Sunday, December 04, 2011

Chapter Thirty: Bouncing

Chapter Twenty-Nine can be found here.

Paul was the only member of his stage who COS’d exactly on the day planned two years before.  Some of the other teachers had left earlier, for the school year had been over for a month and they’d gotten permission to move up their dates for close of service.  The agriculture volunteers, for the most part, had extended for a month or two, to get through the wet season and the harvest.  The rest had finished their paperwork over the last week, with a few weeks still to go before they would be OK’d for leaving.
Just out of curiosity, Paul asked how many, out of the 28 who had sworn in, had made it to COS.  The secretary in the office told him that there were sixteen of them, just two more than half.  Paul tried to count up and identify the twelve who hadn’t made it.  Most hadn’t been teachers, but then, teachers had the easiest life in Peace Corps. 
None of them had died—thank goodness for that—no murders, like that poor woman in Togo.  Half, Paul counted as he went over the list, of those who had terminate early had left on purpose, six of them being people who had decided they just couldn’t stay in Burkina Faso for two full years.  One of those had left when his parents died, but the others had all finally just chucked it in from weariness.  The other six had left due to illness or accident.  Two motorcycle accidents, the others finally just too sick to stay.
As soon as he had his final paperwork done, Paul walked over to the AfroProg office, where he had applied for a short-term job setting up a reforestation project in the southwest.  They hadn’t told him for sure if he had the job, but he was pretty confident.  His secondary project, documented for Peace Corps and copied to AfroProg, had impressed them with the extent of its success so close to the desert.  He hadn’t told them that what he had managed was mainly the responsibility of old Adam and his grandsons, but had simply given statistics and shown pictures. 
He told the secretary at the office that he was going to take a little vacation, but would be back in a week to see if they wanted him for the project.  Next, he walked to the Lutheran mission house, where the Simsons had promised to leave Josh’s moto for him. 
One of the last things he had done at post was to pay them a visit.  He had seen them often over the weeks immediately following Josh’s death, but more and more rarely as time went on.  They had little in common with him, and treated him, he thought, as a youngster, a peer of Josh’s, not of theirs.  Always amicable, they listened to his stories but, when he tried to draw them out, they would generally turn the topic to religion.  Paul couldn’t blame them.  Their faith had always been strong and now, with this loss, it was more important to them than ever.
During that last visit, they had asked him his plans, and he had told them he wanted to stay in the country for a time.  He had told them that he might have a contract with AfroProg, but wasn’t sure when it would start.  So, in the meantime, he was going to look into buying a moto and travel around for a bit.
“If you want a moto, why not buy Josh’s?”
Art spoke so matter-of-factly that Paul was taken aback for a moment.
“Wouldn’t you want it here?  What about for Noah?”
“We’ve decided to send Noah to a boarding school in the States,” said Jean.  “Josh’s death was more of a blow to him than anyone.  We think he needs to be away from here, and with American kids of his own age.”
“If you want the moto,” said Art, “we will sell it to you for a good price.  Frankly, I don’t want to have to worry about selling it.”
“Let me think about it.  I would have to come back up here after COS to get it.”
“Oh, we could take it to Ouaga for you.  We’re driving down next week, and could leave it for you.”
“Wow, well, I know it’s a good bike.…  “
“We’ll leave it at the mission.”
Paul, finally, had nodded.  It was just the sort of moto he wanted, after all.  And they were offering a fair deal on it.  But he still had felt slightly guilty, guilty, in part, because he had always wanted that moto, and had even spent a great deal of time with Josh working on it, keeping it in peak condition.  Though he had only ridden it that one, tragic time, it was exactly the bike he had imagined owning and riding during the trip he was contemplating.
Now, it was there at the mission, waiting for him.  Someone had washed it and, Paul found, even cleaned the spark plug.  The Simsons had left Josh’s toolkit strapped to the rack.  The woman in the office took the envelope Paul had prepared, and promised to give it to the Simsons when they returned from Lomé where they had gone for a meeting of their organization, giving Paul the key and papers for the moto in return.
Though he tried to think a bit of Josh as he started the moto, giving a silent salute to that unfortunate young man, when he headed out onto the road on it, Paul found himself, instead, simply exhilarated by the feel of the moto and wanting to be out in the country on it.  He had already planned where he would first go: back to Togo, to the first places he had seen in Africa.  He turned the bike around and headed to his hotel to pick up his bag.  If he left soon, he could get to Koupela before dark.  Michel had given him an open invitation to stay with his parents who, he knew, no longer had a PCV living in the compound, so would have room for him.
