Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Road Via Hell

 Peering over my broken screen
To say I was thoroughly shaken to the marrow is an understatement of my mortal condition on that road. I am not a hero. This sort of incident could spell disaster; I mean real trouble that could have become a nightmare of disproportionate scale to deal with. Our Lord at the Garden of Gethsemane was terrified of the prospects of his suffering. I had joined these ranks. I was genuinely terrified of the scenario of a certain eventuality to come. It has been days since I had communicated with anyone in the ‘civilised world’. Much as I was enjoying the odyssey, “Wake-up”, I told myself. This fleeting transition, as engendered by the fall, from the atmosphere of idealism to realism was precise and brutal. Further persuasion was unnecessary. I heard the message. 

Within the Human anatomy are hardwired mechanisms to cope with any inexorableness although the scope and degree varies for each person. As it were, in spite of my state of affair and still shaking like a leaf in the winds, I reckoned it was to my profit to ride on the crest of the wave rather than its base, for to allow anything to dampen my spirit was like to give an open invitation to Master trouble. I decided without the slightest hesitation that a positive spirit was a better and much preferred companion. It was also reasonable to reduce my speed to 60km per hour, but by the reckoning of subsequent events this was way still too fast as I would soon discover.

Unlike my first tumble, whose cause I had to figure out, I was more or less aware of the circumstances that led to this tumble. It was therefore necessary to carry out some post-mortem.

But in the interim, my mind was preoccupied with my environs. It was a beautiful morning with a clear azure sky, with huge cotton-like clouds adorning the heavens. The air was crisp, clear and clean. It was simply a magnificent countryside ideal for riding. I was entering a wooded area that was not dense with undergrowth. I slowly breathed in the air. I could feel the crispiness as the air rushed through my nostrils. I loved it; I loved the trees; I loved the birds flying across the road; although, sadly one had blindly flown into the bike and got killed. For a while, I allowed nothing to disturb this mood. This is what I needed. Besides, a great spiritual saying teaches us that while we are in consolation, we ought to gather as much of it as we can in preparation for desolation. I suddenly realised that I missed my family, my friends, my colleagues at work and my home. I checked myself momentarily. Where is this 'missing' stuff coming from?

I did not want to think of loneliness. It was not a palatable subject at the moment. Thinking of the reasons that caused my fall was of practical import to me to learn from the experience. As it were, it is rarely true that a single factor will wholly explain an accident. My first suspect was speed. Riding at 100km per hour on such a treacherous road was a massive risk although this was not immediately impressed on my mind when started this leg of the trip. I had also noticed that this red mud apart from being slippery like a mud fish, it also stuck on the tyres. This means that it clogged all the thread patterns thereby affecting traction. In addition, the Anakee II Scorpion was wearing were not suited for this kind of road conditions. I am not an expert but I have wondered whether wearing knobblies would have made any difference. That I had very little traction was an idea that was to be proven right in a short while. But before I discuss this proof, the third suspect was the general condition of the road. Like I said earlier on, this road was recently graded and there was a lot of loose earth which was turned into mud by last night’s rain. In my view these were the causes of my tumble.

I rode on grateful that the odyssey was still on. My speed was reduced even further to below 40kms per hour since the mud was now a real menace. This red mud! All my riding skills were out of the bag: sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, and sometimes my feet helping with the balance. I was grateful that my off-road Garnae riding boots were a very good investment. For the first time I appreciated their true worth, yet they had one terrible weakness: water tended to seep into the boot through some crevices I have not been able discern to-date. The predicament was a health one. If they boots were soaked and wet inside, a whole day was necessary for them to dry. Sometimes I did not have a whole day. I was obliged to wear them wet. But bacteria, leather, moisture, socks and flesh are a bad combination. The first sign of this trouble was the petrifying reek. It was so potent that it has the potential to knock you senseless by merely depriving you of oxygen.

Ammonia is nothing compared to smelly boots. I remember, in 1979, I was visiting my friend Maloba who was studying at the same primary school with me. His elder brother Wekesa was also visited by a friend who was a soldier. He arrived while we were all in the parlour playing Scrabble. That smell was like nothing I had ever come across. At first everyone was polite about it, I looked at Maloba and we knowingly looked at the offending pair of legs. Soon everyone was at the risk of fainting, for this was not just about the overwhelming acrid smell, but there was most probably a chemical reaction producing a noxious gas. Shortly, I developed a headache. The poor soldier was soon dispatched to wash his boots and feet. Considering the matter in retrospect, I think the soldier boy was not even aware of the problem.

It was while engrossed in these thoughts that I went down the third time. At least I saw this one coming. I said that I was riding on the crest of the road. The simplest way to imagine the shape of this road is to imagine the keel of a boat, albeit a gentle one. Well, there was a truck coming in the opposite direction. I always give way to these trucks which I did with this one. I was riding downhill and battled to bring the bike to a gentle stop but somehow it was a battle. I went down. It was an insignificant fall; a fall nevertheless. The tuckers reached me as I was going down. They drove around me and kept going.

I realised that I needed a healthy respect for this mud-road. In less than 15kms, I was down the second time. I was determined to continue my trip, nothing, not the state of the road was going to stop me.

The Road Via Hell

The Scenary I 
It had rained hard the previous night as a result the conditions of the road had changed.  This implied that the riding strategies would equally have to be adapted.  It was the first time I was going to ride in these wretched circumstances: mud, rain, sand, hills and valley coupled with distance, loneliness, fatigue all fermenting in the same pot at the same time.  Unbeknown to me, the balance of the odyssey, my courage, endurance, physical fitness, was going to be tampered with: stretched and, tested beyond anything I had experienced in a novel way.  It is for this reason I called it the “Road from Hell”.  The real difference is that I emerged from this hell shaken but grateful to be alive.

