This is my submission for an international short story competition. I have no idea how I’ll do, but I thought it would also make a good blog post as I have definitely not been consistently writing lately. But here she goes. Love to hear feedback!
The Freedom of Flight
Everyone told me not to do it. They said it was too dangerous. That I would die. Everyone always cited some example of such and a such a person, or telling me that at the public hospital, Muhimbili, that there was an entire floor or even a whole ward just for accidents from riding them. The rich people didn’t ride them in the city and for foreigners to ride them, well that’s just outrageous!
The thing is though, that my favourite thing to do, the moments when I felt more alive than I ever thought I could, were riding on the piki-pikis. Riding on a motorbike, hair free and blowing, tucking my skirt in tightly under my legs as I held on with one hand as we wove and swerved in and out of traffic through the night sky I have never felt so small and yet so connected.
People would always point in shock that I was on a piki. That a Mzungu, a foreigner, would ride one, let alone ride one alone. By herself.
The first time I ever rode one, I didn’t do it alone. I had been taken in by the collective fear. I was out with a friend. And after a long, misleading, traffic-halted dala ride to the Morocco intersection we got off. It would be a long walk, or a short ride on what could be the scariest most death-defying vehicle of my life. He asked if I wanted to? My mind wracked with fear of the dangerous unknown. What if we crashed? He would ask him to go slow. Pole pole. What if I fell off? I would be in the middle, Mishkaki style. Okay, well we might as well try it out. Best to cross it off the life list of things we’ve done, right? Said my internal voice. “Okay,” I said aloud. He negotiated the price and off we went. I felt safe but still scared. We arrived in time, and life went on.
The thing is that the longer I stayed the less scary it became. The better I got at getting a good price, but still not the right price. The longer the ride I would take and the farther I would go. The more brazen I became with the outfits in which I rode. The more ballsy I got with how I held on.
Still, everyone advised me not to. But I was dependent. I was addicted. I wanted the rush of the wind we caused in my hair blowing in what I always imagined was a stunning flash but was probably more a hot mess. I needed to see the world for myself. Without any glass from a car or a helmet covering my eyes, shading the realities. Missing the details. I grew resistant to the fear of accidents, of cars as we narrowly with just centimetres on each side flew past the dauntingly solid automobiles. I couldn’t go back to how it was before. I was part of it now. The speed and the air and the lights.
Sometimes I would put my earbuds in and listen to music at top volume. I had private parties on the back of these pikis as they took me to places I had never been. To meet people I had never met. To drink and dance and live in a way I never knew.
These motorbikes became my metaphor. The moment I took the risk, I accepted the challenge, I opened up. With each ride, I let the city in a little bit more until I became a part of it and it was in me. Each ride, tore away fears, and difference and otherness and let the similarities slide in and become apparent and visible.
The last memorable ride I took was in small dusty town in the middle of the country, famous for it’s exposed cave paintings. A friend and I were on a travel excursion and had rented bicycles. We tore down dangerously steep and unbike-able hills en route to a small lake to fish. Post- fishing, we returned the bikes and negotiated a motorbike ride back to our hostel, there was only one piki for both of us.
As we trekked back up these death-defying potentially ambulance worthy hills, we were sitting Mishkaki style only this time I was the one in the back. I sat at the back, not in the middle being protected. I was the one protecting, taking charge and setting the tone. The sun was setting during our lengthy ride and I smiled the entire ride. And as the sun set on my ride and my time in Tanzania, my heart was empty of the fear and full of only bliss and a solid promise to myself to get my motorcycle license.