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1/18 Biking Backpedal

As you may recall, last Thursday, my friend "Jamila" and I went for a jog/bike trip. She's prepping for a marathon, but I'm no runner, so I kept her company by biking the journey with her. Well, sort of kept her company. Bikers and joggers tend not to go at the same pace, it turns out. (Speaking of which, Jamila did a phenomenal job of maintaining a constant pace of 6.5 - 7.5 minutes per kilometer for the entire 16 Km. Woo-hoo!)

We started at the mile-marker 13km from her town. (OK, yes, if you're going to be all particular, they're kilometer-markers, but that doesn't roll off the tongue. They're about a foot - maybe 30 cm - tall, painted crisp white, with bright red splash across the top. They tell you the distance to the bigger towns along the road for most, if not all, of the 140 km from Berberville to SouqTown.)

Unfortunately, this mile-marker (OK, kilometer-marker) was located halfway up the steepest hill in the region. The crest of this particular mountain is sort of a mini-continental divide. All the rain and snow that falls to the west of it flows down my river, past Berberville and into my lake. Everything that falls east of this divide flows down to SouqTown. This is the highest point of the entire road, so of course it was where our trip began. Sigh. Oh, and while I'm still rambling about geography, I should point out that Jamila's town and Berberville are both well over a mile above sea level, which helps in making ours two of the coldest sites in the country, but the little village perched on the side of this mountain is several hundred feet above either of us. Plus there's no running water. And the Volunteer assigned here has had the roof above her bed cave in. Twice.

...but back to our story. When I punched the button on my stopwatch, Jamila leapt off to a great start, and I pushed the bike pedal. Her lead got longer and longer as I toiled up the side of the mountain. I grumbled to myself and remembered how to work the gears. Jamila just kept plugging away, her red jacket growing smaller and smaller. After enough whines to fill a car trip, I got to the top...and found myself looking down a steep straightaway right out of a biker's fantasy. There was a long, flat section along the top, on which I caught up with my friend. I made sure she was doing well, and I promised Jamila I'd meet her at the top of the next one...and off I went.

Biking is awesome.

My open parka flapped behind me like a superhero's cape as I flew down the mountain. My hair wanted to join in the fun, but was strapped down beneath my stocking cap and the regulation Peace Corps helmet. The wind whipping by crept behind my sunglasses and made my eyes water, making it harder to see the patches in the asphalt. I blinked the tears away and stretched an arm out, doing half of the "King of the World" pose. (Or else signaling that I wanted to turn right, but fortunately there was no one else on the road to misinterpret my bliss.) I flew a full kilometer and then a little more, before a small hill bled off my speed. Just when I would have had to start pedaling, I crested the hill. I rolled to a stop and looked back to find my erstwhile partner. Her red jacket could have been mistaken for a woodpecker's topknot, she was so far behind me.

We continued to leapfrog through the hills and around the bends. The stretch of road she'd picked was nearly all downhill, so I was often well ahead of her, but I never let her get out of sight. Whenever a blind corner approached, I'd stop and wait at the point of the bend, so no reckless motorists could careen around and ... cause problems. This was fairly pointless, though, since we saw a total of three cars on the road - two were tranzits and the third was a private car. But it made me feel like I was playing a role.

My official role was cheerleader. During the flat stretches, I'd pedal slowly enough to keep pace with her, and say encouraging things to her. When I waited for her at the top of a hill, I'd call down praise and support (and once held out a water bottle as the carrot to get her all the way up an especially challinging section). I don't know how much she heard, because I could never tell when her iPod was on, but I liked doing it.

I also pointed out some of the more awesome geologic features, and talked about my plan to bike the full 140 km length of the road, over the course of a few days, to capture them all on camera and GPS. So many features here deserve to be put in a textbook. I use the phrase "textbook example" every time I talk to folks about the geology of the region, and often in reference to widely different things. There are textbook examples of braiding streams, anastamosing rivers, cutbanks, swales. And that's just the assif (river/stream). The prettiest cross-cutting relationship I've ever seen is 5 km outside of that frozen town I mentioned earlier, perched on the mountain between my site and Jamila's. (It's a pair of dikes cutting through a shale.) I showed Jamila the clearest mass wasting example I've seen in years, which I hadn't even noticed before today. Hence my wanting to do it on a bike instead of from the window of a tranzit; not only can you stop as often as you want to get just the right shot, but also, you see more when you're going slowly. Anyway, Jamila wants to come with, and recommends March as the time of year when it should be warm enough to be out for hours every day but cool enough to bike dozens of miles without overheating.

...but I digress.

We got to Jamila's site just after the midafternoon call to prayer. She hoped that meant that we wouldn't see anyone, but no such luck. We got lots of stares as we went through the center of town. On the far side, we picked up a small gaggle of girls, who decided that they wanted to jog, too. They kept pace with Jamila for almost 2km: knees high like dressage ponies, skirts swirling around their legs, hard-soled shoes clop-clopping against the pavement. They finally fell away, leaving us alone for the last push.

Jamila and I both believed that we'd gone the final 1 km, but no mile-marker (whatever) appeared around any of the bends in this extra-windy stretch of road, so we kept pressing on. Finally, she said, "Can you bike ahead and see where the next one is?" I'd been creeping along next to her for a while, keeping the munchkins from swarming her, so was glad to stretch my legs and pull forwards. I went around another bend, and then another, loving the wind whistling past my ears but curious as to why this kilometer felt so much longer than the others. I finally found the next marker, broken and overturned. And sure enough, it was 2 km from the previous one. The block imbetween must have fallen victim to a blizzard or tractor or something. Or maybe it was never installed, for whatever reason. I turned back to reunite with the flagging jogger, but she'd rounded the previous bend already. "Is that it?" she called to me. I shouted back in the affirmative. She pulled up next to me and I pushed the STOP button on my stopwatch. 16 kilometers in an hour and 47 minutes. Less than 7 minutes per kilometer - just a hair over a ten-minute mile - and she'd been steady as a metronome, uphill and down. I praised her effusively as she stretched and panted, and then we turned back to her town for an uphill cooldown. 3 km later, we flopped down in front of her favorite hanoot, tired but victorious.

I threw my bike on top of the next tranzit to pull into town, and rode home. Just another day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.

And a quick final note - the sunset, as I went home, was one of the most gorgeous I've seen here. The rosy light hit the clouds just right to splash huge swaths of color across the skies. Frederick Turner, eat your heart out. I promised myself I'd grab my camera as soon as I got home. Of course, by the time I'd finished wrestling my bike up the stairs to my walk-up apartment, I'd forgotten all about the sunset and busied myself getting cocoa and reheating leftover lentils. Oops. I guess all I get are mental pictures (aka memories), this time.

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Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps