Saturday, February 27, 2010

So...the Girly Girl Part...

When I started this blog I told myself I would commit to telling my story on this adventure. I promised myself I would not hold back. I would not censor. I would tell it all, the amazing adventure and the fall out from a life lived at the edge. However, that is why I currently have been sporadic at best with my posts, and some weeks on end, completely absent. I cannot seem to express on paper the parts of this adventure that aren't so pretty. I feel like it would be opening the flood gates to so many repressed emotions. Let me just say to all the people who give me kudos for being tough, strong, adventurous, an inspiration, some days I just do not want to be all those things. So, that is my brutal reality and this is the truth that has plagued me the past couple of months.

Breaking my collar bone was one of the most painful experiences I have had both physically and psychologically. There is nothing they can do for a broken collar bone. I never even had an xray simply because I feared the radiation in this third world medical environment more than I feared a collar bone that wouldn't heal. I had been to a hospital in Kigali, no thank you. I took my chances that the bones were close enough to fuse. I took a couple Tylenol for the first few days until my stomach revolted and then, I just dealt with the pain. Excruciating pain. I remember the first morning I woke up, Monday morning. The rush of pain reducing adrenalin long gone and the pain of all the miscellaneous bruises from the fall along with the full force of a broken bone welcomed me into my many weeks of recovery. I had been laying flat on my back for about 7 hours, trying to sleep without moving. That morning, Jock bent down, told me to wrap my good arm around him and he would raise me up from my coffin like position. Holy Mother of God! The tears just poured from my eyes like mini geysers. I could feel the bones moving and I was so stiff and sore and ANGRY. Angry that I was injured, angry that I couldn't finish the last day of the ride and angry that I would have to rely on someone to take care of me for however long this recovery might last. Angry because I knew I would be off my bicycle for minimum six weeks and even that was pushing it.

....I wrote those two paragraphs two weeks ago and still have not finished this post. I know I need to write, it is cathartic for me, will it be too honest for the masses?

My six weeks off the bike was even worse than I thought it might be. It started with Christmas, or maybe it was just another pain filled day, emotionally and physically. I have never been a big Christmas fan, preferring instead the over the top birthday celebration. However, I could have used a little Christmas...anything. I gave a note to Jock and a gift certificate to Muhabura to Max (which took me three days of haggling and returning to the restaurant five times to finally secure). Guess 2009 I had been "naughty", I did not even receive a lump of coal. I was still in massive amounts of pain, sleeping very little, just taking a shower was an hour long ordeal. I missed my friends, my family, my home, my bike. I just did my work like any other day. New Year's Eve, again, never a big event for me was even worse after throwing in an argument with Jock over something I cannot now remember.

After that first week, Jock strapped me arm to my body with multiple inner tubes to secure my collar bone and put me on the Velotron, a stationary trainer we have to test riders. It was better than nothing, it would keep me from getting fat, but it did not soothe my radically downward spiraling emotions. When I rode, generally within the first 30 minutes the power would go out and render the Velotron useless. And then, if I rode, I would have to shower. I would just stand in the shower and cry it hurt so much. Living and being around all guys, seriously hard core athlete guys, gives you little space to just be a "girl". In retrospect, it was probably best that I adhered to the suck it up principle.

The second week of January, only three weeks into my break, sleeping was becoming easier, the pain was lessening but there were days I wondered if perhaps I should have gotten that xray after all. Were the bones too far apart to heal? This second week in January also brought four students from the Harvard IXP program to study the economic impact of the cargo bike. I had secured this study after meeting with the Harvard student organizer the past summer, finally the time had arrived. They would be traveling to two cooperatives, questionning the farmers who owned cargo bikes to determine if their lives economically were improved. Unfortunately for me that meant several days of very long drives over extremely rutted, potholed and difficult roads. My collar bone that had been improving daily reverted to week one after hundreds of kilometers of bad driving over those few days. With the increase in my pain, decrease in my perceived recovery my emotions plummeted. I am generally a 3/4 full glass girl, I was down to my last few drops.

