We arrived in Balmer, San Pédro on the evening of the day we were diagnosed with typhoid, 7th June. Zola was far more concerned with how many days remained till his 10th birthday – as is traditional in the Sampson household, we had a countdown calendar going on the wardrobe door that he was eagerly ticking off.
Our first morning, we two went for a walk to the beach because Zola was longing to explore the big rock we could see from the truck. As he scrambled about, I sat marvelling at his energy levels and at how much better I was feeling after taking my first antibiotic pill. We were politely approached by M. Daniel, then M. Franck, and finally ‘Sticker’, young men who worked at the nearest beach bar.
Over the next few days, we got to know the three musketeers of the Gora Beach maquis: Daniel the ebullient charmer, Franck the moody fatalist, and Sticker the staffie. When they heard Sampson was feeling so grim he was still lying down, they arrived with fresh yellow coconuts and chopped them for him there and then.
We have enjoyed coconut water before in times of physical exertion; it’s like nature’s own Lucozade. But never before have we appreciated the power of it as a tonic when feeling ill. It offers a perfect balance of natural salts and sugars, and feels as nourishing as a meal without giving any nausea. No wonder it was used as plasma for emergency transfusions in World War II. Sampson paid the lads a retainer to bring him a couple every morning; he’d stick ‘em in the fridge and we’d open them to drink when we needed a boost. Only Ruby doesn’t like it, but she doesn’t like mangoes either so she’s obviously got irredeemably weird tastebuds.
It continued to rain solidly. The steady downpour was like a Cape mid-winter, only warmer, and more relentless. Despite all the seals being good in Ghana, suddenly we had drips pouring in around hatch because of the sheer weight of water pooling on the roof. After one night sleeping surrounded by soggy towels, Sampson got up and arranged a tarpaulin to cover the hatch. It seems almost incredible that only a month ago in Grand Drewin, we were sleeping with the hatch up, gasping for air.
At any other time the constant rain would have been a complete drag, but this week it was a blessing, making sure the kids recuperated properly. We shut all the doors and windows and got snug. Sampson just slept, the kids were doing a bit of school but tiring easily, mostly lying around listening to Harry Potter audio books – I think I will know them off by heart by time we get home – and watching old movies. I was bashing away at the blog. We only left our spot once to mission to market to stock up with fruit and veg.
On Youth Day, the sun came out for first time since we arrived. After doing some emergency pants washing, Zola and I went for a walk.
Down at our favourite haunt, we were checking out a beautiful dusky pink seam at the shoreline when Zola caught sight of this in a crack in the rock:
By bizarre coincidence, a friend had just sent me a lovely gossipy email, and said he’d been reading up about snakes recently and we must have seen loads, which ones? And I said strangely, we’d hardly seen any, apart from this one high up in a tree in Ezile Bay, Ghana:
I’d never seen a snake in the sea before, and if this wasn’t a mystical Potteresque sea serpent (doubtful) it must be a very sick snake. So I wasn’t too worried when Zola approached to poke it with his very long stick. It wasn’t dead yet, because it flinched, but it didn’t move after that. It was black and shiny and flared slightly at the head. And it was pretty big.
We walked on and met M. Daniel and Zola took him round to show him. When Daniel saw the snake he jumped and waved us back. “Très mechant” he said: such snakes are very naughty, very bad. “They rear up and, with their first strike, hurt you so you can’t run, and with the second strike, you’re dead”. He said there are big ones in the bush here all around the truck, as thick as your arm. He insisted on killing it to make sure it wouldn’t harm anyone else passing, though that seemed the very definition of overkill to me.
Only when I got back to the truck and googled it, I realised it could only have been a black mamba. Funny how near you can come to risking death without realising it.
On weekends, local lads would come down to play soccer on the open patch of ground we had parked beside. We found out that most of them came from Mali and they were very friendly and respectful. Zola would have liked to join in but was too shy, and rather pursued his favourite solitary pastime grinding dried mud from the truck wheels into powder to make a red ochre-type paint. Ruby scarcely stirred from the truck, but was becoming less pale day by day. She and I were taking strain but definitely improving, only Sampson continued to have his horrible headache.
Sampson felt exactly the same at the end of his 10-day typhoid treatment as he had at the beginning, so we went to San Pédro Hospital to make enquiries. Having first wasted our time wandering around trying to find a doctor before realising it was a public holiday, the second day we queued for hours until we were all exhausted, and the embattled doc just wrote out a prescription for an alternative set of antibiotics.
The second week was harder than the first, as the heavy meds took their toll. The rain was also heavier; there was nothing to be done but sit it out.
