This is precisely what my first ride on a taxi-moto looked like.
I would describe the experience as falling somewhere between humor and fear – with one adrift, starving American girl clenching her fists around the back handle of a motorcycle, balancing her tote bag on one shoulder and a broken-strapped helmet on her head.
I had no clue where I was going. Neither did my driver.
It took me several days to realize it, but the trick to mastering the motos lies in what solves most life puzzles: communication. Moto drivers, on average, speak Kinyarwanda, French and broken English. They recognize neighborhoods and major landmarks around town, but rarely specific restaurants or agencies.
My failed understanding of this explains why hopping atop my first Kigali motorcycle seat was actually me boarding a ship to nowhere. My American accented directions of “Kacyiru, U.S. Embassy?” (the closest landmark to my house) sent me sailing to an unknown hilltop on the other side of Kigali – a hill not even close to Kacyiru.
The driver originally said he understood my destination. Although, I quickly learned that “yes, let’s go!” does not always ensure comprehension, but translates instead to “I will take you anywhere, just get on so I can make money.”
So, we rode through the wind, weaving in and out of traffic toward a destination neither of us knew.
I huddled close to the driver trying to hide from his rearview mirror, as my loose-fitting shirt flapped a little too freely for comfort. Of course, I could not be bothered with appropriate dress. One of my hands was busy holding the wobbling helmet to my head and the other twisted somewhere between securing my bag to my side and my body to the motorcycle. My thoughts focused only on two prayers:
…Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Please God, don’t let my parents find out I died on a motorcycle in Africa.
My driver whizzed me through the winding hills for about 20 minutes – a long moto ride for most trips around Kigali. After several questioning hand motions from the driver and a final attempt of him irritatingly asking “where are you going?” I accepted defeat. I demounted in an unfamiliar town, walked along the rural, windy hillside road toward another moto and tried the ride again.
As I remember back, I paid that poor driver what we originally bargained for, though he took me double the distance. Moto driver, if you’re reading this, I so deeply apologize for cheating you of an additional 500 Rwandan Francs.
The people of Kigali rely heavily on these taxi-motos, or motorcycle taxis, as a way of getting around town. They are cheap, quick and abundantly accessible. They are also a lot of fun, once the riders know what they’re doing.
Over the weeks, I have grown to look forward to these moto rides. My fear has passed, and I now find something extraordinarily liberating about cruising the hills surrounded by nothing but the sunny skies and a fresh breeze.
I have also learned that no matter where I go, instead of saying “Kacyiru, U.S. Embassy,” mustering up a Kinyarwanda-French accent and saying “Kacyiru, ministre, American Embassy” will bring me easily home. Hand motions and facial expressions also help. Communication is key.
We cannot always guarantee that the paths we take will lead to our expected destinations. But, these paths always promise journeys…even if those journeys involve wandering aimlessly through Africa on an ill-equipped motorcycle while reciting the Hail Mary.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson so rightfully said, “life is a journey, not a destination.” Now, I just make sure my helmet buckles before taking a seat.