Sunday, January 08, 2012

Abeche and Ouara

We left for Abeche on an early morning flight with the WFP. It took 1 ½ hrs to fly 900km due east in our little 50-seater plane. I don't know why but I had sort of assumed that since we were on a UN/NGO-only flight that it would be full of important looking westerners but it turns out almost all of the 40 passengers except for us and 2 or 3 others, were Chadian.

Abeche is not a very big town, (maybe 100,000 people) but it's the capital of the eastern region and is located only 175km from the border with Darfur, Sudan. As such, it is the main staging point for all the operations in eastern Chad that have to deal with the Darfur refugees and internally displaced people from previous Chadian conflicts or famines in the area. I kind of liked the town actually. It was relatively quiet, the main streets were paved and lighted and somehow smaller places feel cleaner, even though they aren't actually clean. It's even hotter and drier than N'Djamena though so I'm very happy we are here in Chad in “winter”, even if it is 30C during the day.

The Abeche airport must be Chadian run but I think the WFP has as much power there as they want. I think all the flights in and out of there are run by UN or NGO airlines, like WFP and when we were being questioned about our presence on arrival by the police, having a WFP contact at the airport seemed to satisfy them pretty well. We ended up staying in the WFP guest compound though there are now 2 hotels in town as well. Not that they have any guests, Abeche is still very much not on the tourist map.

All the transport in Abeche is motorbikes, tuk-tuks or trucks. There are no cars at all. Tuktuks are the taxis. The market was bigger than I thought it would be, and we had to wander around in it for a while looking for someone to change money as none of the banks in Abeche will change USD. They only change Euros. I think we freaked a lot of people out by just walking around on the streets. The WFP kept asking if we had a driver and we did get a lot of stares. Honestly, it didn't have any bad vibes being on the street and there was no strong police presence or hassle either. So we just did our thing.

The first day we ran around Abeche getting oriented mostly. Abeche also has a much more Muslim feel to it, with more obvious mosques and azans, and no obvious churches.

Our primary goal for our trip to Abeche was to actually get there and come back in one piece. In that goal we were successful. Our secondary goal was to visit a nearby refugee camp or 2. In that goal we were unsuccessful. As it turned out, we had gotten flights to Abeche with WFP but we simply didn't have enough time or enough of a game-plan originally to actually arrange any further flights with them to the camps. The nearest camp, Farchana, is a further 120km to the east. We had a little info on it, but with it being only a 3 day trip to Abeche for us, and no reliable transport in and out of Farchana, it was looking like a bit of a risk to try and get there, especially as we had no specific reasons to go to that particular camp. It wasn't James' first choice of camp to visit and he hadn't been able to get his meeting with the head of OCHA prior to our trip to discuss some of the issues we could address.

Nevertheless, we had the intention of attempting getting there on the 2nd day, but when James failed to wake up early (because he'd completely knocked himself out the night before with strong anti-histamines) our options were shot.

As a backup plan, to salvage our visit, we recalled Robin telling us about the ruins of a sultan's palace somewhere outside Abeche during our Christmas dinner and resolved to at least go see it on day 2. After asking around, we determined that the ruins were called Ouara (Wara) and were to the north, somewhere between 10 and 45km from Abeche but people had heard of it. Good enough for us.

We talked to a couple of guys at a moto taxi stand and agreed a price, selecting an older Bedouin driver, Osman, to take James in the lead because he had actually been there once, many years ago. Osman figured it was about 30km away. We left at 1:30pm believing that we could make it back before dark at 6pm. Oh such optimistic and naive people we are!

It was immediately obvious that Osman's bike was not up to the task and he had a flat only 2km out of town. At least he was smart enough to admit that the bike wasn't going to make it so we had to send the other guy back to town to get a replacement. After a while of sitting around we had a 3rd driver show up who lent his bike to Osman so we could continue. The main road heading north is just a dirt road with lots of bumps but not much washboarding fortunately. The landscape is beautiful in a dry wasteland kind of way. Sandy and flat with dried grasses and stunted trees or bushes for the most part. Here and there were small bouldery hills rising up, mostly in isolation. Goatherds tended their flocks of, well, goats and camels and children leading or riding donkeys laden with dried grass stopped to stare as we whizzed by. I wondered how many westerners had crazily travelled these roads on a motorbike in recent times...

There were a few stuffed pickups or beat up 4WD's that passed by going the opposite direction acting as the local public transport to the nearest town, Biltine, some 90km ahead of us. Clusters of mud-brick homes surrounded by a wooden fence and a handful of children were the local versions of villages and we passed several along our route.

It was wonderful, beautiful, freedom to be headed out into the countryside, finally free of the claustrophobia of wandering through the city with it's noises and fumes and crowds.......for about 30km. By then the bumping and jolting were starting to take it's toll. The late afternoon sun was drying us out and shrivelling us up and I'd already eaten a very large lunch of dust and my face was stinging from a few stones kicked up from James' bike in front of me. There was also no sign of any ruins and I was beginning to believe that we would have to travel a full 45km to get there. My driver started grumbling but Osman was a real trooper and determined to find the place and kept asking any people we met where Ouara was. They'd point vaguely to some hills up ahead and we'd continue.

Just after the 40km marker Osman blew another tire.

As we sat in the partial shade of a small tree, watching beetles scurry across the sand I began to doubt our making it back before sunset. It was already late afternoon and we still weren't sure where the ruins were. I was also starting to wonder if the cracks in my lips were starting to bleed. James had forbidden either of us from drinking the water we brought as soon as he realized the drivers didn't have any. We were not going to admit to having any lest we get stranded somewhere and need it for survival. Perhaps a bit extreme, but also perhaps the wiser course of action in such circumstances.

