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A Day on the Ride

We’re a week into the ride, which is just about enough time to paint a picture of what a day in my new state of existence is like. Here’s a taste of what happens when you’re riding across Africa.

The schedule is fairly simple and almost military in its consistency. We wake up at 6:15 am, although I’ve determined that the secret to a good day is to wake up twenty minutes sooner and have some time to collect my thoughts and possessions. The other riders are extremely efficient at packing up; the one day that I dallied an extra ten minutes, I exited my tent to find myself standing on an empty, windswept plain.

imageWe head to breakfast at 6:45 am. Meals are a time to eat as much as possible, especially because I seem to be eternally hungry. The first few days I exercised some phenomenal self control and allowed myself a square of chocolate that I’d carefully hoarded from Cairo every few hours between meals. Now I just eat full bars in one go. Breakfast consists of oatmeal or muesli, fruit, and bread. All of these foods are delicious, but they primarily serve as vehicles for as much Nutella as I can respectably nab without drawing accusing stares from other riders. After breakfast, we fill up water bottles and hit the road by around 7:15 am.

The morning ride is anywhere from 60 to 80 km, depending on the roads. We’ve been lucky so far: with the exception of one day that involved a steady climb for 42 km, the other roads have been flat and paved. In that sense, Egypt is a warmup for some of the mountainous roads ahead, most notably in Ethiopia. Our major obstacles have been children. Most have greeted us in a peaceable manor on the road to Luxor, but some have been stone-throwing demons. This is evidently a major problem in some areas of the ride, an issue we attempt to avoid by riding in packs where appropriate. I’ve already identified the riders who look the most intimidating, as I’m fairly certain that I don’t fit into that category myself.

Lunch is generally a hasty affair, but also a good time to relax the bum and leg muscles. During the first few days, I decorously consumed two sandwiches and a few oranges at each lunch. Those days are already long gone, and I think my record is now seven sandwiches, one of which was a peanut butter and jelly that I ate just for comfort. Lunch is also a good time to regroup if I want to change around riding partners. I often ride by myself, but if I do ride with a group or another person I try to stick with them the full morning or afternoon. The other riders (there are 32 of us; plus four who are only riding from Cairo to Khartoum) are an interesting bunch from all over the world – most have crazy stories from previous adventures – and it’s been fun getting to know them.

The afternoon ride is another 60 to 100 km, depending on where the tour organizer is able to find a suitable campsite. In Egypt, we’ve had an extensive police presence accompanying us who dictates where we can stay the night. I haven’t decided whether this is comforting or alarming. It was, however, pretty impressive to watch them shut down a major artery in Cairo on the first day of the ride. While it helped that most people were at Friday mosque at the time, I’ve never seen the ring road around Cairo so clear.

Depending on energy levels and speed, I usually finish my ride for the day around 3:30 pm, which gives me enough time to pitch my tent and go to a stretch session led by one of our fellow riders who is a yoga instructor in her other life. We then have a rider meeting at 5:00 pmimage to discuss details of the route for the following day. This is a moment of truth, as we get to hear whether the terrain is likely to be easy or grueling.

After the meeting, we have a hearty dinner, spend some time washing dishes, and head to bed. At least for this first week, we’ve been going to sleep around 7:00 or 8:00 pm – bedtimes that I haven’t followed since I was six years old and in trouble for something. It helps that it’s dark by then; it’s also been bitterly cold so far – unseasonably so, according to the Egyptians. It gets warmer as we go south, and I’m looking forward to the morning when I can feel my fingers even before I’ve had an hour or so of warmup on the bike. From what I hear, I should be savoring these moments because it’s about to become devastatingly hot.

The beautiful and varied landscapes make up for what might otherwise seem to be a monotonous routine. We’ve traveled along the Gulf of Suez, through various desert landscapes, and over beautiful mountain ranges that look utterly unique. One day we had a short ride of only 84 km, which provided enough time to brave the cold and go diving in the pellucid waters of the Red Sea.

We’ve also been lucky to have a group of Egyptian racers accompanying us to Sudan. One of the riders is a hopeful for the Egyptian national team, and all of them are friendly and extremely patient with the multitude of questions they receive about Egyptian culture. Ahmed and Khalid have been helping me with my Arabic, which is likely to become increasingly useful as we head further south and encounter fewer English speakers.

Overall, the experience has been amazing. I’ll write more about being back in Egypt in a separate post, but it’s a country of incredible history and energy. Meanwhile, my bum has moved from denial, through anger, and into bargaining. With any luck, I’ll achieve acceptance within the next week.

Highlights:
Getting ten hours of sleep every night
Feeling like any form of sustenance is a feast
This conversation:
British cyclist: “The Brits don’t really do sex.”
American cyclist: “Then how do you procreate?”
British cyclist: “A firm handshake.”

Lowlights (easy winner):
Putting on chamois cream in the morning. SO COLD.

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Introducing Simon Nkoli

Meet my bicycle, Simon Nkoli. He’s sleek, rugged, and comes equipped with a saddle that makes everyone who has met him ask, “Is that going to be comfortable for 12,000 km?” I’ll report back with an answer to that question in a few months.

Simon is hard to classify, as he’s a bit of a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. He’s more road than anything, but he’s a road bike that goes where he wants, when he wants, and with whom he wants. Which could be anyone, really, because Simon brings all the boys to the yard.

