On the opposite bank of the river, things continued in much the same vein, but the farms were more infrequent, and brief stretches of woods started to get mixed-in with the swamps and grasslands.
Since it was now the hottest part of the afternoon, even those few farms I did come across featured vacated fields.
An hour or so earlier, the families who worked the soil on those farms had probably eaten a sparse meal of rice or to (a starchy tuber mashed to a frankly snot-like consistency and served with sauce), but now, except for the buzzing of insects, everything was still. The farmers were inside their cool mud huts, napping off the blast furnace heat that descended on the landscape between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., while I was out fighting the sun like a fool.
I was starting to wish I’d packed more water. It was a desire that grew more pressing when I found out what I thought was the far western shore of the barrage turned out to be a mere peninsula.
By 1 p.m. or so, I was sweating buckets in my boots and jeans, and I only had half of my 1.5 liter bottle left. As it always seems to, rationing only seemed to increase my thirst, and it was in this over-heated and bedraggled state that I encountered the first real dilemma of my journey.
The trail ran full-on into a monsoon-gorged river, much more substantial than the waterway I had encountered earlier. Because this part of the barrage’s shore was heavily forested, I couldn’t really tell where the river began and ended, complicating the situation further. The seemingly impassable stretch of water just extended on and on into flooded forest, the dubious route ahead promising misdirection and quagmire.
Finally, after fruitlessly searching upstream for a more promising crossing, I chanced upon a high school student of about 16. He spoke good French, and laughed when I explained my situation, but he promised to help guide me across the swampy delta. Before we could go, though, he had to go drop his own bike off at his house in a little farming compound about a kilometer away.
His mother, a fiftyish village woman, was there waiting for him, and though she didn’t speak French, I could tell she was not pleased with our plan. The last thing she said as we left (translated through her son) was that if he died, I had to give their family money. This struck me as a little extreme at the time, but I hastily agreed and we were off.
Leading me back to where the trail had disappeared underwater, the boy started stripping down to his briefs, and he instructed me to do the same. Soon, my clothes and boots were in my backpack, and viscous gray-brown mud was oozing between my toes.
I thought back on all the admonitions we’d received from the Peace Corps’ medical staff regarding flesh-burrowing parasitic worms. I also considered the multitude of open cuts and scrapes I’d spent the last few hours acquiring. The part of me that wasn’t imagining exotic infections or organisms eating tunnels into my body, however, rejoiced in the rare sensation of being enveloped in cool water.
Within a few meters, we were chest deep. The kid had insisted on commandeering my bicycle, so I followed behind, hoisting my backpack above the waterline.
About 25 meters from where we had walked in, I started to feel the current tug at me in a lackadaisical manner, and my guide warned me we’d have to swim soon. By this time, the trees had thinned out enough that I could see the main channel of the river, but I was still unsure which way to go after this perhaps 10 meter stretch of permanent waterway. The opposite “shore” was another elaborate labyrinth of swampland, and without the kid’s help, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to negotiate it. Had I faced the inevitability of swimming without his guidance, I’m not even sure I would have carried on, so happening on the lad was quite serendipitous.
Our partnership wasn’t to last though. Safe and dry on the other side, I offered to buy him some dollo (2 percent alcohol millet beer, and a major staple of Dagarra culture) in Muotori, but my guide declined and swam back to his side of the river.
Figuring I had traversed the most difficult section of the circuit, I found a shady tree, stretched out in my skivvies under its branches and set to eating my lunch of bananas and bread.
Ignorance made for bliss, and I munched away with a smile, unaware that the day’s greatest challenges still lay ahead.
The adventure continues! Make sure to tune-in for the conclusion of this mini-series in the Jan. 25 edition of the Saratoga Sun, sold wherever all the Valley’s finest publications can be found.