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The Beast


Well, three weeks have gone by and here I am in my UN trailer, still surviving. Let me introduce you to my fellow team members: Kay and Chat are from Thailand and are nice chaps who work hard and believe in “face.” (Face means to retain one’s dignity, selfrespect, humility and so forth in the“face” of say, someone else’s anger or abuse.) André, Peter, Gabrielle and Morten are from Norway and Denmark. They’ve found it impossible to leave their Nordic-ness behind and are not happy campers in this heat. Song comes from Cambodia. Leen and Hank come from Holland. Sigi and Arne, who are Germans, are the best and most disciplined team members. Ahamed,

Mousa and Mohammed are from Jordan and Yemen, nice guys and tremendous assets because they speak Arabic. The team leader is Ionell from Romania, who does a tough, thankless job very well. Finally, the best of the lot, young Janan from Canada. They are professionals. They like to joke around but they take their jobs seriously. I’m on air patrol (Russian MI8 helicopter) next week and am very excited.

I decide to buy a bicycle today. Even the locals are laughing at how beaten-up it is. It is an attractive rust colour because it has not a lick of paint anywhere. When I heft it, it seems to weigh 200-plus pounds and looks as though it was built in the mid-19th century. But what the hell, it’ll provide cardio exercise. (My colleagues from below the Equator run daily in the 40-degree heat, no problem.) The bicycle is a much better way of interacting with the locals than sitting high and mighty in our big white SUVs. With an antennae wired with a UN flag, I’ll be set.

I see many disturbing things, at least to my delicate sensibilities. Poverty, dirt, refuse everywhere and animals treated harshly as working creatures or left to run wild. I especially feel for the little donkeys, which are the mainstay transportation vehicle, pulling water tanks, cartage wag ons and families about the town. All the donkey drivers have a rubber truncheon with which to beat the animal to go faster. I know I am bringing in my urban sensibilities here, but really. So far at least, I

don’t feel impacted in any psychological sense. Maybe it doesn’t happen until you go home? Perhaps it is cumulative? Maybe it takes viewing or participating in something absolutely horrendous?

A big rain-lightning-wind storm is approaching. The containers we sleep in are light and made of tin, or something, for the UN. Mine is all dented and twisted by being bowled over in the last windstorm before I got here.

I decide to ride my bike, dubbed The Beast, home today. It’s hard. Either I am w-a-y out of shape, which is very possible, or I cannot function in this heat. Or I’ve never ridden in long pants and army boots. Or there is one long hill. Or the bike is made of cast iron. Or the brakes are stuck on. Or – the one I prefer – I am just not used to this style of bicycle. I will have to take it back to the bike shop, which consists of tools and a bike stand on the dirt, under a burlap awning, for a new crank arm. The right one is wonky and pretty near breaks my ankle every revolution.

Still, I get lots of waves, thumbs-ups and laughs as I sweat and wobble my way home. The bicycle is a big hit, outfitted as it is with UN flag and antennae. We are always short of vehicles anyway. I ride The Beast throughout the tukol (clusters of huts) neighbourhoods, always garnering a few laughs and attempts at conversations. Some children run away screaming.

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