Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 30

6 10 2008

Housekeeping? I would like to register a complaint…   (Virunga National Park, Zaire)

Check the fine print before availing yourself of laundry services.


We had spent the day trekking the Virunga mountains in search of mountain gorillas. The thick vegetation had us crawling on all-fours through bamboo thickets, clambering over fallen trees, fighting through vines and wading in ankle-deep mud. The heavy rain that accompanied our trek back to camp at day’s end had left us thoroughly dishevelled like the exhilarated explorers we felt we were.


Gathered around the wooden hut on whose dusty floor we had slept were a group of local boys eager to sell us bottles of Coke or to pick up a few dollars in exchange for odd jobs. The interaction and enthusiasm of the local population in such a poor and troubled part of the world was vital to the survival of the mountain gorillas and the success of local tourism and conservation efforts. It was also significantly favourable to begging…not to mention that a Coke sounded pretty good at that moment.


A teenager approached and offered to wash my mud-splattered trousers for a couple of dollars. I shifted uncomfortably, not keen on the subservience that such an act would suggest but also aware that these jobs were important to the community.  


“Will they be dry by the morning?” I asked, aware that we would be trekking back to the border very early.


“Oh yes.” he replied enthusiastically. “I will hang them over the fire.” he added, gesturing to the modest crackle not far away.


Against my better judgement, I nodded my agreement and changed into the long underwear I had brought to sleep in during the cold nights at altitude. He grabbed my trousers and disappeared.


The rain increased throughout the evening and we huddled in the hut as it pounded the corrugated tin roof and dripped noisily into the deep puddles that had formed beneath the roof’s overhang.


Early the next morning I was up as the sun started to rise over the fields and hills below. I ventured outside to find the grass saturated, everything lush and low clouds hugging the trees. The remnants of the campfire smouldered tiredly giving off far more smoke than heat. My trousers were nowhere to be seen.


As I stood cleaning my teeth and gazing down towards Uganda, my new friend strolled up.


“Jambo!” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “Your trousers are over there” he said, pointing to a line strung near the fire. “They are very clean. And dry.”


I handed him the money and thanked him for his help. With a wave and a smile he strode away. 


After rolling up my sleeping bag, I headed out to retrieve my trousers. They were clean…but also most definitely wet. The line drooped from their sodden cotton weight. I pulled them down and held them in my hands. Glancing down at my long-johns, I knew I had little choice and walked behind the hut to slip them on.


They were indeed very wet and as I struggled to pull them on, also startlingly cold. They clung to my skin like a bowl of vichyssoise. I shivered and grimaced. As I knelt to tie my hiking boots, I felt them stick to me everywhere and walked like I’d just dismounted a horse. I put on my belt, filled my pockets and eagerly waited to start the trek in the hope that the rising sun and my body heat would dry them.


The wetness squelched with each step and I felt like a toddler who’d just had an accident on his first day in nursery school. It was soon apparent that they were not going to dry quickly enough for my liking. As my legs chaffed, my stride became more bow-legged until I no longer looked like someone who’d just stepped off a horse, but more like someone who was still riding one.


After a couple of hours, they were dry everywhere except for the seams and waistline. At the border awaiting immigration formalities, more boys came forward offering bottled water and Coke. I sat in the shade, asked for a Coke and was quoted four times the going rate. The boy smiled cheekily knowing he had a captive audience and no competition. Admiring his entrepreneurial spirit, I nodded my agreement and reached into my pocket to remove a few one dollar notes.


They came out soaking wet and stuck together. I carefully unfolded them and handed them across.


The boy looked at them once, shook his head, tutted and walked away.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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