August 01, 2005

In these conditions

The road, and the cleared rectangular area it leads to, are awash in ankle-deep wet brown mud. When I first get there, I try to pick my way through it, looking for drier spots, so as not to muddy my sandals and my delicate feet. But very soon I understand the futility of this, and simply walk into and across the mud for the next few hours. (Which is why, when I get home, the first thing my wife says to me is, your feet are caked in mud).

Every couple of minutes, a truck rumbles along the road, skidding through the mud. The operation goes like this: one truck backs up to the boulders, and the excavator there fills it with rubble. While that is happening, another truck rounds the corner and emerges into the little rectangle, then turns into the farthest corner from the first truck. When the first truck is full, it sets off, its wheels struggling for purchase in the mud, splashing the brown stuff up at us, inching carefully past the second truck. The second one now reverses into place to receive loads from the excavator; by the time it's there, the first has vanished and a third has arrived.

And all through, the excavators are hard at work too. Four of them, like praying mantises waving articulated arms, swivelling about like clumsy dervishes. Well, make that three. One is idle, because the terrain is so difficult that its looped tread has actually come off its wheels. It lies on top of the boulders. Three men are trying with crowbars to fit it back, but they have an air about them that says they know they'll never manage it. Not in these conditions, anyway.

One of the excavators is on the rocks at an alarmingly acute angle. Its articulated arm ends in a sturdy probe, like a stubby finger. It uses this to poke between the rocks, push them aside, tip them over, drill into especially big ones to split them up; and in doing all that, it brings to mind nothing so much as -- forgive me -- someone picking at his nose.

It's alarming for two other reasons.

First, several of the boulders it pushes aside then roll down the hill, some towards the machine itself. I don't want to think about one of them actually hitting the excavator, and at least for the hours I'm there, that doesn't happen.

Second, the drilling sets off vibrations I can feel in my body. Surely they are having an effect on the remnant hillside?

It all works like clockwork: the digging, the probing, the lifting of rubble, the loading of trucks, the coming and going of trucks. But when the men get ready to bring out a dead body, somehow everything comes to a halt without word going around. Like a collective two minute silence. A moment of respect for another poor victim of this muddy tragedy.

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