A Travellerspoint blog

Tales From the Saddle

Social class... no class

In Malawi they have a game called Bao. The board is often polished teak that is intricately engraved with Africa’s big five. The playing surface is thirty two small bowls carved into the wood. Two players move their seeds around the board and the objective is to obtain all the seeds. At the market in Lilongwe there was man with a sign that said “if you win Bao, I’ll give you a chicken”. But just down the street there’s an ATM where you can withdraw three million Kwacha. Although we don’t spend much time here the segregation of classes is obvious.

I met two different men on two different days. Abraham Banga was eating lunch alone in Kusungu and so was I, so we decided to share a table and a conversation. He was 84 years old. I have met very few Africans who have lived to such a wise age. In the course of my chicken and chips I heard his whole life story. He spent his youth traveling southern Africa finding work in the hotel and restaurant industry. He returned home to Malawi, married a woman from his village and raised a family of eight. Now he is an Evangelist and travels the country from prison to prison bringing the word of God to those he feels need his help. He funds his work by selling cookbooks that he has made. It only has about fifteen recipes, which include French toast, banana fritters, and chocolate cake, all made from scratch. It was a very cool conversation until he asked me about my beliefs. I don’t like to discuss religion with locals. Although I don’t share his beliefs I have great respect for what his faith has done for him and I would hate to say something that could dissuade him. At the age of 84 his wife is no longer with him and only 3 of his children remain. He was lonely.

The second man I met was fat. He was standing in front of me in the thirty person ATM queue, where I was about to draw three million kwacha. Concerned with having to fill all of the pockets of my shorts with cash I was watching the locals carefully to see where they put their money. But no one was taking out any money. I asked the man in front of me what everyone was doing. He said they all just line up to check their balance, which probably doesn’t change much. As we continued to talk I found out he was an agricultural chemist, working in the tobacco industry. I asked about the agricultural food crops that the people depend on. He said you can’t make a living as farmer unless you export your crop. He was a successful business man, paying for all three of his children’s university educations simultaneously; even his wife had left to pursue a Masters degree. A different situation, but he too was lonely.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries we travel through on the Tour d’Afrique. A place victimized by the AIDS epidemic. If you look at their population’s age demographics, it’s a trough. There is no working class. In all the villages it’s mostly children and the elderly.

The other day I decided to ride with the racers. I’m not sure why I do these things to myself. Usually I like to start the day easy and build up my speed. We weren’t far from the start when I was already wishing I had more gears. About 10 km in I was holding to Jos’s rear wheel. It was a subtle incline but I was cranking with everything I had. At which point He just sat up riding free hand. He took his jacket off, put it away and had a drink. His cadence never faltered, perfectly smooth. I let him go and just shook my head in disbelief. Each year I think this tour draws stronger and stronger athletes. Perhaps I’m just outta shape.

Our first rest stop in Malawi was Chitimba Beach, a personal favorite, but that has nothing to do with the lakeside cabana bar. Things got a little festive on our first night as we devoured a giant pot of spirits and local fruits. And there have been many other great stops; Mabuya Camp, Chipata, South Luangwa Bridge. At this point of the tour countries start passing quickly. We are now in Zambia and would appear that we have left the rains behind us. Tomorrow we will arrive in the national capital of Lusaka and in less than a week we hit the adrenalin capital of Africa, Victoria Falls, “Mosi oa Tunya”, the smoke that thunders, where we will get to enjoy the might Zambezi by raft, tiger moth or bungee.

Posted by peelstick 09:25 Archived in Malawi Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Tales From the Saddle

to be a sectional...

Wow! Now I know what it feels like to be a sectional rider. I have traversed Africa three times with the Tour D’Afrique, but it has always been from Cairo to Cape Town. I have never just jumped in at some point along the route. My greatest struggle is with the heat. I was camping just a few weeks back but it was in the snow not in the humid sweltering heat of Tanzania. Not to mention that I haven’t ridden a bike in nearly five months. Everyone else is riding like a king and I’m employing every possible tactic just to prevent a saddle sore. Needless to say the body is gonna need some time to adjust to the new environment, lifestyle and daily routines.

