Posted by: Dana | 2010/04/17

April 14 – Maybe I’ll Sleep in These Clothes

Today was another nine and a half hour day on the bike, including a brief lunch stop (more peanut butter and jelly), a coke stop in the morning (yes, I have become addicted), and a snack stop in the afternoon. I rolled into camp around 4PM after a 185km ride through Southern Zambia, which I think marks our second longest day of the tour, in terms of mileage. I had only enough time before dinner to grab a quick bowl of soup and then attend the nightly rider meeting to discuss the route for tomorrow. Still wearing my cycling clothes and shoes at dinner, I joked with nurse Caro that I might as well sleep in my riding gear, as it’s only a few hours until I’ll be back on the bike! Seriously, this is how the past week or so has felt…really long hours on the bike with very little time to recover before we start it over again.

Three days ago we spent our rest day in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. The few days into Lusaka were long―mostly big hills with occasional villages, nicely paved roads, and very little traffic. The past couple of days since leaving Lusaka have been slightly less hilly (mostly nice rollers) with even fewer villages (like, almost none!) and hardly anything to look at for hours on end. This is really the first stretch of the ride when I have felt bored while riding. The sides of the streets are lined with really tall grasses, which is really all we can see from the road. So, it’s pretty and it’s green, but it doesn’t change for hundreds of miles at a time. I cruised yesterday (158km, approx 100 miles), feeling strong after the rest day, psyched to be rolling on a new (borrowed) pair of skinnier tires, and benefiting from the nice tailwind. Today was completely different―I had tire problems (the rear tire repeatedly unseated from the rim), the winds were swirly but didn’t give us a push from behind, and my legs just felt heavy and tired.

The experience changes dramatically day-to-day, even if the scenery doesn’t. I think this is more a reflection of my frame of mind, more so than my riding. And while I think I’m fairly consistently upbeat and positive, there are so many things that can affect how the day unfolds: mechanical troubles, body aches and functions, weather, group dynamics, reception by the locals, traffic, etc. It’s easy to get discouraged for example, when you have multiple flat tires on a really hot and long day, as I did last week on the 197km day. Does it sound ridiculous for me to say that it takes mental fortitude to get through these kinds of challenges without letting them frustrate you to the point you can barely ride?

Zambia has the lowest population density of any country in Africa which is absolutely noticeable as we pass on the streets. It means we have less interaction with locals, and as a result, I don’t feel as if I’m getting as rich a sense of this country as I have the others. When I meet and interact with Zambians, as I did during the donation ceremony (which I will explain in a minute), they are extremely warm and gracious. But, interaction along the route is fairly limited, at least in this part of the country, simply because it is so sparsely populated.

The Tour d’Afrique Foundation is the charitable arm of the TDA which raises money to provide bicycles to community-based organizations in countries through which we travel. Most of the donated bikes are given directly to health care workers who travel to the homes of sick and infirmed patients and use the bikes as their sole (and best) method of transportation. On several occasions throughout the four month journey, the TDA Foundation arranges donation ceremonies where locals celebrate the arrival of the new bicycles. Last week we had two such ceremonies, the first of which was held at a bush camp where we were joined by dozens of local villagers and children who danced and sang with joy at the arrival of the bicycles. In Lusaka, we had doctors and nurses and home health workers speak directly to the importance of the bikes as a tool for the delivery of health care to remote villages. Donated last week in addition to the bicycles were zambulances―bicycles with beds attached for transporting patients that need to be moved to receive health care, in instances where regular ambulances are unavailable and impractical.

As with all of the countries through which we have traveled, Zambia is extremely poor, and these realities have been brought to light more in Zambia since were were joined by a Canadian doctor and two nurses who spend part of the year working in Zambia. I have learned from them some of the stark facts of life here―that the life expectancy for women is 35 years, which probably isn’t far off for that of men. HIV/AIDS, complications of child birth, and cervical cancer (which is often undetected and spreads quickly here because of womens’ suppressed immune systems) are leading causes of death of women. I haven’t seen anyone who remotely resembles someone of middle-age (our standard for what we think of middle-aged). It’s mind-boggling to think that “middle-age” here in Zambia is about 17 years old. Women of my age are typically nearing the end of their lives―and will have had children and grandchildren by the ripe old age of 35. This is a very sobering reality.

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