I hesitate to write this down and humiliate myself any further, but why should I deny you all a good laugh for the sake of my already shattered pride.
To set the stage, I first must introduce you to the new volunteers that arrived two weeks ago, Susan and Ruth. Their arrival couldn’t have come at a better time, as I was starting to wonder how I would last 5 more months alone. Although this experience as a whole is an adventure, the daily routine can get a bit monotonous, so some company was more than welcomed. We are all close in age and cut from the same cloth, which makes things much more entertaining. The group dynamic has also opened up more possibilities for us to explore the area and socialize a bit.
Typically, our work day starts at 6:30 a.m. and usually ends around 4:30 p.m. Dinner is served at 5pm and we have usually all showered and eaten by 5:30. This leaves g a good chunk of time to entertain ourselves, but our options are a bit limited- there is no electricity, we are usually too exhausted to read by candlelight and going to bed before 8pm is just torture. We usually pass the evening hours sitting around the candle on the patio, sipping wine or tea, chatting, laughing and periodically challenging each other to guess how much longer we have until our designated bedtime of 8:30pm.
This brings us to last night:
At approximately 8:30 p.m., we blew out the candle and headed inside to get ready for bed. The girls went to their room and immediately come running back out saying that there was a fire right outside their window. I ran inside to get the lantern, but by the time I fumbled around in the dark and found it, the girls were nowhere to be seen. I proceeded to run up the stairs to the gate, when I saw one of our workers, Valentine. For once, I knew exactly what to say in French, thanks to a very handy French podcast I had memorized. I confidently posed the question, “Do you smell that? Is there a fire?” His eyes widened, he threw open the gate and took off in a sprint. I took this as a confirmation and interpreted his urgent response as, “yes, I do smell a fire, and we should go immediately to put it out!”
Assuming the girls were already at the scene, I took off after him, ready to help save Lwiro from its fiery fate. Everything up until this point seemed completely logical, until we started to approach the fire and Valentine stopped abruptly, took a sharp turn to the left and leaped into the forest. Without pause, I did what any insane, very white woman would do in complete darkness, in the middle of the jungles of Congo; I dove in after him.
This is a good time to point out that I have seen Valentine almost daily since my arrival. He is a sweet, soft-spoken older gentlemen who always has a smile on his face. And, although we don’t say much more to each other than the usual “Ca va?”, Oui, Ca va bien”, he is one of my favorites. So, I never questioned my safety in following Valentine into the depths of the jungle. I did, however, question my sanity when I realized that I was sprinting through the depths of the jungle in the pitch black with no clue as to where we were going or why, trying to see where my feet where landing and praying with everything fiber of my being that I was not disturbing the silent, hungry, venomous predators that were surely lurking below. I lost sight of Valentine and could see nothing other than the thick, green vegetation closing in around me. The thought of being lost in the forest with my extremely ‘challenged’ since of direction prompted me to yell out in a state of panic… at the very same moment that I ran smack into Valentine. I was so disoriented that it took me a few seconds to finally realize that we were both staring straight at Susan, who was staring back at us from our patio with a very confused look on her face. She burst out laughing, “Where the hell did you come from? We have been looking for you for the past fifteen minutes! Fifteen minutes? Fifteen minutes!! “I don’t know what the hell you two have been doing, but Valentine and I have been chasing something or someone for hours…although I’m not sure why or where…and by the way, did anyone manage to put the damn fire out?”
The light of day:
First of all, there was no ‘fire’. It was a bonfire that the neighbors had set intentionally. Although, in our defense, it is the dry season here and the fire was HUGE and seemingly unintended. As for my brush with death in the bush, I was actually in my own back yard, no further than 1/4 of a mile from our back patio. And, as it turns out, my impeccable French was for not. Most of the older workers speak very basic French and communicate mainly in Swahili. It never occurred to Valentine that I would be alarmed about the bonfire harmlessly burning next door, so clearly there must have been an intruder!
Needless to say, I have been avoiding eye contact with the workers all day and can only imagine what they must think of me…that crazy American.
Lesson learned- no going out past my bedtime.