Sunday, September 18, 2011

Chapter Nine: Crossing

[Chapter Eight can be found here.]

Sam woke sharply to morning sounds from outside in the courtyard, noises alien to him, certainly, but common to this West Africa he was, sadly (that was an odd thought, he realized—and unexpected—but maybe even slightly true), trying his best to leave.  He identified the shuffle of bare feet on packed earth, a rooster’s crow, the murmur of voices in a language he could not comprehend, quiet laughter that he could, the bleat of a goat or sheep, a tin knocking against a jar, and the sizzling of food thrown into hot oil.  For a moment his emotions, which had risen with the return of consciousness, plummeted; he felt a deep gloom, almost fear, but he let it pass through him, with a concentrated sigh even willing it through him.  There was nothing he could do about anything right now; he had to trust.  He knew that.  He had, after all, built his life on trust, on faith.  He wasn’t going to change that now, not in the face of a little bit of fear.  Or, he thought wryly, even a lot of fear.
He looked over at Paul, just able to see him in the still-murky room, wondering if he should wake him, thinking, once again, that it had been a mistake, perhaps, to place confidence in this strange, skinny man.  Hadn’t Paul said, after all, that they needed to start early, were they to catch the truck?  He decided to get dressed, postponing waking Paul for a bit.  Somehow, he didn’t feel that taking initiative away from Paul would be appropriate, not yet, at least.  Maybe Paul would be up, anyway, by the time Sam was ready to go.
After making his way to the shower for a splash and back, Sam sat for a time on the cement step to the room, watching the day continue its struggle to begin as light exposed it more and more sharply, watching others in the courtyard come and go from the pit latrine hidden behind a mud wall and from the shower.  Outside the compound entranceway, but still visible, a woman had begun serving plates full of rice and beans in exchange for small coins.  The beans, he noticed, were what he knew as black-eyed peas. 
Paul still had not risen.  Sam really did not want to seem too anxious to Paul, or pushy.  Or bossy.  He needed his good will, after all, but he finally decided he ought to wake him.
“Paul, I don’t know what time we have to be going, but it is light out, and people are moving.”  Paul muttered something and tried to turn away.  “Please, Paul, I think you need to get up.  Didn’t you tell me the truck would leave early?”
“Damn!”  Paul sat up, suddenly awake.  He grabbed the sides of his head.  “What time is it?”
“About seven.”
“We’ve got to be out of here.”  He jumped from the mat he had slept on and shrugged on the clothes he had worn for at least two days now.  Pack slung onto his back, he stepped outside.  “God!”  The light hit his eyes.  He squinted and grimaced, but walked, almost stumbling, down the steps.  “Got your stuff?”
“Right here.”  Sam followed him, scared again by Paul’s clear concern, hoping they weren’t too late for whatever it was they were now rushing toward.
Feeling as though his head were about to explode, Paul nearly broke into a run, his pack slapping against his back, Sam right behind.  He managed to get them to the taxi gare barely ten minutes from the time he had been woken.  He even thought to stop at a just-opening shop long enough to purchase two bottles of water for the trip, as he had said he would, the night before. 
Were a taxi to actually try to get across the border to Ouahigouya, he knew, it would leave early, and would leave even if not full.  Bandiagara depended on the nearby city in Burkina Faso, Ouahigouya, for things such as bottled beer, frowned upon in the predominately-Moslem Mali and so somewhat rare, and of higher quality in Burkina Faso.  If anything were to get them across the border, Paul had recognized even before leaving Mopti, it would be demand for better beer.  Well, he admitted, that’s what he had heart, at least.  A couple of questions had confirmed for him, the night before, during his search for a room, that a truck would likely be going.  People felt that war was likely to come, and the non-Moslems among them did not want to be caught in it without something good to drink.  Some of the Moslems, too, when it comes to that.
They did, in fact, manage to arrive before the taxi’s rather clandestine departure, but the tarp around the sides of the bachet’s back was already down.   Most of the bed was stacked with cases of empty bottles, and these had best not be seen.  Once Sam and Paul, after Paul had handed over a rather exorbitant fare, along with two young men in faded jeans and rubber sandals, had climbed into the back, the rear tarp was dropped, leaving them in near darkness.  The truck moved smoothly and silently at first, pushed by unseen hands behind the bed.  Then they felt the clutch pop and heard the engine catch.
Soon, they were swaying down the track to the border, the truck drifting from side to side over the road, swerving to keep the sand from building in front of the wheels and to keep the ruts created by the front wheels from sinking the rear ones.  The canvas flaps bulged like bellows as the truck softly bounced.  Sand occasionally geysered up from between the truck sides and the tarp, some of it spraying over them and the cases of empties.
The ride didn’t take very long, though by the end they were sweaty, tired, and covered with sand and as ready for it to be over as they had been at the end of the longer ride the day before.  No one, on the Malian side of the border, had looked into the back of the pick-up, though a number of additional cases of empties were tossed in during a short stop.  The only way they knew for sure that they had passed out of Mali was a comment and gesture by one of their companions who had peeked out, pushing aside the tarp down the back: “La frontiere.”
On the Burkina side the situation was quite a bit more formal and regularized.  It was the Malians, after all, who had closed the border.  The Burkinabe seemed determined to keep up the pretense that all was as it should be.  When they stopped for the second time, Paul and Sam were told to get out of the truck and walk to a small building that served as a border control, where a solitary man sat at a folding table with a stamp and an ink pad on it.  He examined their passports and only asked why they didn’t have exit stamps from Mali.
“Perhaps they forgot.”  Paul shrugged and dropped a thousand-franc note on the table.  The man laughed and stamped their entries.  They turned and walked back out to the truck, where the tarp was being rolled up while the driver, smoking a cigarette, watched.  It was after nine.  Day was no longer starting.  It had begun.

[Chapter Ten can be found here.]

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