Border Crossing Day is no ordinary day. It is a day filled with the excitement and anticipation of arriving at a new and unknown country and the trepidation and apprehension involved with battling through two borders. You must get up early and account for at least two hours of border-ing. You must pack the documents at hands reach. Aside from the things you research every night like possible places to sleep, gas stations along the way and the quality of the road, you must also research the conversion rate, language, electric plug outlets of this new country.
The border crossing itself is almost always a confusing maze. Where the hell is immigration? Oh, that tiny shack over there with the long line? Wait in line. OK, got my visa stamped. Where the hell is customs? Oh, that tiny shack over there? OK, got my Carnet signed. Where the hell is the border crossing itself? Oh, that tiny little orange cone on the road with no one around? Got it! And now all over again on the other side. And no, no, no I do not want to buy anything from you guys. I am not going to pay you for following me around so do not appoint yourself my “fixers”. I am not going to buy insurance from your tiny, very shady-looking hut. No, I am not going to change my currency with you, I am sorry but I have been ripped off once and I have learnt my lesson. And no, Mama, your bracelets are beautiful but I do not want to buy any, I’m sorry.
Everything rests on your ability to be calm, cool and smiling no matter how fed-up you are, but with just enough sense of urgency so that your captors have pity on you and speed up the process. People are like mirrors – they reflect your attitude. Be polite and kind and that police officer will melt and concede to sign your paper.
Last Thursday I crossed from Tanzania to Kenya. On both sides of the border Masai women and men walked between the tell yellow grass, swathed in their iconic red checkered blankets and with intricate beaded jewelry decorating their bodies. The GPS took me through a back route dubbed the “Old Pipeline Road”. I hope that the “New Pipeline Road” is better, because this road was the worst! All of a sudden the tarmac disappeared and all that was left was rocks jutting out of the ground and throwing me and the bike around, on all sides huge, wide cracks had ripped the ground apart, forcing me to ride gingerly along what stable ground there was. Then the tarmac would suddenly reappear, but it was more potholes than road. It was by far the worst road I have encountered so far, any gravel road would have been better than this. That’s the thing about Africa – you just can never know. You can be cruising along on the most pristine stretch of tarmac at 100 kph and suddenly, BOOM! The road vanishes and you crawl at 20 kph on ball-breaking, ass-busting, teeth-gritting, much-whining roads. I arrived at Jungle Junction, the Overlanders’ haven in Nairobi, after quite the adventure and, gasping, asked Chris, the owner, if that really was the proper way to get there. “Oh, no, there’s a great tar road all the way here. I guess your GPS isn’t updated”. Thank you GPS for an off-road adventure. I didn’t fall or even falter, so it’s only for the best.
Chris whipped my bike into shape, giving it some tender, loving care. At around six in the afternoon my bike was primed and preened, so I set off to the apartment of an Israeli friend. I had only driven five kilometers when I felt that the rear brake was seizing. The bike refused to nudge, stopped dead in the middle of the busy street. I got off and walked around and saw that the rear brake plate was glowing red-hot. Not good. So I did the only thing I could, I looked around and asked for help. Two gentlemen helped me lift and push the bike to the side of the road and lent me their phone to make a call to Chris. That simple ability to be able to rely on people’s kindness, I cannot over-state enough how wonderful that is. I let the rear brake cool down and then hobbled slowly back to Jungle Junction.
The next morning we cleaned out the brake pads, replaced the fluid and readjusted the brake lever. After a short test ride the bike was pronounced healthy. One of the workers bravely came forward and admitted that he had fiddled with the brake lever the previous day. I was very thankful to know what had caused the problem and that the bike was now fixed.
In Nairobi I met Grace, a local rider who I knew through Uwe. She invited me to join her and her friends the following day for a ride from Nairobi to Narok. Grace works for a Danish motorcycle company called Kibo. Their motto is “Designed in Holland. Made in Kenya. Built for Africa.” Their goal is to make bikes that are reliable and suitable for the needs of African (namely the ability to drive off-road like a KTM and carry a load like a Hilux), and they sell bikes in a package which includes training, servicing, warranty and gear, hopefully encouraging the use of helmets along the way. That is a very noble cause, but I must admit I think that they will have trouble competing with the traditional boda-boda’s which are cheaper and which these guys ride like nobody’s business. I’ve seen them ride three-up on piki-piki’s (motorcycles), carry 10 massive sacks of charcoal and pile up crates of coca-cola as high as four meters. Anyhow, we were riding to a small center funded by a Finish woman named Henrica and run by a Kenyan woman by the name of Elizabeth Nkere. Henrica has raised money for two Kibo motorcycles to be given to the center in order to aid the their humanitarian work.
