Motorbike Training

Day 1 – The horror of paperwork

Breakfast at Riverside Hotel. Eight of us sat in foyer waiting for Ephraim from VSO to pick us up. Excited anticipation, uncertainty about what we are required to have with us. Some have motorcycle competence certificates from UK, from pre-departure motorbike training. Two have full Canadian licences. Everyone has had a week of pre-departure motorbike training in the UK or ridden before, except me. I have no papers. My incompetence is presumed, I hope. Ephraim arrived very late, apologising that he’d had to wait at the bank for money to pay for our licences. We’re excited to be on our way, piling into the VSO Land Rover. As we pull away, Ephraim tells us we’re heading to Lilongwe Traffic Office to get some paperwork done, and mutters "I hate that place." The P1030249_1drive is short, and as the Land Rover swings into the parking lot, we see throngs of people waiting idly. "I hate this place," says Ephraim again, "I really hate it."

He shakes his head slowly.  We pile out, and follow aimlessly to stand in a concrete corridor under the eaves of the building, with stunted rose bushes eking out an existence in dry dusty soil on one side. Ephraim disappears. We talk amongst ourselves, some people pull out a book to read. There is a rumour that we will have to do a test later in the day, though only Kieran and Marie, two Irish volunteers, have been sent the booklet to study from. They pass it round, and we flip through, memorising the crucial differences between flapping one’s arms with palm facing up and down. Some forms have appeared. We fill them in with the sun beating on our backs. Ephraim collects them and is gone again. P1030259_1We struggle to make ourselves comfortable on the concrete floor, some try to doze off. Then we’re up again, into the Land Rover, and driving to a different office, though we’re not sure why. Photographs maybe? We actually enter the next building, climb some stairs, and stand waiting in a narrow corridor as the chairs are all full. Shortly the chairs are vacated and we find ourselves a seat. Books and iPods come out. Then one by one we are called in to a medium carpeted room, with computer at an old wooden desk and a rickety old wooden tripod supporting a camera device with an elastic band. We each sign on an electronic tablet, have our fingerprints recorded electronically (clever machine, I thought) and stand for a photo. In the first photo I squint deliberately and the woman laughs when it comes up on the screen, telling me to stand back and do it again. Second time she’s unhappy with the exposure. Third time I try to look manic. She laP1030257_1ughs again but says it’s fine, and I leave. It’s quarter to twelve, and there are still two volunteers awaiting their moment of glory in front of the camera.  The fingerprint lady decides we’ll continue after twelve, but inexplicably, we are told we’ll go to lunch and return later. Into the Land Rover, and off to a non-descript fast food joint which serves obscenely large portions of greasy chips and curries. We can’t finish them, and are back in the Land Rover, back to the building. The last two volunteers get dropped off for processing, and the rest of us drive back to the Traffic Office. Stewart, one of us, is chosen by Ephraim to accompany him standing in a long queue. Stu says the people in the office took all the papers wordlessly, disappeared for about forty minutes, and then gave them back with "cashed" scribbled on each in red ink. But we have to go back to the second building to fetch our two friends. A short drive back, and we find they are still waiting for their fingerprints and photos. We chat in the back of the Land Rover while we wait. P1030261_1 We’re all fairly relaxed and the time passes relatively quickly (I think). Eventually the other two join us and we drive back to the Traffic Office. More paperwork to be done, but Ephraim will take care of it. We remain in the Land Rover, entertaining ourselves with would-you-rather questions. A blind man approaches the tailgate of the Land Rover, and mutters to the break light, "Madam, I am blind. I am hungry. Please madam. I am blind." Eventually I feel sorry for him, and buy an apple through the window from a passing vendor. We hand it to the blind beggar, who takes it and says simply, "And what about for my friend?", gesturing to the fully-sighted guy standing next to him. We decide to ignore the further request, and close the back gate gently. They wander off. Talk turns to Northern Ireland, racism, the nature of love, winning the lottery, until Rachel looks at her watch and exclaims, "Hey! We’ve literally sat around all day! I don’t think I’ve ever done that before!" It’s quarter past four. We still feel fairly relaxed, and the full horror of the day is only brought home to us as the Land Rover pulls out of Traffic Office Lilongwe for the last time and Ephraim says, "I have to do this three times a year. It is the worst part of my job description. I hate this day. I hate this place."

