Saturday, February 3 9:00 a.m. Douki
I got kicked out of my Fula Hut by a Frenchman who showed up out of nowhere and said he was with “two women from the embassy” who needed a place to stay. This happened at the worst possible time it was already dark, I’d spent an hour cleaning up and settling in after climbing out of the valley via the “Chutes and ladders! Chutes and ladders!” and I was two minutes away from going to bed. Then out of the darkness comes the Mastermind with a big white guy in rumpled clothing and a flashlight on his head. Everyone was very sorry but would I mind moving out that very minute and sleeping in my tent? As it happened I minded very much. It was the final cruel joke but I didn’t have much of a choice. Who was I to deny “two women from the embassy” a place to sleep when I’d already been in the Fula Hut for five nights as the Frenchman helpfully pointed out? And this Frenchman had somehow been involved in the furnishing of the Fula Hut. The mattress for example came from him. Now he walked around like he owned the place, harangued the Mastermind for not yet building a shower enclosure and expected me without the smallest chit chat to, that second, vacate. I disliked him intensely and brooded on all the stereotypical reasons no one likes the French.
But as I said, I had little choice and grabbed my tent to scout out, in the dark, a place to set up. Then the circus began. The Mastermind’s brother didn’t want me to sleep in my tent. There was another hut, somewhere. I could only laugh. Then there was a room in their family house. It all sounded reasonable and convenient but I knew hours would pass before either the room or mysterious hut would appear. And my tent could be ready in minutes. I started putting it up and packing up all my gear and moving out of the Fula Hut. The brother was pleading with me and now he got the whole family out including his 75 year old mother who cried and pleaded with me while wringing her hands. It was a nightmare. But I’d been pushed over the edge and finally snapped at the brother. I was going to sleep in my tent and that was that.
But now everyone was convinced I was angry about having to move out of the Fula Hut. It was true I wasn’t pleased but I wasn’t angry. It was one of those things that couldn’t be helped (two women from the embassy after all). I was angry that they wouldn’t listen to me or leave me alone. I was frustrated that these people tried so hard to please me but only drove me crazy. I was angry that every three seconds someone from the family would appear to bother me. I was angry that what could have been an incredible trip into the valley had turned into boot camp. I was tired, so tired. A cut on my ankle had gotten badly infected. I was sore all over. I was, once more, setting up camp in the dark. And the morning when I was so looking forward to coffee in my Fula Hut and writing about the conclusion to the valley expedition I was now going to be banished to the outside world, no chairs, no tables, bothered by insects, chased by the hot sun. And I knew that now that I was in my tent the family would redouble their efforts to make me happy.
And it happened just as I predicted. I actually thought about getting out of bed at 5:00 so I could take a shower in the dark, make a cup of coffee and have two hours of privacy. But I was too tired for that. At 7:00, dreading the impact it would have, I unzipped my tent. I hadn’t even zipped it shut behind me before the brother came bounding towards me. I was too far gone to even try to be culturally sensitive and told him in plain language that if he really wanted to please me, if he really, truly wanted me to be happy he could go away and let me go to the latrine, wash, and enjoy a morning cup of coffee in peace and privacy. Without worrying about the effect it might have on Muslim sensibilities I stripped down to a pair of shorts and took a full shower under a tree in plain view. With, as the Frenchman so loudly pointed out, no washing enclosure of any kind it was either that or go another day dirty which I wasn’t prepared to do. The Mastermind showed up and said he and the Frenchman were hiking and I would be on my own. “Hallelujah,” I said under my breath.
The problem, though, is having nowhere to go. A tent is wonderful at night but in the day in the hot sun it’s no fun. I actually wanted to get on my bike and cycle on but I can’t do that without the family feeling terrible. So here I sit, my insides churning, on the ground, my back against the mud wall of an unfinished hut, tormented by flies. I thought at the very least I might chat a bit with the “two women from the embassy” but it’s already noon and they haven’t deigned to make an appearance. They’re inside, enjoying the luxury of my Fula Hut.
It’s funny that with all these hassles the climb out of the valley through the “Chutes and ladders! Chutes and ladders!” has become just an aside in my story. It’s funny because it was an extraordinary climb and in other circumstances I’d be raving about it.
Like everything else about the Douki experience it snuck up on me. We left from the village around 8:45 and simply started walking up the hill to the base of the cliff. At this section the cliff went straight up at one of its highest points a sheer expanse of rock six hundred meters high. But there was a difference, a weakness in its defences. There was a gouge, a chasm where the cliff had split. And in this split the villagers had blazed a trail. In most places it was possible to scramble up the fallen rocks like it was an irregular staircase. But many jumps were too high and the villagers had solved the problem in a simple but effective way. They’d taken large tree limbs, lashed them together with vines and placed these bundles against the rock. The branches on these limbs and trunks had been cut off to leave six to ten-inch pieces still attached. These, along with the twisted vines provided natural steps and you grabbed hold with your hands and climbed up like you were climbing a tree. But this was more than a boyhood climb up the backyard apple tree. For one thing the drop wasn’t just the height of that one “ladder” but depending how you fell, the length of several of these ladders with nothing but hard stone at the bottom. And they hadn’t been fussy about rounding off any of the branches they cut. They stuck out and up like dozens of sharp daggers ready to pierce flesh if you slipped and fell any distance at all. I took it very slow and steady, not taking it for granted that every branch step had been tested for my weight nor that all the vines were fresh and strong enough to hold. Some of the vines had already given way and the ladder was nothing more than a loose assembly of long saplings. There was also no guarantee that the bundles were still securely tied at the top and wouldn’t simply fall away as you climbed, like a house painter’s ladder set too steep.
By the time we’d achieved the very top and reattained Douki’s 1,070 meters (the valley floor was at about 260) it was a good illustration of how going down is harder than going up because my legs felt stronger than they had after the descent. Of course that could also be because most of the climb we were in cool shade and the climb up didn’t involve a four hour detour to the steel “vine bridge.”