with skinned knees and elbows. As we made our way to the village I sat clutching the bar behind me, praying that friction would work in our favor keeping the tires underneath us, and wishing I had not been too proud to wear the appropriate attire. I realized that even scarier than the thought of getting hurt in an accident was the possibility that I would have to admit having done something so stupid when I knew better. Once again, when we finally arrived home, I climbed off the bike. I was thankful that Lynn and Sharon wouldn’t have to add me to their repertoire of motorbike horror stories, and glad, too, that their scare tactics had worked, even if it took a little longer than it should have.
I’m happy to say that my motorbike trips to the village are over, thanks to John and Poppy Spense, who, after hearing this tale, asked if I would mind driving their vehicle while they are gone. Needless to say, I gladly accepted their request. Now the adventure will turn from trying not to fall off of a motorbike to trying to keep from hitting one!

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