Biking

[Photo: These eggs look fairly well-protected from predators.  Liwonde National Park, Malawi]

19 March 2017

I love riding my Peace Corps bike, and it is a pretty old, tired thing. I have 3 much better bikes at home.  There is a childish pleasure is whooshing down a hill, pumping up it, feeling the speed compared to walking. There are advantages to not owning a car here, in addition to the expenses and nuisance of repairs. If we go out in the evening, we either get a ride from a friend or acquaintance or take a taxi. That way we can drink without concern of causing a wreck. In bad traffic it is quicker on a bike, as I can weave and pass many gridlocked cars. Having a car parked in the driveway is a sign—Rich Azungus (European, white) Live Here—, attracting unwanted interest. I never have to stop at police stops, with attendant requests for a little assistance. I stay reasonably fit. I don’t have to join a gym. It means that I can eat anything I want and not gain a pound. Finally, I like the concept of not burning gasoline to go to work or the store—or to pick up a solar panel. I can transport a case of Carlsberg Green, a bookcase, two bottles of wine, two of tonic, and a bottle of Malawi gin, or a large ceramic pot on my rack, securing them with bungi cords. My ambition is to carry a live pig, like the tiny motorcycles in Vietnam, but I’m not sure where I’d deliver it.

The downside is the potential for serious injury, especially from reckless or heedless drivers. Minibus drivers, like Domino Pizza drivers, have an incentive to speed. If they make 6 trips per hour, instead of 5, their income increases 20 percent. Twenty percent of very little is substantial. The roads are full of potholes so constant vigilance is required. On a hot day, it means that shirt cannot be worn again without being washed.

So, Harold, I get it, your love of riding. Stefan talks about feeling a bit juvenile whizzing down the covered walkways at the College of Medicine. I guess I do, too, but I couldn’t care. I suppose I am less concerned as I am old and not needing a letter of reference, having no academic ambitions. Although I might apply for a Fulbright to teach in some interesting place after this ends. I feel remarkably free in the world and riding the bike contributes to it.

One of the members, Sophie, of the Blantyre Child Study Group invited us for tea yesterday, with a caution that it was a pretty steep ride.  (Her husband, Erik, is a Pediatric Surgeon and bikes to Queen Elizabeth every day.  He has special permission to bike a more direct and level route, avoiding the worst of the hills and the village, through the Sanjika Palace property, the President’s residence in Southern Malawi.)  And steep it was, both down and up. It was an hour of pretty hard riding out of town, through a tiny hilltop village, over an incredibly rocky road, pitching down a near-vertical hill, and up the other side to arrive at Kwa Boxten.

Kwa Boxten is a 40 acre spread on top of a tall hill surrounded by huge trees. There are stables, vegetable gardens, and two large and lovely houses. Plus a coterie of barking dogs. Malawians are fearful of dogs, generally, and the latter keep away intruders, including the hoofed kind that would decimate a vegetable garden.

Erik’s mother was a Dutch pediatrician who started the Department of Pediatrics at QECH, as well as building the Pediatric Inpatient Units. She is 92, and reads voraciously, having stopped work at 87. It is like a step into the past to visit Sophie and Erik, although they built their own 6 bedroom house only 8 years ago. It is exquisite and comfortable, with a huge covered verandah where we had fresh banana bread and chai amid the dogs. The house is off the grid, with solar powered water pumps drawing from a number of bore holes (wells) and solar powered lights. Solar water heaters are on the roof. They use charcoal irons, as irons would draw down their batteries unconscionably. New charcoal irons are from China, and burn through quickly. The better ones are older, being used as doorstops in Europe. Erik seeks them in second-hand shops when he travels.

Living so far away does impact your social life, I’d imagine, making evening engagements less inviting. But the beauty and solitude of the place is stunning. Likewise, we were pretty spent after the ride home, skipping supper and falling into bed. A good ride.

Today I rode into Sunnyside to meet the 4 SMMHEP (Scotland-Malawi Mental Health Education Project) volunteers here with us for the next 3-6 weeks. They are lively and engaging and very interested in participating in the experience. One of them, who is tiny, standing probably 4′ 10″in stockinged feet, is a retired woman who rhapsodized about the Blantyre Central Market, which she explored on her first day here. She strikes me as intrepid and instantly likeable. Remember that wonderful editorial in Newsweek years ago by a journalist who was  4’10”? She espoused the advantages and virtues of being small: air travel is much more comfortable, as are compact cars; you eat less; you breath less oxygen; drink less water; you require a smaller amount of fabric to clothe you; and so forth. It was in response to the 1977 Randy Newman song, Short People (got no reason to live).  She concluded, “Short is the wavelet of the future.” Being of modest stature, I loved both the song (so outrageous) and her response.  Anyway, we put my bike in the SMMHEP car and they drove me home, as the sky was bawling. One of the disadvantages of a bike. Carrying a couch home would count, as well.

I think that it may confuse the medical students for me to ride a bike. I obviously am well-educated and come from the US where “every doctor is rich” (truly so, measured here.) yet I ride a bike. If you want status here, as often there, you drive a BMW or a Mercedes, not a TREK.  How nice not to care.  When I have the option, I ride on quiet streets and am always prepared to jump the bike off the road, whether over the curb or into a ditch. I don’t know how I’d fare, but it is a little like someone with a terrible, newly acquired disability knowing that they have the option of suicide if things get too tough. (I just read JoJo Moyes’ “Me Before You”, which brought that image to mind.)

I’d best stop here, I think, and help Linda with the goat stew she is making for supper guests. Jumping the curb is to avoid death, not to court it.

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