Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bumpy Roads, Broken Bones and a Girly Girl Heart, Part 2

The roads through South Africa, Botswana, Namibia (dirt, but smooth dirts sans rain), and into Zambia were beautiful. Very few potholes and wide open spaces with minimal people and traffic. The only danger variable continued to be the rain.

The third night we pulled into Jesper's coffee plantation, Munali Coffee, in Zambia, after driving most of the day in the rain. I was so cold and damp I couldn't drink enough hot coffee to bring my body temperature back to normal.

Jesper supports the Zambian Cycling Team and has two great riders named Jupiter and Trust. The next morning after a very leisurely pace which was completely out of character for our group, Jesper informs Jock and I we're going for a little mountain bike ride around the plantation and to see Jupiter and Trust's homes and families. The only thing on my mind at that moment was, "Why are we not on the motorbikes, there is no rain, the sun is shining, we have a border crossing into Zimbabwe today, seriously unknown variable there. Can we please just go?" Yes, I understand vacations should be relaxing, however, riding on the back of a motorbike in sunny conditions is relaxing for me.

Time drags on and I become more anxious. Next thing I know people start showing up and our little group is now numbering in the double digits. Finally we take off. I normally love mountain biking and have really grown to love it here in Rwanda. The challenge is, I didn't start mountain biking until my late 30's way after the invincible fearlessness of childhood had left the building. So, in this group, I am definitely the weak link. Not an enviable position and especially not for an overachiever psycho like me. On top of that, I keep thinking we should be somewhere else. Perhaps not the best vortex of circumstances.

Right off the start I fall a bit behind and lose sight of the group. I never panic in these situations. I can see the main house, I'll just ride back. I end up taking a wrong turn and have resigned myself to heading back when around the corner comes Jupiter. He was on Moki retrieval that day. As we rode through the amazing countryside, I finally begin to relax. Jupiter speaks English and we talk about racing and Zambia and Rwanda. As we finally catch up to the group I get the sense Jock is, perhaps irritated with me. This man still rides like he did 30 years ago in the Tour de France. Of course I laugh it off, do a little "oopsie" routine and off we go.

Visiting Jupiter and Trust's homes were a reminder once again how far behind these African riders are in the opportunities European and American racers simply take for granted. They live in huts with no running water. Their rooms are no bigger than a nice bathroom in the states. Food options are limited and cooked on an open flame, ironically, on a stove made from a chain ring.

By this time we're a good hour into the ride. I was thinking the ride was only supposed to be an hour. I cannot seem to quiet my mind and my eyes keep looking up at the building wall of rain clouds. And then, another long descent, definitely my weakest mountain bike discipline, and I lose sight of the group. Now I know I may be in trouble. I have no idea where I am and I do not want to see the look on Jock's face if I do find them. After several minutes, I spot the group in the valley....waiting for me...can I just crawl under this log right now?

When I came upon the group they were already riding. Luckily one of the other guys riding, perhaps the second weakest link, started chatting with me while we rode. Again, I regrouped, right before I missed my last turn and ended up following weak link #2 through the coffee trees. Then I bite it, I'm caught in a row of coffee trees with my foot still attached to the pedal and twisted in a coffee branch. I begin yelling for weak link #2 who eventually comes to my rescue.

By the time we catch up to the group, I am done. I just want to go back to the house and leave. It's now 2 hours into our ride. Max, drops back and checks on me. I am fine, I just want to be done, never a good spot mentally for a cyclist out on a ride.

Finally, we make it back to Jesper's, shower, pack and then wait for lunch. And then it starts raining. After the rain breaks we jump on the motorbikes and head for Zimbabwe.

Coming into Zimbabwe, you cross a damn that separates the two countries. As we pulled up to the Kariba border post you could instantly see the state of disrepair of the country. The border post had broken windows and a shell of a car sat on blocks in the parking lot. A lone baboon walked across the torn up parking lot. I was thinking, what are we doing going into this country? Then, we have a discrepancy with the VIN on one of the motorbikes. The customs agent cannot read the number and does not want to allow entry of the motorbike. After a couple of minutes and a bag of Munali Coffee and $10 USD the motorbike passes inspection. So, this is Zimbabwe?

As we crossed the border we immediately saw Lake Kariba, spectacular. Zimbabwe was green with rolling hills tumbling into the still waters of Lake Kariba. We go around a sharp bend and there stands Zebra in the road. As we stop and look down, Jock spots an elephant in the valley. We decide to spend the night in Kariba and we find a resort only a short distance from the border post. Carribea Bay Resort was once a great resort, you can see it in the dying remnants of disrepair and lack of maintenance. There are large boats, the boats you would find on lakes in the states, the "one up your neighbor" kind of boats. Empty. Sitting alone in the harbor.

We negotiate a villa for $150 USD. They wanted $150USD for one room when we began the negotiations. Desperation for tourists oozed from their pores. Our villa sat right on the lake, where we watched the most glorious sunset I have ever witnessed. Zimbabwe, such a beautiful, sad country.