Day 2 – Take-offs

P1030262_1        This is the rear-view mirror I think…

Morning spent at the VSO Guest House in Lilongwe, standing around as two of the motorbikes are fixed. There are seven bikes and eP1030274_1ight of us learners. Then a tedious talk on getting to know your bike. We’ll be riding Yamaha DT 125’s, simple 125cc kick-start off-road bikes. They seem to be the most popular bikes in Malawi. Those who have ridden before and feel confident ride them on-road to the nearby practice field. Sarah and I go in the Land Rover. Afternoon spent taking turns riding around a dusty school field, practising taking off, gears, hand signals, stopping, not falling off. It’s fun! The bikes are loud and choppy, and the smell of petrol and two-stroke oil hangs in the air. By the end of the afternoon most of my starts are fairly smooth, but there are still unpredictable jerks, over-revving and stalls. Will need much more practice to do the exam in three days! Everyone exhausted at end of day.

P1030267-P1030268_1VSO guesthouse in Lilongwe, courtyard. Preparing to ride on first morning.

 Day 3 – Excited kids and a fall

DSCN0360_1 Morning at school field. We arrived there in the middle of break time, children all over the place, waving us in. Four of us arrived first and revved through the school grounds to the bare soccer pitch. Very soon surrounded by curious kids, looking, pointing, chatting, buzzing. I couldn’t resist my usual line, "Mungathi kuvina? Vinani!" ("Can you dance? Dance!") which brought the usual squeals of laughter with some half-hearted bum-wiggling. I of course join in, otherwise it wouldn’t be funny. Then the next group of bikers arrived, with Katy in front. The kids, perhaps enthused by the bit of dancing, erupted as one person into an enormous cheer, "YEEEAAAAAHH!!", and thundered over to where her bike was coming to a standstill. She was swamped by cheering kids as she took off her helmet, and we were suddenly deserted. Fame is such a fickle beast.

DSCN0358_1   These kids soon deserted me to surround Katy.

Morning spent practising turns, hand-signals, etc on the pitch. There is very little formal instruction. I put together a rough idea in my head about what hand movements are required and when.  The others who have done motorcycle training in the UK or Ireland talk about other actions, including the "lifesaver check" which certainly sounds important (it’s a quick look over both shoulders before turning), but none of these are mentioned here. Just get on your bike and ride. I’m picking up scraps of information. We ridDSCN0350_1e to lunch at the greasy diner again. We spend some of the afternoon on the road, going up to 50km/h, using the strange flapping movements to signal slowing down. They look ridiculous, like we’re trying to take off, and the kids in the surrounding streets start flapping in imitation every time we buzz past. Then to a Japanese sponsored motorcycle practice ground, very neglected and overgrown, but still fun. We practise tight turns, hill starts and riding along a six-inch-high four-meter-long wall. On one attempt my front wheel slipped off the wall, and instead of steering the rest of the bike away from the wall, I stubbornly directed the front wheel back into the wall. Of course, it didn’t grip, but spun and kicked as the bike slowly and inevitably tipped over. This was the only actual fall for anyone in the whole training, and I was only grazed.

P1030276-P1030279_1   Panorama of practice ground, practising hill-starts. The wall where I fell off
   is in the distance on the left.  (Can you spot the ghost rider?)
P1030320_1  Sarah teaching the kids “Head-shoulders-knees-and-toes”.

Day 4 – Bike tour Lilongwe

Four hours on bikes in the morning. Open road, 60km/h, including a dirt road trek around the outskirts of Lilongwe. Rural African scenery, beautiful, through small villages, locals come out to watch and wave at the procession of L bikers as we carefully scramble over dirt and stones. Sun on our backs and thighs. Tourists would pay handsomely for the experience! Then the rain hits, and dirt becomes mud. Good practice but slippery, and no falls! Three days ago I’d never sat on a bike, so I’m pretty chuffed. Lunch and then the afternoon off as everyone tired. Exam tomorrow! Rumours fly about what it will include. Maybe out on the road, maybe just around the field? How strict are they on the hand signals? Do we need to check mirrors? (This has never been mentioned by our trainer, by the way.) But we know with certainty that if you stall you will fail. Everybody agrees this is silly, and could happen to anyone. So we go to sleep terrified of The Stall.

