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West Africa on a Bicycle 1993-1994 by Carla King
My brother Jeff rode with me those first two months. We acclimated on Saly Portudai, a quiet beach between the Dakar airport at Mbour and the airport, waiting for Alitalia to deliver our lost bicycles. It took two weeks. There were only beach huts back then, concrete with padlocked doors. We spent midday sleeping, mornings and evenings out in the village, befriending the locals, swimming back and forth to a small island not far offshore. By the time we set out traveling we knew we had to rise before the sun was up and set out as the stars faded. The stars! Diamonds in a black velvet hat, I said. We had brought a star chart, and spent hours trying to make sense of the unfamiliar constellations in this opposite hemisphere. The road was paved those first few days before we got too far into the country. It ran black and smooth through the scrubby flat savannah. I learned to love that first hour before the sun emptied itself on us like a bucket of white-hot light. The tarmac soaked it in and then radiated it upward, baking us from the bottom as well as from the top. We decided we’d be stoic until ten o'clock, the earliest time, we agreed, that we would look for shade. We did want to make progress, after all. The savannah used to be home to lions, but no longer. Termite hills, their spiky columns of red earth, rose from the grass eight feet tall. Baobab trees stood alone or in forests, simply and quietly taking their space, their elephant-legged trunks connecting roundly to the earth while their broccoli-topped branches clustered closely and compactly together, no sprawl, a rich deep green against the anemic African sky. We pedaled by in silence, worshiping them. Respecting
them. They were old and wise and definitely sacred. Our skin was pink and our hair had lightened to platinum blonde. The Africans— here they were tall and elegant aubergine-shouldered Wolofs—were both attracted and repelled. Later, in the more remote villages, people were more often frightened. The children, at first attracted by the strange bicycles laden with panniers and packs, shrank from us in horror. Every time it broke my heart. The first poor child I encountered who had never seen a white person was walking down a tributary path with a huge earthen jar on her head. She might have been 10 or 11 years old. I did not notice her at first. I had spotted an old tree near the intersection of the road on the path where she was walking. Its spreading branches were heavy with leaves creating a impenetrable shade. All I wanted was to dive under it, have a drink of water, and nap a little. I swerved toward the tree, single-minded on respite, just then seeing the girl who froze like a stone statue. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened in slow motion, a slow, tight rounding of the lips from where, eventually, a strained, low, animal noise emanated. Suddenly understanding the cause of her distress I stopped. As I considered how to reassure her, she pirouetted, one hand steadying the earthenware jar, in the opposite direction. Jeff cycled pulled up behind me and we both stood watching. The girl’s movements were a stunning demonstration of grace and balance running and turning, running and turning. The thought of breaking the vessel atop her head must have been worse than the certainty that two pink and white ghost people would attack her. She turned again. Her voice recovered and she managed a low yell, still somewhat animalistic, which finally graduated to screams of agonized terror. "What did you do?" asked Jeff. "I was only headed for the tree." We watched the poor girl pirouette a few more times to see if we were in pursuit. The fact that we were not did not comfort her. Her screams became loud sobs. We took a short drink from our water bottles, looked longingly at the shade tree, and swung our legs over the bikes and rode on.