I read a book two summers ago, When A Crocodile Eats the Sun, by Peter Godwin, who grew up in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. He writes about how as things deteriorated politically under Robert Mugabe's dictatorial rule, even to the point of violence and killings. The white people who grew up in Rhodesia refused to leave, including his elderly parents. His mother was a doctor before Mugabe destroyed the health care system. While I was reading this book, I remember asking myself, why would you stay in such horrible conditions. Riding through Zimbabwe, I understood. There is something remarkable about the country. Perhaps how it once used to be the bread basket of Africa, progressive, innovative and how the people who have stayed still believe in their beloved country draws you in. Perhaps it is the sadness that you feel knowing that one individual, Mugabe, and his band of cronies, have in their greed, destroyed the black Africans the most, the group they profess to help. How ironic that a country that used to be the main exporter of food in Africa is now taking hand outs from World Food Program.

So either I was a little emotional from the day or Jock was a little sensitive or it was Africa or we're just both two high strung and demanding control freaks, but we had a bizarre argument on the way to meet Fred, Max and Alan for dinner. After dinner Jock and I were sitting out on the bench in front of the lake and the real reason for our argument surfaced. He could not understand why I rode so tentatively on a mountain bike. Where was the fear coming from and why could I not get past the fear? Was he questioning whether this fear would spill over into other fears in my life. Was it a personality issue that would become more pronounced as I got older? What really was he worried about? I have more fear in Africa on a mountain bike because I know the realities of a serious crash. There is no medical care. If it was serious enough, head injury, spinal injury I might die in Rwanda. So yes, I am more cautious, however, that also feeds into a potential accident. I could see his point. For example, if you stare at the rock or rut in your path trying to avoid it, you will ride your bike directly into it. So, if I had that much fear, I was embracing fear a little too much and that fear could catapult me directly into the danger I was trying to avoid. He had me on the back of his motorbike for 6,000kilometers. I understood his concern. Would I start becoming skittish on the back of that motorbike?

The next morning as we are preparing to leave, I am feeling confident. It is not raining. All of us are packed and ready to go early, I jump on the back of the bike and Jock goes to turn the bike and we fall. Our first fall. How poetic!

It was just a minor spill but it was a major chink in my armor against the fear. Jock kept apologizing saying he didn't know how that could have happened. I knew. We were not in sync and that is not a good place to be when you are on the back of a motorcycle. As we get only a few kilometers down the road, the rains start. I sat on the back of that bike and the tears came. I was tired of being wet and cold and now I had this unexplained fear and dread I simply could not shake. Then I felt it. A little "shimy" in the back tire as we went around the hair pin turn. I tried to focus on the beautiful landscape. And then it happened. The bike slid right out from under us on the rain soaked hair pin turn. I know how to fall. Let go, do not drag the driver with you. This was not my first fall. Let go and roll with it. I hit the pavement with my back, right side of my helmet and my body. I saw Jock go sliding to the left, pinned under the motorbike. It all happened in such slow motion. I felt myself skidding along the pavement up hill. I became disoriented. I finally stopped sliding and rolled over on my stomach and got to my hands and knees. I look up and see Fred off his motorcycle waving the truck heading our way off to the side. Then he comes to me as I am standing up. He asks if I'm okay and I shake my head yes. He runs to Jock to help him with the bike. His ankle is under the bike. He gets the bike up and comes back to me. I have my tinted visor up and tears are streaming down my face. He asks again if I'm okay and he just gives me the tightest hug as I stand there and sob. I know he thought I was sobbing because I was scared. Ironically I was sobbing because I had finally let go of all that fear that was bottled up inside. I had no fear left. I was relieved.

I could see Jock was hurt as I walked back to the motorbike. He just looked at me and asked if I was okay, I said, "Let's go." Twenty kilometers down the road, he reached back and squeezed my leg. I think he knew I really was okay the cloud of fear had left. Then the rains stopped.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bumpy Roads, Broken Bones and a Girly Girl Heart, Part I

On December 7th, I flew to Johannesburg, South Africa with Max and Jock to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. This was an adventure guys talk about after their 10th beer, after they have realized they have "settled" in to life and that the most adventurous thing they've done in the past decade is negotiate a good deal for the family minivan.

This was an adventure you hold back in the recesses of your mind, hoping that some day the planets align, the kids are grown, the wife lets you have a little time away and you still have enough pocket change to make it happen, provided you can get three weeks off from your job.

On December 9th, Jock, Max, Jock's best bud, Fred aka Wughee, from California, Alex also from California and Alan aka Master Tsang, a Singaporean working in Rwanda and me, Moki, the lone rebel girl left Pretoria, South Africa on five motorcycles. These motorcycles were set to carry us across nine countries over two weeks. This is our adventure....

Our first country, South Africa, was akin to riding through the states. Super highways, good roads and all the modern conveniences in life. We quickly left South Africa for our first border, Botswana. Borders are always nerve racking, especially for people who haven't traveled in Africa. You never know when the border patrol will ask for something obscure or just ask too many questions, or in the case of rookie travelers, they offer up too much information to the border officials. Botswana was easy and fairly quick, less than an hour at the border.