First, he rode over to Michel’s shop to tell him where he was heading and to make sure it would be OK.  Michel came out onto the street as soon as he realized who it was who had stopped out front.
“A motorcycle now, nice.”  He ran his hand over the gas tank.  “You will have to sell me this one, too, when you are done with it.  These are nice.”
“Yeah.  But I got it today, and don’t think I’ll sell it soon.”
“But it must be to me, when you do.”
“Sure.  I promise, I won’t sell it to anyone else as long as you want it.”  They sat on a bench in the shade in front of the shop and Paul told Michel where he was going.
“If you are going to Koupela, you must take some things for me, for the family.”  Surprised, Paul agreed.  Michel disappeared inside, and came out with a package.
“I always have something to send, whenever I find someone going that way,” he explained.  Paul took the packaged and strapped it on the rack, on top of his pack.
As he headed out of town, he passed the newest of the developments the government was building on top of the mud quartiers it bulldozed.  This one, he noticed, showed progress.  It didn’t look at all like streets of European apartment blocks that so many of the others did, but was built of reddish brick with lots of round, small buildings, and even courtyards.  The streets curved and wandered.  Though he still did not like the destruction of the African neighborhoods, this, at least, seemed more in keeping with Mossi culture.
The ride to Koupela, though it took only a couple of hours, was Paul’s first and, thus, most vivid ride over a reasonably long distance on pavement.  He loved the feel of it and, as there was hardly any traffic on the road, wove back and forth, leaning with the bike as someone had once explained to him, countersteering down the road.  By the time he arrived, he felt he had always been on that bike, that it was meant for him.
By the time he reached the Kiema’s, his palms were tingling, but he felt more energetic than he had in a long time and as content as he had been since arriving in Africa.  He had accomplished something, over the past two years, had shown that he could commit to a difficult situation and persevere.  Though the teaching had proven less than ideal, he had even managed to make his second year, at least, into something of a success at school.  Not only that, but Peace Corps training had focused his attention on Africa in ways that his previous months had not, and he was now confident that he knew how to negotiate at least this corner of the continent.  What had started as a desperate thrashing about had ended with direction, knowledge, and confidence.
He thought back to the mess he had been the first time he had visited Koupela, the emotional wreck who was trying to use Africa as a means of dealing with a crushing rejection.  Though, as he knew, he still drank way more than he should, he felt he had straightened out his life thanks, in large part, to Peace Corps.  Now, having come through it successfully, he had knowledge, money in his pocket (Peace Corps had given him some six thousand dollars as a readjustment allowance), and much more confidence.  What had started out as a personal disaster had ending up a triumph.  He felt good, for the first time in years, about himself and his prospects.
He clapped twice at the entrance to the Kiema compound, Michel’s package under his arm and smiled as the family ran out to greet him.
The next day, he went on, making it to Dapaong before noon—the border guards hadn’t cared much about a motorcycle—and to Lama-Kara by dark, even though he’d stopped at a number of Dapaong’s bars.  Though he had seen no animals in the park to the south, he didn’t even mind that.  On a two-wheeled vehicle, he didn’t have to obey the speed limit that kept the cars and trucks from killing too many animals, so wove around the traffic, exulting in the feel of the moto, as he had the day before, though his muscles, not used to such riding, were already complaining.
It had been three years since Paul had been in Togo.  In Peace Corps terms, that was more than a generation.  Even the people who had been in training when Paul had been there and had extended for an extra year would have been gone by then.  So Paul didn’t expect to find anything of any of the people he had met on that first trip up country. 
The cheap hotel he found in Kara had a bar on the street, so Paul spent the evening drinking and talking to the barman.  The next day, he toured the area, to see what he could remember, and what had changed.  He thought, for a time, of stopping by Massiga, but decided not to.  He hadn’t gotten to know anyone there, not really, and all he would be doing was looking for the ghost of El, who he hadn’t heard from, now, since soon after he’d joined Peace Corps himself.
He did ride to some of the places El had taken him, though, just to see how they jibed with his memory.  He even went to the town where Joan Rodham had been posted.  Her house—El had reluctantly pointed it out to him, one time, when they had passed by—was in ruins.
That evening, he stopped at the Mango Bar, hoping to run into some of the local PCVs, but no one appeared.  Maybe it was no longer the hangout it had been.  Seeing it made him sad; seeing the whole region did.  No longer did it look new and fresh to him, open and inviting.  Now, it looked familiar.  Greener than what he had become used to, yes, but basically the same.
