Day 284: Identifying Own Racist Actions on the Road
Out of gas, I was glad someone showed up to rescue me. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.
Chewing on homemade peanut butter and banana sandwich on the crunchy dry grass of Ziwa Bush Lodge outside my tent it strikes me: I acted racist yesterday.
There was no other fair explanation for it.
The trick to spotting racism is to honestly review whether or not you acted in the exact same way toward a person if they were a different color. If it had been a white boy that came up to me yesterday, would I have acted differently? Maybe, maybe, I would have.
I left the lever on Rafiki pointing to the reserve tank, which meant that when I ran out of gas on the dusty gravel road leading away from the lodge, there wasn't a drop of fuel left in the Yamaha DT175. Having topped up the oil recently, I knew I was cutting it close, but figured I'd have enough fuel in the reserve tank to get me to a station – unaware I was already blowing through it.
Thirsty Rafiki comes to a dead stop.
She's easier to push than the CB500X I was riding at the beginning of the trip, but still, pushing a motorcycle in Kenya's mid-day sun isn't my idea of fun. A man on some Chinese-brand pikipiki stops next to me.
“It's out of gas,” I say.
“Is there anyway I can help?”
“Do you have gas?”
“No, but I have jerry cans up there. I can go get you gas.”
“That would be perfect! Thank you so much. I'll just wait here.”
I give him 500 Shilling, with the instructions of bringing me be back 300 Shillings worth of gas and keeping the rest of the money for himself. Given that a day's wage is about 300 Shillings, it's not a bad situation for either of us.
The man left with my money and returned with the much-needed petrol. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Situated in the shade of an eucalyptus tree, listening to a 99% Invisible podcast, I hit pause. A Kenyan teenager in a dusty school uniform, his tie loose and pulled to the side, stands in front of me.
“Hi,” I say.
Though no tears are running down his cheeks, his eyes are blurry with salty water. The dikes break. Tears stream down his face.
“Here man, come sit down,” I say, patting the ground next to me.
A little awkwardly, I put an arm around him.
“What's going on?”
What's going on is that he's a teenager with too much on his plate. He tells me that he's sick. He got a note from school on Thursday, it's now Monday, to go home for a couple of days. However, someone spotted him walking around the other day and told him that he wasn't sick. It was reported to the headmaster. The details are fuzzy. There are people and places in his story that I can't get my head around, but that seems to be the gist of it. On top of that, his main sponsor is not in the country. He's worried that he can't focus while in class. He's worried that they'll kick him out from school.
When I ask how he's sick, he makes a some itching gesture at his crouch. At first I don't even catch it, but when I ask again later, he does the same thing. There's a small part of me that feels hesitant about keeping my arm around him to comfort him, worried that I'll catch something – as illogical as that is.
“Sorry, I know a man shouldn't cry, but...” he sobs through the final words of the sentence.
“It's okay man. We all cry. It's healthy,” I say. “Now I don't know if it's the same situation, but when I'm on the verge of crying, it's often because the world is too much. There is too much to handle. And it looks to me that you're trying to take on too much.
“You're worried about being sick and worried about getting kicked out of school and worried about not being able to go to college and worried about not being able to get a good job. In this one moment, you're worried about your entire life. It's too much.
“You have to slow down and take a deep breath. Take these things one at a time, so you can manage them. Right now, you tackle this one moment. So instead of worrying about whether or not you can handle going to school tomorrow. Start with today. Take a deep breath and focus on one challenge at a time. Let's go to school today. Don't worry about the headmaster or everything else.”
He's listening to me, his tears drying up, his composure coming back.
“That's what I have to do, when it's too much for me,” I say, repeating my advice.
He's composed now, though his face still wears the pain of having weathered an emotional storm. He's calm.
“Okay, I'll go to school now,” he says. “Can you help me?”
“No,” I say, regretting it moments later.
– Pause: that's the moment where I'm being racist. Or at least it's very possible –
Now, sitting in the grass next to my tent and a fever tree, I wonder if I would have handled it differently if he was a white kid. If he was a white kid, his situation would be completely different, there would be different context to his life and a different context to him being in this situation. Would I have been more prone to try and help?
Maybe, maybe, so.
I sure wish the answer was that I'd helped this black Kenya kid, but we already know that's not the case:
The teenager, now with dry eyes, excepts my “no” as if he expected it.
We shake hands. He steps back out onto the road, headed for the school.
With Rafiki full of fuel and back on the road into town, I know my response to the teen was a knee-jerk reaction to his request.
I failed to slow down. I failed to consider all the options. No, I wasn't about to give him money. But if I'd thought about it, would I have gone to a pharmacy in town and tried to find a cream to relieve the itching? It wasn't even until I was on the road again that it clicked and I realized it was some sort of genital-related issue. As the fella who recently dealt with anal warts, you'd think I'd be more sympathetic. At his age, 17 or so years old, talking specifics to a headmaster or nurse at a Christian church seems nearly impossible.
Back at Ziwa Bush Lodge, I pack up camp and pay my bill at the front desk: 1,000 Shilling for four coffees and 2,250 Shilling for three nights of camping – even though the staff upgraded me to a room two of the nights.
The upgrade was strange, straight out of a movie. I'm the only person in the tastefully decorated, large dining room next to a small pond. The cool jazz that's been playing all day is soft, as if kept in check by low lighting. I give the only waitress, standing behind the bar, a nod and close my laptop. The music goes off. The night before, the maitre d came over to see if he could close up early, as I was the only person there. Noticing I was using the internet, he offered to let me crash in a nearby bungalow where it was possible to still use the WiFi. It had seemed like a one-off thing.
Tonight, however, the waitress comes up to my table to remove the coffee cup and silently places the skeleton key on the wooden round table I'm working.
