Friday, June 24, 2011

A Bike Ride to Remember

They’ve been asking for weeks. Begging, pleading, staring at me with those big, round African child eyes, knowing those National Geographic-worthy expressions will somehow wear me down.

Today is the day. The weather is perfect. A sentence so rarely uttered in this part of the country. It is now winter in the lowveld, a fleeting, pleasant 3-month period of time when the days are warm and breezy and the nights cool enough for maybe a duvet cover. I wear pants and a T-shirt to bed and have never slept better.

I slowly roll my bicycle from its resting place beside the wall to the wall outside, careful to not get the wheels stuck on the fly-away makeshift screen on my burglar bars that I really need to fix one of these days. The older girl is sitting on the ledge of the smaller verandah at the main house, observing me. She sees the bike and immediately bounds over, breathless and excited. The youngest boy is right behind her. They look up at me with wonderment in their eyes, knowing that I’m finally giving into their request. They ask me to wait while they collect the younger girl, which I happily allow as I need to fill the tires with air anyway.

As I push my bike out of the gate, I reiterate my rules to them: no running directly ahead of the bike, watch for cars on the main dirt road and no grabbing at my seat or tire from behind. I adjust my helmet, swing my leg over and start to pedal. They squeal and start sprinting alongside me, egging me on, screaming “Faster, faster, faster!” I indulge them, grinning as I gather speed and start to pull away from them, their skinny legs a blur as they try to keep up.

I look behind to see three grinning faces, all intent on catching me. I yell to them that I’m going to take a left onto the dirt path up ahead. I am intent on finding one of the back roads we had taken on a firewood-gathering expedition. This path is easier for them, since it requires me to go slower to avoid the numerous hurdles in my way.

The scenery is as I remember from last August when I first arrived. Winter has decimated the once lush greenery that only a few months ago had covered this flat and seemingly endless savannah. Now the earth is brown and dusty, the only plants are the ever-present thorn bushes.

The little boy signals us to stop, as he sees a family of sparrows in the nearby field. He has brought his slingshot, a past time he has become obsessed with over the past two weeks as he tries to hit every bird he sees on the homestead. I slow down and we wait as he prepares his shot. It goes long, so we continue on, coming to an opening of the path. I’ve found the road I wanted, so I let the kids decide our direction.

They lead me into the forest, not exactly bike-able territory. I realize as we go deeper I should’ve requested the other, more traveled path. No matter, the high grasses are no longer so foreboding and there is a small foot path I can follow. We veer to the right, towards some scattered homesteads and in the direction of one of my counterpart’s houses. While I had only been once during her house blessing ceremony back in October, I know the general area where she lives.

As we come out of the forest, the terrain appears rougher. Bumpy, rocky and full of the scattered thorn bushes. I steer clear as best as I can, though my exposed calves get a bit scratched up. The kids run ahead, happy to be able to beat me as I struggle to navigate this ill-advised path.

We stop at my counterpart’s house to inquire whether she is home. Only her children are, the youngest yelling a greeting to me. He recognizes me as he often accompanies his mother to support group meetings. A patient and happy child, I can see he is helping his siblings with household chores. I wave goodbye and tell them to inform their mother I stopped by.

We journey on, the first signs of the kids’ fatigue starting to set in. I jump off the bike, walking it so as to allow them to catch their breath. But soon the path flattens out and I can’t help myself. We must be on a slight hill because I can see the rest of the valley positioned slightly below us. Homesteads dot the landscape, which is alternatively lit up by the dying afternoon sun and darkened by huge, towering clouds above. It looks like a piecemeal quilt, some of the land light shades of brown and green and some of it dark. All of this set in the backdrop of the Lubombo plateau, a mammoth piece of topography.

I ride along a fence overlooking a maize field that has long been harvested. It stretches away from us, its seemingly dead-looking appearance hiding the sleeping life it will once again give next planting season. The days of fresh maize have tapered off; now most Swazis have set aside their crop to dry and take to the grinding mill. My own family has constructed a holding area. I’ve seen various other contraptions in my community, similar is design to my Babe’s (Father’s), made of recycled wire, netting and scrap wood.

The path widens as we approach the main dirt road to Ngcina. It’s my road. I look back at the kids, the youngest girl clearly starting to get bored. I ask them if they’d like to go home, knowing it is relatively close by. They insist we continue onto the next chiefdom, a not-so-close destination that is farther into the bush.

I compromise, saying we’ll go as far as the top of the hill that leads to that community. As we pass homesteads situated along the road, people wave and gape at the spectacle we make.

A group of schoolchildren pass, eyeing us blankly, until I greet them and unleash tiny grins on their faces. Some men are lounging around a large tree as I screech past, racing the kids towards a farther tree. I yell a hurried greeting, their response lost in the wind.

We stop for a rest, all three of them clearly spent. I turn the bike around and announce it is time to return home. They protest, they want to keep going, but I can see in their eyes they are ready for their dinner and baths. I walk the bike most of the way back, stopping to greet some of my community members, including the counterpart who I tried to visit earlier. The kids patiently wait for me as I converse with her about a meeting next week and connecting with another community member on a girls’ empowerment project.

Finally we arrive home, dirty, tired and hungry. The littlest is wearing my helmet proudly, marching around the yard. My host parents sit on grass mats on the smaller veranda with some guests, laughing as we roll through the gate. My Babe announces in siSwati that we have arrived, a wide grin on his face. The kids and I say our goodnights and head our separate ways. The timing is perfect; the sun as all but set, its dying orange light barely peaking over the horizon.

As I close up for the night, ready for my own bath and dinner, I sigh in satisfaction in a day well spent. I know I must cherish these fleeting moments and memories. Of kids running alongside my bike on paths long traveled by generations of Swazis. Of nature barely touched by mankind, whose only sign of intervention are small walkways deep in the forest. It is a world of shared livelihood, a balanced relationship between the wild and human beings. As close to each other as can be possible.

While it all seems so normal and routine now, too soon will I be back in the world of concrete and road signs and stop lights. Of manicured lawns and street lights and brick walkways. But for the time being, I love the anarchy of the bush. No rules, no time, endless dirt paths and laughing children. I will hold on to this existence until I must leave this place. But not yet. Not yet.

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