During this month I also had issues happening behind the scenes with my board, poor communication resulted in emails that went from bad to worse. The more I tried to work on getting Project Rwanda positioned for 2010 and a direction from the board for our NGO renewal, and 2010 business plan the more I was perceived as "difficult"....actually the word "hostile" was used. I simply wanted answers, guidance, direction and commitment. Did someone not tell me the world had slipped off its axis?

Then Jock and Max took off for a race in Gabon, luckily the week prior to their leaving, Jock had gotten me on the back of the tandem. It truly was one of the best days I had experienced since the morning of December 21st. Just being on that bike, feeling my out of shape legs turn the pedals, feeling the wind in my face careening down the hills, learning to trust I would not embrace the fear of falling after the accident was my own personal heaven. We rode several times that week. The next week, alone, I rode a bike.

Throughout the next couple of weeks, perhaps because of the issues just running the organization, or my attitude that still had not recovered completely, the pressure for sales that were not coming no matter what I did, the constant pressure from my American Project Rwanda counterpart in Kigali to increase salaries, pay for more items, increase in the expenditures with no additional results and having to answer for it all began to take its toll. Every "Mzungu" shout out, every person begging for "Amafaranga" grated on my nerves. Why, after living in Musanze for 9 months, an actual tourist town, launch pad for gorilla treks and the one day home of many "Mzungus" did I continue to attract the constant stares and shouts of "Mzungu" from the locals. They have seen me for months. Is this white skin that bizarre anymore? Is the blonde, rapidly turning gray from stress, mane of hair really that interesting? Why can I not just walk down a street and be greeted with a hello/Muraho and leave it at that? The casual laughing off of the now sounding derogatory Mzungu was gone. I found myself become quickly irritated and sometimes escalating to, "What the hell is your problem?" Seriously, this country has got to work on changing this attitude towards the white person or it will never progress. This is the only country in Africa, after traveling through nine countries, where this term is used constantly, where it is actually taught to children. This is an education issue that must be addressed. But then again, the schools are overflowing, the teachers few and massively underpaid so this would be the least of their concerns. The first couple of weeks, endearing, nine months, exhausting.

I continued to limp through my work, uninspired and grasping to any positive I could find. Jock and Max took off again for another race, Cameroon. They were gone for over two weeks. Thank God I had my big, blonde, partner in crime, Johnny back in country and a new friend in Molly, a woman here from the East coast working for another NGO and helping both Johnny and I with a little public relations around the distribution of our cargo bikes. Unfortunately, Johnny was experiencing the same cultural overload as I only he had additional financial battles. He has been owed over $6,000USD from the school where he teaches in Busogo, a town 15k outside Musanze, since last year. Before he left for Christmas he was supposed to have been paid. In the great Rwandan tradition of "if the government does not like the results, just change the rules to make them work for you" mentality, Johnny had to resubmit under a new protocol, in which he lost a couple thousand. Today, he still has not received payment and there has now been another protocol but in place to determine his "new" payment. He assumes by next month he will actually owe the government for teaching their Rwandan students. Sadly, the ones hurt most from this spiral of government bureaurcracy are the students, who have not had Johnny's valuable teaching skills and experience since December. Johnny rightly refuses to teach until this matter is settled. Stories like this, sadly, are too many. People with a good heart, people like Johnny and I who work very hard to help raise who we can out of the depths of life sucking poverty, get sucked in, chewed up, spit out and completely disillusioned by the system, the people, the government, life in Rwanda.....and then we leave, when there is nothing else we can give. The cycle continues, the people of Rwanda never truly get ahead.

The ONE story that keeps at least one foot in country is the story of the starfish....

Once a man was walking along a beach. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Off in the distance he could see a person going back and forth between the surf's edge and and the beach. Back and forth this person went. As the man approached he could see that there were hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand as the result of the natural action of the tide.

The man was stuck by the the apparent futility of the task. There were far too many starfish. Many of them were sure to perish. As he approached the person continued the task of picking up starfish one by one and throwing them into the surf.

As he came up to the person he said, "You must be crazy. There are thousands of miles of beach covered with starfish. You can't possibly make a difference." The person looked at the man. He then stooped down and pick up one more starfish and threw it back into the ocean. He turned back to the man and said, "It sure made a difference to that one!"

