MY LIFE AS AN IJ is a running personal commentary and observational journal by Corinne Whitney during BikeAbout-the Mediterranean. The idea is that postings will be made at (or near, or after) the completion of each of our planned 17 countries' borders. (But please don't hold me to that, 'cause I'm already totally stressed to the max.) Healthy portions of sarcasm, all sorts of pointless ponderings, and some good old-fashioned soul searching will be revealed during these, my ever-sacred spare moments I'm sharing with you, our faithful readers. I hope this section will be somewhat enjoyable and/or insightful, as an addition to the fact-filled dispatches and the very revealing projects of the other IJs. -- Corinne
If I've not tried something before, I have no idea whether or not I'm capable of doing it. So I give it a shot, see how I do, what I feel about it, and go from there. What this means is that I'm always looking for an additional something -- a challenge I haven't yet rooted out of my surroundings or the world. Like some kind of huntress, all my senses are constantly aware, tweaked to perceive the hidden or subtle possibilities in life and what it offers. At any one moment, there are endless perspectives to a situation, and we only get one! It's too bad.
In some ways, it's no mistake that I've landed (for the time being) where I have today. In other ways the logic makes me laugh, "Sure, sing in the church choir at age six, bike the Mediterranean as an IJ at 26...Naturally!" Regardless, here I am. Trying to a) shoot a video documentary about a really worthwhile and neat educational adventure, b) keep the break-neck pace of the biking schedule on my first bike tour ever, and c) represent BikeAbout as an Internet Jockey, which requires considerable time and effort. No wonder I'm laughing!
Morocco was an introduction to many aspects of what the next nine months hold for all of the BikeAbout riders in terms of working as a team, not to mention what the adventure holds before us. First, we are five very different people forced by circumstance to very quickly understand one another, work together efficiently, and battle basic travel woes like tummy trouble and getting fleeced as tourists. That's a pretty tall order for everyone involved. If it's not funky enough for you, though, here's a fun twist: the 3 guys are all friends and have worked together previously, and the two women are in the same boat. The interesting thing to me is how and when the two groups will meet.
This is of particular importance in the Mahgreb (Muslim North African countries), where in many ways the men and women live very separate lives and somehow co-exist in very different worlds -- almost in polarized realities. In Morocco I was very aware of my personal freedoms as a woman from the Western culture -- in how I choose to live my life, what I've done (or not) with my educational opportunities, and how much I take for granted. I also noticed how easily our surroundings can manifest in our own behavior and the group dynamic. That said, you can bet that there was much more to be learned in this country than we realized.
I don't claim, and never have claimed to be a big bike freak, much less an extreme athlete. Then why do something as outrageous as BikeAbout? See paragraph one. Since I began riding a bike as a major form of year-round transportation in Chicago, people assumed I was a racer. Not the case -- not even a little. Compared to the other BikeAbout riders, I'm a laughing stock on wheels. In fact, for me it's been much more a mix of different things that draws me to my ever-reliable bike. As an outlet for general aggression, you can't beat city biking. Manic, death-defying Loop traffic which served as the perfect preparation for the lawlessness on Moroccan roads, and the mental serenity gained from early morning and late night Sunday side streets in Bucktown, or silent Rif passes of beauty blessed by Allah, recently, have both kept me in the saddle this long. That, and some handy help from the terrific guys at ReCycle bike shop on South Wacker.
Regardless, my perspective isn't that of a serious cyclist. At all. So what was the first thing I noticed about biking in Morocco? The roadkill, of course. Part of my problem when biking -- besides the fact that I'm not in shape at all, and humiliation has become synonymous with morning, noon, and night for me on this trip -- is that I tend to daydream. I can so easily get lost in a tangent if I notice something on the roadside or landscape, then I slow down too much. But I try to use it to my advantage, for solving the unsolvable while getting from point A to point B. Roadkill, I realize, is pretty macabre, but since the get-go it's just been a fascination for me when biking. I think it has something to do with the fact that it's really, really easy to die on the road, when you're at the mercy of traffic. Going up the rather steep mountain passes as we made our way across The Rif, on some of the narrower roads we had to rely on the hope that the trucks and buses would favor our safety over their speed coming around the bend. When they chose not to smush me into the mountain, I felt pretty lucky -- unlike the hoards of frogs below me.
