It might seem like a cliche, but really, sometimes the best place to meet the best people is a that small-town diner. You know, the one where the staff has seemingly worked together forever. The town is tight enough and the clientele so regular, the staff nearly has the order fully prepped by the time the customer sits at the table. On the outskirts of Lucerne Valley on the northern edge of California's San Bernardino National Forest Stanley and I ate breakfast.
Riding a bicycle cross country was not going to impress Stanley. You see, Stanley's done significantly more travel. A WHOLE lot more travel. Stanley is an acrobat in a traveling circus that is based out of the area. Covid has seriously crushed business. So, Stanley is adjusting, again.
Stanley's been performing for decades since the 1990s in Tanzania. For seven years he performed at various hotels around Mt. Kilimanjaro. At times, the troupe would travel to Botswana, Swaziland and Mozambique. "It was great work. Travel. Do my routine in the hotel on the Chinese pole. Leave, and go back to my room." he said.
It wasn't without danger though. Political unrest would frequently result in bloodshed. In April 1994, while he was performing in Rwanda, the aircraft carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. While responsibility for the attack on two Hutu leaders is still inconclusive, the assassination was blamed on Tutsi opponents. With precise organization, militias unleashed a 100-day bloodletting, killing almost 20 percent of the population.
Stanley's company was on the run. "We had to clear the border before it was sealed shut. Once closed, things could get really bad."
Running across borders weren't confined to just Rwanda. Stanley said that his tour stops in Uganda were always delicate. Strife there was ongoing, whether it was with Tanzania, an insurgency group, or a nearly decade-long civil war. Eventually, we learned to just stay away from their borders.
During one of these layovers Stanley caught a break. "There was this guy from an American circus company looking for new acts. He offered me a contract to perform in America. "I did that for almost a year, but fell in love, and got married." Stanley settled down in Pittsburgh, bought a house and worked in a medical center for over a decade.
Eventually though, his marriage crumbled, and Stanley was back on the road in traveling circuses. This second production company was less glamorous. They required everyone to not only do their acts, but also help with the two-day setup and one-day teardown of the performance tents. These setups were usually in the small-town parking lots or in an open field. He can't remember which town it was but is certain he was in Michigan at one point.
It's been rough lately. Because of covid Stanley is adjusting again. He's taking advantage of yet another break and flying home to Tanzania to visit his two children and extended family for four weeks. He's especially looking forward to this reunion. He says "Even with all the craziness I've had in my life, it's still a very good life. I've always look for the good in people because eventually the good will eventually find me."