As we pulled out of the gate to drive back, however, we lost Paradise pretty rapidly. A military armored car pulled off the road ahead of us and pointed guns in our direction. We were 90% sure they were the good guys, but it was unnerving until they waved back all smiles. Half an hour later we pulled up to the T-intersection in Karagutu, the only stop and turn on the 2 1/2 hour journey home. Or so we thought. As we rolled right smack into the middle of the intersection, the engine died as the clutch failed. There we sat, at 2 pm, still 2 hours from home, with gears totally locked up. But one of the only people we know in Karagutu was at our window in under thirty seconds, followed by the town mechanic whom he vouched for. The town mechanic was about 25, chiseled, muscular, fierce looking, with a bundle of wrenches wrapped in shredded rubber tied to the waist of his tight black jeans. He dove right under the car and came up covered in sandy dirt, confident he could fix the problem. An angel? So we hoped, though his general demeanor made him look a little mentally unstable. Until the real town crazy man began harassing us, poking me with his finger and waving his arms and dancing around our car, at which point the mechanic began to seem sort of sane. I had been waiting to get through town for a more secluded bathroom break so I was not so comfortable as we watched in the hot sun, hood open, umpteen people telling us as if we didn't know that our car was in the road and should be pulled off (we couldn't because it was jammed in gear and could not move into neutral), feeling helpless, at the mercy of a man who could have been sent from God - or not.
Communication was tough. Scott called our usual mechanic in Kampala to have him talk in Luganda to the Rutoro-speaking mechanic. They seemed to have a plan. More people gathered. The sun beat down, the crazy man orbited, the cars beeped their horns and threw up dust, the clutch slave cylinder was dismantled and re-assembled, more brake fluid was decanted into various holes. No change. More truck drivers came over to advise. We repeated the whole process. Our Kampala mechanic friend was no longer answering his phone. It was now an hour and a half since we had stopped. My bladder was in pain. Paradise was becoming a distant memory. Scott called our friend Atwoki in Fort Portal, again to have him talk to the bizarre mechanic who was glaring at us. After they talked, he took the phone back: "Dr., I am coming to rescue you," our dear friend said.
Coming, that is, in the loosest sense of the word. I found a latrine. We bought cell phone air time. We sat in the middle of the intersection. We met a group of pastors coming out of a conference who all wanted to greet us, and ascertain the extent of our mechanical failures as they weighed whether it was worth hanging about hoping for a free ride. They hovered, then gave up. We chatted with the RDC who passed by on his way to "the war office", trailed by armed soldiers. An old man from Bundibugyo came up to get medical advice about his son. The corn-roasting stand across the road began blaring a scratchy radio replay of a fight, which went on forever. We sat in the car, stood by the car, waited. For about 3 more hours. When you're in need of rescue you can't rush things. The local mechanic perched himself on the front bumper, and then we realized that the bag of green leaves he was carrying was not the local spinach equivalent that he was taking home for dinner, even though he looked like Pop-eye. It was khat, a drug, he was chewing. That explains a lot. In the end he was reasonably competent, but high.
Atwoki was a welcome sight at dusk, breezing into town with his three side-kick mechanic buddies, all wearing their "Stitch and Sew" (the name of his mechanic shop) red uniforms. They pounced on the problem all at once, replacing both cylinders which are clutch related. No change. Now it was dark, and they did the whole process again using my tiny pocket flashlight and the little illumination on their "ka-torchi" cell phones. It was pitch dark, a wind picked up, and then rain. For another two hours they tried. Each failure seemed to make Atwoki more sure of just where the problem lay, but it was now 9 pm, and the next step he estimated would take 4-5 hours, removing the entire gear box to get at some sort of clutch plate, which would have to be replaced by a spare, from Kampala. On a brighter note, he did manage to get he car to start in gear and pop out into neutral, so we could tow it off the road to the police station. It was now 7 1/2 hours since we embarked on our short journey, we were wet, no one had eaten dinner, and our car was immobilized at the police station. Atwoki told us to get in his car, so we did. We thought we were all heading back to Fort Portal, but no, he had decided that since he had to come to Bundi for another errand anyway (Pat's broken car), he'd just drive us there now.
And so for the first time in our long history here we broke all our don't-travel-after-dark rules and got home before midnight. Our gracious team prepared mattresses and food for the Stitch-and-Sew crew of four, and we slipped into our own house where Ashley had waited with the kids. All the way we had talked to Atwoki, about our kids, his kids, fellow-missionary friends, farming, the church, preaching, cows, and memories. We actually have more in common with our Fort Portal mechanic friend than with most other people in this world. I laughed when Scott was telling a story about an old Herron truck, and Atwoki came up with the license plate from almost two decades ago, "Oh you mean UPO-426?"
It was a full-circle experience, actually. The morning we first landed in Uganda in 1993, all our team mates were sick and unable to meet us at the airport. We really didn't have much communication in those days, so we sat on the curb in the dawn, hoping someone would remember us, with the sinking realization that we had no idea where to go or what to do. For what seemed like hours, though it was probably less than two. As we were about to give up, Atwoki came driving up in that Herron truck, good old UPO-426, apologizing for being late. It was our first time to be rescued by him, and yesterday probably won't be our last.
Ten hours of agony did not fully erase 48 hours of paradise. But since our disaster motorcycle ride to this get-away a couple of years ago, and the all-spares-tires-deflated, stranded-on-the mountain return trip from this same outing last year, we are a bit wary. Paradise has a high price.