.....I hold on to helping at least that "one" starfish. I look for that "one". I saw it in the farmers Harvard interviewed, proud to show off their payment books that were stamped "Paid in Full", showing full ownership of their Project Rwanda Cargo Bike. I see it in Alex, the Alex who inspired me months ago with his ride in the Tour of Volcanoes and who won his first stage in the Tour of Cameroon several weeks ago.

What scares me most, as I look along the beach strewn with millions of starfish, if I pick one up, throw it back in will it come back to the beach only to die with all the millions I could not save. Will the toss back into the sea be permanent? I know I cannot save the world. I cannot save Rwanda. Can I save someone? Anyone? Will all of this matter in the end?

This is my constant struggle. This is why I do not write anymore. I just get up, work and try to keep my feet planted in the hopes that the answer to that question will be "yes". Most days I simply do not believe it. That is my brutal, truthful reality.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bumpy Roads, Broken Bones and a Girly Girl Heart Part 3

Our two days traveling through Zimbabwe alternated between stunning beauty and empty sadness. The country's beauty is spectacular, it's political history tragic. The second night we stayed in Harare, the capital city, with Linda Davidson. Linda is a larger than life ball of energy. She is Zimbabwean through and through even giving up her British passport. Linda sells Giant bicycles in Zimbabwe and also runs the Zimbabwean cycling team with her husband, Wayne. She also has three dynamic children and countless dogs. She glides through life with a force of positive energy that completely sucks you in. All of this while dealing with no electricity and no water for days on end in her custom built home in Harare. This is the price exacted by the Mugabe regime. Everything in the country is in some degree of disrepair including the major electrical grids. Linda, like most Zimbabweans, still believes in her country and is hopeful that some day, things will change. So she stays.

The next day we head into Mozambique. Another border crossing another couple of hours of sheer chaos. We have our system down. I go in first while Alex watches the bikes. I get my visa taken care of and go relieve Alex so he can do his visa and then start the process with Jock to get the motorcycles through customs. Not quite sure I was really a deterrent to the people surrounding me and the motorcycles at each crossing, perhaps I simply piqued the local's curiosity and that was enough to ensure my safety and the safety of all our gear.

The first part of
Mozambique was dirty, dry, dusty and basically unimpressive from the border all the way through Tete, one of the major cities. After crossing a two lane bridge, functioning in only one lane, across the Zambezi, the countryside started to change from brown to rolling green hills. We turned north up this quiet road that would take us to the Dezda border town into Malawi. About 30k before the border we pulled into this quaint little hotel in Vila Ulongue. Mozambique was colonized by the Portuguese and the Portuguese influence is everywhere from the language to the hospitality of the people. We had dinner that night in a local "restaurant" which consisted of a family of Portuguese descent cooking whatever we wanted made to order and then making sure we had the "chef's" cake for dessert. It was like having dinner at your relative's home. Mozambique was so beautiful, friendly, simply mesmerizing and soon topped my list of favorite countries.

The next morning we headed into Malawi. As we were getting ready to leave we talk to a man coming through from Malawi and he tells us there are fuel shortages in the country so we were encouraged to fill up in Mozambique. We soon found out, after buying all our fuel on the side of the road in liter and two liter water bottles, that the fuel shortage had extended into Mozambique. Once into Malawi we decided to stay with the route that traveled through Lilongue hoping the major cities would have fuel. Once into Lilongue we were needing fuel to go any further. Luckily, we randomly picked the station with the fuel truck on it's way and after only waiting an hour we were back on the road heading to Lake Malawi.

After the lake came into view, we took this sketchy dirt and sand road with this incredibly steep descent down to the Lake. Like an oasis in a desert, we come upon this retreat set on the lake. We stopped for lunch and some time to just relax and enjoy the beach, the sun and water. For most of our trip we had been focused on putting the kilometers behind us simply because we had the ever looming plane ticket departures of Fred and Alex in our minds. They both wanted to be home for Christmas so we knew how far we had to travel every day to make sure they did not miss their flights home. It was nice to just have a few hours to "frolic", we just needed some time to unwind and simply experience life off the motorcycle.

