Tag Archives: Driving

Praying That The Truck Stalls.

“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” James 5:16b

Prayer has been on mind mind today, in particular in regards to some of the situations I’ve been in when traveling in South Sudan. One particular instance comes to mind. I was traveling in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser with two other missionaries and several natives, going from the town of Bor to a village about three hours north called Liliir. The seasonal rains had run long that year, and there were huge sections of road that were virtually impassible. When I say virtually impassible, what I mean is that some vehicles made it, and some did not. We passed many vehicles that were stuck deeper than the wheels in mud, and were being unloaded to take the weight off so hopefully they could be moved. I remember one that had its rear axle sitting behind it, and was clearly not going to be going anywhere. I have a picture I took of one of those vehicles as we passed.

Toyota being unloaded to try to get it out of the mud, South Sudan.
Toyota being unloaded to try to get it out of the mud, South Sudan.

 

So now, knowing the situation, you would think that our driver would take the utmost care to avoid those kinds of situations on the way back from the village that evening. You would think wrong. He apparently had a terminal case of denial, and as we came to this very spot where only six hours before we had seen the above vehicle stuck, he decided to go through that very same spot rather than go the route we knew was safe. The thing about traveling in South Sudan is that you really don’t want to be doing it at night, and getting stuck would have put us in that situation.  Just for reference, since I’m unable to get the travel warning we were under at the time, I’m just posting the current one from the Dept. of State. ”

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to the Republic of South Sudan.  After review of our security conditions, the U.S. Department of State lifted the ordered departure status for the U.S. Embassy in Juba on June 12, 2014.  However, as a result of continued instability and a poor security situation resulting from the civil conflict which erupted in the country in December 2013, the U.S. Embassy will continue operating at reduced staffing levels for the foreseeable future.  The U.S. Embassy is therefore only able to offer very limited emergency services to U.S. citizens in the Republic of South Sudan.  This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning issued on April 23, 2014.”

So you can see now why we wouldn’t want to be stuck out at night with no way to get back.  Despite our loud objections, our driver tried to put the vehicle into four wheel drive low, and descend into the muck. What he didn’t know, though, was that we had a team of people praying for us back home.

As our driver tried to put the vehicle into four wheel low, the engine stalled. He started it back up, tried to put it back into four wheel low, and stalled it again. This happened three or four times. Finally, he gave up, backed up the vehicle, and drove to the route we had come through that morning. As he got to the crossing, he dropped the vehicle into four wheel low gear with no trouble and no stalling, and crossed easily.

It’s situations like this that make you realize the difference between tourism and missions. It’s not the place you are going that makes the difference, it’s the spiritual currents that are running just below the surface. Is what you’re doing moving things in the spiritual realm? If they are, you are going to face opposition, and this is why those who are still at home in prayer are just as important if not more so than those who actually go. I will probably go into other situations where this was very apparent at a later time.  For now though, the subject of prayer is forefront on my mind as some of my friends are currently on their way to Kenya, some of them for the first time. Also, in the next three months, I’ll be going to Kenya as well, and then to Ethiopia. More on that later.

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Two Car Accidents and a Baptism in the Nile

Today I was involved in two separate car accidents in South Sudan. Most of us are bruised and sore, especially on the knees and shins. Also, there’s damage to the vehicle. The only thing is, each of the accidents lasted two and a half hours and we were the only vehicle involved. What we hit was the Juba-Bor road. The rainy season has just ended, and the road can no longer be considered a road. As they say; in America your drive on the right side of the road, in Britain on the left, and in Africa you drive on the good side of the road. This of course doesn’t apply to South Sudan, where there is no good side of the road. Each way to the village we went to was only 30 or 35 miles, but took 2 1/2 hours to travel. Going the 140 miles all the way to Juba currently takes 2 days.