“Thank you,” I say, picking up the key.
The room is heavenly. Plush comforter, soft sheets, big clean towels, WiFi and privacy, which inevitably leads to a bit of browsing on PornHub.
It was absurd to be upgraded from camping to a plush bungalow and not to be charged an extra cent. Though I'd found out I had 660 more dollars left in my bank account than I thought, I still had avoided buying any meals at the restaurant. My budget-mentality was set. Even now, with about 1,000 dollars left, it's not enough for three months of careless travel.
First role: TZ Distant Relatives Eco-Lodge.
Well, that's how we roll. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“TZ is Tanzania, hilariously slash embarrassingly, I always pause before saying Tanzania because I almost inevitably call it Tasmania, which is not really close," I say into my phone as I grab a video of the next big role.
Distant Relatives, with whom I was negotiating an outstanding bill after my drone work in Kilifi, was not on the option list until I received a message from one of the owners – a young man by the name of Romain.
After hearing the details about Dice Travels, Romain cleared my bill as a thank you for the drone footage I shot at the New Year's Eve event. Then, to take it to the next level, Romain – being a complete legend – made a proper offer to a nearly broke Dice Man.
“Please come stay here for free man! As long as you want – maybe do a little photo and drone exchange? We couldn't really offer drinks and food – or maybe some volunteer menu stuff? But we can have a whole ensuite banda to yourself no problem!” he writes. “Anyhow, the invite is there, role the dice on it! If you have 2 dice, aim for a 7 to come!”
Before Romain came to the rescue, I was in this place where I thought Tanzania was the right place to go next, but choosing to do so with no rolling seemed like the wrong way to get there.
“So, I have two dice what we'll do is roll them, as we do. If it's a seven – those of you who like math... Check it. You already did it? So there are six combinations where I can make seven... which is six in thirty-six, which is one in six. Could just choose one number, but that's not what Romain asked for.”
I put off this role for a while, because it's nerve-racking: the whole idea of the board crossing and being out of money.
“I keep saying: that's where the adventure begins. But let's be honest, people who are on adventure. I don't know – Frodo – that shit kind of sucked. Like most of it sucked. It's only in reflection when they're eating meat pies and smoking giant pipes that suddenly seems really awesome. So, inside, a little nervous, but we'll see what happens,” I say before tossing the dice on the table.
It's a five. Tanzania, here we come. But first, how are we getting there?
The a single die tumbles out of my hand this time. It's not the sexiest roll, but it's significant: where do I cross the border into Tanzania? Isebania or Namanga? Namanga is the main international border crossing and should result in the least amount of hassle. However, from Nankuri, where I am now, it's impossible to get there without passing back through Nairobi. Isebania would provide a more scenic drive on smaller roads.
The die shows up a four, which means I'm headed to Namanga.
“Wha'ts up bro? Can I crash at your place tonight? The dice are bringing me back through Nairobi” I message Lovince, a good Kenyan friend of mine.
“Hey bruv, thanks😀, please feel free, you are welcomed. What time do you think you'll get here?”
Not only can I stay there, he might have work for me. Lovince is a charming fixer and pitchman for a music video production crew in Nairobi. We met at the epic Kilifi New Year's Eve party at Distant Relatives and hit it off. Since then, he's been trying to land contracts where they can fit a drone pilot into the budget.
“I'll let you know tonight about the jobs,” he says.
If the die had come up an even number, I wouldn't be driving toward a job.
The trip along Highway A104 is familiar; it's the same road I left Nairobi on several weeks ago.
With pop music blaring, I make it to Nairobi in good time.
“Baby, your socks stink,” Liz, Lovince's American wife, says moments after I take off my motorcycle boots in their living room. “You want to do some laundry?” It was less of a question than a kind, southern woman's demand.
I rinsed out my socks and underwear yesterday, but that was my first attempt at doing laundry since I left Nairobi three weeks ago. I'd managed to go nearly two weeks without changing my socks and about a week in the same pair of underwear, which comes with the territory of having a poor sense of smell, poor general hygiene and being constantly on the move.
Is it necessary that I'm so foul smeling? Of course not.
Are most people traveling like I am this foul? Of course not.
“The fumes are going to kill someone in here,” Liz says. “Maybe you should take a shower too, 'cause you stink hun.”
With laundry in the machine and whatever has been growing in my socks and underwear scrubbed off my body, I join Liz on the patio, while the toxic fumes carried into the flat with me dissipate. Lovince is on his way out, he's got more work to do for Sunday's shoot.
It's Valentine's Day.
A few weeks ago, I'd made plans with my ex-girlfriend in Phuket to have a Skype date in Valentine's Day. We'd started talking more after she recently got out of another relationship. What the point of all the talking is, is hard to put a finger on, as I'm not coming back to Phuket. It seemed like a thing best not to think too hard about. Bottom line was that it felt good to say: I love you and hear someone say it back. However, yesterday, she explained that she thought I was joking about the Skype date. I'm not sure exactly what made her change her mind.
I'd gotten into a huff about it, because we'd talked about it several times and I was planning on spending some extra money to ensure I had good internet connection so we could Skype. However, something had changed, I felt it changing over the last week and this was where we were at.
Instead, I sat down at the dinner table with Lovince's wife, who's from Alabama. Since Lovince had work, it was just the two of us eating homemade pad thai next to a dozen red and pink roses Lovince had given to her on the balcony earlier today.
There's not an ounce of romance in the apartment room, but it still makes me laugh when I realized I was spending Valentine's Day with my good friend's wife.
“I know, I keep telling him at some point he should start worrying,” Liz teases, though their love runs deep, far past all their worst moments and biggest flaws – and they both know it and are safe because if it.