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Uneasy Rider

Crossing Zanzibar on one rough road and two wobbly wheels

From ISLANDS (Jan/Feb 2010)

From ISLANDS (Jan/Feb 2010)

By Andrew McCarthy

I should just say, “No. I’ve changed my mind. thank you anyway.” I should just turn and walk away. But I can’t. This has become one of those unnecessary tests of manhood we guys give ourselves at arbitrary moments, one of those decisions that takes on metaphoric significance about our whole life. The 250cc Honda is waiting. The rental agent is dangling the keys in front of me. And I’m powerless to do anything but reach for them. I’m headed across Zanzibar on two wheels. I’ve never been on a motorcycle in my life.

So what that I’ve negotiated my way up from Cape Town, roughly 2,000 miles away. This 20-mile journey across Zanzibar has grown to symbolize the success or failure of my entire trip — perhaps much more than just my trip. Harry, the young kid who works the desk at my hotel, told me about the most beautiful spot on the island: the beaches near Bwejuu. Since then, I have been obsessed with traversing the rough roads toward the island’s east coast and making my way to those beaches. They have become my brass ring. This motorcycle is my only hope for reaching my goal. It’s do or die.

I throw a leg over the bike, twist the throttle and jump down on the starter. The engine sputters but doesn’t catch. I lose my balance and fall. My knee smashes into the pavement, and I crumble under the weight of the machine coming down on top of me. After a few more tries, the rental agent steps in and revs the engine in one well-practiced move. I climb aboard and sputter down the road, leaving him to eat my dust.

On foot, Zanzibar Town, the island’s main settlement, had been a delightful mystery of craggy lanes, decaying sun-baked 19th-century homes and mosques, a hidden gem around every corner. On my shaky two wheels, it’s a nightmare. Right away I’m lost — hopelessly. I consider quitting all this, except that I can’t find my hotel again. And then there it is, the gateway to the beaches I’m looking for, the road east. I realize I’ve forgotten my backpack in the hotel lobby, and I consider going back. But I know that my finding this road was sheer luck, and I’m certain I could never do it again — even if I were to locate my hotel, which is doubtful. So I have nothing with me, no water, no change of clothes, not even my bathing suit — that purifying swim I had envisioned is quickly forgotten. No matter. I charge on.

Quickly, the traffic is far behind me and I begin to relax. Scores of people, young and old, walk the road and eye an obvious outsider with curiosity. At first I nod, afraid to raise a finger from the controls, but soon I’m sitting back and waving like a queen. I pass school children in uniforms who call out greetings. “Jambo!” I shout in return. I gracefully swerve left and right to avoid scampering chickens and goats crossing the road. I am beginning to feel very good about myself. The engine purrs.

Up ahead, alone by the side of the road, stands a small hut. A man in a beige uniform and helmet has seen me coming and steps out into the middle of the road, directly in my path. He holds up a gloved hand, ordering me to halt. I remember someone advising me never to stop for police while on the road — they will try to extort money, the advice went. The distance between us closes. It occurs to me that maybe it was Brazilian police I was warned about; I can’t remember. In any event, if I stop, I may not be able to start this thing again. He’s blowing a whistle at me now. I’m nearly upon him. His arm is outstretched. I hit the throttle and zip past his astonished face.

I experience a moment’s thrill until I realize I am about to be shot in the back. Did I see a gun? I swerve, zigzagging back and forth across the road. I race on.

Suddenly, the pavement ends. I’m on a rutted dirt track. Buildings are a thing of the past. The foliage thins, replaced by low scrub. This is not the spice-scented Zanzibar — it’s brown and dry. The dust rises. I find myself getting caught in deep grooves and fear a flat tire that I won’t be able to repair. My progress slows to a crawl.

And then it starts to rain.

I mean rain. I mean torrential sheets of water screaming down with a ferocity that slashes my skin like a thousand tiny knives. The dirt track is quickly saturated. Deep puddles form. The rain emboldens me, and I roar through one puddle and send water flying. I laugh wildly. I dive the bike through another, and then another. I am a lunatic, whooping and laughing, congratulating myself on my off-road abilities and my triumph over this challenge. “What was I so worried about? Bring it on!” And then one puddle is too deep. The bike stalls, and I’m stuck.

I’ve seen no one since the pavement quit a few miles back. I try to push the bike free and slip and fall on my face. I’m soaked and now covered in mud. I take refuge under the only nearby tree, a leafless bombax. Impossibly, the rain grows even more violent.

“O! The joy!” Capt. William Clark wrote in his journal upon finally spotting the ocean after crossing the country with Meriwether Lewis. But it’s a joy I will never share. I was a fool, I see now, ever to leave my hotel. Who was I kidding? It will be dark soon. The air is warm, but still I begin to shiver. I wonder if it will ever stop raining. I wonder how I will ever get the bike started again. I wonder how long it will take for me to simply starve to death.

As suddenly as it began, the rain stops. The sun burns down. Hope is restored. And like Arthur with Excalibur, I effortlessly lift the bike, and it roars to life. My goal is in reach. I can feel it. I press on. It starts to rain again, but nothing can stop me now. And then in a flash, there it is before me in all its glory — the Indian Ocean.

The tide has withdrawn, leaving the seabed exposed. Small pools of water sprinkle out toward the far-off reef. The late-afternoon sun slashes through the clouds, sending shafts of light reflecting back up off the intermittent pools of water. I’ve never seen a vista like it. I gaze out, drenched to the bone, one flip-flop blown out long ago, sunglasses lost somewhere along the line. But I’ve made it. I’ve passed my test. “O! The joy!” Indeed.

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