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The Juba-Bor road

The good thing is that the reason for this transportational fiasco was that we were going to a Baptism at a year old church that meets under an acacia tree in a village along the Nile. It doesn’t get any better than that. Imagine yourself in the time of Christ, in the land of Cush, along the same Nile River where Moses floated in a basket. Now realize that except for the odd T-shirt or other western clothing, and the fact that the well has a hand pump instead of a bucket, NOTHING has changed since that time.

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The event was as amazing as I thought it would be. A line of people walked from the church down to the river, singing as they went. It was just like the scene in “Oh Brother Where Art Thou“, only it was all Africans singing in Dinka. The villagers continued to sing the whole time as they stood along the shore, and the music was beautiful. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything in the world.  Afterward, the chief greeted us and thanked us for being there, and expressed his appreciation for our participation in their village. I was here a year and a half ago, and I sensed a lot of skepticism at the time that we would actually continue to be involved as we said we would. I think there was some appreciation that we had followed though and continued to build relationships in this village.

In the end, the bruises and soreness were worth it. This is a beautiful day I will always remember.

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All pictures can be clicked on for a larger view.

Practical advice for shooting on the go.

Sometimes I have to get off my soapbox, stop pontificating, and give some practical, easy to use advice.  Sometimes some of the best pictures can be obtained from a moving vehicle, whether it’s wildlife if you’re on safari, or the everyday goings on of the people you’re passing as you travel from one place to another. In the developed world, you’re flying by at 100 kph, and the problem is horizontal motion. In Africa, the problem is exactly the opposite, the up and down motion. For those who haven’t been to Africa, it’s probably impossible to express exactly how much up and down motion there is, so I’m not even going to try, except to say that sometimes it’s hard to even get the camera lens out the window without damaging either the lens or yourself. However, it’s an easier problem to remedy than the problem of moving too fast, and here’s why. When you are traveling at a high rate of speed, the perspective is constantly changing, meaning that the closer an object is to where you’re shooting from, the faster it appears to be going relative to you. It’s therefore hard to get a good picture where the foreground elements of the photo do not exhibit motion blur.

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Woman walking in the blazing sun with umbrella, taken from a moving vehicle.

On the other hand, when you are moving relatively slowly but have lots of jarring, your only problem is to try to freeze your own motion because the perspective outside the vehicle is changing relatively slowly. Now I’m writing this assuming that the reader has at least some knowledge of camera functions. There are several ways to freeze motion when traveling in a rocking, jarring vehicle.

The first is to shoot with image-stabilized lenses. These lenses have floating elements inside them that counteract the motion of the person shooting the picture. This is where a lot of confusion comes in. Many people think that an image-stabilized lens freezes the motion of the subject. This is absolutely not true. If you take a picture with too slow a shutter speed and your subject is moving too fast, it’s going to be a blurry picture. It does, however, take some of the blur out caused by your own motion.

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A man thatches his roof with new reeds. Photo taken from a moving vehicle.

Another method is to shoot with a high ISO setting on your camera, even in bright daylight. I often shoot in bright tropical sunlight with an ISO of 640 or 800. High ISO pictures can have some additional noise (grain to some people) in the photo, but I’d rather have a noisy picture than a blurry one any day. Along this same line, if you shoot with a larger aperture (smaller aperture number), you will also achieve a higher shutter speed, which will in turn freeze motion. When shooting from a moving vehicle, I try to shoot at shutter speeds of between 1/2000 and 1/8000 of a second. Speeds like this will stop almost any motion, no matter how awful the road is.

Using these methods, some of my favorite pictures from Kenya and South Sudan have been taken from the window of a vehicle.

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A boy looks in the window of a polling place shortly before the referendum for independence in 2010. Photo taken from a moving vehicle.

Oh, one other thing. If you want to get any pictures, you’re going to have to use an slr camera. Point-and-shoot cameras have come a long way, but they still tend to have limited controls, large amounts of noise at high ISO’s , and annoyingly, still a bit of shutter lag. This means you’ll press the shutter button, and in the time between when you press the button and when the picture is taken, you find you’ve taken a picture of something entirely unintended.

