Chapter Twenty-Six can be found here:
Paul and Sam reached the paved road at Boromo as afternoon turned toward dusk, needing gas once again and much more tired, thirsty, and hungry than they had been at Gassan. Paul thought about stopping for more than another beer and a quick meal—after all, this was where the artist Bakary’s family lived and he had visited there a couple of times—giving them a real break, but decided against it; the sense of relief that had begun to mount as he first spied the blacktop in the distance was tempered with an understanding that the military presence would be stronger now that day was ending. So, he took them down the road about thirty kilometers towards Bobo-Diallasso, to Hounde, glad to have the chance to clear really out the engine, to rev it, to treat it a little better, glad to be where he didn’t have to continue the careful slow riding ever necessary on the unpaved roads en brousse. Glad that there was no more washboard to rattle their teeth, that they were back to what he hoped might prove to be, like the straight, paved road, a more rational world. Maybe they had left the crazies behind. At least, the crazies who shot off guns.
As they rode easily down the tarmac, the tensions in both of them finally started to ebb, if for no other reason than that the road was smooth and the engine finally blowing out the collected soot. The guilt that had been building in Paul as he thought back about what they’d just been through, about the danger he had put Sam through also began to ease. In its place, and in response to the wind in his face, he felt what almost amounted to a joy, a giddiness, and he turned the throttle a little more, the air now blasting into his face around his goggles, blowing away the dust of the earlier kilometers. Paul, irrationally, found he wanted to sing, but didn’t think Sam would understand. They had made it out, though, or seemed to have, and Paul was happy. For the moment, at least.
If he had learned nothing else during his years in West Africa it was that one takes what little pleasures one finds and cherishes them. They might disappear, after all, in an instance.
On the back, Sam, too, was finding he could finally relax a bit, surprisingly, though their increased speed did keep him a little on edge. The fact of having reached the pavement meant that Paul, indeed, had known where he was going. At least, Paul had told him they would reach the road, and they had. It also brought an end to the jolting, dipping, careening, dusty ride, an end to perhaps the most exhausting hours that Sam had spent since his youthful years in the military. He tried, now, to clear his mind, to center himself as he had taught himself since those early years of his adult life. He tried to get beyond the exhaustion and really feel the relief that this trial was almost over.
And, after a few minutes, Sam realized, he really did feel calm. So much so that he was actually surprised at himself—and probably for the first time since Mopti. He even had to shake his head, afraid he might be falling asleep, as absurd as he thought that might be, given the day they had just come through. Given the continuing risks they surely faced.
After half an hour or so, twin rows of kapok trees along the road showed Paul they were coming into a town. He slowed down, looking for someplace to buy gas, for he was down almost to reserve, and to get some food. He could not continue much further without it, and he suspected Sam needed a break, too. The buildings they drove by were all set a little back from the road, and widely spaced. Though there was still a hint of blue in the sky above, the shade from the trees was strong enough so that the vendors of peanuts, oranges, cigarettes and other goods had lit the hurricane lanterns on their low tables to highlight their wares. Paul pulled to a stop in front of a place with a couple of benches out front, a grill with chicken cooking on it, and a row of greenish bottles capped with rolled paper off to one side. These last, he explained to Sam as he removed his helmet and stretched his aching legs, were more of the same that they had bought from in Gassan, also containing gasoline. It was probably the only way they would find gas anywhere around. Though there were stations along the paved road, they were likely closed or, given the war, out of gas. He led Sam to the benches in front of the whitewashed building as he talked.
“That’s harder than those bush taxis we took from Mopti, even.” Sam had collapsed onto one of the benches out front even before removing his helmet. “I have never gotten so tired just by sitting.” Slowly, he undid the chin strap and lifted the helmet, goggles and all, from his head. “How much further do we have to go?”
“Well, I took us this way to get rid of the bike, to deliver to the guy I’ve sold it to, actually. But there’s no traffic on the road, no busses, no taxis, and I want to get to Bobo so, if it’s OK with you, I’d like to try to get there tonight.”
Sam winced. “How long do you think that will take?”