The center, which is called “Ihminen Ihmiselle” (translated as “Human to Human”) has been active for two years now and has two main objectives. The first is to educate rural communities in the area about the risks of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), child marriage, HIV and AIDS and personal hygiene. The second is to help support girls who were ostracized by their families because they refused to undergo FGM. There are 18 girls in the program who attend boarding school and come back during holidays to the small farm. They survive off donations and subsistence farming. Their eventual goal is to be able to buy land and build a school where the girls could study. School fees of other children and farming of livestock would allow the organization to be self-sufficient.
FGM has been outlawed by Kenya, but the law is not enforced. Elizabeth informed us that due to the increasing opposition to the process, Masai families have began circumcising girls as young as seven or eight so that they can not resist the operation. There are different types of FGM with varying degrees of mutilation. It is generally proven that FGM leads to higher risks of physical and emotional trauma including susceptibility to diseases and death during childbirth. Often it is the female members of the tribe who pressure their girls into the ceremony and carry out the procedure, which is tied to traditional values of chastity and modesty.
FGM has been one of the largest battlegrounds of modern-day anthropology. On the one hand the dangerous effects of circumcision are clear. On the other hand who are we to come to a culture and insist that they alter their traditions, especially as we are perfectly happy for them to retain other parts of their identity. White people are very happy to pay to see Masai people dressed exotically, that part of their culture we want them to keep, but other parts of their tradition we expect them to discard. Other anthropologists claim that it is demeaning to blame women as both perpetrators and victims in the procedure, as though suggesting that they have no ability to judge for themselves the legitimacy of FGM. Others point to modern-day cosmetic surgery as no different – cutting up of women to fit male ideals of beauty. Another question is why male circumcision is treated so differently and not outlawed in the same manner. The hypocrisy is clear. Perhaps it is right to draw the line when cosmetic procedures which have dangerous health risks are forcefully carried out on unknowing minors. There is no doubt that this is a complicated issue.
On a side note, it is interesting to know that whilst most of these operations are carried out in order to prevent females from enjoying sexual relations, relating again to virtues of chastity and propriety, in Rwanda an entirely different procedure is common. Instead of cutting off the labia, it is manually elongated with massages and weights. This purportedly increases the pleasure for both parties, as a females’ satisfaction is considered a mandatory part of the interaction. I’ve heard many good things about Rwanda but this is certainly the most entertaining.
After our visit to the “Ihminen Ihmiselle” center, Grace and her work buddies departed back to Nairobi whilst Ayub, one of her friends who lives in Narok , good-heartedly escorted me there. His aunt owns a large garden used for weddings, and as there were no ceremonies that night, she allowed us to camp in a beautiful alcove of trees. Ayub and I ate chicken and Mandizi (fried sugary dough balls) around the fire, chatting about motorcycles into the night. The next morning my hosts, aware that I had inquired about a shower, led me to a dirt-floored hut which served as a kitchen. They placed in front of me a small bottle of freezing cold water, a huge 10-liter jug of hot water, and a plastic bucket in which I could stand. They then left me to stare at the arrangement bewilderingly. I couldn’t lift the huge jug of hot water to pour it over myself because it was too heavy. I couldn’t use the bucket to pour water over myself because then I would wet the floor. I felt like the most ridiculous foreigner and couldn’t help laughing at myself as I crouched in the bucket and tried to splash enough water over myself to qualify the experience as a wash.
Ayub continued his karma-gathering streak and accompanied me from Narok along the dirt track towards the Masai Mara National Park. We braved some mud-wobbles, river crossings and mainly many corrugations. The last 30 kilometers went through a beautiful plain where zebras, wildebeest, springbok, Grant’s gazelles, elephants and giraffes surrounded us. It was mystical. In this area the Masai cattle graze, leaving the grass short and attracting wild game who know that predators will not be able to stalk up on them through the open terrain. Just before the entrance to the National Park I bid Ayub goodbye and turned off the trail where a green jeep stood waiting. A few months ago, when I had just started my journey, I got an email from an Israeli guy by the name of Ziv. He told me that he had done a similar journey to mine 20 years ago and had been reading my entries. Excited to be reliving his memories, he generously invited me to stay with him for a few days at the Masai Mara where he runs a hot-air balloon company. And so, several months later, here I was!