Finally, take lots and lots of pictures, because no matter how good you are, there are going to be a lot of rejects. But in that pile of rejects, there will be those few gems that totally make up for them. So keep shooting.

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Abandoned northern Sudanese tank in the road. Taken from a moving vehicle.

 

Planes, no trains, automobiles, foot, and a buda buda in South Sudan

Every time I go into South Sudan, the scariest but also the most exciting part of it is the travel. It is definitely the most dangerous time, but also gives me the chance to see some truly amazing things, as well as live some experiences that are rare for the westerner. I’ve learned a few things over the years about what to do and what not to do. The first time I went, we hired a car to take us from the capital to the village we were going to. While this made the experience far more comfortable, it also made it extremely expensive and not necessarily any safer. The secret is out that UN workers are given a per diem of $220 US dollars a day. Consequently the rates for anything consumed by westerners is through the roof. Hiring a car costs $500 US dollars a day, plus gas, which is currently somewhere between $15 and $18 dollar a gallon.

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The driver somehow managed to fit 14 people into this land cruiser, plus all their stuff.

Since then, when possible, we travel by public transportation. While all of the comfort is gone, we end up spending $30 a person instead of $125, and since the vehicles make regular trips, they are usually more rugged, typically Toyota Land Cruisers. The problem is, just when you think the driver can’t get a single additional person in the vehicle, two more get on, literally. You have to hold yourself up on your elbows to keep from getting beaten up by the jarring over rough roads. If you want a real African experience, this it. While this is a rough way to travel, I have an appreciation for it coming from a culture where comfort is placed on such a pedestal. We could use a little more “let’s do what we need to do to get it done” attitude in the US.

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Vehicles stopped at a checkpoint where mines are being cleared.

One of the dangers I mentioned is that many sections of road are still lined by minefields. A couple times we’ve had to stop and wait while mine clearing equipment finished what they were doing before it was safe for traffic to pass by. Additionally, there is a lot of unexploded ordinance along the side of the road.

But the tradeoff is what you find along the way. Once when traveling between two villages, we came across two cattle camps engaged in wrestling. I was fortunate enough to be able to stop and get some of my favorite pictures to date. This was a very rare thing for anyone not from South Sudan to see.

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Sudanese wrestlers less than a second before the match ended in pain.

Another of the dangers I mentioned is what the locals call “black snakes”. No, they are not literal snakes, though there are plenty of those. Black snakes are bandits and murderers who ambush drivers on the road, shoot the passengers, then pillage the vehicles. These are some of the people that benefit from the current state of war and chaos, and further destabilize the situation. Consequently, it’s never wise to travel between villages at night, and you should always have other vehicles in sight.  Once when we were driving, there had been a murder along the section of road we were on just a couple days before, and our driver was aware of it. For me, that was the scariest car ride I’ve ever had, not because of the murders but because of our driver. He was scared and drove at 70 miles an hour over washboard rutted dirt roads in a vehicle on airplane tires with broken power steering. We frequently bounced sideways as the vehicle bounced on its balloon-like tires.

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Yes, those are airplane tires on that truck.
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They’re going to have to unload everything to get that truck out.

I have to give a lot of credit to the skill of the people who regularly drive these roads. I’ve seen drivers adeptly weave their way through holes straight through the top of a bridge to the dry river bed below, as well as drive through ruts I was sure would make us have to get out and push. On the other hand I’ve also seen four-wheel-drive vehicles stuck up to their doors in mud, or sitting with it’s axle behind the vehicle.

By now you’re wondering, “what is a buda buda”? A buda buda is a motorcycle taxi typically driven by a driver about twelve years old. He drives, you sit on the back. My advise is to not have a heavy pack on, or you just might fall off the back.

My goal is not to paint a terrible picture, because it’s truly not. Travel in South Sudan is just very different from what you’re probably used to. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is an adventure. For those inclined to that sort of thing who have the stomach for it, it’s an experience worth having. Otherwise I wouldn’t keep going back.

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Buda buda drivers waiting for customers in Juba, South Sudan.