I usually wake up several times a night. By five thirty I begin regaining consciousness, realizing where I am and that I need to get up. It’s still dark outside. I crawl to open the tent, put on my sandals which are waiting outside and stumble to the “ablution block” to brush my teeth, comb my hair. Put in contacts, take malaria pills. Apply some sunscreen. Then back to the motorcycle and the tent, and I begin packing. First I take out my tank bag and put it back on the bike, and hang my jacket on one of the mirrors. On the other mirror is my 40-liter waterproof bag, filled with all the other bags in which my tent, mattress, pillow and sleeping bag go. The rule is, as anyone will tell you, to have a system, to be accurate each time. I fold up my inflatable pillow, roll up the mattress, stuff my sleeping bag. All of these I lay on the bike’s seat. Then the tent, poles and awning condensed into a tiny packet. I fit everything into the saddlebags. At first I was unable to close them each morning, but I have perfected the system. Everything fits inside only in a precise Tetris formation. The saddlebags require straining and groaning to close, as I pull on their straps and secure them. Now my big bag on the back. I take all my things out and pack up, the laptop at the bottom to one end, on it the bag of clothes. My camera case and sandals at the other side, the food and toiletries on top. Close, strap on, pull pull pull. I arrange the bag on the bike, next to it the tent, secure them to one another and then with two straps from side to side. I thread the lock through the bags and then put over it all the cable net. I run a tight ship, I hum to myself. The jacket comes on, the GPS awakens. Ear plugs, helmet, gloves. I love this routine, it feels meditative to me, soothing. Everything is set and I am ready to go.
I drive far before stopping in the mornings, I like to feel as though I’ve put in a good effort to help out future me. Usually cold in the mornings and I huddle into myself, gripping the heated hand grips. I try to be thankful, and go over in my head again and again – “Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for my family and friends, for my health, thank you that the bike is running. Thank you that I get to be here and see beauty like this. “ I don’t know if I believe in God, but I certainly like talking to him.
I need to learn to stop more, I have a hard time picking places to stop, and always see them just ass I’m already past. I find it hard to transition from this peaceful zone to the hubbub of an African city. Also, when I stop there I feel my loneliest, no one to share the task of guarding the bikes or haggling for fruit or deflecting all the attention. So I ride. And ride and ride. Sometimes happy, sometimes sad. I stop about every 100 kilometers, sit by a tree and drink some water or eat some fruit. Often kids will gather round. I’m not sure if I like it or not. I’ll give them candy before I leave. I’m not sure if I should or not. On my GPS is a countdown to camp, as I mentally count down to when I need to refuel next.
I usually ride about 300-350 kilometers a day and get to camp at about two or three. Then the whole routine begins in reverse. Get out my tent, open the sleeping bag, pump the mattress. I try to do some maintenance on the bike go around and tighten all the screws and bolts, clean and lubricate the chain. If I show her I love her enough, maybe she will keep on working right.
In African countries the going is slow. There are people everywhere! Women walking on the side of the road with loads on their head, men cycling, carrying behind them huge sacks of rice, stacks of grass and even whole cupboards. Children in uniforms eating sugar canes and waving as I go by. It seems as though they are always walking to school, never at school. Anyhow, I can’t figure out the schedule.
There are also police at every corner, usually just at the exits to the towns as you are tempted to start speeding. In other places there are roadblocks with rickety gates. The police always seem disinterested, perhaps ask me where I am going and where I came from and immediately let me continue on my way.
Then there is the quality of the road. The difficulty is the unpredictability. There are sections which are smooth and perfect and then suddenly after a bend in the road, disintegrate into a patchwork of different shades of tarmac, pieced together. Potholes keep you zigzagging, the corrugations keep you bumping. In Tanzania I met with a road which had completely bent out of shape because of the weight of trucks rolling over it. There were deep ruts in the road, channeling you into a narrow lane from which swerving meant SUDDEN DEATH. Terrifying, absolutely terrifying.
And then there are the trucks! In most places the roads are narrow and single lane, with never-ending lines of trucks. I don’t mind that so much, I just overtake them. But when they decide to overtake in the opposite lane! It’s not even that the drivers are saying “This is my set trajectory. Move aside or be demolished”, it seems more as though they are deliberately trying to run me off the road as they come hurdling towards me. You are probably asking yourselves – well, then, how come you are still alive? I don’t know, I just don’t know…
Malawi was beautiful, lush and green. The road I followed took me from one village to the next, along the stunning coast of Lake Malawi, up to the mountain ridge above with huge storm clouds on the horizon, and swirling back down to see the lake open up just as the sun came up and dispelled the threat of rain. I had a couple of days of utter joy – just reveling in the fact that I am happy and get to see this intense, unfathomable beauty of early morning sunshine’s on banana trees, wooden bridges over pink rivers, the bright colors of women’s skirts’ swishing on a background of red earth.
I also have my downs. I miss a partner for conversation (how much can you talk to yourself?!?), someone to laugh with, someone to share the burden of making decisions with. Also, travel is supposed to be a metamorphosis, a life-changing revelation which turns you into a better person. Frankly, I’m just not feeling it yet. There are some buds, some things I feel might lead to where I want to be. But for now, for tonight, I am mostly just asking myself why I want to go to Ethiopia at all.
Please, it is not as if I have lost my motivation. There is no need to take me too seriously. Every journey has its ups and downs, and like all human beings, I suppose I just don’t know yet how to stay in a state of happiness. To learning!
And on that note – I should know better; Crossing between Malawi and Tanzania, some money changers approached me. Since when I was coming in to Malawi they had been very kind and helpful, I decided to change my money there. I checked the rate on my phone app, showed them and agreed to swap 23,400 Malawan Kwacha for 72,000 Tanzanian Shillings. Since they had no small change they gave me 80,000. Quickly realizing their mistake, one guy took out a calculator and said that actually I should receive only 48,000. No way! We agreed on the sum beforehand, I told him. Give me my money back and I will give you yours back. I drove off, flustered and hurried and only a few minutes afterwards sat down to count my money, from which 10,000 Kwacha had disappeared. It really isn’t the end of the world, and I had been warned, and it won’t happen again. It’s just that sinking feeling, that anger, that vile steam rising in your stomach. Now I must take that boiling hot ball of frustration from within my stomach and slowly unwind it and release it and forget about it.
I like Tanzania so far (except for some reservations regarding their roads, but they are working on them). The people are friendly and the towns seem to be more accessible to me than in Malawi. I know a bit of Kiswahili which comes in handy when you are trying to make friends. I stayed the night at a nice guest house (no camping here for a 100 kilometers around). The owners were very kind and gave me chicken and bananas for dinner. When I asked for utensils I was only given a fork, no knife. And then it seemed as though the whole town came in one by one and asked to get a picture with me. I suppose in this much town they haven’t had many white people stay the night. Well, good night – Layla Salama – and don’t let the mossies bite!