Lost and Found

I don’t know why a capital city in the middle of Central Africa would have a go-kart track when it doesn’t even have an elevator, but there, buried in between the African foothills and clay shacks with burning garbage, there it was. When people think of third-world entertainment, usually a natural wonder, or maybe a tour through a tiny isolated village would come to mind. Bangui, however, was a different city.

When I first arrived in Bangui, it was inside a 737 belonging to Moroccan airlines. Its interior was reminiscent of the Golden Age of flying, with fluid pastel colours adorning the seats, and giant backed seats making up the majority of the cabin. The 1L door opened, the flight attendant still looking gracious in her red flight uniform, and the humidity and warmth spread over the cabin. After a surprisingly quick meeting with our UN rep, we were off in a 4runner, down the dark dirt roads of the capital city. Between the foliage, a giant lit up sign overlooking the town, its namesake lit up much like a post-apocalyptic Hollywood. It was at that moment I knew that Bangui would be far different from Kinshasa.

The Go-Kart track was found by a colleague at L’Escale, a tiny refuge for expats in a town otherwise devoid of creature comforts. We were having beers with some French businessmen, and asked about what there was to do. The golf course was out of town, cheap, but you played with cows and students studying under the trees, looking at you with wonderment, probably in wonder of who comes out in the noonday sun to shoot balls into holes.

There was also a riverboat ride along the River Ubangi, where we could go see a hippo among the fishing longboats along the river. Then, they mentioned the go-kart track. I was immediately hooked. For some reason. the juxtaposition of something that is such a niche market among the jungles and concrete shacks of Bangui struck me as ludicrous. Ludicrous  was what I was looking for.

There were four of us who ended up at the track, and it was surprising in the least. Fresh white paint, tires stacked in an orderly fashion around the sharp turns, and pristine karts lined up, like an F1 race in Bahrain. We were told that the mechanics were still working on the go-karts, but we could patiently wait in the bar and have a few drinks. We happily obliged, and three or four trente-trois later we were raring to go, the white tourists waiting to wreak destruction, havoc, and fun on each other. 

There is something to be said about the lost and found things in places that have been visited by suffering, collapse, war, and persecution. Streets crumble, sewer lines rot in entropy, the art of engineering and science regress, but certain things still survive, hibernating with a dangerous slow rhythm, waiting for people to use them again.

The track reminds me of a story one pilot had recounted to me. It was of a plane graveyard in Cote D’Ivoire. Sunbleached fuselages of old fighter jets littered the capital city airport, and occasionally some enterprising Africans would try and collect parts from them. One unlucky African managed to climb into a cockpit seat, and while fiddling with getting it out, activated the Soviet ejection device, designed to survive and work through years of misuse. It worked perfectly, save for the hangar roof situated over the airplane. He was found the next morning, hanging from the ceiling like a piece of modern art, and although I’m unsure, I still like to picture the ejection seat hanging with him, as if to say “I WORK! SEE!”. A gory poetic statement.

When they were finally ready, we headed off to the go-kart starting line, stumbling and laughing like drunks, which of course, we were. We drank with conviction, and we were ready to cause shit. By the sixth lap, the track so carefully constructed to replicate a professional racing circuit were completely ignored, and we smashed the go-karts into each other with inebriated glee. Fuck the consequences. There were none. This is Africa!

By the second time around the owner of the track, looking at us with disbelief, anger, and sorrow, finally called us in. We paid a little extra, a little sorry about the mess, and left him with his damaged goods, like lame horses who need to be put down.

This insanity is par for the course, whether it be enjoying a beer on a golf course as stray bullets fly by the clubhouse, or whether it’s destroying some proud man’s go-karts, painstakingly put together only to be destroyed and disrespected by the very people he probably thought would appreciate it the most. It’s a sad and maddening concept. It makes me wonder whether our belief in what Africa is just overpowers any progress. I reflect on the ebb and flow of simple things like basic entertainment, and wonder how much apathy it takes from us to ruin good little things hidden in the world.

It also makes me wonder if I should open up a theme park in Kabul. Now THAT would be entertaining.

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