Currently biking around the world

Posts will happen significantly less often for a while as I am currently focused on biking around the world.

It could be a few months between posts or it could be a few years. I will almost certainly return to this blog one day. In the meantime, enjoy what's already been posted, or read about my travels here.

Why All White Men Should Bicycle Across Ethiopia

Friday, November 17, 2017

I have had the word “money!” shouted at me at least one thousand times in the past week. I've lost count, really. Sometimes it's an individual, saying it once, just after a polite “hi” to try and win me over; sometimes it's a few children, running after me down the road; once, an entire school let out and all two hundred or so elementary schoolers ran after me, the chorus of “money!” so endless that they seemed to be singing, except for the wordless screams and shouts of excitement.

I am bicycling across Africa.

Why I'm doing this is another conversation altogether; the only point to be made about my journey is that it is a choice. I remind myself this, hiding in my hotel room after 8 hours of shouts of “money” and “China” (since many great products come from China) and “you you you you you you you you.” Truckers honk behind me and lean out their windows to stare or give a thumbs-up, motorcycles follow me for miles trying to ask me an intonation-less  “where are you go” for the hundredth time that day as I lose my breath going up a hill. Oncoming vehicles flash their brights and drift across of the road, steering where they are looking.

Children scream unseen from the bush: “Ferengi” (white person)! The chorus sometimes goes on for miles, people lining up on the side of the road to see me, dropping their chores, Jerry cans, foosball games, the leads on their donkeys, some crossing the road to be closer or even waiting in the middle. The children that don't have bikes just run, some touching my bicycle and laughing, getting as close as they can until I turn, wondering if they will grab anything off. They talk among themselves, they laugh for no perceivable reason. Stop, and they gather around and stare and point. “I wonder if 'seeing a white person' is a good excuse for being late for school?” a fellow rider said one morning during a tire change taking longer than usual. Much of Africa is like this; Ethiopia, in my experience and that of many cyclists I've talked to, is the worst.

I have never felt more like an object.

While I am not a woman, I've begun to wonder if this is at all what women feel like, being cat-called and sometimes seen as sexual objects. A fellow rider once joked, as a group of kids ran from their home pointing at us shouting “money” over and over again: “Look! ATMs on wheels!” I was reminded of a quote I heard once when reading an article on the supposed “friend zone:” “Women are not machines you put friendship into until sex comes out.”

I'll ask that if this analogy is too much of a stretch, the reader corrects me; but, I know now how you can be so tired you lack the energy to explain the problem. For the first two days, I would smile and wave, feeling half celebrity and half ATM; the third day I tried clever ways of turning the comments on their heads: “Oh, you want to give me money?”

It didn’t work. Reply to “How are you?” with “Good, how are you?” and the reply is “How are you?” again: that's the only English they “know.” Repeat “money money money” back at them in the same robotic monotone and they smile: they got you to respond! Now maybe you'll give them money? I was reminded of a story told to me be a female cycle tourist: a man stepped out into the road to try and get her to stop, shouting, “Give it to me, baby!” She swerved at the last minute and, unable to resist, slapped him across the face. Violence is not the answer, but it sure felt good, she said, and maybe it would teach him to stop. Unfortunately, the response was a shout behind her: “So you like it dirty, eh!?” Her response, intended to teach him a lesson, had only fueled his enthusiasm.

By the fourth day, having witnessed a kid so eager to pass me down a hill that he biked into a car at 30 mph, fell, and needed hospitalization after I dragged him, bloody and disoriented, out of the busy road, I was beat. If I spent even ten seconds answering everyone's question I would make it roughly two miles a day; my goal is sixty. How many men whistle and simply say, “She likes it!” if you suggest to them it's a little rude? I have no idea. I have never been robbed or accosted for rebutting the shouts, but I remembered one time at a stoplight on my bike I tried to rebut a car-driving catcaller; the response was: “Why don't I run you over with my car you motherf***er?”

I got on the sidewalk.

Twice, I have been offered kindness in the form of a “free” or “voluntary payment” place to sleep; both times I felt payment was more expected than free or voluntary. I wonder if this is how women feel when they ask a favor of a friend and are come on to as a result, or expected sex from as a “reward.”

