So, this one time (Oct. 1998) I was riding across southern Yemen in a white Landcruiser. We were on the road from Aden to Sana’a. It was, like, 11:00 PM – well after dark. And suddenly, from out of nowhere, there was a loud burst of automatic gunfire and streams of tracer flashing across the road right in front of us.
The driver slammed on the brakes and everyone else (there were three of us) hugged the floor.
We were in a part of Yemen that, at least at the time, was famous for kidnapping foreigners for ransom.
I remember thinking, “oh crap, I’m totally about to be abducted right now…”
* * *
So, here I am in a remote part of the Philippines. It’s been a disastrous trip. Almost nothing has gone as planned.
What was supposed to be a milk-run life-saving monitoring visit has turned into a situation that is best described in Vietnamese as “phuc tap.” Or perhaps even more apt, in Tok Piksin as “allbuggeredup.”
I was supposed to be having deep, melancholy-impulse-triggering conversations under mango trees with gaunt-but-grateful “beneficiaries.” But instead, I’m in a seemingly never-ending series of nine-hour rides that were only supposed to be four hours, in a van the looks like prisoner transport. It’s been three and a half days and I’ve done almost nothing but ride in the car with occasional breaks for greasy food.
My colleague who suffers a bit from motion sickness did a few stretches up in front with the driver, listening to Lionel Richie, Celine Dione and miscellaneous Pinoy mixes. He says it’s another world – seeing what’s coming. Seeing calamities narrowly averted: small children darting into the road to retrieve runaway toys, escaping messy deaths by tiny margins; slow-moving tricycles (motorcycles with sidecars) almost run down, but veered away from at the last possible second; oncoming 18-wheel trucks barreling around corners blind, missing our van by centimeters…
He says that the phrase in his head for the last day + has been: “oh crap! We’re gonna die… wait, I guess not. Never mind.”
And as I think about it, that may actually be one of the most apt phrases in an aid worker’s repertoire:
Oh crap! I’m gonna die… wait, never mind.
Oh crap! I’ve got dengue… again.. wait, it’s just a virus… never mind.
Oh crap! I’m gonna miss this flight… and.. sure enough.. missed it. Never mind.
Oh crap! I don’t have enough cash to pay the bar tab… oh wait, I’m in Cambodia now… never mind.
Oh crap! [BIG INSTITUTIONAL DONOR] is not gonna give us this grant. Wait, we just won.. never mind.
Oh crap! They’re playing “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt.. again. Wait, it’s Mariah Carey… never mind.
Oh crap! I have to go back to Haiti… Oh, it’s only for two weeks. Never mind.
Oh crap! I’m not accomplishing a thing on this trip… never mind.
Oh crap! [Fill in your own personal catastrophe]… never mind.
* * *
As it turns out, the gunfire and tracer across the road in southern Yemen was from a wedding.
You know. Everyone in that region packs an AK. And at the right moment, everyone fires randomly into the desert.
We totally did not get abducted that night.