Preceeding Paul Theroux (page 2)
Preceeding Paul Theroux
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     Shortly after this irritating delay, as we were going up a particularly rough patch, Gerhard drove over a broken tree trunk. One wheel spun in the air. We got out the shovel, dug out high places, hauled stones to fill in ruts, and jacked up one side. The Jeep finally lurched forward, but the effort caused an electrical problem and the Jeep wouldn’t stay running. Gerhard and I turned into Laurel and Hardy, poking around under the hood and bickering with each other.

     After a while, a Land Rover appeared and a mysterious man offered to help. He had the same brown skin color as most Ethiopians, but his hair was wavy, not kinky, and his nose looked more Roman than Abyssinian. His actions were strange; he didn’t say much but looked all around, noticing details. It was as though he was frisking us with his eyes, undressing us or seeing where we kept our wallets. But he seemed to know cars and this desolate part of Ethiopia very well. Gerhard already had demonstrated that he knew nothing about cars and wasn’t mechanically inclined in any way. I had just enough experience working on old jalopies to be worried. The stranger and I took off the distributor cap and he immediately found the problem. One of the contact points was ground down too much to make contact, so he squeezed a small piece of wood in behind the point in order to push it out. An ingenious solution.
     After the mysterious Ethiopian left, we played a guessing game as we drove along speculating about his reasons for finding us in this remote place. Laurie asked, “What do you think he is doing way out here?” I wondered, “What kind of work does he do? He said that he was just “investigating.” “He doesn’t look Ethiopian,” added Gerhard. Nelson thought he might be a spy working for either Ethiopia or Somalia. “More likely, he’s a smuggler,” someone suggested. Eventually, when we arrived in Moyale, we learned that he was a Greek-Ethiopian who was born in Asmara, but had lived in this area for the last 17 years. Even so, he remained mysterious, as we never did learn what he was really doing all by himself way out in the bush.
     Late that afternoon, as we drove through a village, the brakes froze again. It became an instant campsite perched between tukuls, the classic African round huts with thatched roofs. Laurie and Nelson set up the yellow three-man tent as Gerhard and I unfroze the brakes again. Laurie had two tent partners, but Nelson slept alone on the back seat of the Jeep even when some of the nights were stifling hot.

On the third day, the journey got even tougher. We left right after the oatmeal breakfast and drove almost an hour before the brakes froze up again. Two hours of backbreaking brake-work and another hour of driving brought us to a steep bit in the track where we bounced from rut to rock. Then we heard a loud "SNAP." Looking under the hood, we didn’t see anything wrong, until I noticed that part of the engine was sagging. The front engine mount had broken in half. In the middle of nowhere, with no town in sight, our mysterious “spy-man” drove up again in his Land Rover, as if he had been shadowing us. He looked at our problem and suggested that we jack up the engine and support it with a piece of wood stuck into the remaining part of the engine mount. Then he left. We looked at each other. Nelson had a sharp panga and there were enough trees around. After two hours of whacking at a tree trunk, jacking up the engine, grunting the piece of trunk into place, and wiring it all together, we started off again. With all the stopping, Laurie had read 180 pages of her fat book in just three days. “It’s sure weird,” was the only comment she made.
     I remember from that day a startling visual image of driving through dry scrub brush toward a small isolated volcanic mountain, and thinking that the road would skirt it. Instead, we went straight up the side, right into and through a round crater and then down the other side of the volcano. Inside the crater’s rim we discovered a dense forest and lush grassland on the crater floor — quite a contrast to the parched landscape outside the crater. We stopped to take some great photos of spear-carrying herdsmen with their cattle.

     We arrived at the Swedish Mission at Yabello in late afternoon and received permission to set up our tent in their compound. As we were now in an area known for its shiftas (bandits), this was safer than camping out in the open with the possibility of wild animals and two-legged prowlers sneaking around. Dinner was boiled cassava with a sauce of canned peas and tuna. We had bought the cassava and whatever we could find at village markets along the road. Whenever we stopped, people would surround the Jeep and ask for help, thinking we were missionary doctors. It was comical to watch the local people try to speak to Nelson. Because he was African and presumably should have known their languages, they would gesture and shout at him when he spoke in English or Kiswahili. Once he found a man who could speak Kiswahili, but most of the time he was just frustrated.

Toppling termites
Day 4, Wednesday. We filled our water jugs and did a little more shopping in Yabello before leaving for Mega, the next town on the road to the border. We stopped quite a few times, sometimes to adjust sticky brakes or to re-wire the engine block, sometimes to take photos. Laurie took a picture of the three of us using a rope, trying to pull down a high castle-like termite mound. We couldn’t do it. Laurie was half way through her book by this time.
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