Rarely do you meet people who you truly feel don't just want your money. A little boy rode silently beside me for a while -- much, at first, like all the others. I expected he was waiting for money to fall out my ass, maybe, or just wanting to tell his friends he rode with the white person. After observing me for some time, though, he began riding in front of me, trying to shoo off the paparazzi in their native language, and succeeding with a few. After a few miles he fell back to ride beside me again, and I feared the worst: “Money?” But he just smiled, nodded, and said, “I go now.” I wonder how many straight men have truly been there for a female friend and expected nothing in return.

After running beside me silently for some time (unusual – most repeat “money” or “okay” or whatever English they know between breaths, sometimes for miles), another little boy looked at me curiously and asked, “It is okay?”

“It is okay,” I said. How a six-year-old was the only one in Africa who knew about consent, I have no idea. Truthfully, I imagined most of the children sitting around the fire with their parents (since most families do cook by fire here), their parents opening, “Let me tell you a tale of the white people, who bring money from far away. Chase after them long enough, and they will give it to you. If they don't, try throwing rocks!”

Sometimes, there are older women who just stand at the side of the road and, if I smile and wave, smile and wave back. They are curious (wouldn't you be if, excuse the analogy, a keffiyeh-wearing Arab rode a camel through your neighborhood?), but they withhold themselves. Maybe they know the stress of being asked for so much, all day long: a number of estimates suggest African women are the hardest working people in all the world.

Once, a cop grabbed my handlebars as I was riding down the street, turning my bike and nearly sending me tumbling. I dismounted and he pulled the bike towards him, brandishing his baton in his other hand and and saying, “Give me!” This only ended when a good samaritan came between us and walked the cop back, out of reach of my bike, allowing me to escape.

I wondered if I had broken some unknown law. I was confused, embarrassed, and afraid, and I recalled stories of people in foreign countries being imprisoned without evidence, unable to defend themselves, their record forever tainted and lives forever changed. I wondered if that was at all like the shame some women (or men) feel after being sexually assaulted – though of course, the most far-fetched of my analogies here.

I don't pretend the objectification I have felt is similar to what women feel or that my attempt at empathy and compassion makes me a “hero” or even an “ally” – words so multiplicitous now between feminist, racist, and other contexts that I'm not even sure what they mean. I don't pretend to be some saint or even to be better than any catcalling frat boy. I have made my share of mistakes in the way I've treated women.

I know this isn't a solution, that it's ridiculous to expect every man to spend a week in Africa just so he can pretend he knows what his sister or best friend or neighbor might have been through. I know having had this experience doesn't make me an expert or even a novice on the subject. I know that everyone – men and women – have their own experiences, some of which others might be able to relate to, some not.

To be fair, I don't think people in Africa are bad, maybe not even impolite. After all, white people give them money. When most Americans think of “Africa,” they probably think of starving children, famines, and various other crises. This isn't the case here as much as the media would have you think, but the point stands: as a cultural norm, white people give money to Africans. Every hour I pass signs about such-and-such project or initiative or study that such-and-such non-profit has built or performed or is doing. I have no doubt that the words the people here use – “money,” “china,” etc., are just reflections of the last non-native to come through, and I wonder what reflection I am leaving for the people who come after me.

Like cat-calling men, of course, saying it's “part of the culture” doesn't excuse the behavior – it means we need to change the culture. Africa needs more people who smile and wave and tell the chasers and rock-throwers “white people aren't ATMs;” the US needs more dads who treat women as equals and not sexual objects and who tell their sons, “cat-calling isn't cool. You know what is? Consent.”

I know that one article can't change the world, that the real work has to be done every day, over and over, by everyone who will listen, until the problem stops. But I hope this addition to the conversation can make some headway, even if that headway is just how well I get bashed in the comments section. I hope someone has the strength left after catcall #1,387,433 to tell me if I'm spot on, or far off. I hope someone reads this and it moves them a tiny bit closer to understanding a perspective they've never considered before. I hope this is better than doing nothing.

Whatever the case, the good news for me is, it stops when I go home.

Inspired by my bicycle trip around the world at

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