P1030327-P1030329_1

Day 5 – The Mega Malawi Motorcycle Test

Early start, up at 7am to get to the school field in good time for some practice rounds before the test, which is scheduled for 10am. After biking to the field, we each do a few laps, earnestly flapping our arms as we approach each corner and slow to a meaningless stop, then indicate which way we want to turn, then carefully pull away. I stall once, which is ominous. DSCN0364_1 After half an hour of this, most of the bikes stand idle again at the side of the field, while some of us review the book of road signs, still wondering when we’re going to be tested on this. We discuss whether we’ll go on the road, and which route we’ll be taken on. The atmosphere is keen with anticipation, and a few nerves. I really want to pass this test, as the licence will be valid in South Africa, and thus also UK (after a swap, I think) and thence Europe! We find rocks to sit on, or sit in the Land Rover, reading a bit, then taking a bike for a lap or two, just so we don’t forget how. Time ticks on. Our instructor phones the examiner at 11am, an hour after he was due. Yes yes, he is on his way, we are reassured. Once more the tingle of excitement flows through our group. In less than an hour we will be licensed! Or disappointed. We wait expectantly. An hour later, at noon, the instructor phones the examiner. Yes yes, he is on his way, don’t worry! Somehow this is less reassuring than it was an hour ago.

At 12h30, two and a half hours late, the guy rocks up, cool as a cucumber, dressed casually, knowing that he is the man with the power today. He swaggers out of his car and explains that he’s not wearing a uniform because it is Father’s Day – only later does our instructor explain that "Father’s Day" is a euphemism for "Friday", when men leave work early to go and drink with friends. There is no mention of the two and a half hours we have been waiting. He says though that it is now too late to do the test on the roads, so we’ll do it right here on the field instead. He suggests that four of us go round the field at a time, in different directions (to spice things up perhaps). The first four mount the bikes, a little uncertain of what they’re supposed to do. The examiner guy indicates with a grandiose sweep of his arm that they should just hurry up and go round the field. As the pairs pull away in opposite directions, his phone beeps with a text message. He turns round and reads it slowly, facing away from the field. Behind him the engines sputter and roar, as my fellow volunteers do hand signals and stop at the corners of the field. Alas, he is oblivious to their efforts. He’s got a fancy Nokia N95 cell phone, and he slowly types a reply to the text message, and continues then to play with the phone as the bikes finish their lap and come back to a standstill. The lap took all of 55 seconds – I timed it. He turns round as the last engine is switched off, and smiles benevolently, indicating a little impatiently that the next four must now ride. My turn at last! As I get on the bike, I hear Kieran asking him somewhat bemusedly if we need to do hand signals and stop, or anything else like that. The guy shrugs. "If you like," he says. Bugger that! I’m doing the bare minimum! is my immediate response. So I pull away carefully – revving hard so as not to stall – and whizz round the field, not daring even to slow down much, let alone stop. No hand signals, no checking of mirrors, no stopping – just a smooth cruise once round an empty soccer field. I must have finished my lap in about 45 seconds. I get back before the others, switch off the engine with a dramatic gesture so he can clearly see that it’s not a stall. But as I dismount and take off my helmet I can see that I needn’t have bothered – he is once again playing with his phone, turned away from the field. He has seen nothing. The others cruise in and switch off. The field is silent once again, and we are soon all standing anxiously waiting for him. He’s still busy typing away, but presently slips his phone into his pocket and turns to face us. "The good news is..," he pauses briefly for effect, "You’ve all passed!" We all clap and cheer, and are really pleased. The examiner, despite his obnoxious disinterest and arrogant manner, is momentarily everyone’s friend. What a gruelling test! Four days ago I’d never climbed on a motorbike. And now, after three days training and a 45 second unwitnessed test drive, I am licensed to ride a motorbike anywhere in southern Africa! We celebrate that evening at the hotel.

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