Throughout Mozambique and most of Malawi we were blessed with dry weather. However our luck did not hold out. About an hour and a half from Mzuzu, our stopping point for the night the rains started. Even with the beating rain that last hour into Mzuzu, Malawi was one of the most beautiful sections of the entire trip. We were traveling at about 8,000 ft through thick forests. I could smell the pine trees through my helmet. Unfortunately, I have no pictures from that section due to the rain. I was cold, wet and tired but the scenery made all of it melt away...and when we hit Mzuzu there was fuel!! We had already been mulling over our Plan B in the event Mzuzu did not have fuel. It would have been our "camp out" town to wait for fuel if we had had to implement Plan B.

The next afternoon we hit Tanzania, our last country and our most challenging roads. That first afternoon was all tarmac. The next afternoon, hello dirt! Jock had been talking about the Tanzanian roads the entire trip. Never could I have imagined how bad they would be. Ruts everywhere, sit down, stand up, up, down, up down, my knees were screaming for mercy. And then, for added excitement we hit rain. Now it's not dirt, it is mud, slick, slimy nasty mud. With the exception of the minor parking lot spill in Zimbabwe, Jock and I had only gone down once the entire trip, about 4,500kms. On a motorcycle as big as his 1150GS Adventure and the extra weight of a passenger we had done well. In mud, all bets are off. The first spill happened after about 100k of dirt when the rain began. Everyone had gone ahead and had lost sight of Jock and I as we were traveling slower. Big mistake on the group's part. We went down hard. I slide through the mud and I watched as Jock tumbled with the motorcycle stopping in a small water logged ditch. As I got up and ran over to him, he's yanking at his helmet and blood is pouring out. At first I have no idea where it's coming from and then I see him grab his nose. Luckily, I did not gasp or panic as he told me to get his helmet off. The adrenalin rush was powerful. I just grabbed his helmet and helped him push up the 500# motorcycle all in the pouring rain. And then I simply got on the bike.

The intermittent rain, mud, dirt, ruts, sand continued non stop until we got to Sumbawanga early that afternoon. I was never so happy to get off that motorcycle and enjoy a long afternoon drinking wine and planning our next section. Our challenge the next day was trying to find a stopping point. There was 500k+ between Sumbawanga and Kasulu with one town at the halfway point, Mpanda. Do we try to make all 500k in dirt, mud and sand, or stop prematurely in Mpanda and add an extra day to our trip? We decide to let the next day's events unfold and we would make the call along the road.
Between Sumbawanga and Mpanda we probably wiped out half a dozen times. Each time it was in thick, soft, gooey mud or piles of sand. We had gotten the routine down. I would sit as still as humanly possible keeping my eyes forward and praying to stay upright. Sometimes we did, sometimes we were pushing the bike up in mud ankle deep. Never did I fear falling. It was just part of the experience. By late morning I was covered in mud and a little proud of it, wearing it like a badge of motorcycling honor.

By early afternoon we hit the half way point, Mpanda, fueled up and kept moving. We did not want to burn another day and it looked like there was a place to stop before dark and before Kasulu. In the late afternoon we came upon the spot where Jock had taken a picture of himself on a black rock when he did his solo motorcycle trip through Africa almost a year to the day. That had been a very difficult time for him and that trip had been more a test of faith than a test of endurance. In the span of a couple of months his dog had died back in the US, his girlfriend left him, his up and coming new rider and protege, Godfrey had been hit by a car and killed and it was Christmas. He was completely alone. He flew to South Africa, bought a motorcycle and started driving. I cannot begin to imagine doing this trip alone. There are places on these roads where you do not see another human being for hours. Maybe he just had to sort life out...between him and God. December 2008 he was alone on this black rock, December 2009 he had all of us, Freddie (Wughee), Max, Alex, Alan and Moki. It was a really cool moment on that rock. It made me realize no matter how bad things can get in life it can always turn around. Jock was no longer alone. He had just seen the fruits of a year of work with the Tour of Rwanda and the Team was the darling of Rwanda. It was just all a test of faith.

