Sunday, March 21, 2010

My Bus Trip to Ségou

Despite what most Westerners think, living in the third world isn't all horrible all the time. My exposure to the third world was as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa. There are certainly a lot of huge, fundamental forces that make life difficult in Mali. The net result is a life expectancy rate 30 years lower than in the U.S. But day to day life in a village in Mali can be nice. It's peaceful. You wake up with the sunrise. You have a clear view of the bright stars at night. You get to know goats by name. Telemarketers never call.

But travel in the third world really is horrible. Fortunately, there is sometimes a very fine line between horrible and hilarious.

A Peace Corps stint in Mali starts out with ten weeks of in-country training at a Peace Corps camp outside of Bamako, the capital. One week into training, after the fresh-faced volunteers have learned the bare essentials of living in Africa - things you would have thought we would know how to do already, like showering (but with a bucket), eating (but with your hands) and ass wiping (see previous parenthetical) - volunteers are sent off for a weekend visit with other volunteers who have been in the country for a while. This is what the Peace Corps calls the "demystification visit."

It's a good term. Demystification. The mystificated version of Peace Corps life - what you read about in Lonely Planet and daydream about recounting at sophisticated cocktail parties later in life when you're hip and successful - is supposed to be instantly transformed into the demystificated version - "holy SHIT; what have I done?" It also sends the fainter-of-heart volunteers packing for Cleveland earlier rather than later (if you ever wonder why Peace Corps houses all over the world have posters of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 "phone home" alien hanging on the walls, it's because "E.T.", in Peace Corps speak, means "early termination").

Anyway, my demystification visit was to Ségou. A Peace Corps staff member took me and five other volunteers - Matt, Misha, Andy, John and Tom - to a big dirt parking lot in Bamako and somehow figured out which bus we were supposed to get on. The bus was the sketchiest, most death trap-looking thing I had ever seen in my life. Little did I know that this would be the highest-end traveling I ever did in the country. Later trips would involve snuggling up with animals, having a wheel rip off a car, riding in the bed of an industrial dump truck, and sucking carbon monoxide two inches from where an exhaust pipe had maybe once been. Looking back, this demystification bus, with its individual seats and glass windows, would seem downright pretentious. The six of us got on the bus. Like cool fourth graders, we went straight to the back row.

The trip started off as an exciting adventure. We weren't in Kansas (or Indiana or Ithaca, NY) anymore. We clicked away on our new going-away present cameras, snapping photos of the endless, dry landscape, the mud huts, the donkey carts. We drank Peace Corps-issued bottled water. We talked about Jerry Garcia, who had just died the week before. Then, out of the blue, there was a loud KA-POW, and the front windshield of the bus shattered into a million pieces, showering glass all over the driver. The driver slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. The other passengers glanced over towards the driver for a few seconds, then went on talking as they had been. The driver brushed himself off, smoked a cigarette, put his sunglasses back on, tied a bandana over his nose and mouth and pulled the bus back onto the road.

We couldn't believe it. If something like this had happened back in our homeland, a Fox news helicopter, a fleet of emergency vehicles, a lieutenant governor and two dozen personal injury lawyers would have been on the scene within minutes. A 60 Minutes expose and some congressional sub-committee inquiries would have followed within the week. Then there would be lawsuits, CEO press releases, workers comp claims, tell-all interviews and maybe even a book deal. But in Mali, this wouldn't even merit a longer-than-usual answer to the question "how was your trip?"

We got settled back into our seats by the rear window. It was hard to talk because of all the wind hurricaning through the bus, there being no windshield and all. But we laughed our asses off, slapped each other on the back, and were generally exhilarated to have been part of such a crazy experience. Not ten minutes later, probably because of the aforementioned skin-peeling wind raging through the bus, the back window ripped out of its bracket. It just popped right out - boink - landed in the road and smashed into another million pieces. Once again, everyone turned to take a quick look and went right back to their conversations. This time the bus didn't even stop. We were beside ourselves. "This is soooo insane!!!!" "No-one's even gonna BELIEVE this!!!"

But the volunteers who met us in Ségou did believe it. And they weren't that impressed. "Huh," they said, "Is it true that Jerry's dead?" "Any cute chicks in the new training group?" And that was that. We all wrote letters home about our crazy bus ride. But after a few months in the country, after we had become really, truly demystified, we stopped telling stories like that altogether. They didn't even rank. Yup, life in the third world doesn’t always suck, but travel in the third world always, always does.

1 comment:

Patricia Harrison said...

This is HILARIOUS. More Mali stories please!

I once was riding on a bus to Oxford, England, when the luggage compartment door popped open and suitcases started spewing onto the highway. The driver's face was a picture -- like those old French mimes, his mouth and eyes were perfect circles -- and although he managed to pull over safely, he was overcome by grief and shock. Another passenger (who was probably from Mali) simply got off the bus and picked up the suitcases, then put them back in, shut the door, and got back on the bus. The rest of us were still trying to figure out the "correct procedure" for handling such a dire emergency. After much radioing, the driver finally pulled himself together and we proceeded with the trip. Clearly none of us, but esp not the driver, are Peace Corps material.