Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Day the Motorcycle Took Me

Kigali’s answer to the cabbie

“This is it. I am going to die. I wish I had eaten lunch.”

Okay, it’s not a direct quote, more like stream of consciousness paraphrasing, but as I felt my grip slipping and my helmet slowly coming loose, going 70 km/h on the back of a taxi-motorcycle in Kigali, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it.

Okay, let’s backtrack a bit here.

The idea of blogging never really appealed to me much; it’s not like I have a philosophical problem with new media or anything, I’m just still wrapping my head around the idea that people would actually be interested in my deepest, innermost thoughts neatly laid out on a computer screen. Better yet, it always seemed to me as if these were things I shouldn’t be sharing so promptly with the world wide web; the ticking gears in my mind should be my soundtrack alone, right?

Then again, I guess in a way there has to be something said about where I’ve been and where I am these days. I’ve been travelling for months to places that most people put on ambition-soaked drunken bucket lists and forget about in the morning; moments relaxing at a Turkish bath in Budapest or beating down a mug of beer bigger than my head in Bavaria.

So, as my furiously sweating palms started to slip and the motorcycle driver took a mildly sharp downhill turn, I pretty much thought, “well, this has been nice, I’ve had a pretty good run, and if I’m going to go, this is as good a way as any really… Also, I still wish I had eaten lunch.”

Being here for so short a time, I’m not entirely sure what I’m feeling.

Sometimes I feel totally confident, almost laughing as I brush away culture shocks like Mike Tyson sparring with Betty White to settle a bar tab. Some moments I feel so sickeningly collected in this chaos that I worried I’m secretly being robbed in an alleyway and this illusion of security is just my mind’s way of coping and telling me it’s going to be okay.

Other times I’m Alice tumbling down a rabbit hole, like at any moment a doorknob might start talking to me and I’m worried I’ll get nervous, start stuttering and not know what to answer.

But realistically, if I have the option, I just can’t pass up the opportunity to ride a motorbike down Kigali’s rock and rolling hills. Regular cabs are for squares in this city; motorcycle taxis are half the price, twice as fast and also serve to double your heart rate, if you’re into that sort of thing. These things are everywhere in the city, zooming along dirt roads and leaving trails of red dust and coughing engine spatter behind them.

To be entirely honest, I’m flat-out lying when I say they’re motorcycles, because they’re not… not exactly. They look more like a Vespa and Harley had a few too many one night, lit some candles, threw on some Barry White and then got stuck with an unwanted motorized love child however many months later it takes vehicles to procreate. Then, just to be ironic, they gave it up for adoption in Africa.

But these little beasts pack a hell of a punch, and for just 1000 Rwandan Francs (give or take $1.70 CAD or 1.34 Euros)  you get to zoom and swerve through traffic as if the bike would rot if we stood still for more than 20 seconds.

When I got off, I was sweating, my hands were shaking and I swear I could see halfway down the road because my eyes were sticking out of my head like a Looney Tunes character. I might as well have just left a Tiesto concert as far as anyone on the street could tell.

As the bike pulled away, puffing a cloud of diesel in my face like a Wall Street fatcat at a dinner party, it finally hit me.

Toto, screw Kansas, I think we’re in Africa.

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Out of the Frying Pan, Into Africa

I’ve always found the best time to write is while I’m in transit; planes, airports, trains, they’ve always provided me with a neutral ground and enough dead time to properly reflect on things passed, and more importantly, things still to come.

Yet, it’s hard to start reflecting on one journey when you’re not entirely sure you’ve made sense of another. I left snowy Trudeau airport in Canada five months ago to the date, and sometimes it all feels like one giant, drug-induced dream sequence. I’m always gripped with this terrifying feeling that I’m going to wake up one morning in my cramped room in Ottawa, sweating and raving about lunatic tales of a place called Europe. Sometimes it all hits me at once and I’m scared that it never happened at all. The people I’d met imaginary, the places I’d seen just part of some fantasy of the mind.

But despite a few patches of hazy memories, for reasons I’ll keep to myself, I think I can safely say that it did indeed happen, and after nearly 16 hours of non-stop travel, I’m just about halfway to Kigali. I’ve barely slept in days and I look like a rolled up newspaper that’s been dragged by children on the back of a bike through a dirt road.

As I sit in a crowded airport terminal in Qatar, smoking my last cigarette, the empty pack on my lap can’t help but remind me that “Roken is Dodelijk,” and I smile, thinking back on a few months ago when that might as well have been written in Korean for all I understood. It also makes me stop and wonder how long it will be before I find someone else who can read that, or share a laugh with me about Dutch weather or the majesty of stroopwafles.

So how do I look back on an experience like studying abroad and try to express it in a few words? How can I ever properly describe the feeling of listening to a folk band over howling winds on the Charles Bridge in Prague, or sipping Turkish coffee and smoking shisha in Istanbul as Arabic chants erupt from the towering minarets of a hundred nearby mosques?

How do I describe those hilarious little awkward linguistic or cultural gaffes that would send us into uproar as we sifted through cryptic, weathered, long-distance care packages filled with foreign foods?

Better yet, how do I describe the feeling as I left the international student residence yesterday morning, knowing that as the doors closed, I would never, in my life, see that same group of faces together again. In a way, despite the madness and sheer depravity that encompassed the period of my exchange, there is a certain poignant finality to it; none of those moments can be re-created or re-enacted, they exist only as themselves, now and forever unchangeable.

So in that regard, maybe I am ready for something new. Nietzsche once said that a true and good European should be stateless, homeless, with no real association to any crown or flag. The only problem with that is that I’m not European, despite being jokingly referred to more than once by my friends as “Euro-Trash.” So where do I fall now? I’m sure as hell not European, but I feel like I’ve lost a certain association with Canada. The patch I so proudly sewed on my overstuffed backpack before I left looks a little less shiny now, a little more torn, hidden behind a thousand low-budget airline and train tags I refuse to remove.

Maybe a time in Kigali might allow me to put all this into perspective. Who am I? Citizen of the world or man without a country to call my own?

Maybe a better idea is to get to Kigali first, and deal with the existentialism later. Sleep, after all, is the only universal evil I can’t seem to do without, at least for now.

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