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9/27 Day of Power

I woke up to the smell of pancakes and the sound of CNN pundits debriefing the debates. I knew I needed to get back up the mountain to Berberville, but since there are 4 tranzits per day, I wasn’t worried. Some friends left on the 8:30 tranzit, but I was still mostly asleep, so I didn’t join them.

The next tranzit was scheduled to pass by between 11:30 and 11:45. I was outside by 11:25, and waited until 12:00, but never saw it. I figured it had gone by earlier, and resolved to catch the next one.

Tranzit #3 should have come by between 1:30 and 2pm. I was outside by 1:15, and was told that it had gone by 10 minutes earlier.

There was only one more tranzit left, so I was getting nervous. I decided to go into SouqTown, about half an hour up the road, to guarantee myself a seat on it. It should have left town at 2:30pm. I got to town at 2:15pm, and was told that it had left an *hour* before. I must have passed it on the road shortly after leaving.

I did, however, finally get an explanation for why the tranzit schedule had gone haywire. (In general, if you understand the uncertainty built into the system, which leads to things running two to twenty minutes late, the tranzits between Berberville and SouqTown are actually extremely punctual.) Because everyone wanted to be SURE to be home before sunset, so that they could spend the entire Night of Power (aka 27) with their families, they’d adjusted the tranzit departure times so that the last one could leave over an hour early and have the others evenly spaced throughout the day. Of course, they never announced that they were doing this; I don’t know if I should have guessed it, knowing how important the Night of Power is, or whether everyone else was as surprised as I was…but long story short, I was stuck in SouqTown with no way to get to my host family, who had been talking about sharing 27 with me for weeks.
I called home, apologized, explained how I’d managed to miss not one but *three* tranzits…and Ama gracious as always, just said she’d see me tomorrow.

So that then opened the question of where to spend the Night of Power. It’s very much a family holiday, so I really didn’t want to pass the night in the hotel. I have four PCV friends who live within half an hour of SouqTown. Of them, three were planning to spend 27 with their families. One of those three immediately invited me to join her, and overrode my dithering with a brusque, "You’re coming with me. Safi."

I bowed to the inevitable, and within the hour we were crammed into her nokl (sounds exactly like "knuckle", and is identical with a tranzit, it’s just called different things in different places). Rain had come to SouqTown while we were waiting to leave, turning the dirt-covered pavement into a muddy stream, and turning the dirt roads into gack* swamps.

The rain let up somewhat while we drove, but apparently it had been raining for hours – maybe days – up the mountain. The nokl splashed through countless puddles, most no deeper than the ones that my sister, dad and I used to jump in after childhood rainstorms (is mud-puddle-jumping a family tradition for other folks, too, or is that just us?). Every so often, though, the road would be covered by water standing (or running) at least a foot deep. The driver would slow down for those, but we’d still throw splashes that reached higher than the nokl windows.
And then we came to the bridge.

On ordinary days, the bridge runs over a rivulet. Today, that rivulet, swollen into a river, ran over the bridge.

I’d never seen anything like it.

I grew up on the Mississippi River, and lived through the Flood of ’93, as well as smaller floods before and after. I’ve seen the Mighty Muddy reach a couple miles across, spreading over farmlands and through basements and even washing around first-floor furniture.
But this was a muddy torrent, foaming and dashing around trees and bridge guard rails. The water looked like chocolate milk, or else cafĂ© latte poured from Paul Bunyan’s coffeepot. Moment after moment, then hour after hour, the floodwaters gushed downhill from some unseen point in the mountains.

First, we all piled out of the nokl to see the obstruction. Some of us took pictures and video of it. Then we looked at each other to see what we were going to do about it. And finally, we just watched the time tick onwards towards sunset and the Night of Power.

We waited more than two hours, and the surging waters never abated. I’d predicted that after the first thirty seconds, just based on the volume of water and everything I’ve learned about hydrology on the Earth and the even more dramatic floods on Mars. But optimism trumps knowledge more often than not, and especially on nights where the need to Be On The Other Side reigns paramount. This was apparently the Moroccan Muslim equivalent of being held away from your family on Christmas Eve. Regardless of the evidence, you *really* want to believe that something will work out to let you celebrate with your family.

Finally, however, after a few brave souls attempted to cross on their own, but (lhumdullah) thought better of it before going too far into the meter-deep torrent, the driver surrendered, and we turned around and headed back for SouqTown.