The road from Arusha to Iringa has historically posed numerous challenges, usually more so for the trucks than the riders. This year we have been lucky. The weather has cooperated. I remember crossing raging torrents, but this year they are dry river beds. I recall waking up after night full of rain only to find that the trucks had sunk up to the chassie in greasy mud. But this year the roads have been dry, none of the trucks have got stuck and cyclists only have remove dust from their drivetrain each night instead of the cemented red muck. Ironically as I type this in Iringa I’m listening to the rain pelting off the tin roof like machine gun fire. But the dirt roads are behind us and rain on the tarmac as we continue south will only settle the dust and drop the temperature. As we follow the blacktop south there are some incredible hill climbing stages as Tanzania draws to an end and we enter Malawi.

So, how do you define the quintessential African experience; a safari through the Serengeti, summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro, rafting the Zambezi, or surfing the supertubes of J-Bay? For the less adventurous it may be teaching an English lesson in a rural schoolhouse, or chatting with the locals over a cup of chai in a remote village. In years past I have done all of these. But a few days ago I had an experience that supercedes anything I’ve seen before. Whenever I’m here I seek out traditional music. The faint rhythm of drums in the distance has led me on several detours well off the beaten path. The first day out of Dodoma I could here the tribal pounding of drums as we were establishing our bush camp. When things were set up, I approached the crowd of curious onlookers and said “ngoma si koapi?” (where are the drums?). When the laughter subsided from the mzungu struggling with kswahili I was led by a group of children deep into the surrounding agricultural fields. After about 20 minutes we came across a group of labourers turning the soil. In the blistering heat men, women and children were using primitive hand made spades and hoes to prepare the ground for planting. On the side of the clearing there were two drummers pounding on animal skins stretched over old oil drums. The workers would swing their tools in unison to the beat and the tempo was fast. When they saw me they put on a bit of a show, dancing a jig between strokes, cartwheeling, or throwing their shovel up into the air. They began to sing and everything intensified. I was amazed by their efficiency. In 15 minutes they had cleared a huge area, no machinery, no technology, not even an ox and plow. These people have a knowledge of living off the land that the modern world has lost. I took my turn at both turning the soil and playing the drums which provided great entertainment for the locals, but neither were easy. Have these people been forgotten in time as the world evolved around them? Do these people envy the world of materialistic possessions? They are healthy. They are content. Intriguing, perhaps the truth is that deep down inside I envy them for being able to maintain a subsistence lifestyle free from the pressures of image, greed and segregation that western world imposes.

Posted by peelstick 09:22 Archived in Tanzania Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Tales from the Saddle

A day in the life...

A day in the life…

I always enjoy the cultural differences between Africa and those of the western world. For example, in Zambia, if you get thrown in jail they don’t lock the door. It doesn’t even have a latch. The rest of the convicts were dirty and wearing torn clothes. I was wearing spandex with neon green flames, yellow sunglasses and an ear to ear grin. I suggested that we all make a run for it and they all cowered in the corner, fearful of the idea. Here, when you go to jail, it’s on the honour system.

It was a bit of a chaotic morning to begin with, a convoy of 66 cyclists for 12 kilometers through Lusaka, we had to shuttle a client to the hospital due to a testicular infection and there was a suprize passport inspection at the 60km mark. I had to retrieve the passport of my ailing client from the lunch truck. On my way back into town the bakkie started to shake and before I could take my foot off the gas the back end slammed to the tarmac. In my left side mirror there was a flurry of sparks. In my right side mirror I saw my wheel bounce through oncoming traffic and into a bus shelter full of people. On three wheels I managed to bring the vehicle to a stop safely in the median. My phone was ringing. I hung up. A mob of locals had engulfed the truck. The door was flung open and I was pulled from the driver’s seat. While being ejected I locked the door and grabbed the keys. People were screaming that I had killed a man.

Desperately trying to maintain a small buffer of personal space I immediately made my way to the alleged casualty. Although he had a laceration to his left forehead, he was conscious, standing upright and most certainly not dead. This was just a distraction, I thought to myself. I looked back at the truck and the passenger door was open. Pushing my way through the crowd, when I reached the truck my bag was missing and I was sure that anything else of value had been pillaged in the 30 seconds I was gone. I locked the door, slammed it and screamed at the mob to back up. By the time I hired a taxi to take the injured man to the hospital the police had arrived on the scene.

Initially the cops were useless, no crowd control, investigations or security. One cop remained with my three legged bakkie and the other accompanied me to the rendez-vous where the convoy had ended. My staff was dispatched to ensure that the tour kept moving as scheduled and I grabbed my communications, documentation and finances to deal with the ensuing pandemonium. I also left a very disconcerning message on the TDA answering machine. We returned to the police station to begin the process of filing reports. With a million thoughts racing through my head of all the things I should be doing, all they wanted me to do was sit there and wait. For what, I was unsure.

