Tuesday, December 4, 2007
STUCK IN THE DESERT
The Miami Herald
Photos by John Yearwood, Barbara Ciara and Bob Butler
DAROU FALL -- It’s often said that traveling in Africa can be unpredictable and richly rewarding. The fellows found that out first-hand on Day 4 of the reporting mission to Senegal.
The plan was to visit this farming community about two hours northeast of Dakar to talk with residents and experts about how sand blowing in from the nearby ocean as well as from the Sahara desert had severely disrupted the lives of farmers. Some were forced to stop farming after arable land was covered in sand.
A couple miles from the community, fellows transferred from their bus into four Toyota Land Cruisers, which were expected to have maximum maneuverability in the several feet of sand.
Problem was that it didn’t quite work out that way.
Within 10 minutes, the second vehicle in the convoy got stuck. As everyone piled out of their vehicles to see what was happening, Bob Butler joined local guides in pushing the vehicle out of the sand.
It didn’t take long for another vehicle to get stuck. And this one had a blowout. The tire was changed and off we went to finally see the damage the sand had done to the area.
Several aid agencies, including those from the United States and the United Nations, began a massive tree-planting effort in the mid-1970's to stem the advance of the sand. It’s a work in progress. Some of the farmers said they have been able to plant carrots, onions, potatoes and other crops since the work began.
President Abdoulaye Wade, in a meeting with fellows the day before, called it the Great Green Wall, which he would like to build from Senegal to Djibouti.
After interviewing farmers, their wives and children, fellows piled into the SUVs for the trip back. We didn’t get far. The same second vehicle got stuck again -- and blew out another tire.
Some fellows had to abandon the vehicle and walk up a sand dune where others were waiting for them.
Half-hour later, the tire was replaced and we sped away by a more scenic route -- happy to leave the desert behind. We passed a horse-drawn taxi and I'll bet IT doesn't get stuck in the sand.
Ummm, I don’t know what to do here.
Djibril was excited on our way to the desert Tuesday because we had the chance to stop by environmental offices he figured would have nicer accommodations for a bathroom break.
So we stopped. It was the middle of town where women in colorful outfits hawked incredible watermelons stacked on the side of the road. Men in kiosks with awnings were selling smokes and such. A few cars and buses shared the road with several horse and buggy combinations.
I was the last off the van because I debated whether to go in, but I was curious and urgent, if you get my drift, so I went.
Men in camouflage warmly greeted Djibril and welcomed us into their compound, which was tucked inside this strip of commerce.
As I approached the building, I overheard Sister President Barbara utter an ever-so-richly toned “Oh” as she swung open a door.
I didn’t know why she gave a two-letter word such inflexion, but I was about to find out.
Since a line was forming, one guy eagerly invited me to alternative facilities around the corner. (I felt like I was getting the VIP treatment Ojinika commands from a great many African men we have encountered.)
I needed relief, so I was glad to cut the line.
I looked inside the small room. There was a white aluminum basin with a hole cradled by an indentation on the dirt floor. A bucket of water held an empty commercial kitchen-sized vegetable can. I looked up for the sink. No sink. I checked outside the door. No sink. So I’m thinking: “But where do we wash our hands?” Then I realized there was no stool to sit on!
Jesus keep me near the cross.
I ran back around the building to our world traveler, Regina, who should know something about this – from the female perspective.
“Ummm, how do I do this?”
She smiles and beckons me to the far side of the building to demonstrate. Gleefully, she said I should center my feet on the foot rests. Foot rests? I need a butt rest! That other basin didn’t have either.
“Pull your pants way, way down,” she said, easing into a deep squat that made it look easy. “Then dip the can in the bucket and flush the toilet for sanitary reasons.”
I was intrigued, but if ever a time for BABY WIPES…it…is…now!
Let’s take a station break right here, America – and likely, the world:
The word on the street will be that Cindy freaked out.
Do not believe them. They have tried to portray me as someone utterly unprepared to handle any discomfort of the Third World.
Now, can we move on?
This is about “advance notice,” as Djibril so aptly summarized at dinner.
You know, like, get your shots, buy a plug converter, get malaria medicine, and, oh yeah, master the pee-pee squat.
For real, though: My deal is that I could have practiced, like people bust a move in the living room to see how ridiculous they might look on the dance floor at an upcoming wedding. I could have been rehearsing this little maneuver in the bathtub where making a mess would have had little consequence. I could have been dropping it like it’s hot in the club (and hoping I could pick it back up) to get my hamstrings ready. What better reason to get to the gym?
Djibril, bless his heart, has been a great host, front man, ambassador, waymaker, translator, leader and near-magician during our trip to Senegal. He is the man who makes things happen. He and his team have been incredible in organizing this trip. But, he of the down-there point-and-shoot variety did not prepare those of us with other plumbing.
Sure, I studied African culture in undergrad. But I guess I never thought I would, unexpectedly, swing open a door and find the facilities to be a hole and a bucket.
Sitting all the way down was not an option. Holding onto the wall was out of the question.
Ladies, there are lots of solutions to this. Had I known, I would have stocked up on plastic cups before leaving the Dakar hotel.
But I didn’t turn away. My curiosity as a journalist wouldn’t let me. OK, neither would my bladder.
So, alcohol-spiked baby wipes in pocket, I squatted people. The experience has been had.
And, it was kind of cool. Kind of. Just a little. OK, well, let’s just all agree that it’s something everyone should do in a lifetime. Check.
It’s too bad surprise short-circuited my survival instinct – je ne sais quoi that could have saved me a whole lot of aggravation. That quart-sized plastic bag that was holding the wipes? It could have been put to a higher use in that closet. Please believe: I have some reliable new Ziplocs that will be tucked inside my computer bag today. I guess I have been given “advance notice.”