Motorcycle on the local road

Bridge. This bridge is really just a log with planks nailed onto it. Not very strong on the edges.

Demonstrating the “crab walk”

Big hill. It’s basically a huge clay slick. Carrying palm nuts.

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Edit: Sorry for all the “a”s. There was a formatting issue and it got out of hand.

I know I’ve commented on the public transport before but I recently had a very eventful string of motorcycle related events so I figure I’d share.

The preferred method of transportation in and around the village is a motorcycle (locally called a ‘machine’). The motorcycles are typically knock off Asian brands and range from 100-150CC. I have never seen a motorcycle in a rural area that wasn’t one of the three main brands nor have a seen one with more than 150CC.

In the dry season the roads are hilly, rocky and sandy though they are still a challenge and what I would equate to motocross. I knew how to ride a motorcycle from my time in Southeast Asia but I had to nearly completely re-learn here. The hills, tight spaces and uneven terrain provides a challenge though the 150CC seem to be just enough power. The real trouble is in wet season when the roads become saturated with water and clay becomes extremely slippery. The hills require you to provide just the correct amount of torque while guiding and balancing the motorcycle by removing your legs and tip toeing up the mud like a crab. This is made especially difficult as your right foot must always be ready for the brake; but make sure your foot is ready to support you because that’s the side the exhaust pipe is on and if you fall to the right you are most certain to obtain a massive burn on your calf, or what I like to refer to as a Nigerian Tattoo. The slipperiness doesn’t just affect the bike either, even though your legs are helping to guide the bike it can still be unpredictably slippery on your feet. Sometimes even the best technique isn’t enough and you require someone to assist by pushing the bike from behind (usually people carrying too much). I have the utmost respect for the drivers here as I’m only capable of carrying two people (or a few kids) in the dry season and I lack the ability to carry someone in the wet season. Four people on a motorcycle is standard (2 in back , driver and one on the gas tank) and this is usually combined with luggage, goods or other random items that range from live pigs to 150KG (330 lbs) of cement. I’ve literally seen motorcycles on other motorcycles. I won’t hesitate to load my motorcycle up the gills with 7 kids in the village but once you enter the main road it becomes a lot more challenging.

So the other day I decided I needed to pick up a rain poncho from Rhoko Camp (our rainforest field site) before my four hour journey to a nearby village. I had just returned from Calabar and really didn’t want to go to camp. It was getting dark, I had a long ride the next day but most importantly I had not been driving the road since I returned from my leave and during that time rainy season had come in full force. I needed to get that poncho though; last week I only had a t-shirt on and had to ride four hours in the pouring rain and thought I was going to get hypothermia. Usually I am doing work with one of my two employees and cede driving duties to them but I also have to occasional ride a long journey myself. I thought about asking one of my employees to drive me to camp but they would have to pick me up the next morning and then take me on the four hour journey. I decided I would just go out before it got dark and return early in the morning. I could tell by the state of the road on my journey in from Calabar that it hadn’t been raining too heavily the last few days. I was a bit hesitant when I thought about the fact I was out of practice but rationalized by remembering the road at the tail end of the wet season last year (when we first got the bike). I thought if I had learned how to drive their roads at that time then it would be no problem.

I started off and initially felt vindicated. It wasn’t too bad as long as I was taking my time and I had a on a sturdy pair of shoes that I was prepared to get completely muddy. Then it started to get dark. I dislike driving on these roads at night and I’ve only had to do it a handful of times. To make matters worse our headlight was crooked and the lack of illumination on one side was distracting. It was all going well until the sun completely set. I realized I needed to do something about the crooked headlight so I stopped and tested if the headlight had any give. With the slightest touch the entire electronic system shut off and I was suddenly without a headlight. I was about halfway between camp and the village (about 30 minutes or 4KM in) and I thought about walking back to the village and waiting for the mechanic tomorrow. But I had a tight schedule tomorrow and something else was bound to go wrong, plus I had seen an improvised headlight many times before. I got my head lamp flashlight out of my bag and tied it around the headlight. With a few adjustments I had a functional light albeit one that required me to move a little slower or the vibration of the bike caused the flashlight to oscillate. The electric starter was also disabled and the cake mud had caused the kick starter to jam. I had to run/roll down a hill in third gear to get the engine going, not exactly what I was in the mood for after solving the headlight fiasco. I moved slowly now and continued my journey.

