[Chapter Four can be found here.]
When Paul and Sam reached the bachet, an apprentice approached, hands out. He looked at the tickets Paul had bought for them, took their packs and threw them up to another young man standing on the rack above the pick-up’s bed. He motioned for them to get in by the driver, but Paul shook his head and climbed into the back, taking a seat on the wooden bench directly behind the cab.
“Why not sit inside?” Sam had crawled in after him.
“Nah. One of the first things you learn. Those are dangerous seats. A little more comfortable, yeah, but you’ll be the first to die.” He paused. “These things have lots of accidents. Besides, sitting here, you can’t see what’s coming. That can be a comfort on the roads we’ll be on.” He could have kicked himself for saying that, even as he laughed, but the words had slipped out before he’d thought. He was sure he had scared the man; he didn’t want that.
“Why, what are they like? The roads, I mean.” Sam hesitated as he turned, crouched over to take his place, and looked at Paul.
“Dirt, washed out in places. Covered with washboard in others—we’ll be shaken about quite a bit this afternoon—curvy, and hardly wide enough for two vehicles to pass. Believe me, you don’t want to watch.” He cursed himself silently again for slipping once more into a bit of prideful fear-mongering.
Sam, now on the bench, started to speak, but stopped, closed his eyes, and put his fingers to his temples. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
“It’s a bit risky, yes, but you can always stay here.” After hesitating a second, Paul decided to play a gentle devil’s advocate. “You can always get off and wait for the border to open. If you want, you can mail me the ten-thousand francs later, or leave it in Abidjan, when you get there. I’ll tell you where.”
Sam didn’t move. Paul, about to say more, decided to ignore him, for now, at least. The man would need a good deal of time for his own thoughts, plus Paul felt he was on the verge of making a fool of himself. Let the guy be, he repeated to himself. He shouldn’t be trying to influence him one way or another, anyway. It was Sam’s choice if he came along.
After a few minutes Sam’s body next to him started to seem a little less rigid and still, and Paul realized the man had finally begun to look around him.
Maybe he’ll be OK. Most people are. Human beings are remarkably resilient. Paul turned his thoughts to other topics and worries, glad to take his mind off of Sam.
“Do you really know what risk is?” Sam asked, surprising Paul, who hardly remembered what he had said to prompt that.
Paul hesitated, went back over his words, then spoke carefully. “Yes, after my years here, I think I do. And I do not think I’m foolish.”
Sam shook his head. “No, that’s not what I mean. I’m not insulting you, but I think you are confusing risk with a lack of caution. No, I mean a situation where you have to put something very dear to you, something you’d die for, perhaps, on the line, in hopes that something even more important can be obtained, and where the likelihood of loss is very real and present. Have you ever been in a situation like that?”
Paul looked at him, surprised. “I don’t know,” he said, finally. “I don’t think I’ve had anything that dear to me in a long time.” He couldn’t imagine why Sam had asked that question, and did not really want to think about answering it. He turned away, pretending to have found interest of his own in the activities outside.
They watched in silence as two trussed and bleating goats were handed to the top of the bachet. A woman then got in, with a sleeping baby strapped to her back. Another, climbing over the tail-gate after her, had a couple of chickens tied together by the legs; they squawked complaints as she kicked them under her seat. A young man in pressed, worn, slacks and shirt, carrying a book, crawled back and sat down next to them. He smiled at Paul and Sam and said hello. Paul nodded to him. Others got in, pushing onto the benches, squeezing them against the back of the cab.
“You’d better get off, if you want to, if you don’t think this is something you want to try. We’ll be leaving in a moment.” Paul had noticed that the apprentices were completing final preparations for departure, tying down the tarp over the luggage above them. He wanted to make sure that Sam thought his decision entirely his own; he wanted neither blame nor guilt.
Sam looked around him again, pulled out a handkerchief, and wiped his brow. He took his time before speaking, seeming to Paul once again to weigh his options. “I guess I’ll stay—or, rather, I’ll ride,” he finally said.
After all, he thought, I don’t really have much choice.
The two apprentices appeared at the back gate, counting the passengers, including those now sitting on the tire in the center of the bed. They motioned for people to squeeze closer and helped two more in. A final man crawled onto the bed and joined the others already in the middle. The apprentices closed the gate, latched it, and called something to the driver. A number of people joined them as they pushed the taxi forward. The driver popped the clutch and the engine roared to life. The apprentices swung themselves onto the sides and climbed up top.
Sam, Paul saw, was counting. “Let’s see,” he shouted over the engine noise, “with two on top and three in front, there are twenty-one people on this thing, and one baby.”
“Not bad. The most I’ve seen is twenty-five.” If Sam could remain calm and interested enough to count the people in the taxi, he probably wouldn’t panic, Paul decided, at least, not soon. He hadn’t really been sure what Sam would do when they actually started out. When the decision to put himself in Paul’s hands would become final. Sitting in Mopti over the last few days must have been difficult, especially with no one to talk to, no other native English speakers around. If he were in Sam’s place, Paul realized, he would have left the first way possible, too.
Gears shifted, and they roared out of the yard and into Mopti itself, swinging past the mosque and quickly turning onto the road to Severé, onto the first leg of the trip to Bandjiagara. Almost immediately, however, they pulled to a stop at a barrier where a number of armed men in uniform stood.