After fixing the tire we head out directly toward the nearest hills, through the grass and fields, asking anyone we came across which way to go. It was all very Mongolian for me at that point. Forward we drove, blazing a new trail or following herder tracks as required. Until we blew another tire....

It's a good thing Osman had picked up a lot of extra tire patches before we left, but that 3rd guy that had given up his bike to us had given us a lemon. Osman had no trouble pulling the inner tube out and patching it up, but it was seriously eating away at our daylight time. I also discovered burrs all over my socks and up the inside back of my pants. Ouch! We were at the base of a hill, and Osman was so convinced that the ruins were just around on the other side, that he refused to turn back and give up when James suggested it in order to give us enough time to find the main road before the sun set.

The ruins were just around the hill. And they were impressive in their isolation. We had very little idea what were seeing at the time, and there isn't even a sign to mark the place, but there are some partially standing building structures and clearly visible remains of numerous walls. We have since found out that Ouara was built in the 16th or 17th centuries and was the capital of Eastern Chad, founded by an Arab sultan grown wealthy on the African slave trade up into the Middle East. In roughly the 1890's the site was abandoned when their wells likely ran dry, and the new capital was moved to Abeche. The French didn't show up into the region for another 20-30 years so when they arrived, Ouara had no importance and it was Abeche that was conquered, destroyed and rebuilt. Ouara has remained in it's slowly decaying state ever since. I guess a lot/most of Ouara was built with mud over brick with the mud gone and a lot of bricks left to see now. The sun was quite low when we got there so we only had 10-15 minutes to really run around and film the site before we had to leave. Our drivers followed us around excitedly, speculating on different areas or acting as guides to James though I suspect little is true and almost all is now the local folklore about the place. The atmosphere of isolation was so incredible and I really wish we could've gotten there a lot sooner so we could've had more time to cover the whole area instead of just poking around the main standing structures. How long has it been since it last saw a visitor other than goatherds? How long will it be before the next visitor arrives? Ouara has been listed on the tentative UNESCO list since 2005 but it's not going to be a tourist attraction any time soon. First Chad is going to need some tourists....

So with a longing look back at the ruins fading away behind us, we left Ouara to the wild foxes that can now call it home and gunned the bikes along new trails over across the countryside, racing the setting sun to at least get back to the main road. James was starting to worry and make plans for spending the night outside, but Osman seemed pretty confident. We stopped to beg water from a village for the drivers (we weren't going to drink that dirty stuff) and finally reached the main road, in full dark (though there is an almost full moon now which was nice) just to have to stop for another flat tire. James and I held up phones to illuminate the tire while it was being patched up and for the first time I noticed what was actually going on. Osman was putting patches on top of patches. Soon there wouldn't actually be a tube left but simply a circular series of patches the size of a tire. He put 7 patches on that 1 stop alone!

Off we go again, finally on the road and hoping that having more solid ground would somehow help. Nope. It did not. We made it less than 1km when we had to stop once again to put another patch on the tire. We still had 40km to go in the dark, and 6 patches left. We weren't going to make it at that rate. My driver wanted to leave Osman behind but we knew Osman was the only competent guy in our group. No way we were leaving him! The solution that we implemented in the end was to put James on my bike and let Osman drive on his own pushing it the whole way on more or less a flat tire. It was rough. My body ached all over and we had a lot more dust for dinner but we did make pretty good time after that. Osman decided not to make any more stops and we got back into Abeche at about 9pm, 3 hours after sunset.

Just inside of Abeche my driver stopped, complained about his suspension being wrecked, blamed us (of course) and took off to go fix it or something and said he'd be back. That was weird. Really weird. The guy was kind of suspicious anyway, and without Osman he would've turned back on the whole trip a long time before we even made it to Ouara so we generally weren't getting good vibes out of him. But nobody I've ever hired as a driver that has been annoyed and inconvenienced all day has ever just driven off when we get almost to the end (we were still on the wrong side of town from our compound) and not collected his money.... Osman was still with us, now pushing his bike as we walked along the dirt street, but Osman didn't even have a phone, and did the guy trust Osman and us enough to not just disappear? We'd convinced ourselves that nefarious plans were possibly underway and so as soon as we got back to a paved road with some traffic, paid Osman enough for both drivers (with a little extra for his efforts) and took off in a tuktuk as fast as we could before the other guy could come back.

What a great adventure but I'm out of shape and was so worn out I couldn't even face the thought of a cold shower to wash off the dust so simply fell into bed dreaming of a massage I would never get.

The next day, upon review of the events of the previous one, James decided it was definitely in our best interest to NOT attempted to get all the way to Farchana and back in a single day as it was nearly 3 times as far and we definitely couldn't afford to miss our flight out of Abeche. He also did not want to risk the video camera and losing all the great footage we got of the day before. We'd only flown over with minimal stuff and had left his computer and backup hard drives in N'Djamena. So in the end we didn't do much with our last day in Abeche, and mostly stayed in our compound or just within the immediate area to get food. We also weren't particularly interested in accidentally meeting up with my driver and getting accused of not paying him or something. James sometimes has a paranoid and low opinion of the general populace I think. He claims he learned it from his time and experiences living in Egypt. I can't argue against that....

Our flight back to N'Djamena was uneventful and we are now preparing for our trip to Moussoro.



At 1:03 AM , Anonymous James said...

My favorite quote ever - "...but when James failed to wake up early (because he'd completely knocked himself out the night before with strong anti-histamines)..."


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