Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fresh and ready for the Road!

A Short Bike Tour in the Eastern Cape

A female kudu clatters loose rocks as she lopes from her shady spot under the clump of thorn-trees.  I watch her, beautiful and graceful, sorry that I’ve disturbed her and sent her into the heat of the day. 

I’ve stopped for a break on another thigh-burning climb, sun ricocheting off the asphalt.  I’ve replaced my empty water bladder with another and I suck on the mouthpiece.  The water has a sour, spicy taste.  It’s been baking on my carrier in the sun for three days.   I’m annoyed that I was too lazy to fill it with fresh water before I left Riebeek East.   I decide not to risk drinking it.  Instead I choose to nurse my bottle of Game for the next two hours until I get back to Bedford.  It’s a long time to last on three quarters of a litre in temperatures of over thirty degrees, but it seems better than getting ill while still on the road.

The morning started on the gravel road out of Riebeek East and then through the gates into the game reserve to take a short cut which would save me over 20 kilometres.  A warthog and her young kicked puffs of dust behind them as they sprinted, tails held high like stiff little flags,  away from the man on the bicycle.  A herd of impala grunted their warnings and sprang high in the air as they ducked into the cover of the bush.  The morning clouds had burnt off before I’d even swung my leg over the crossbar.  Sweat dripped off my nose.

The gravel road leads me up into the kloof and through dense indigenous woods.  When I finally reach the summit I’m rewarded with views of the plain below, Salisbury Plain. The distant Winterberg guard the north.  My journey will take me to their feet.

The road from Grahamstown to Bedford is a quiet one.  Thorn bushes encroach onto the tar and every now and then I swerve grudgingly to avoid a puncture.  I’m conscious of my dwindling water supply and also of my need to eat.  On the first two days of the tour I hadn’t eaten enough because I discovered that getting my panniers open was difficult with the tent and sleeping bag strapped on top.  I suffered for my laziness.  During the final 10 to 15 kilometres my energy hopped over the barbed wire fence and skipped off into the fields leaving me as weak as a baby.

On the final day, to solve the snack problem, I strapped my bum-bag onto the top of my gear and filled it with snacks.  Now the problem was finding a shady spot to have a food break.  The thorn-bushes seemed to grow from the bottom, leaving no space for me to get underneath.  The mid-day sun cast no shadows.  I sit next to my bike scraping at the bit of shade cast by my panniers.  Curious drivers stare as they speed by.  Some even wave.

I see more animals: A mongoose or three sprint across the road, springbok graze in the distance.  Angora goats scatter from the fence and cattle gaze thoughtfully at my slow progress, their cud-chewing is in time with my cadence as I battle up yet another long slow hill.

15 kilometres from my destination I come across a big old pine tree.  I lie in the long grass and welcome shade, all but draining the last of my game.  I enjoy the old pine’s cool hospitality for ten or fifteen minutes before I push on.

The four day tour was instructive.  I’ve learned that I need to cut down on my already minimal kit.  Less weight equals easier kilometres.  I’m still not eating enough on the road, I need more snacks.  I need to take some breaks rather than hammering along for hours on end, particularly on longer days.   Oh yes, I mustn’t forget to check that all my kit is securely attached:  retracing my route for a couple of kilometres to retrieve aforementioned bum-bag was tedious.  And painful!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What kind of man? A note to some of my school-teachers

You told me, Miss Teacher, that I needed to be a man. But what kind of man did you want me to be?  You mocked and humiliated me at six years old, because men play rugby, and I refused.  Did you want me to be a humiliated man? 

Maybe you wanted a man compliant, who would cram himself into your narrow ideal: A rugby playing man.  Not the moffie* you named me in front of the kindergarten class.

Stop crying, you said. You can’t be a man if you cry.  What kind of man would that be?  A man who denies his sadness and his fears?  A man ashamed of his own tears?  A small man, emotionally stunted like the rest.  Incapable of expressing anything but gruff stoicism, the unacknowledged suffering – even to himself – poisoning his life in so many unconscious ways.

Mr Teacher, you caned me when I did something you thought was wrong.   Did you want me to grow up like you, with the view that beating a child is a good way to impress your views on him?  I would check the welts and bruises to see how long they would stay.  Up to three weeks I discovered.  If a parent beat a child like that today, they would in court charged with child abuse, for assault.  What would that teach me about being a man?  That if we disagree on how things are done then physical violence is a good way to solve the dispute.  I didn’t know it then, but I know it now, that your definition of manhood was narrow in the extreme.  Physical power trumps all: in the classroom, on the rugby field.  On the battlefield.  Institutionalised violence started early back in the 1970’s.

And what of you Miss Teacher?  You were very young and still a Miss.  I wonder now what kind of man you chose to share your life with.  I hope a man who is caring, a man who holds you when you cry, a man who can share his sadness and his fears;  his tears.  A man, I hope, who was strong enough to rise above the narrow band of being you tried to instil into the young boys in your care.  A man who solves his disputes by listening and sharing, not shouting and beating.  For if the latter is the case, you might be as miserable as I was when you and your kind tried to beat me into your constricted mould.

There was some value to all of this.  I was able to take the bullying of army life:  by suppressing who I was and what I felt and by keeping my thoughts in check.  I’d learned to tough it out and take the pain, all the way to the battlefields and back again.  Then I spent the rest of my life learning that I am much more than all that.  That the beating, fighting, killing and pretending to be ok with it all kind of man is not the only way.  There is a fuller, more whole kind of masculinity, I discovered, which requires me to be stronger, but in a different more compassionate way.
Replanted in the fertile soil of the freedom I created for myself, I grew beyond what Miss and Mr Teacher had in mind.  In spite of you I grew into a man.

*Moffie – derogatory word similar to “queer”