“Boleia!” the men shout to me from the sides of the road as I whiz by on my blue Suzuki motorcycle. This is how you flag down a ride when you see a motorcycle taxi go by in São Tomé. But directed to me it is more of a joke, of course- there are no female motorcycle taxi drivers, and certainly no white ones. It makes me smile because the São Tomeans play with me the way an aunt or uncle or cousin would- lightly making fun that, in some ways, makes you feel more at home.
Dany taught me how to ride a motorcycle so that I didn’t have to depend on him for rides into town. As someone who never knew
how to drive a car with a manual transmission, learning to ride a motorcycle took me a minute. I still have trouble starting it sometimes and shifting into first without stalling (for this reason I used to abhor four-way stops, but am slowly getting better at them), especially with someone riding behind me, since they add more weight. But the feeling of being on a motorcycle is freeing. My thighs tighten their grip on the motorcycle’s body as if I were riding a horse. I lean forward, turn up the gas, passing palm trees and people selling coconuts and oceans and sand. I love my mota and it serves me well.
Like learning to ride my mota, it also took me a minute to get used to the stares. No one means harm by them, but coming from a place like the USA where people will get into fights with other people that look at them, it’s strange to move from invisible to famous. But the worst thing you can do is turn in. In a strange way, São Tomé very much nurtures individuality. You learn to be like, “yup, I’m a white woman, and I ride a motorcycle, and what of it?” Kids pass and they call to me. “Amiga!” They yell. “Branca!” Friend. White woman. Men do the same, or they hiss.
But you don’t ignore them. You look at them right in the eye. You say, “Hey there, good afternoon! How are you?” You smile, laugh. You are comfortable with who you are. And they, in turn, are comfortable with you too. You are a part of this community whether you like it or not.
My boyfriend, Kilson, greets every single person he sees. Everyone knows him. He might walk into a room with fifteen people and if ten of them are people he vaguely knows, he will walk around shaking the hand or kissing the cheek of every single one, then introduce himself to the people he does not know yet. Sometimes I think he is a local celebrity. He does not demand respect from people. He gives it out with graceful ease; and, in this way, it comes back to him tenfold.
Like my motorcycle weakness is shifting into first, Kilson’s driving weakness is speed bumps. But he doesn’t know how to drive a motorcycle, and he’s not afraid to admit that he’s scared of them. He gives me his baseball cap and sunglasses and I give him my helmet. We’re in the middle of the city and he hops on the motorcycle behind me, wearing the helmet, even though 99% of the time it’s the driver that wears the helmet in this culture. But then again, 99% of the time it’s the man that drives, too. He is a muscular black man hopping onto the back of a white woman’s motorcycle, and he’s wearing a helmet, and what of it, because he’s Kilson and everyone knows him and he is comfortable with himself and because of this he can do absolutely whatever he wants.