“Gendarmes,” whispered Paul. “Get out your passport and health card.”
“Just be quiet, and smile—you are going to have to play the innocent, do the talking for both of us. Tell them we’re going to Dogon country, for tourism because we can’t leave. I’ll tell you why later.” Paul took his own passport and card and slipped them underneath Sam’s as men, AK-47’s held loosely at their sides, circled the taxi, peering in, staring into one face or another. “When they ask, just hand them the documents.”
Sam looked at him, perplexed, but said nothing.
“Votre carte.” A gendarme, larger than the others, in dark sunglasses, appeared at the back of the pick-up. People started shoving identity cards at him. He pushed most of them away, picking the one of the man seated closest to him, staring at it, then at the man, then handing it back. He worked his way around the bench, finally reaching the two Americans. Sam bent forward, reaching with the documents over the men on the tire. The gendarme flipped pages in Sam’s passport until locating the visa stamps. He glanced quickly at Paul’s passport but didn’t open it more than to look at the photo page, then at the health cards.
“Ou allez vous? Where are you going?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.”
“Where are you going?” The man spoke in precise and careful English, as though his tongue were unsure of the strange words.
“To look at Dogon country.”
“This is bad time to go there.” He addressed this to Paul.
“Yes,” Sam answered. “We had wanted to be on our way to Abidjan, but can’t cross into Burkina Faso right now.”
“Your friend can’t speak?”
“I am showing him around.” Sam couldn’t think of anything else to say, but this did seem to satisfy the man.
“When will you return to Mopti?”
“In two or three days.” That, it seemed to Sam, had to be an innocuous enough number.
The gendarme grunted, pushed the documents back towards Sam, then grabbed the card of the next person. Paul, who had been hardly able to breathe, slowly exhaled. His passport contained a much used, multi-entry resident visa for Burkina Faso, something that (he had only realized as they pulled to the stop) could conceivably cause him a great deal of trouble here, in a country that might be on the verge of war with the Burkinabe. Sam’s new, hardly used passport, fortunately, had successfully shielded his.
“What was that all about? Why did you make me do the talking? I thought for a moment that he was going to make us stay in Mopti. At this point, I think I would have died if we couldn’t leave.”
Paul looked at him strangely when he heard those words, but he didn’t say anything, not for a few minutes, at least. They were moving again, over the long, straight dike across the Niger River floodplain to Severé. “No,” he finally responded, “we’re out of there, won’t be going back, no matter what happens. Telling him we were going to Dogon country as tourists makes us innocents. Your new passport made us not worth looking into. Besides, tourism is important around here, so he didn’t want to disturb us too much.”
“But what was going on? Why didn’t you want to talk to him?”
“Well… I wanted us to appear innocent.” Paul regretted even having told Sam he would tell him about it. “You, never having been here before, knowing little about what goes on, can play that part much better than I can. Besides, we’re trying to get someplace they don’t want anyone to go, right now. So we want to appear clueless.”
Sam looked at him for a moment, perplexed, but didn’t push further for any further explanation. Instead, he bent his head so he could see a little more of the countryside out of the back of the truck. He couldn’t see much but the road behind them, but looking was an excuse to stop talking.
A while later, just a little past Severé, they bumped off the paved road leading south and headed east, toward Bandiagara, on the dirt. Paul took a long, thin synthetic cloth from a pocket, draped it over his shoulders then up over his head, where he wrapped it and tucked, transforming it into a turban. Sam watched, curious.
“The dust is growing,” Paul explained. “I can even pull this over my mouth. Learned it from a Tamachek near Tombouctou a couple of years ago.”
Sam wiped dust from his own face and grimaced. “Why don’t the others have them?” Most of the women wore pagna cloth over their heads, but the men had nothing.
“Different peoples. These aren’t desert folk, and they wouldn’t want to dress like them. A couple may be Dogon, but I couldn’t tell you which. Some may be Mossi—the guy next to you has a scar on his cheek in Mossi fashion—but these are not nomadic people, and it’s the nomads who wear turbans.”
“Well, I do wish I had one.”
“Yeah, you ought to see yourself.” Though they hadn’t been on the dirt very long, Sam’s hair was already several shades lighter, his face, too, thanks to the dust. The shoulders of his shirt were also covered with it. The clean, spring look of that morning was gone for good. Well, gone, at least, until they reached Bobo and someone who could provide a good laundry.
They settled into the ennui of the ride, the bumps, the shakings, and even the dust. It was broken only by the occasional slow lurch to one side or the other, the truck leaning over far enough so that all of the passengers reached for something to hold onto.
Fleetingly, Sam wished he could see more than the swirling dust over the bit of road just passed over out of the back of the bachet, but a couple more of the of slow, sickening tilts convinced him that he should be glad he could not. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing, shutting out as much of the outside as he could.
Though, obviously, he was still more than a little concerned about what this trip, this spur-of-the-moment decision, would bring, he was also feeling relieved. Considerably relieved. Mopti had come to seem a jail to him, as he now saw it, and he felt as though he had just made a break and was on the run. Sure, the sheriff might be after him, but at least he was free for now, and moving. That was important: Moving. The very thought gave him a brief feeling of elation. Yes: no matter what might happen, at least he was out of there. He relaxed his back against the metal shell of the cab and let himself be bounced to the rhythm of the road.
He would never go back, there. Never.
[Chapter Six can be found here.]