There's a certain fear of returning to Africa, not for my safety, but a fear of the language I'll use to describe the world in front of me. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Emma, a dear friend and my host in Chiang Mai, thinks the look on my face was disappointment as the die turns up Kenya, instead of Mongolia, which was what I was hoping for. But later, laying naked in the darkness of the bedroom, my mind spinning as it often does these nights, I realized it wasn't disappointment. It was fear.
Africa isn't to be fucked with. Neither is Mongolia during the winter, but because Mongolia is so extreme, Africa became a mellow option. However, the reality is that a landing in Kenya, securing a motorcycle and taking on the East coast of the continent isn't a chill endeavor. It isn't chill at all.
There are parts of Mozambique, in the north, that convoys are under fire, that's a single example of how much more serious this leg of the trip will be. It occurred to me as I pondered the East Africa Visa, which gets me into Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Are Uganda and Rwanda solid for a motorbike trip, I wondered, feeling the reality of the situation creeping in like the cold long after the furnace has shut off for the night on a winter's night.
I don't know. It's nearly 4am. I have one full day left in Chiang Mai. Then, I'm on an overnight train to Bangkok, second class. One day in Bangkok before I'm off to Vietnam for a month.
While in Vietnam, I need to plan the next several months of traveling Africa Okay, planning isn't the right word, the dice don't plan. But it's essential to start reading rider reports on Adventure Riders, WildDogs, Horizons Unlimited and other motorcycle forums to establish what routes are safe, what routes are worth checking out, what are the basic logistics – the kind of stuff that stops you from ending up dead. Without a base understanding, it's hard to give options to the die.
There is also a lingering dread because I'm fundamentally weird. I like being weird. Asia is weird. Asia is full of weird people. Hell, half the youth in Thailand are driving around with stupid, fluffy animal ears stuck to their helmets. Hell, I just bought a pair for my helmet. When I was in Africa the first time, West Africa, I was overwhelmed by the awareness that I should tone down that kind of quirkiness.
For months I'd walk through University of Ghana campus and the college students in the dorms would yell down, “Obruni”. It basically translates to “white person”. The word can be dressed up romantically as “person from beyond the horizon” or it could carry a hint of a racial slur, though we were told that was never the case.
Staying on the campus I was on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, a giant African city. I'm not a fan of cities in general, especially Accra. Everyday I'd go through the same process of barging for the price of the bus, despite knowing the price, which was supposed to be set, all because I was another white person. They never remembered me; that's how big cities are. Had I lived up north, the experience would have been vastly different. We like to think that travel always changes us for the better, I would argue that it, like all experiences, inevitably changes us, but whether or not we are better at the end of it is purely a matter of perspective. I don't think Ghana made me a better person. The traveling though Burkina Faso and Mali after the semester ended had a greater positive impact, as I was moving and being assaulted by formidable beauty, both the cultures and the landscapes.
Nonetheless, Accra left a bad taste in my mouth. And now, as racial tensions boil over in America and Black Lives Matter takes a stand, there is a hyperawareness about the words we use when race issues take the stage. Tonight, laying in bed, it is not only the distaste for that city that is sour in my mouth. There is also the bitter fear that I'll discover and confront an intolerant, racist side of myself.
Though I'm sure the conflict would be cultural and not racial, the way it is captured in words could easily be twisted or misunderstood. As I write, I realize it's never even cultural, it's a clash of exceptions. What I expect from Africa. What individuals I meet expect of me.
It can be the people, but only as they are products of a reality that I do not fully understand. Understanding how they have developed as individuals, understand their story, and then you can more easily except what feels like their short comings, focusing on other aspects of them as people. What I witnessed in Accra was the breakdown of traditional social networks and support systems as people moved into the cities. Once in the cement jungle, it's possible to become a urban animal, failing to see other people as humans, instead identifying them as either a threat or as a mark. All because in these cities it feels as if we're all strangers and don't know how to stop being strangers to each other.
Without being honest with myself about these fears, it's impossible to head toward Kenya with a completely open mind. But first, there's Vietnam.