Saturday, November 1, 2014

Motorcycle Rides at Night

            It’s 11:36 pm and my mind is still racing from the day, from agendas and deadlines and the well-worn routines of my life. I dial one of a handful of numbers to get my fix. I need to fulfill my daily wonder quota—to stand in awe of how crazy and lovely, bizarre and beautiful this world is, each and every day. I have an unquenchable desire to fulfill the wildest parts of me, to get out of my own head, and to keep feeding whatever brought me to Africa in the first place. People find a million different ways to feel liberation; my chosen method is the night motorcycle ride.


            The first number I call returns only a busy signal. Onto the next one. My fingers scroll through the list of my trusted contacts in my phone, and the closest thing to a therapist I have in this country: my night time moto drivers. On the sixth ring, Claude finally picks up, and his voice is groggy; it’s clear that my phone call woke him up. But he promises to be at my house in ten minutes; he knows I pay well for disturbing his slumber.
            I walk outside onto my porch. The Rwandan night air is cool, and it still smells like the rainstorm earlier in the evening. I tap my fingers nervously on the balcony, waiting for him to show up. I wrap a scarf around my neck and tie it tightly in preparation of what is to come. After what seems like ages, I see Claude’s motorcycle headlights beaming up our driveway. I quickly lock the door, put the key in my pocket, and head down to meet him.
            I exchange Kinyarwanda greetings with Claude and lean in to gauge whether he’s been drinking. His breath is rancid but there’s no trace of alcohol on it, so I jump on the back of his gaudily decorated motorcycle, and we start off down the rocky road that leads to my house.
            “Where to this time?” Claude asks, unsure of whether to turn left or right at the intersection. “Bugarama,” I decide. We hit the paved road, and my tightly-woven mind begins to unwind.
            We pass the border with Congo, which is strangely silent and empty at this time of night. During the day it’s the exact opposite: the streets are bustling with traders, UN soldiers, trucks, motos, and NGO cars going to and from Rwanda. The twinkling lights of Bukavu stretch over the rolling hills for miles and halfway up the steep mountains that frame the city.
            Claude dodges potholes near the tea fields; the motor alternates between humming and spluttering loudly. Somehow I’ve gotten used to it; it’s my white noise on these trips. We begin to climb, up and up, until I’m hugging my scarf around my body and the wind is whipping through the half of my ponytail sticking out of my helmet. The lights of Bukavu have faded into the distance, and it’s almost pitch black now. The motorcycle’s headlights cut through the darkness like a knife, illuminating a few meters in front of us at a time. As we pass through villages lining the road, the smell of cooking fires fills my nostrils, and scratchy radio music (sometimes Rwandan gospel music, sometimes Congolese rhumba) reaches my ears, and then drifts off again as we pass through.
***
            I zone out completely, and before I know it we’ve zoomed through my old Peace Corps site; the little village where I experienced so many trials and tribulations but so much joy for two years of my life. I think about the nuns, resting from their day’s labor at the health center and the school, and little D’Assisi, hopefully sleeping soundly in his little bed in the pajamas he’s long outgrown. Every time I ride through I’m so tempted to stop at the convent, just to kiss his tiny forehead and give him a hug and apologize for not being around as much as I want to be. Even though I live forty-five minutes away, I bitterly miss getting to read him bedtime stories at night and tucking him into bed.
            I know I can’t stop and wake him, and the moto carries on. We’ve reached the pinnacle, and Claude turns off the engine to save on petrol. It’s all-downhill from here until the Rusizi plain at the border with Congo and Burundi; the only sound now is of the wheels running smoothly over the pavement. The temperature begins to warm as the elevation lessens, and I loosen by iron grip on my scarf. It’s too dark to see them now, but I know palm trees begin to dot the rolling landscape that leads to the vast green rice fields.
***
            We finally reach Bugarama, a small city on the border where the three countries meet. There are a few large freight trucks lining the streets, waiting until the border opens again in a few more hours. There are still people milling about in Bugarama, even at this time of the night. Claude asks to stop at one of the few small boutiques on the road to buy a bottle of petrol, despite the fact that I’ve told him to fill his tank before our journey. I don’t really have a choice, so he parks the bike and wanders into a one-room shop illuminated by a single flickering lightbulb. Claude comes out a few minutes later with a grubby bottle smelling like gasoline, although it’s undoubtedly mixed with water. He pours it in, returns the bottle to the shop, and starts the engine again for the return voyage.
            The return trip always seems ten times faster, and thoughts pass through my head in a blur. I wonder if I will get to accomplish all that I want to do in my life. I wonder if I’ll look back at these years when I’m old and wrinkled and see my life as a success or a disappointment. I wonder about my new life in Africa, and the old one I left behind in the U.S. I think about all the things I’m missing there: friends and family, birthdays and weddings and new babies and different jobs. I wonder how such a beautiful place as Rwanda could have experienced such unspeakable violence, how people I know and love here have harmed and healed, forgiven and failed to forgive. I wonder about the world, and I wonder if I’m doing enough. I ask myself all of these questions a hundred times, and I never seem to find the answers I’m looking for. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to these crazy, ill-advised nighttime moto rides.
            We travel the road I’ve travelled a hundred times, back through my Peace Corps site and on to my current home. Lake Kivu stretches before me, dark and vast and deep, and I feel at peace.
            There’s a Kinyarwanda proverb that says “God goes elsewhere during the day, but he stays in Rwanda at night.” Looking up at the dark night sky filled with a million glittering stars, I believe every word.