Of the three friends who had planned to spend this night with their host families, two lived in a village on the far side of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Floodwaters. We texted the third, "Kareem", and asked if we could join him and his family for the Night of Power.

While waiting to hear back from him, I spent some time thinking seriously about the situation. It seemed egregiously unfair that so many of us were being kept away from our families, and from sharing with them this sacred evening. As I searched for answers, it occurred to me that I was limiting my definition of "family" to our Peace Corps-assigned host families. As much as we love (or don’t) the families in which we’re placed, we also have a wider family, I realized; the family of fellow PCVs that I’d been so delighted to think about just a week or two ago. (See the blog on "Brotherhood.") True, several of us wouldn’t be with our host families…but we would get to be with each other, now, and that wouldn’t have been possible if we’d been in our separate villages and homes.

The nokl by now was most of the way back to SouqTown, but it suddenly pulled off the road and pulled a giant U-turn. I was curious to see what path we’d be taking now. Back to the washed-out (washed-over?) bridge? An alternate route to my friends’ village? Somewhere entirely new?
We stopped at a fork in the road. Three paths stretched away from us: one to my friends’ village, another to Kareem’s village, and the third to SouqTown. The driver said that he was giving us the option of getting out here, where we could take transportation (in the form of flagging down any passing vehicle) anywhere we wanted to go. I called Kareem, who had never responded to my text, and got an invitation for us all to join him and his host family for the night.
We three PCVs decided to try to get rides to Kareem’s village, so we piled out of the nokl, grabbed our bags, and headed to the northbound side of the road. Hitchhiking is strictly forbidden by Peace Corps, but there aren’t a lot of options when you’re abandoned on the side of the road.

Not a *lot* of options…but that doesn’t mean *none.* And sure enough, an empty grand taxi came by only a minute or two later. We’d already flagged down a small car, which stopped for us even though it was crowded with six passengers and an egg-filled trunk, where the generous-hearted driver was urging us to put our heavy packs. Lhumdullah, we didn’t have to crush his eggs or his other passengers (or violate Peace Corps policy); we rented out the grand taxi and had a spacious ride down to Kareem’s village.

As we rode, our driver informed us that there is a back route into my friends’ village. In fact, we soon overtook the nokl—which had driven off while we were piling into the grand taxi—which was headed for this back way. Apparently, *everyone* on the nokl was going to get home tonight, albeit by a circuitous route.

My friends & I discussed whether we wanted to follow the nokl (or flag it down and jump on) or else continue on the road to Kareem’s home. The driver told us that the back way was a piste, the local term for a dirt/gravel road winding up or down the side of a mountain. Given the still-heavy rainfall, we suspected that a dirt road would be a dangerous path, and thanks to the hours we’d spent at flooded bridge, we were already approaching sunset. Peace Corps also forbids traveling in the dark, but we had an even more urgent reason to get to Kareem’s village quickly: the Night of Power begins with the sunset call to prayer, and we wanted to be with Kareem’s family when that call came, plus we wanted to allow our driver to be with his family for it, too.
We decided that, as much as my friend wanted to get to her own village for the Night, there were too many factors making it a bad idea (rain, piste, approaching darkness, the total lack of 4x4 driving ability in this Mercedes Benz sedan or the nokl van, etc), so we pushed past the steep, gravelly piste trailhead and continued down to Kareem’s home.

We got there almost half an hour before sunset, so there’s a good chance that our driver was back in SouqTown (his hometown) in time for sunset prayers. We also got to be with Kareem’s family from sunset until about midnight, at which point we came back to Kareem’s own house and spent the remainder of the Night hanging out with each other. (It’s 4:55am now; the others fell asleep about an hour ago, shortly before the dawn call to prayer. Now that the new day’s prayers have begun, even though the sun isn’t yet risen, I think we’re free to sleep. Or maybe I’m supposed to wait till sunrise…but I think I’ll go ahead and call it a night. A Night, that is. A Night of Family, Friendship, and Love. Those are powers I’m happy to believe in. :)

* I don’t know if "gack" appears in any dictionary; I learned the term when working in the Florida swamps/estuaries. It refers to the stickiest, goopiest, sludgiest mud that coats your feet and legs when you walk (wade!) through it.

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