As he drove back to Kara, he decided that he shouldn’t have come.  Too much time had passed, and he had changed too much.  That evening, he wandered around the town, ordering a beer in each bar he came to and drinking it, looking for some sign of what he had seen there, those years before.
In the morning, he checked out of the hotel, stopped at a small roadside shack for a beer, and started back north, wanting to get home to Ouaga rather than heading down to the ocean.  “Home.”  That’s a thought, he realized, he hadn’t had in a long time.  He had planned on going on down to Lomé to continue his nostalgic voyage, but decided that it wasn’t worth the ride, not in the mood he was in, certainly.  Burkina Faso had become his country.  Maybe it was, in fact, his home.  He liked that idea, and it made him want to get back there as quickly as possible.
Except for his one trip into Mali, he realized, he hadn’t been out of the country in three years.  He hadn’t even really wanted to, so why was he leaving now?
In Dapaong, he stopped for a draft beer at the campement there, but soon decided to go on, to spend the night at the Kiema’s again.  This place was merely a memory to him now, and he wanted to keep it that way.  Besides, there was no one he knew around to drink with.
By the time he got back to Ouaga, Paul found he was as thoroughly depressed as he had been elated on leaving, just a few days earlier.  What was the matter with him?  Couldn’t he get himself on an even keel, even now?  He looked for companions in the bars, but no one he knew well was there.  Michel, one of his house-mates said when Paul dropped by, must have passed Paul going the other way, for he had left that day to spend a week at home.  Bakary was back in Ouri, his family home.  A last group of Paul’s stage mates was waiting at the Kilimanjaro for a flight to Paris on Le Point, a neo-charter airline that ran one flight a week.  But they were light drinkers, among those PCVs Paul had known the least.
Still, he spent the evening with them and then decided he would go to the airport the next day to see them off.  There didn’t seem to be anything else to do.  AfroProg had told him they would leave a message for him at Peace Corps if he had the job, so he didn’t even think he could bother them.  Not so soon, at least.  After all, he had told them he would be gone for at least a week and was back in four days.
The only think he was really happy with was the motorcycle, which he had gotten comfortable on, those long kilometers to Togo and back.  He spent the hours before going to the airport cleaning it, adjusting chain and spokes, and checking out every part of it he could.  By the time he got on it to head to the airport, it sparkled as it must have when new.
There was a crowd milling around in confusion when he got to the airport.  He cut his engine and coasted to a stop.  A kid offered to guard the bike for him.  He nodded as he removed his helmet and walked inside.
“What’s going on?”  He asked one of the three who were leaving, who were standing in the middle of the lobby, disgusted looks on their faces, their bags all around them.
“Can you believe it?  I just can’t believe it.”  The woman who spoke was so angry she could hardly get any words out.  She couldn’t continue; all she could do but sputter.
“Le Point sent the plane to Paris yesterday,” another of the three told Paul.
“What?”  Paul wanted to laugh, but didn’t dare.  He had never heard of such a thing.  Neither, clearly, had the others.
“When we reconfirmed three days ago, they said the plane would leave on time.  It turns out, the day before yesterday, they started telling reconfirmations to come yesterday.  But they didn’t tell us.”
“What did they say?  What are you going to do?”
“They say we have to wait until next week.  And, no, they aren’t going to refund our tickets.”
“Gonna wait, then?”
“Do we have a choice?  And, God, I hate Ouaga.”
Paul left them loading their bags into a taxi to take them back to the Kilimanjaro.
“Well, I guess I won’t say goodbye yet,” he said, as he stomped the kickstarter.
“Yeah, see you around.”  They sounded disgusted, but Paul could do nothing about that.  Still, he felt a little bit better.  He wasn’t the only one, at least, with troubles.
Paul looped around on the paved road to the Oubri, where he hoped, without really believing it, that someone he knew might come by.  After a few beers, he rode his bike back to his hotel and walked to an outdoor bar down the street.
The next day, and the next, passed in pretty much the same way.  At some time in the afternoon, Paul would stop by the Peace Corps office to see if there were any messages for him, from AfroProg or anywhere else, and to check out if anyone he knew were around.  A few PCVs were in town, but all were from later stages and Paul had never gotten to know them.
He had, Paul remembered, so wanted to get back to Ouaga, when he had been in Togo.  Now that he was back, though, all he wanted to do was leave.  The city didn’t seem the same as it had been.  It no longer felt comfortable to him.  What was wrong with him, he asked himself.  Why couldn’t he be satisfied with anything any longer?
Maybe he needed to get back en brousse.  He hoped the Diabagou job would come through soon.
He needed it, he realized.  He had to have something to focus on, something to do, something keeping him on a road to someplace.
In the meantime, though, he would have to make do with beer.

Chapter Thirty-One can be found here.

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