Motorcycle Messengers

Photo: Oscillator Press

It’s such a simple idea. Tap into your database of fellow global travellers and amass a ‘best of’ sample stories from them in one book. You end up with a great book and they end up with a plug for their own books.

Motorcycle Messengers is the child of many mothers/father, birthed by Jeremy Kroeker. A travel writer himself (Motorcycle Therapy, and Through Dust and Darkness), Kroeker is one of those guys that pops up all over the world, often posting selfies of himself with numerous other global riders in various locales. That should be reason alone to hate him, but Kroeker is a down to earth, somewhat self-deprecating man who instantly makes you feel at ease which is probably why he’s managed to get such a good selection of other travel writers to contribute to Motorcycle Messengers.

The book features a who’s-who of the famous with pieces from Lois Pryce, Neil Peart, Paddy Tyson, Sam Manicom and Ted Simon, to name but a few. There’s even a few pieces by Mark Richardson, ex-editor of the Star Wheels section, automotive journalist, writer (Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and sometime contributor to CMG. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say he’s a friend but he’s also English and we don’t like to show that we have friends so I’ll keep him as a colleague.

As has become the CMG way of conducting book reviews, here’s a chapter from Motorcycle Messengers. Which is a bit weird really as it’s an extract of an extract of a book. Presuming Mr Richardson published this story in a book, which he may not have. But I digress, here’s the story, which as you’ve probably already guessed, is from the lovable Mark Richardson …

African commuter

By Mark Richardson

MotorcycleMessengers_coverIt was a Bajaj 100, and it sat with a bunch of other Bajajs in the backyard of the Kigali compound. The head courier looked at me and shrugged. Sure, he said, you can take this one if you can fix it. Go right ahead.

I chose this one because it looked the least decrepit, but it still looked decrepit. The chain was hanging as loose as an old breast, and there was a thick film of rust on the muffler and handlebars and most everywhere there was metal. But it didn’t look broken and I set to with a wire brush and some oil and worked for the morning to clean it up.

The head courier thought me strange, as did all the other couriers. I was a Western manager for the aid agency he worked for, and there was a Toyota Land Cruiser available to me, with a driver. Yet I’d asked about the motorcycles and was even now dripping oil on the drive chain and forcing lubricant into the clutch and brake cables, in the shade of a tree out in the back yard. It made no sense.

In fact, the little bike didn’t look too bad when I finished. It looked beaten-up, sure, as it certainly had been while running around through the honking traffic of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and perhaps out into the hills of the countryside. It hadn’t been anywhere for quite a while, though. This was 1996 and the aid agency was still regrouping and reorganizing after the horrors of the recent genocide.

I was there as an “information officer,” which meant I had to write regular reports about what was happening in the country that would be sent back to the agency’s offices in North America and Europe, and I also had to help out any journalists who were still around, looking for stories. We all knew the biggest story was about to break: the refugees in the huge camps that neighboured Rwanda, in Tanzania and Zaire, were about to return home. I was on site and on top of it. That’s why I’d been given a Land Cruiser to get around, to travel across the country and monitor the movement of hundreds of thousands of people.

But there was no reason why I shouldn’t have some fun and ride a motorcycle instead, and I made this point to the Country Director when I requested a bike from the defunct courier fleet. Actually, I made the point that he could use the Land Cruiser for somebody else – himself, perhaps – and there was no need to tie up a driver for me. Most drivers were uneducated with a questionable licence, anyway, and most Westerners preferred to sit them in the back and do the driving themselves.

So I fixed up the Bajaj 100 as best I could and then proudly showed it to the couriers. They admired the tightness of the chain, and nodded enthusiastically when I showed them how easily the levers pulled the cables. They stood back when I sat astride the bike and kicked its engine to life, and they watched politely as I roared up the road, the revs rising higher and higher. And higher. And higher.

I rode back more slowly. “It won’t shift out of first,” I said. “It must be a problem with the clutch.” I parked the bike and squinted at everything that was squintable, but all seemed fine. I worked the cable and poked at things, and then got back on the bike and rode it back up the road. Again, the couriers watched politely and listened to the little engine scream against its red line, and again, they watched me return, and they looked sad.

“I guess it’s the transmission,” I shrugged. “I should choose another bike.”

A courier stepped forward. “May I try?” he asked, and I waved him toward the bike. He sat on it, kicked the kickstarter, listened to the engine, then set off up the road. I heard the motor’s pitch rise and fall with each confident gear change, all the way to fourth. Then he turned around at the end of the road, put the bike into second and cruised gently back.

“I think, perhaps, you were using the pedal the opposite way,” he told me with absolute courtesy and of course he was right. The Bajaj was made in India and its left pedal worked the rear brake and its right worked the gears. I already knew this, but even then, it was opposite to anything I’d ridden before: the gears were one push up, three pushes down. The courier saw me jabbing the wrong way at the pedal when I wanted to shift into second, but had been too polite to mention it.

It took a week or so to get used to the opposite gearing but I didn’t let that stop me exploring the city and the local farmland. Rwanda was a very safe country at this time, partly due to a massive local military presence and partly due to the huge influx of foreign aid money that was rebuilding the infrastructure.

It was still a poor country, though, and life could be rough. For me personally, it was a challenge to work because I’d developed a blood clot in my right leg. There were no drugs to deal with the clot in Kigali, except Aspirin, so a Belgian doctor bound up my leg very tight and told me to keep it elevated whenever possible. I did this, but I didn’t want to return to Canada for treatment so just soldiered on with a bandaged leg. In truth, I had no idea just how potentially dangerous a blood clot could be, so I figured I’d deal with it once the refugees returned home.

