Each Sunday after church I collect the used tuna and corn cans and un-compostables from my hut, load books to return to the volunteer library and letters to mail over oceans into a blue plastic basket before biking the 25 kilometers to San for my weekly sleepover and grocery shopping. I notice my back tire is low and I call out my kitchen window to Esayi to ask if he can repair it. He laughs at me as I roll my mountain bike out of my hut and into his work area where he patches it with a smile and the tenderness of a father.
“You are not used to riding in Mali,” he gently admonishes as he heats a metal ruler to seal the patch.
I assure him that even in America I manage to get flat tires and smile at Esayi’s continued doubt at my ability to do things like bike riding, even after one year of my biking weekly the over 30- mile round trip ride into San and back to village.
Esayi finishes up the patch job and I stand in front of my corrugated iron door and go over my mental check-list one last time. Typically it comes down to if I have the vitals – bankcard, ID card, helmet, journal. I strap my basket to the back of my bike with a pink bungee cord that has reached its stretching limits with my loaded goods. I secure my Camel-bak water backpack to my shoulders and click my helmet into place and begin the 2 hour bike ride into San. The first half hour to 45 minutes are the most trying as I navigate sandy paths that do not provide much traction and, now that we’re in full-on rainy season, deceptively deep mud puddles that leave me in a mud wrap women would pay big bucks for at a fancy spa in the states.
These weekly bike rides are one of my favorite parts of life here as I travel from “en brusse” (in the bush) to “dugu-ba” (the big city) and then back again. I push hard through the sand and dirt, gears straining under my heavy pushes and my quickening breath and streams of sweat signs that I am getting a real workout. Once I reach the paved road I reward myself with long drags from the straw connected to the water backpack that Mr. Shellnutt so generously provided me before coming to Mali. As my body re-hydrates I find a rhythm and a pace on the un-marked pavement while I count the revolutions between baobab trees. My mind relaxes as my muscles burn and my thoughts wander from what happened in village this past week to how the crops are doing roadside to what I need to get done in San. Motorcycles pass me every 15 minutes or so and I brighten up and snap out of my trance when they call out “Djelika!” if they know me or simply wave if we are strangers. I focus on the road – it is a busy day if 2 or 3 cars pass me the entire trip – and enjoy the various flora and fauna surrounding me. Colorful birds and (now that it is rainy season) lush trees with all their gloriously verdant leaves are my landscape and I relish the solitude and silence broken up only by the infrequent passing of a horse cart or a speeding passenger bus in serious need of an alignment and an oil change.
There are multiple marking points along my route that indicate to me, in absence of mile markers or a speedometer, the duration of my trip. The first is when I reach the paved road (only one hour left!), next, when I reach the “laughing trees” (just 45 minutes to go!) and finally, when I reach Sienso, a truck stop that marks the junction between heading North to Mopti, South East to Koutiala or straight on into San. Once I reach this point, women and children approach my bike and vehicles passing the police check point to sell cooled drinks in plastic baggies and tasteless cakes from large Tupperware bins. There is a covered “rest stop” where men cook goat meat in mud ovens for passengers who are either waiting for a car to come by or for their broken-down bus to be repaired. I stop to greet and take a seat next to an old man named Madou. Sienso is only a 20 minute bike ride from San but the heat of the sun (even though it is the afternoon) encourages me to stop and I strike up a conversation with this cute man. I see him each time I pass by this thatched hanger of a food-stop chatting with the cooks and voyagers. After greeting, I asked what he does here since he does not partake in the cooking of the meat and he surely could not always be waiting for a bus. He said he just likes to come and sit here. Talk with friends, watch the world pass by. I asked if I could take his picture and he carefully situated himself on his token chair, cane at his side, turquoise boubou in bright contrast to his drab and monotone surroundings. I show him the result on the screen of my digital camera and he beams at his princely portrait. He pulls at his white chin hair, an indication of his esteemed old-man status, and asks God to bless the rest of my trip as I regroup for the last leg of my journey. I answer with a blessing for the rest of his day and with a wave of our hands, I am on my way. Pulling onto the paved road once again, I get back into my rhythm and look for the final marker of my trip – a cold glass of water from the refrigerator at the volunteer house.