So, on we pressed and the town on the map we had hoped to stop at, did not exist. We were now in danger of violating African Road Rule #1....NEVER drive at night. The sun set. It was 7:00pm, then 8:00. We were contemplating sleeping in the bush. Of course I said press on. I'm all for a tent, in a campground, with a shower and toilet! Alex was exhausted from umpteen falls. We were all tired, dirty and hungry. We kept driving. The one little perk being out in the middle of nowhere was the moment Wughee, Jock and I stopped to wait for Alex, Alan and Max. We're standing on this bridge and I looked up. NEVER have I seen so many stars. The darkness enveloped us. You could not see your hand six inches from your face, but you could see galaxies of stars. And the sound of the frogs was deafening. I stood in the middle of that road and felt so SMALL. I said a prayer, looked to the sky thanking God for this amazing experience. Me, a girl from Kansas, standing on a road in Tanzania, sucking in this moment in time. How did I get so lucky?

Finally we made it to Kasulu, a dirty, trucking port town. We split up between Dive #1 "hotel" and Dive #2, had a cold shower and a meal of rice and crashed. The next morning it looked like we would be in Rwanda. At that moment we were too tired to even consider that bitter sweet thought that this epic adventure was coming to a close.

Our last morning started out like every other morning, coffee lots of coffee, packing up our bags, and talking about our day's adventure ahead. By this time I have been wearing my mudcaked motorcycle pants for 12 days. My shirt is 4 days dirty and I've never been happier. Jock, Max and Wughee haven't shaved the entire trip. We are ROUGH!

However, this morning I had a strange feeling I just couldn't seem to shake. I had prayed for no more rain. I just wanted to make it to tarmac and I wanted to stay upright. I was tired. We were running behind and the longer we waited the more anxious I became. It was a feeling I could not shake. We fueled up and headed out, destination, Kigali, Rwanda. About 30k into that morning's ride the rain started. I just closed my eyes and begged God, "Why?" The road was hard packed clay. When just the slightest bit of rain hits it there is nothing slicker. Jock kept looking in his mirror watching for Alan and Alex. Wughee and Max had already gone ahead. They were traveling light and solo. Then Jock looked in that right mirror and I felt the bike hit the side of the rut and in an instant I was off the back. It all happened in slow motion.

I landed on the back of my right shoulder and hit the right side of my head. The second I landed I felt the most intense tingling pain go shooting down my right arm. I just closed my eyes and waited until I came to a stop. I knew the second it happened my collar bone was broken. I see Alex and Alan stop and help Jock right his motorcycle. At this point I'm laying on the right side of the road, my visor up, and I'm crying. I'm not crying for the pain, I'm crying because I know it's over for me. I'm angry I have come this far, almost 6,000kms and my trip is finished. Jock reaches me and I tell him to unzip my jacket and look at my collar bone. I remember saying over and over through the tears, "It's broken, it's broken!" Jock, in his ever calm demeanor, unzips my jacket and says that it is okay. I can see it in his eyes, he knows, he has broken his collar bone three times, he knows what it looks like. My biggest fear at that moment is how do I get out of here. I am 300km from the Rwanda border 200km more of dirt. I cannot get back on that motorcycle. Jock gets me to my feet and we sit on the other side of the road. He keeps saying over and over, "I am so sorry, Moki." I knew he felt responsible but it was not his fault it just was what it was, an accident. I had been lucky for almost 6,000kms.

After about 30 minutes a car with four Swahili speaking Tanzanians pulls up and Jock gets me in their car. They are going to Kabundo, about 100k away. There is a clinic there. By this time Wughee and Max had returned and Jock told them to follow the car. Jock had rigged a bike inner tube around my arm and made a sling. Luckily the adrenalin was still cruising through my body so the pain was minimal. Jock and Max stayed ahead of the car, Jock, Alan and Alex stayed behind. Then I lost sight of them.

When we got to Kabundo, I walk into the "clinic" and they promptly "sling" me up with a used rag. Such is medicine in Africa. No x ray, no diagnosis other than the doctor jamming his finger in my broken collar bone and confirming that "Yes, your collar bone is broken." Now we are faced with the dilemma of how to get me the additional 200k to the border. We could not find anyone that could cross the border into Tanzania. We just needed to get me to the border and after 30 minutes of negotiating with my Swahili speaking Tanzanians and $300 USD, which completely wiped us out, we were on our way. The next stop Rwanda and making it there before 6:00pm before the border closed. Rusomo here we come.