“A couple of hours.” He paused and looked at Sam. “Yeah. And I know: it’s almost harder sitting on the back. Driving, well, I have to pay so much attention that I almost don’t notice how tiring it is… until now, of course. God, I hope the beer here is cold!” He dropped his helmet next to Sam and walked over to the man tending chickens on the grill and ordered two quarters. He looked around for a bit before spotting the barman, who he asked to fetch a beer and a soda. While they waited for the chicken to finish cooking, he found the boy selling the gasoline and bought several bottles, allowing the kid to fill the motorcycle’s small tank.
“You’ve done a lot of that? Riding like that?” Paul had grabbed the plates to chicken and was offering one to Sam. Sam took his as he asked the question.
“With someone on the back? No. But I have traveled by moto quite a bit since Peace Corps. It gives me more flexibility and bush taxi is often the only other option, anyway, and you can’t really rely on it if you are trying to keep to a schedule.”
“Yeah, I seem to have found that out.” Sam didn’t say anything more, but sat eating with his back to the building, his eyes on the bottle of orange soda now in front of him. Strangely enough, neither one of them wanted to talk about the events of the day. Neither one of them wanted to talk much, at all, they each discovered as they sat there. Perhaps it was memory of the embarrassment each still privately felt, embarrassment at having feared they were going to be shot that held them back. On the other hand, perhaps it was simply the unreality of what they had been through that day.
Paul motioned for another beer to go with the remains of his chicken. They ate in silence, the feel of the road still so strong in Paul’s palms that it forced him to concentrate hard on even the simple act of holding a overcooked piece of meat on a bone. Over a third beer, Paul sanded the spark-plug of the moto as he had so long ago (was it only that morning?), checked the chain, and adjusted the front fork, way out of alignment thanks to the bumping ride they’d been through.
By the time they were ready to get moving again, it was completely dark.
Sam, as Paul drank and worked on the bike, had dropped back into a state close to a meditative trance. When Paul touched his shoulder and told him it was time to get going, he had to pull himself to the roadside among the aches he now felt in his thighs and back from muscles never used to that peculiar type of sitting and riding he’d been through all day. He swayed a bit, not anxious to get back on the bike, but happy to imagine that their flight was almost over.
Except for their headlight, the road, so smooth and uneventful after the unpaved roads and the bush by their sides, was dark. Except for their engine, the land was quiet. The roar was even, now, soothing, again unlike the up and down accelerations and complaints of the earlier parts of their journey. Paul expected some stops, gendarme or military or CDR, but there were none until they were almost in Bobo, just about two hours later. Their papers were examined only cursorily there, much to Paul’s surprise. They were told there was a blackout, and that the moto light must go off, too, before they would be allowed to enter the city. They went on into town, riding slowly in the darkness, following the road that, eventually, wound them around the main marketplace. It was eerie there in the blackness, the town little more than darker and lighter shades of black or gray.
Unlike Ouahigouya’s sprawling outdoor market, the marché in Bobo was enclosed in a fortress-like building, an open courtyard unseen from the road outside holding most of it. At night, without lights, it seemed a dangerous, prison-like place as they rounded it, their engine’s noise echoing off of it. Beyond it lay an area of mid-priced hotels, and Paul aimed them there. He would have preferred something cheaper, but, as he told Sam, these would have electricity, running water and, possibly, hot water and air conditioning.
“Almost like home.” He laughed, and turned the bike into the first one they came to. He chained the moto to a post inside the courtyard and unstrapped everything from the back of the bike, handing Sam his pack. Sam shouldered it and, seeing that Paul had retained his own helmet, kept hold of his as he followed into the building.
Inside, no one was expecting guests, certainly not in the blackout, and no lights were on. Sam clapped his hands twice, but no one appeared. After a bit, with no response, he hulloed a couple of times, rousing a youngish man who clearly had been asleep off somewhere beyond the small reception desk. He appeared with a flashlight, aimed carefully down and away from the windows. He shrugged when Paul asked for a room and handed over a key before leading them down a corridor where he lifted the beam of his light to a door. Paul unlocked it, and the man disappeared down the hall. Inside, Paul hesitated before turning on a light, but eventually did, seeing with relief that the one small window had been covered by an improvised blackout curtain.
They dropped their bags on the one low table in the room and each collapsed onto a beds, each needing a few minutes rest, at least, before even attempting anything else at all. Each needing a little silence, wishing, even, that the other weren’t there. Each needing time alone.
Chapter Twenty-Eight can be found here.