If I could sum up Botswana it would best be rendered by the Dixie Chicks song, "Wide Open Spaces". Miles and miles of open plain with very few people and less vehicles. I kept singing the song over and over, not like Jock could hear me wailing my tunes in my full face, tinted Kawasaki helmet. We traveled 900k that first day, simply because we could not find a place to lay our heads that night. Finally in a tiny town after several 100k of burros, cows and other domestic animals in the road, we came upon a hotel in Raykops, Botswana. 900k equals over 550 miles, on the back of a motorcycle, perched like a preying mantas. I was in my own little heaven. I cannot explain the freedom I felt. The time to just think, to just be completely in the moment with nothing to do but experience the land scape and listen to the hum of the motorcycle, was almost spiritual.

As we crossed over the border into Namibia the next morning, we immediately entered into a game park that is the narrow sliver in the northeast section of Namibia. It was a relatively smooth dirt road where we spotted a few animals, antelope and zebra. We then crossed back into Botswana traveling through the Chobe game park. This is where we saw elephant and giraffe. There is something so peaceful about coming upon a herd of elephant on a motorcycle, switching off the engine and just watching these large gentle creatures share their space with you. I am always amazed at the strength and beauty and gracefulness of the elephant.

After we saw the elephant herd, I said to Jock, "Now, if I could just see giraffe, it would be the icing on the cake." Five minutes later, a group of giraffe were off the side of the road. Giraffe are interesting creatures, so spectaculary agile and graceful. They remind me of runway models for some reason. What is surprising about giraffe is their camoflauge. Whereas elephant will just stand around for you, once giraffe spot you and if you move too close, they scatter and hide in the foilage. You would think the brown spotted coats they sport would be easy to spot against the green of the landscape but that is not the case. The most gorgeous sight is seeing a group of giraffe take off running through the bush with absolutely no sound of their hooves making contact with the ground. They are completely silent beings. Peaceful, yet aware and cautious at the same time.

The next morning we made our way into Zambia. This border crossing was everything that you think of when you think "African Adventure". We crossed the river on a ferry teeming with money changers, angry truckers, locals carrying their wares, everyone yelling at each other. Jock was yelling at the money changers. They were insisting 3100 Kwacha was a good exchange rate. We knew it was not. We had Botswana Pula, paid the ferry driver in USD and needed Kwacha once we landed on Zambian territory on the other side of the river. My head was swimming with which currency at which exchange rate was needed for which fee that needed to be paid. The ferry ride was less than 10 minutes but by the end of the crossing we all were yelling at each other like all the crazy people on the ferry. The pandemonium was infectious.

The Zamibian border crossing was the most complex and infuriating. We needed to pay a tax levy, carbon tax, insurance, entry fee and three other miscellaneous fees all requiring separate line and separate interactions. Insurance was a negotiated fee with the smarmy brokers crawling around the border post. Again, everything escalated to a shouting level. We were told we needed customs paperwork for exporting the motorbikes. We had two clearing agents vying for our business and in the end both of the swindlers eventually ended up with nothing after driving us back into the customs office where we asked more questions and were told we did not need it since we were only traveling through Zambia. I ran back and forth between Jock and the other boys waiting with the bikes. Nothing could be left alone for a minute or it would be stolen. Finally after three hours and $100+ (paid in a combination of Kwacha and USD) per bike we were on our way.

And then...the rains started....

We traveled most of the way towards our destination in rain. We put on our rain gear. Perhaps I should have put on the rain pants as well that day. My boots quickly filled with water.

Motorcycles and rain are not the safest combination and then throw in the African variable and you have just upped the risk factor ante. Ironically, I never considered the danger. Or perhaps subconsciously I did, but I had compartamentatlized that fact and continued to sit motionless on the back of that BMW 1150 Adventure praying for sun to dry my wet pants.

We made an hour stop at Victoria Falls and for that hour the rains ceased. Victoria Falls is a spectacular sight. The magnitude of the scope of the falls is breathtaking. It dwarfs Niagra Falls. Also, at Victoria Falls I learned the African meaning for a nickname I was tagged with early on in my stay in Rwanda and have embraced. Moki. Moki means enthusiastic, full of energy among the people in Africa. I came by Moki by pure accident. Jock called me Kimmo for a while and then it became Moki, Kimmo inversed. An ex wife of his is also named Kim so I'm sure that also factored into the name game switcheroo. I just find it ironic that a name that I randomly came to be known as in Africa is an actual name in Africa and the meaning of it couldn't be a better match for my personality and spirt. I love the name Moki.

We pulled into the Munali Coffee plantation ( just as we were running out of daylight that night. Munali Coffee is the home of Jesper Lublinkhof, a supporter of the Zambian National Cycling Team and friend of Jock's. It was a gorgeous plantation with a winding road up to the main house. There we were treated to HOT coffee and a good meal and generous hospitality. That night, I slept like a baby which was a welcome respite because....

The next day....the bumpy roads....