The only other day it didn’t rain in the whole two weeks we stayed at Gora Beach was the day we picked to have Zola’s birthday party, Saturday 21st June. Zola didn’t get a party last year, it was far too hectic: that was the day we moved out of our house in Noordhoek. Although we had a lovely time at the Bluebird Market this time last year africaclockwise.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/thankful-for-small-mercies-and-small-boys/, we felt we owed him one.
Thankfully we’d bought his presents in Accra, and it only took one supermarket trip to get some goodies in. By Friday, I thought I had managed to accrue enough energy for the weekend.
I woke shouting at 6am because cold water was pouring onto my feet. I couldn’t work it out – it wasn’t even raining. It just so happened the angle we were parked at put my corner of the truck at the lowest level and finally a seal had given way, water had leaked through the wire hole in the corner, pooled underneath the plastic bags we’d put our clothes into after the last time it leaked in Nigeria, then come through the storage net under the middle of the cupboard.
By some miracle we were blessed with sunshine that day. There was time to pull the mattress and sheets out and dry everything off before Zola’s surprise, arranged in cahoots with the Three Musketeers. We started by giving him an early birthday present: a brand new football.
Big Reg trundled round to the maquis, and we got everything set up. While Sampson got the sound system down out of the roof box, Ruby and I made Zola’s cake. Zola doesn’t like sweet things and will always choose crisps or chicken over chocolate. This impressive creation was made from two tiers of bulk buy maize puffs, ten packets of cream biscuits, one box of strawberry madeleines and 30 red lollipops:
At 4pm the local football team arrived. I’d asked Daniel to invite boys around Zola’s age, but they seemed more 12-17 than 8-12. At first, Zola was totally intimidated, and hung out near his best friend the goalie. But after a while he got more confident and started diving in. I even caught him grinning at occasional nifty moves. When he got kneed in the thigh and had to come off injured he was almost as pleased with his valiant bruise as if he’d scored a goal.
The fulltime score was 1-1 when there was Fanta orange for all and a division of the cake. A spontaneous dance competition, suggested by self-appointed MC Monsieur Sev, was followed by a juggling and magic show by Dad that had everybody roaring. When Zola did his trick with a flourish, well, that just took the cake. The wind was raging, so it wasn’t easy to do fire, but we did it anyway. Sampson did the Walk of Death over maquis boss M. Tepi, who was a most chivalrous host, providing a wonderful ivorien soundtrack of bouncy grooves for the whole show.
We retired to the mossie-free safety of truck as the guys continued to celebrate outside, singing a song for Zola. The birthday boy was still playing football with his new friends, and was too hyped up to climb in when I called him, but chose rather to run round after the truck as we drove back round the corner. As Big Reg came to a halt, he opened the door and sighed loudly and appreciatively: “Whattaday!”. It was so lovely to hear our normally reticent boy offer so vocal an opinion.
The next day, Zola’s actual birthday, it was tipping it down. We were very smug, thanking our lucky stars that we’d chosen to have the party the day before. We had a leisurely breakfast and present opening – in the absence of wrapping paper, I put to use various sarongs and headscarfs that I had brought with me to wear in Muslim countries. This solution was so satisfying and easy and recyclable, I don’t think I shall ever bother with paper and sellotape again!
The kids and I managed a brisk walk and a kick about between showers, then in the early afternoon, we decided to mark the day by going to town to celebrate with a braaied chicken. The plan was to eat a big late lunch then come back nice and early to watch a movie and have a supper of snacks and popcorn.
Thank goodness we left early. On pulling out of the carpark, Sampson said “I can’t believe we’re so blasé about these roads these days that we attempt a drive like this just for chicken…”
We stopped at our favourite boulangerie on the way, and Sampson was accosted by a cheery bloke who’d chatted to him at the beach yesterday – he was M. Tepi’s younger brother M. DuBois and he promised to drop in on us before we left.
Another 100m down the road, I reminded Sampson about the dangerously low thick rope of wires hanging to his right. We’d caught it on the roof rack the last time we passed and nearly broke it. He turned slightly to the left to avoid it – and the Big Green Truck slid gracefully into a crevasse in the road.
It sounds like an exaggeration, but this was the most extreme thing that’s happened to the truck in a whole year. This was a worse fix than anything that happened on the dodgy roads of Angola, DRC or Nigeria. Big Reg was lurching over so nearly at 45˚ that the kids were crying out hanging on to the Trellidor bars on the windows to stop sliding off the bench seats.
Sampson went deathly pale and started jabbering “Oh no, I think this is it. We’re never going to get out of this one…” and had crawled out of his window Dukes of Hazzard-style before I could remonstrate with him.