The Sun was glorious waking up from its sleep; its golden arrows streaked the Eastern skies making it glow in a melange of beautiful strange orange-golden colour.  The problem with this east at Mitumba was that it was not the one at Jozi.  It was a relative east, to borrow from Einstein.  Yet I knew it was east since the sun always rises from there, and nothing in recent science had suggested that this thesis had changed.  But what kept me wondering even more was whether our sense of direction has something to do with the Circadian Rhythms?  As I pondered these matters, I brushed my teeth and doused my face with cold water.  This was inevitably the third day I was doing without a bath; it was alright.  

In spite of the experience I had gained over the days packing the bike, it still took me about an hour to tie-down every pieces of luggage.  As usual the local citizens were milling around me.  I know I can start a conversation with any one and talk about atoms, politics, the laws of supply and demand, enzymes, cooking or my favourite theme ―bikes, yet there were instances when I would give preference to being a monk ― a few moments in the morning.  It helps shuffle stuff in my mind: meditate or whatever name you give to it.  Right now I was thinking about the road ahead, yet it was impossible to avoid my hosts.  Rashid was here to introduce his wife to me: Huyu ndio shemeji, he said (It is a complicated to translate a local language directly into English since some of the words have no equivalent.  In this case, the literal meaning was brother here is our sister-in-law).  In the way he had said it, he regarded me as a brother, member of the family, and thinking about it later I was amazed by the extent of the inclusivity of our African languages, of which I speak ‘treasurably’ but modestly a good many of them and understand by extension the various dialects.

It was time to go ― the chief.  I had to request his permission to depart.  After a while, I found him among women who were sorting rice, either for a big feast or for the eating house.  I said to him I had slept very well. I inquired how he had slept.  After exchanging salutations, I said I was very grateful that he had hosted me.  I prayed that he will be kind to many more who come his way, and that I was asking for his permission to continue my journey.  He said indeed he rendered me his blessings and that I should travel with Allah.  As was my custom, I slipped a gift secretly in his hands. He said he accepted it and was very pleased.  I said I would come back one day, nearly letting a tear roll down my cheek.  I had already been warming the motor for about ten minutes and with a crowed to bid me well, I rode off in a very jovial mood saying Asante!  Asante! (Thank you).

The Scenary II
That was my first mistake.  Riding off in a jovial mood, now that seems odd to say.  It was not a bad thing in itself.  The problem was it clouded my immediate judgement to details of the changed road conditions.  This might seem a contradiction but it is how it happened.  But I rode off in same attitude I had ridden yesterday: speed, not exactly understanding that the rain has made the terrain a dangerous place.  It was the volcanic soil that is as slippery as oil.  As I began to breathe in the air, I began encountering pools of water on the road.  My good senses advised me to slow down: I climbed from 120kms to just below a 100kms.  This portion of the road evinced recent road improvement activities.  The road had a convex shape and my idea was to ride on highest part of the convex presuming it to be hard, safe and would provide traction.  In the middle of the road I pushed on desiring to cover as much distance as was possible today. 
It happened without warning.  My second tumble came to pass this moment.  Replaying the scene in my mind later, it was like in the movies, the frames had been slowed down a thousand times, the bike turned vertical from travelling horizontally, and begun to lean to my right at the same time sliding to my left and reducing the 180 degrees faster than I could blink. I separated from the bike and was thrown clear into the middle of the road.  I heard my screen snap, and then silence for even Scorpion had switched off.   I lay there waiting.  I don’t know what I was waiting for, just waiting fully conscious.  I was still in the vicinity of human habitation but it was early in the morning about 10kms from where I spent the night. 

The Road Continued after my Second Tumble
In times of tragedy, and I think this is true of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake, one of the sweetest sounds you can ever hear or long for is the human voice.  I don’t remember whether my eyes were closed or open but the voiced said “pole” (I sympathise or emphasise with you) and she held my muddied gloved right hand.  Slowly I sat up.  No pain, good I thought!  I moved my legs and hands no pain, good! I leaned forward and supported by her I stood up.  All this was happening in silence.  I was covered in the red mud from the top of my helmet to the toe of my boots.  It was like someone had soaked me in the red mud.  My riding gear is normally impressive, at least in the photos.  The red colour had replaced the black and yellow.  I could not stifle a chuckle.  Then I burst out laughing thinking that even my own mother would not have recognised me in my new outfit.  I said to the Angel Lady Asante!  I remember mumbling something like “journeys are sometimes like this”.

I inspected Scorpion.  It seems she has sustained some damage.  The screen was broken from the fame holding it into several pieces: it was irreparable.  I retrieved the road licence which was stuck some place on the inside.  I stood Scorpion on her feet.  The evidence was clear: the aluminium panniers had absorbed most of the shock and had acquired a new shape.  In addition, more reflectors had fallen off.  Scorpion herself was unscathed.  I stood her on her side stand and waited for her to take some breath then hit the Start black button.  She roared into life without hesitation.  That sound was really uplifting, the second sweetest sound I had heard that day.  I could not hold back a tear that decided to roll down my cheek.  I realised our bond was a very special one. I was glad the helmet was on to shield my face.  I had removed it temporally to clean the mud off the visor.  I shuddered to imagine Scorpion not starting; what would happen?  I mean not start in a serious way. I was about 3500kms in the middle of nowhere.  I believed at that moment that I sat on Scorpion, waved and rode-off.  That was the first of the more than fifteen falls I would experience that day on a stretch of about 280 kms.  I normally cover 100kms in 50 minutes.  Today was a new experience; I would spend exactly 15hours and 17 minutes on this stretch of road, for hell had just broken lose, but and it is a big one, I knew that the Lord was travelling with me as pillion.

An End to a Beginning.

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