In the meantime, I had to go visit the camps in Tanzania, which we expected to be the first to empty. The Country Director asked again if I wanted the Land Cruiser for the journey, about 200 km that would take around four hours, but I saw no reason why I shouldn’t ride the Bajaj and he was pleased to be able to keep the big SUV for others. Besides, I’d found a set of crash bars and could rest my leg up on them while riding.

I set off on this first big trip with a Jerry can of gas strapped to the back rest and a litre of two-stroke oil strapped to the Jerry can. I wore my rucksack, which rested on the passenger seat, and a helmet that would be rejected by your average kids’ kart track. And I was happy. The bike ran well and the country was beautiful. Every hill was terraced and filled with fertile fields, a running tapestry of colour. It was a great ride, right up until the bike began to choke and slow down, coughing its way forward with hiccups of blue smoke from the tail pipe.

The problem was obvious: the spark plug was fouled, probably by crappy gas and poor carburetor adjustment. I was near a village – everywhere in Rwanda is near a village – and I limped to a halt near a mud-hut store, underneath a shade tree. Immediately, curious people walking who-knows-where paused to look and children gathered to giggle at the stranded muzungu.

I don’t remember now if I already had a spark plug wrench or had to borrow one from somewhere in the village, but I do remember the oily blue and black tip of the spark plug once it was removed, and the heat of the metal as I wiped the plug on a rag. I also remember a young man approaching, as I labored away, to offer me some tea, which I declined. The water could be suspect, and my Western resilience was no match for a stomach born and bred in the region. But when I’d finished and the plug was clean again, somebody else came up to sell me a cake and I took it gratefully. It was a good time for a break, after all – about half-way to the border. And the young man offered me tea a second time but I declined again and set off on my way.

When I reached Tanzania, the bike was running a little rough and so I found a wire brush and cleaned the plug a second time. I may have had a wrench already, but if I didn’t, I bought one from a supplier and kept it in my pocket. I stayed a day and then returned to Kigali. And once again, the bike began to cough near the same half-way point and I pulled over under the same tree and set about cleaning the plug. It would be quick work now, just a few minutes, but I burned my hands on the ticking metal, so sat back to wait while the engine cooled.

“Would you like some chai?” I looked up and it was the young man from before, offering a china cup of chai tea already made. He looked so concerned and so – kind – that I accepted this time and sipped at the tea while the two of us talked about motorcycles for a while. He told me he had a bike himself, but it wasn’t as good as mine. It was a step-through Honda. I told him that was my first bike and we both smiled happily as I enjoyed the tea and let the Bajaj cool a little in the shade. Another cake was offered and I was told it was a gift, but I insisted on paying the little boy who brought it and everyone seemed happy. I think I paid 10 times the local rate. Then after maybe half-an-hour of gentle conversation, I removed the plug, brushed and wiped it clean, topped up the gas tank and returned to Kigali.

I made that trip several times in the next few weeks, each time stopping at the same point, under the same shade tree, to clean the spark plug and enjoy some tea and pay too much money to a little boy for a cake. They knew me as the guy who liked to cruise on his bike with his right leg up on the crash bar or sometimes even up on the handlebar itself; I never admitted that underneath my long pants, the leg was bound like a cast. They found me entertaining and some people would wave at me on the road when I passed, though I was never sure if they knew me or were just being polite. The bike started to run better with careful maintenance and after a while, it really didn’t need to have its plug cleaned so often, but I stopped to do it anyway. It was a chance for a break on the road to or from the border, and it was a chance to talk about motorcycles with people who thought a Bajaj 100 was something to be appreciated, something valuable.

One day, while visiting Tanzania, I was set to leave the next morning but woke at dawn to realize the camp had emptied. Tens of thousands of people had moved out in the night and slipped back over the border into Rwanda, to try to resume their lives as if nothing had happened. The camp was a shell of vacant stick huts and I limped door-to-door all day to make sure nobody had been left behind. Nobody had. The camp was abandoned, every one of the thousands of huts deserted.

I rode to Kigali the next day with my hand-written report in my back pocket. I needed to hurry back, to fax the pages to Europe and North America. The bike sang on the road, clean and responsive. After an hour or two, I came to the place where I would clean the plug and slowed down but didn’t stop, and waved at the people there who waved back, then lifted their heads higher when they recognized me.

I thought of the tea. I thought of the cake. I thought of the gentle conversation that began to seem more important than any faxed report. Before I reached the curve in the road at the edge of the village, I slowed and turned and came back to park under the tree.

The report could wait for a little while. A young man offered me tea and a small boy offered me cake; I insisted on paying for it with a larger note than usual, which he accepted with bright eyes. The Bajaj 100 ticked away in the heat for a while as several of us talked about motorcycles. I told the story of pressing the gear pedal the wrong way and everybody laughed, and I showed them the bandages under my jeans and everyone looked concerned. “You must go home now, to fix yourself,” somebody said and all agreed.

I didn’t clean the plug that time – it didn’t need it. I shook everyone’s hand and swung my bad leg over the seat and started the bike, then pushed down on the pedal to put it into second gear. As I rode away from the village, I pushed twice more to find fourth gear before lifting my leg onto the crash bar to rest for the second half of the journey. In the mirror, I watched my friends waving goodbye under the shade tree until the road curved and they disappeared from view, and then I rode back to Kigali to fix myself.

Motorcycle Messengers: tales from the road by writers who ride is conceived and edited by Jeremy Kroeker, with a foreword by Ted Simon. Cost is $20.00 and copies are available directly from Oscillator Press or around the web.


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