And then found myself on a long clay slick. Usually there are distinct tracks that all cyclists tend to use but my poor lighting caused me to miss the track. As I tried to make my way over I gave it a little too much gas and the rear tire began to swerve. I tried to fight it but I knew I was going down so did a little half leap and pushed the bike off me. This may sound dramatic but I was literally going about 5MPH so the only real danger I had was getting a burn from the exhaust pipe. I now had a considerable amount of mud on me but readjusted my flashlight and continued on.

The road to camp is basically a one track road (though a truck can barely fit) surrounded on each side by farmland. At the peak time the weeds by the roadside can grow up to 5-8 feet high. Some farmland is actively farmed with such crops as yam, cassava, banana and corn. Other farmland is left fallow creating the appearance of a little green space. There are four small streams that you have to cross on your way there and these require you to lift your legs up and extend them in front of you to prevent a soaking. When the rains are continuous the streams become impassable to motorcycle though it doesn’t stop people from trying and flooding out their engine or falling over when they get stuck in sand. Because of the corridors of fallow farmland there are some animals that can be found in farmland, notably porcupine and blue duiker, and also snakes. Although snakes will be a separate entry, I will comment that rainy season is the prime snake spotting time. And it was just my luck that I would see a mysterious red/grey snake in the middle of the road. Because of my less than perfect lighting I wasn’t sure if it was just a stick or something in the road but I was happy I proceeded with such caution when I saw the 3-4 ft snake uncoil and rapidly disappear in the adjacent farmland.

I reached camp safe and sound but the next morning it was raining. It had been raining since the middle of the night and I dreaded the journey back. I would have to leave early because the extra time it would take me to reach the village and the long journey to Owai ahead of me. Luckily one of our staff, John, assigned to night patrol was just getting off work when I was leaving. Normally he would have to walk 1 ½ hours back to the village (or stay at staff quarters 15 minutes away) but since I knew he was a good driver (just not an owner of a bike at the moment) I asked him if he wanted to drive me back. I’ve driven with him before and felt comfortable so we set off. The journey was uneventful though it was raining the entire time and by the time I reached home I was soaked through the poncho I went to pick up. I decided to wait and see if the rain subsided and told John that we would leave at 2PM at the latest.

Sure enough, at 2PM there was a break in the rain. We set out for our trip to Owai that I dreaded, a combination of the fact the journey was long and wet but more so because the trip was only necessary for something that could be discussed over the phone. Owai has no phone network and as a result very few people have cell phones. I only needed to check if the chairman of the CBO was available for a beekeeping training session the Forestry Department was conducting the next week. We were only about 15 minutes into our journey when we reached a very steep hill. The hill was slick and as we started our ascent when our chain suddenly snapped. This resulted in us losing all traction, slipping backwards and eventually falling with the bike on top of us. I ended up having a bit of a sprained knee with some abrasions but all things considered I felt lucky that was the extent of my injuries. The chain snapping is such an unexpected and rare event that leaves you barely any time to react and if it occurs when climbing a hill, you are guaranteed to fall.

Although I was not able to travel to Owai that day I was still able to enjoy an unexpected benefit of the fall; time off! I have been traveling between the villages, Calabar, camp and Iko Esai for the last two weeks since I got back. My friends say that I “too waka waka”(move around too much). Now I’ve got an excuse to just stay in one place until my knee heals up, some unexpected though welcome resting time. And as my entry just indicated, any time off the road is good time!

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