And not just the routine risks that come with working with kids who live on the edge from the time they can toddle. I’ve seen children as young as 3 years of age speeding along on the backs of donkeys, bareback. Little ones smashing glass bottles together just because. Sliding down hillsides on jagged pieces of corrugated metal, chasing each other into the edges of whatever sharp thing is around, playing with fire, running with knives, throwing rocks at each other and just generally causing all sorts of bloody injuries in the interest of great fun. Did I mention we have one of the world’s highest incidences of HIV/AIDS? So I bought a box of surgical gloves and am careful, careful when one of the kids comes for help with a cut at the Community Center.
Two weeks ago I was leaving one of the more remote schools I visit and was offered a “short cut” by two women, one carrying a large box on her head, the other wearing nice shoes so I thought it would be an easy walk out. This school is located a distance up valley at the end of an isolated and sometimes steep trail l so I was happy to have the company and learn the short cut. Unfortunately soon we started down on a narrow, steep path that required bracing your feet on either side to keep from falling forward. It lead to a small river where they turned around and with a devilish grin pointed up a steep, rocky, barely exposed climb. From this spot there was no other way out. The woman with the nice shoes took them off to reveal a pair of large, broad, tough, perfect-for-mountain-climbing feet and my heart sank. I was wearing not-perfect-for-mountain-climbing shoes and a pack with a computer and files that made me uncomfortably top and back heavy. But I would have had a hard time on this climb no matter what. I made it by doing a modified crawl, taking one slow step at a time, leaning forward and using both hands the whole way, holding on to tough roots and shrubs (thank you again roots & shrubs) pulling myself up, holding on for dear life, and never looking down. I’m totally impressed by the woman who did the entire climb with a box on her head. Will never use that short cut again even if I could find it, which I’m sure I can’t.
But what concerns me the most is lightning. My concerns started before I came when I read warnings to tourists about being exposed to lightning strikes on long treks in the high mountain areas, combined with Peace Corps documents that stated we needed to be prepared to make long walks in the high mountain areas. Not a good combination. And sure enough, I make long walks in high mountain areas. And I live in a high mountain area. Last year I wrote about the challenge of needing to use my metal latrine during a storm, it is perched on a hillside with a great view but looks like it was designed for a lightning hit. This year the spring storms are coming in fast and fierce. Last week I came home one evening just as it started to rain a bit. I went out to my garden to pick some greens for dinner and crack, a bolt of lightning hit the ground not 20 feet from me, followed by a blast of thunder so close and intense I felt like I bounced off the ground. I ran for cover having collected only two leaves of spinach. Heard later that someone in the next village (less than 1K away) had two cows killed by lightening that week. I am not surprised.
Today I was working on a number of projects and left the Lodge a bit later than usual. I knew I’d be pushing it to get home before dark and to be sure there were no taxis as I walked the first 6K of my trip home. Storm clouds were forming on all sides making it darker than usual for that time of evening so I was happy when a small truck stopped to offer me a lift in the back along with 3 men and, why not, a load of manure and shovels. Except that the dry manure flew up into my eyes and the wet stuff soaked my backpack it was a good ride. They dropped me about 2K from my house and I thought I was going to make it home ahead of some dark, rumbling clouds that were moving in, until about 1K out as I started walking up the final hill, the storm hit. High winds pelted me with dirt and stones and it was hard to see. I put my coat on over my myself and backpack (probably waterproof but again containing almost all of the electronics I own, computer, phone, camera, iPod), got the hood out of the zippered section and started uphill as fast as I could, heart pounding. The rain started coming down harder, then hail, which hurt, and made the muddy path even more slippery, joined by intense thunder and lightning, lightning to the ground again, and all around. I caught up with two small girls, maybe 5 and 3 years of age, holding hands trying to get up the hill, no coats and struggling. We made it to a wood & rock shed near someone’s house and sat on the edge of it, away from the prevailing weather and protected by a small thatch overhang. The 3 year old was crying and shaking with cold so I held her on my lap wrapped in my coat and we sat it out as the storm continued and darkness rolled in. After a while three men came up the hill with a good size herd of cattle, cracking their whips and, singing! Seemed like there was strength in numbers so we followed along with them, slippery muddy hillside, thunder, lightning, hail, whips cracking, darkness, torrential rain and the beautiful sounds of cow bells and the deep voices of three young men singing.
And we made it.