The idle time was a playground for my imagination to replay the sequence of events. With each review I began to realize the magnitude of the scenario. I felt violated. The police station was a roadside metal container baking in the sunshine, no ventilation. Their jovial Tonga conversation reverberated between the corrugated tin. It was beginning to frustrate me as I was sure I was brunt of their jokes and they seemed to be doing nothing productive. In the missing bag my mental inventory had listed my passport, camera, Ipod, cell phone, blackberry, 2 flash drives, sunglasses, knife, duct tape, bandana, a roll of toilet paper and about $X000 cumulatively in American, Tanzanian and Malawian currencies. Luckily all my Kwacha was still in my shorts. A tow truck rolled into the lot with my Toyota Hilux tripod on the back. I went to examine the extent of the damages. My assumption was that the wheel fell off due to the lug nuts coming loose. However this wheel pulled off from the differential with half the driveshaft still attached. The brake rotor had been shaved flat on one side from being dragged. The cops were amazed that the truck never rolled.

I received a call from Dr. Luke who was finished at the hospital with our client. I briefed him on the situation and told him to meet me at the other hospital where I sent the man from the accident. One of the cops was the older brother of the maimed pedestrian so I convinced him to give me a ride to go and pay a visit. His name was Moses Nkhata. He had just been discharged as we arrived. Luke examined the x-rays and stitches of his Zambian counterparts and he confirmed that there were no signs of broken bones, internal injuries or severe head trauma. During Luke’s series of questions we learned that this man had also been robbed. While bleeding from his head on the side of the road he was pick-pocketed for 2.6 million Kwacha. Criminal opportunism at its finest.

Dreading my return to the sweaty cop shop we stopped at the clinic and filled Moses’ prescriptions for pain killers and antibiotics. When we arrived at the station there was a line up of locals demanding compensation for everything from broken eggs to lost chickens that my runaway tire had caused. My patience for local hordes was wearing thin. But there was one man in the crowd who was smiling. He was in full army fatigues and yielding an M-16. Slung over one shoulder was my bag. He escorted me inside and I was asked to check off the contents from the list of missing items in the initial report. Of course the cash and most of the electronics were absent but luckily my passport had been returned. The cops began to question the validity of my original list of contents when I pulled out items like an inner tube, tire levers and a bag of nuts which I forgot I was carrying. At this point the accident had taken place six hours earlier. The matriarch of the force said “it’s three o clock, come with me”. She opened the cage door to the cell and motioned for me to enter.

Ten minutes later the Chief Inspector arrived. Apparently he is the only one with the authority to determine whether or not injuries to an innocent bystander in a motor vehicle accident are the result of mechanical failure or driver error. “A man who eats a lot” is the direct translation of his family name. Henry Chikleyaka took one look at my truck and asked were I was. The officers pointed to the cell. The officer standing closest to him received a swift cuff to the back of the head as Henry demanded that I be released. I didn’t wait for them to open the door and just let myself out. That entire ten minutes was spent keeping one eye on my fellow cellmates while thinking about the X million kwacha I had stuffed in my shorts. Inspector Chikleyaka took good care of me. He facilitated the report process, bought me a coke, called his personal mechanic and found me a place to stay. In the next 36 hours I spent a lot of time with Henry, a genuine person, he drove me around for my various errands and we laughed at stories which highlighted our cultural discrepancies. There are more women than men in Zambia. Henry has six children but only two with is wife. He supports them all. His wife is aware of his mistresses, but apparently the gender imbalance creates a competition and he too is an opportunist.

The following day was a logistical nightmare. In the daylight hours I managed to have the truck rebuilt, file three separate insurance claims, find a bank that accepts visa, consult with the Canadian embassy, take Moses for a second check-up, finalize the police reports and brief the office. On the third day when the sun broke I was already southbound, the truck was running like a dream. The open road wasn’t the same without my Ipod. I had nearly 500km between Lusaka and Livingstone to catch up to the riders. In the last 60km coming into the adrenalin capital of Africa the road had deteriorated. I was nursing the vehicle through the slalom course of potholes, pulling over to let local traffic overtake me. Forty kilometers from my destination something rattled loose and the truck was once again immobile. Of course these things never happen in a place where you get cell coverage. At this point I was struggling to maintain my sense of humour. I grabbed my bag, locked the doors and walked into the sun.

Posted by peelstick 09:04 Archived in Zambia Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

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