Simon was built by Mikes Bikes, a great little bike shop in Greenside, Johannesburg. He’s specially designed to make it across Africa, which means he’s kind of old school. The brother of a friend of mine described Simon as “cute”, although he was clearly searching for the word “sexy”. Simon doesn’t have newfangled things, like disk brakes or a hydraulic fork, but that’s because if something fancy broke in the middle of Ethiopia it might be the end of me. Instead, Simon rocks it with sweet cantilever brakes and a fixed fork with no suspension.

That may sound a little uncomfortable for the bumpy roads, which make up a healthy percentage of the ride. While 70% of the race is classic tar, the other 30% is on some massively rough gravel. But Simon’s made of steel. Literally. His strength comes from his Cotic Roadrat steel core. Steel makes for a comfortable ride because the metal absorbs a lot of the shocks. It’s heavier than an aluminum frame, but for me the weight disadvantage is outweighed by the added comfort. Many professional cyclists opt for carbon because it’s both shock-absorbent and ultralight, but it’s also extremely expensive. Simon is more a man of the people.

imageSimon is named after a gay black South African who was a hero of both the anti-apartheid struggle and the gay rights movement. Simon Nkoli was born in Soweto in 1957 and grew up in the Free State and in Sebokeng, about an hour south of Johannesburg. He came of age during the 1976 Soweto uprising, a youth demonstration against new regulations that required all education to be conducted in Afrikaans. A number of children were brutally murdered by government forces, and the events demonstrated to the world the ruthlessness of the apartheid regime. The uprising was also one of the defining moments that marked the reemergence of open resistance to apartheid, as the anti-apartheid movement had been forced mostly underground and into exile after Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.

After 1976, the country grew increasingly unmanageable until ultimately the government was forced into negotiations with the ANC. Simon took part in many of the events in the decade leading up to the end of apartheid, and in 1984 he was put on trial for his life with 21 other members of the United Democratic Party in the Delmas Treason Trial. Simon was imprisoned until 1988. Incredibly, and bravely, he came out to his fellow prisoners and was instrumental in changing the attitudes of many other anti-apartheid activists towards gay people. As co-trialist and former chair of the ANC Terror Lekota asked, “How could we say that men and women like Simon, who had put their shoulders to the wheel to end apartheid, how could we say that they should now be discriminated against?”

In 1990, Simon founded the Gays and Lesbians of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), which organized the first Pride Parade in South Africa. Due to the efforts of Simon and a number of other gay rights activists, including Justice Edwin Cameron, the South African Constitution now prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, making it one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world. Simon died of AIDS in 1998, at the same time that South Africa repealed its sodomy laws. He did not live to see a number of important court cases, such as the Treatment Action Campaign case in 2002 that ordered the South African government to provide antiretroviral treatment to HIV patients, or the Fourie case in 2005 that declared gay marriage to be legal.

Simon is an inspiration to me because he represents and relates two different types of oppression, one with which I am personally familiar and one with which I am not. Many of Simon’s contemporaries also related to only one of the ways in which Simon was oppressed, although for them it was the racial prejudice that they faced together. Through his charming personality, Simon was able to create relationships in which people were able to see how those two types of oppression were related. Simon fought for a dignified existence in which his worth was not measured by the color of his skin or the gender of the people he loved. For me, his activism symbolizes the importance of understanding and linking the multiple ways in which people may face discrimination. To fight against one form of prejudice we must be vigilant to end all forms.

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Welcome to Out in Africa Ride!

Welcome to the project and to the ride! For my first post, I wanted to provide visitors to the website with an explanation about what motivated me to go on this adventure.

I got the idea for this insanity when I was working at the Constitutional Court of South Africa. I wanted to do something that would be as much of a physical challenge as it was a mental challenge, as well as something that would teach me new skills in areas that I find useful but intimidating, such as fundraising, website design, and social media. Most importantly, I wanted to stand up for something I believe in: namely, that LGBT rights are human rights and that a fundamental component of human dignity is for individuals to be free to express their sexuality and gender identity in a way that is personally fulfilling. While in South Africa, I have been deeply moved by stories of corrective rape, of harassment and imprisonment, and of the murder of activists like David Kato in Uganda, who have been killed for advocating their beliefs.

It’s a project that terrifies me for a number of reasons. My biggest doubt is whether it is appropriate for me, a white foreigner, to raise awareness about the state of LGBT rights in Africa. Throughout my travels, I have found that people with good intentions can do more harm than good when they do not fully understand the complex cultural and political background of a foreign environment. But conversely, I have also found that foreigners are sometimes granted access to spaces that are difficult for local residents to inhabit, perhaps because people are more forgiving of mistakes when they are committed by an outsider. And in the case of LGBT rights in Africa, foreigners are far less likely to be persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

I hope that the structure of the project is able to make use of some of advantages of being a foreigner, while avoiding some of the pitfalls of having that status. My goal for the project is not to create policy, but to connect: to serve as a liaison between donors and nonprofits, and to allow those organizations to communicate with each other more effectively.

I have been fortunate to receive incredible support for the project from my colleagues at the Constitutional Court and I’m confident that we have put together a strong team full of energy and vision. But the project is ultimately an experiment—which is also what makes it terrifying. There is the possibility of failure, the possibility of causing offense, the possibility of being ineffective. Despite these concerns, I am buoyed up by an exhortation from one of my favorite professors in law school, who commanded his students to stop thinking of themselves as consumers of ideas and start seeing themselves as producers. There is something both nervewracking and invaluable about exposing your ideas to the world, facing criticism for those ideas, and learning from your mistakes. Ultimately, that challenge is the goal and motivation for the bike ride and the project.

I hope you’ll join me over the next few months on what promises to be a wild ride.