Friday, October 28, 2016

Broken Timelines, Broken Trucks, Broken "Laws," Broken Roads, Broken Arms, Broken Wallets...

For those who knows, the author works in a job where the main responsibility is providing agricultural inputs to farmers on loan.  The method by which it is done is through a series of retail outlets in the remotes villages where farmers can visit to purchase those inputs on loan.  So naturally, preparing to open the shops requires transport of the said inputs from a central warehouse to the locations of the shops.  As the coming agricultural season approaches, the team here is beginning those "truck runs."  Unfortunately bottlenecks are everywhere, and some of them experienced recently could be considered novel for the inexperienced.

First of all, the costs.  After all those years doing logistics-related work in Philippines and Malaysia, the author is quite used to trucks being priced around 1500 USD a month for rent.  But out here, even a 4-hour trip cost some 500 USD a pop.  Added onto the costs are extra costs out of the pocket incurred in delays, including food and lodging for drivers and labor staff as well as extra transport costs to ship people to and fro as not everyone can remain with the truck overnight and in areas with traffic police.  This is not even counting the mental costs of just being stuck inside a tiny space for hours at a time.

So why are there delays?  One is, of course, the traffic police.  All sort of vehicles are stopped regularly for dubious charges of speeding, and heavily-laden trucks are particularly lucrative targets.  "Fines" for regular cars may be in the region of 5 USD, but big trucks can be slapped with ten times that amount.  Those unwilling to fork out the massive "fines" grind it out, patiently negotiating down the price over course of hours.  In the latest run, the author's truck team managed to reduce the 50 USD price tag down to about 2.5 USD, but incurring a full one-and-half-hour delay.

The other is the dismal condition of the truck steadily being destroyed by an even more dismal condition of the roads it is going on.  Rural Africa is where secondhand manufactured products come to die, whether it be clothing or vehicles.  Trucks beyond their usual "expiration dates," the author experienced first-hand, tend to go through a minor breakdown every couple of hours on the road, and a major breakdown that require a new (i.e. newer secondhand) part every few days.  With repairs lasting anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days, it is no wonder goods cannot arrive on time and cost of maintenance skyrockets.

And do note that those spare parts are not widely available.  When the truck broken down in the middle of nowhere, the spare part needed to get it running was only available at the district capital, some two hours away.  By the time that a taxi can be called to the middle of nowhere to pick up the truck personnel and the round-trip journey to the parts shop is made, the day is pretty much over.  The pitch dark rural middle-of-nowhere is not the ideal condition for repairing the truck or for staying overnight, so everyone except the truck driver and a couple of people to keep guard must be evacuated.

Yet, transporting people along those pitch dark rural roads is, in retrospect, even less ideal.  Motorcycle taxi drives, for some reason, tend to ride just as fast at night as during the day, despite the fact that visibility even with full headlight is no more than a few meters ahead on the twisty roads.  Many tires are punctured on the barely visible rocks jutting out of the uneven dirt roads.  And yes, motorcycles lose control on these roads, sending staff flying off of them at high speeds and crushing to the ground with broken bones.  Unfortunately, it has happened to many people, including program staff.

It is perhaps wise that not many people want to make the trip at night then.  The police help them come to this conclusion.  Motorcycle taxis operating after dark are confiscated when caught by police, with the riders losing their licenses.  But what choice is there?  Car taxis (or just cars in general) are nowhere to be found for dozens of miles in any direction, and staying in the middle of nowhere overnight is simply not an option when no such preparations were made.  On a road that is littered with broken-down trucks (the author's last count was four in a 30-minute stretch), many risk their lives transporting themselves out.

It is one of those moments that makes one appreciate the need for infrastructural development.  Smooth paved road with street-lighting would prevent those truck breakdowns and motorcycle accidents.  More clear signs on speed limits and police presence would prevent arbitrary police harassments on trumped-up charges of speeding.  But instead, even when the most accessible villages are chosen as operation sites, the overwhelming and unimproving government neglect is painfully visible in plain sight.  For the foreseeable future, one has no choice but to brave strong night winds and fears of crushes to keeping moving in darkness.

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