driving into town

My head comes just centimeters from smashing into the door frame. Lucky for me, I am small. Some of the others in the car are not so lucky. 

Just a minute ago, we had spotted the police in the distance, and quickly veered onto a side street. The police here want money. Everyone wants money. We would have certainly been hit with a fine for something petty before being allowed to pass.

Instead, we leave the safety and corruption of the paved road and find ourselves being thrown around the car on a rutted dirt path. Each crater in the road sends us flying throughout the van: into the side, into the ceiling, into each other. We glance at each other and laugh, turning the ride into a game. Who will be the first to be thrown out the window? 

We drive along the countryside, trying to admire the landscape as we’re being jostled. We pass mud huts, held together by sticks and straw. Isn’t it amazing that families can live there? I say. Really, though. I wonder where their houses go when it rains.

We pick up speed as the road begins to smooth. In the fields to our left, a group of men in orange jumpsuits, some pulled down to their waists in this scorching heat, stand holding machetes and slashers. As part of their punishment, they are to tend to the fields. One prisoner, still gripping his machete, raises his hand in greeting when he sees that the car contains mzungus. I hope that his crime did not involve a machete. I wave back.

We pull back onto a paved road, this one lined with tall trees providing a blissful canopy of shade. The heat here is relentless. Even still, I hang my head out the window and let billows of dust settle into my eyelashes and line my nostrils. I can’t resist the breeze. I need to remember sunglasses next time.

Women in brightly colored dresses sashay down the dirt paths alongside the road, apparently oblivious to the heat. Most balance large trays of ndizi, parachichi and maembe on top of their heads. Some carry buckets of chopped pineapple, but I haven’t learned that word yet. One woman balances a large garden hoe atop her head. 

The street gets busier as we get closer to town. So far, I have been able to deduce one, and only one, law in traffic here: use your horn freely and frequently. There are no stoplights. Sometimes there are three lanes of traffic; when we share the road with motorbikes, there are closer to five or six. I think there are supposed to be two. Usually we drive on the left side of the road, but sometimes we remain in the right lane until an oncoming vehicle forces us to swerve back to the left. Men and children on rusty, decrepit bicycles carry wide loads of straw, lumber and bags of corn and millet strapped onto their bikes too far into traffic. Usually I close my eyes when we get close, knowing that pedestrians do not have the right of way here. Goats, oftentimes herded by young barefoot children, also do not have the right of way, but we try to share the road with them.

A large truck comes flying by us. The acrid diesel exhaust somehow manages to seep past the dust caked in my nose. I cough, angry with the trucker for disrupting my peaceful trip into town. Angry, that is, until I look back out the window and notice a middle aged man crawling on hands and knees through a crowded, rushing roundabout. 

His left leg is bent awkwardly in towards his right, his left foot dangling limp. He is thin. Too thin. His clothing is dirty and tattered and hanging off of his delicate frame. He has a cheap pair of flip flops taped to his knees, but there is nothing to protect his hands from the glass and debris that I know covers the streets. Traffic continues to push forward, surging past and barely around him. My heart reaches out, hoping that enough good thoughts and fervent prayers can shield this man from being hit. I am not ready to witness a man dying today. He makes it safely across the roundabout and all of my breath comes spilling out in one big gust.  

We pull into the petrol station, one of our many stops for today. While we are waiting for our tank to be filled, our manager spots a woman walking by with a bucket of fruit on her head. Mama, parachichi! she shouts out the window, knowing of my love for avocados. We buy three large avocados and when we are finished getting petrol, we pull back out onto the crowded road.

 

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