Just to be on the safe side, I helped the kids out the same way, and passed them their Hi-Tec waterproofs, glad I’d transferred them to the net above the passenger seat so I didn’t have to crawl to the back to find them. I then sat perched on the side of the passenger seat – if I’d sat on it properly, I’d have fallen out the window – talking to the first two people who stopped to offer help. M. Brice said his boss had Caterpillars, and he would call and see if they were available. Then M. DuBois appeared again. When Brice’s boss said sorry, all his machines were out in the forest, DuBois said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get some guys and we’ll get you out”.
Now I need to press pause here and explore what happens to me when The Shit Hits The Fan. Usually I only reflect on this afterwards, but interestingly, on this occasion, perhaps because it was so extreme, I found myself watching myself as it happened. Because Sampson has such a vivid imagination, he can’t help wallowing in wondering what’s the worst that could happen, and freaking himself right out. I on the other hand somehow thrive on situations like this and I’ve been trying to understand why. It’s like the world stops still, all the bullshit falls away and I get to marvel at the craziness of it all.
As Sampson paced up and down looking at the depth of mud around the wheels and bewailing the fact he could see most of the roof of the truck from ground level, I sat utterly still inside pondering the long game. Should I get out now or hang on a bit and conserve energy? There was heavy rain, it was quite cold, I hadn’t eaten lunch, it could be a long wait and I was unlikely to be able to climb back in.
But mostly I was revelling in a feeling of exhilaration. Not because it was going to be a helluva story for the blog – that honestly didn’t cross my mind for another few hours – but because it was going to be a great thing to have survived, and survive it I knew we would, with complete certainty. No one was going to die, so it was all good. It was going to be a birthday to remember. And I was so glad for that, so glad to be alive, having mad memorable adventures together.
I wasn’t always like this; I think calm is something I cultivated to protect myself. Adrenaline was very bad for me when I was sick, the whole ‘fight or flight’ mechanism was utterly exhausting and would trigger way too easily. Plus motherhood helps you refine that capacity to play down panic, especially when you’ve given birth to a drama queen. So although I freak out daily about trivial things like ‘leaving your wet towel on my bed again Ruby…’, in a genuine crisis, I go very, very calm.
But today I reached another level of loony. I found the whole thing so funny! I felt like the old man in the Treasure of the Sierra Madre when he realised all the gold dust they’d spent 10 months hard labouring to get, and that Humphry Bogart had died for, had blown away in the desert storm. Laughed his socks off. What else can you do? Pick yourself up and carry on, happy to be alive. To have another chance to try again.
DuBois came back with two spades and three picks he’d just hired. It took ten men three and a half hours to dig us out. Seven of them took it in turns to hack at the road surface, making the potholes bigger in an effort to restablise the truck; three broke down a wall for lumps of concrete to put under the tyres to help them get a grip in the clayey mud.
The first time Sampson tried the engine, the 4×4 could get absolutely no purchase at all. The right wheels were spinning, the left ones not even turning. After five or six failed attempts, they got the jack out to lift the back of the truck just enough to get more rocks underneath.
The rain hardly stopped the whole time. Dear DuBois, who’d taken this on as a personal mission, worked harder than anyone and was covered in mud from top to toe by the end of it. Just before dusk fell, he finally succeeded when bucketful after bucketful of rain water was scooped out to allow him to dig right underneath the left front wheel. (Sampson will be posting a video clip of “The Tipping” on the Africa Clockwise Facebook page asap.)
Can you imagine people rallying to help you in conditions like this at home?
We paid the gang 100 000FCA (R2000) for their trouble, which was two thirds what they’d asked for and about double what they were expecting. I insisted M. DuBois take 20000FCA for his management of the situation, which included seeing off a couple of drunks who, smelling an opportunity, kept hassling us with alternative solutions. M. Brice, who’d stood by my side the whole time, advising me quietly, said if we had any problems, he was a mechanic, just call him.
Big Reg crawled away into the night, swaying slightly more than usual. We limped onto the tar and halted 1km down the road lined with maquis roasting chickens on long sticks silhouetted around orange flames. We felt like battered heroes back from the war.
Côte d’Ivoire is famous for a unique style of music called coupé-decalé – cut and run – that was born of la guerre of 2002 and was created by young men who exiled themselves to Paris. It reflects a devil-may-care attitude. Defiant in the face of disaster, whether it be Ivorian political turmoil, Guantanamo Bay or avian flu their response is: sod it, let’s dance while we still can. I’m with ’em. Decadance!