Here is a crash course in the history of hot-air ballooning; In September 1783 a French scientist was the first to launch a hot-air balloon. The passengers were a sheep, a duck and a rooster and the balloon came crashing down after a mere 15 minutes. Two months later came the first manned attempt, as two brothers took-off from the center of Paris and flew for a full 20 minutes. I was told that when they crashed on the outskirts of the city they were attacked by the villagers who thought that aliens had landed. From then on the Frenchmen carried champagne on their flights to ease the mood of the locals wherever they arrived and so it is now a tradition to drink champagne after every hot-air balloon flight.
And so days in the Mara went thus; We would wake at 4:30 in the morning, drink coffee at 5:00 and be out on the launching field in the numbing coldness of 5:30. The next hour went by quickly as Ziv supervised the work of filling the balloons, first with cold air and then with blasts of heat as the wicker baskets were righted. It was already 6:30 and time to hop into the basket with all the other guests. After a bit of rocking the balloon lifted up and sailed smoothly as first light crept up on the plains and slowly the wildlife below was revealed. We saw buffalo, hippos, elephants, and even lions and rhinos. What was most surprising to me was that the balloon can fly quite low at times, so that we skimmed the grass, and then would rise to glide over tall trees. Pilots steer the balloons by riding up or down and riding different wind currents at different altitudes. Ziv invariably landed the balloon gently beside the main road and immediately cars and jeeps converged to whisk us off to a clearing where tables and chairs were set up for a gourmet breakfast. Before eating we honored the age-old custom and toasted with champagne despite the fact that it was 8:00 in the morning. In the afternoons Ziv and I went on game drives, took the dog out for a walk or the bike out for a ride and argued good-naturedly about the battle of the sexes and politics.
At the beginning I was extremely flustered. I would get so angry that I felt like walking out of the room and slamming the door three times a day. My blood pressure would rise, I would get so emotionally involved in these debates. But after a day and a half I suddenly felt myself letting go of the need to take it all too seriously. After that the discussions became much more bearable as I wore an affable smile, made some good points and then steered the conversation elsewhere if it was getting out of hand. And I have to wonder, with such a paradise – the Mara river flowing languidly below, hippos snorting and peace exuding from every tree and flower – why the hell we even bothered. I guess we humans must talk about something, and if everything is too good we must find something bad to keep the interest going.
The one thing that bothered me the most in the dialogue was when we talked about the difference between men and women. Why is there a need to generalize and stereotype? Why can we not see both genders as complete equals? However, are there not innate differences? On a personal level, and because I am obviously not objective, I was very offended by sayings such as “Even King Solomon, the smartest man on Earth, could not understand a woman’s brain.” It made me feel as though it was insinuated that women are hormone-driven monsters incapable of logical thought. But the bottom line is not that at all. The bottom line for me is the sadness of the realization of the amount of pain and hurt. As a woman, as a woman who has been hurt by men, I know that deep inside I have a hatred for their sense of entitlement, their exaggerated egos, their tendency not to appreciate others. It is something that I have been working to change inside me. I know that there are also men who deep down feel insecure and lash out at women in their need to protect themselves. There is so little trust, so many scars. That is why love becomes difficult and elusive.
I hope, I think that Ziv is reading this and so I want to say again – thank you for hospitality, your generous, your kindness, for giving a fellow traveled a home away from home and giving me books to fuel my inspiration for the next part of the journey.
On a more grounded note, after much deliberation I decided that I will not drive to Ethiopia. I have only two months to return to Cape Town. Riding to northern Ethiopia would mean that I would have to ride very hard, speed through 10 days there and then start sprinting to the south. I wasn’t enjoying flying past whole countries in days, not stopping to smell the roses. The fact that the rainy season has began cemented my decision. Now I have the time to enjoy Kenya and the wonderful friends I have here. My tentative plan is to camp at Lake Naivasha, then drive north as far as the road conditions and remoteness allow we towards the arid Northern Frontier District of Turkana before driving to Uganda and Rwanda. I am hungry for some desert views. Tomorrow I will be getting back on my bike and I couldn’t be happier!