No, really -- probably every 50 feet or so there was a frog carcass (or giant beetle, or lizard, goat, snake, hedgehog, cat, or one of our friends from the aviary family) in some degree of flatness. I started doing some math both out of obsessive compulsion, and to keep my mind occupied on something other than my lack of uphill ability. How many frogs had tried to migrate, and of those, how many made it? I tried to imagine at what time they all lined up last night or this sleepy Sunday morning at the edge of the road, or -- my God -- had they all mysteriously jumped off that cliff above like lemmings? Now, I don't know much about frogs, but what're the chances? One spotted skin after another, I wondered then where they all had come from, which was a whole new, unrelated topic. I'll concentrate on anything else to keep reality at bay.
See, as the novice to bike touring in our group, I was already feeling grossly inadequate. The distances are far, the speed is quicker than I'm able to manage, and if you've never been to Chicago before, I have two words for you: IT'S FLAT. Hence, both the Rif Mountains and the general hilly nature of the Mediterranean Coast have so far officially kicked this flatlander's butt, and I suspect it will continue to do so. In theory, I could have trained for this experience, and better prepared my body for the challenges. But then what would I have to complain about?
Okay. So I'm already faced with the reality of my lackings, and now let's take that confidence booster to a country where local women are often regarded as property, and foreign women as fair game. This is pretty disturbing, and wasn't news to me. It's just a very different thing to read or hear about a thing, and have it become part of your daily life. Getting groceries, asking where the toilet is, fixing your chain on the side of the road less than a third of the way up a god-awful hill, and everyone is staring at you. And that everyone is an all-male population. Hmmm. Creepy doesn't describe the feeling of seeing streets empty of women. And it didn't matter how loose our clothes were, if we wore hats or jackets; even in helmets and goofy biking sunglasses, we couldn't hide what we were. So then I was feeling gross in general, like a monster in a traveling freak show the way andrEa and I were stared at and treated. Let's also not forget that really gross feeling of sweat and dirt and salt caked on your face from biking 7+ hours a day in unrelenting sun and heat, and we have the makings for a really nice stay in any country!
Of course I knew to expect such treatment, but expectations will get you nowhere. One night as I stepped out of the shower I asked andrEa if she first wanted the bad news, or the terrible news. Since I brought no towel, my sleeping clothes were soaked and I donned another shirt for temporary warmth. The Schubert CD playing on my computer was nearing the end, and I hoped the battery would hold long enough for me to type some e-mails before bed. Ea said her preference was either, so I offered the bad news first: the hot shower water we were promised was a myth. We expected no hot water in Morocco at all, and two of the three boys had scheduled an early morning arrival at our door to enjoy this luxury -- wouldn't they be surprised!
Then came the terrible news, which we actually deemed disgusting instead: we were not alone in the bathroom, despite ours being the only private, in-room toilet and bathroom on the floor. In the two public W.C.'s on our level, I would have expected to see a number of different "friends" on the toilet seat as I bent over to inspect the numerous and maddeningly itchy blackfly bites on my ankles, but had hoped for better in our room. And we're not talking easily flicked, crunchy bugs here boys and girls. We're talking the itty bitty spooky suckers you only notice checking the video camera battery charger on the floor and pausing to tend a wound, when your eye is caught by you don't know what until you focus better. The last thing I needed was more bites. And if they're in our beds too. Shiver...
As with life, part of the problem of biking is at the heart of its beauty. On a bike, you're just closer to the world you're in, you see it up close, and you're neither protected from it, nor it from you. That's how I live my life; it's a desire to see and experience the heartbreak of injustice, so I can communicate about it with other people, keep progressive conversations going, and help make changes in the status quo when possible. Likewise, I bike along these roads day in and day out, trying to absorb and savor the dew on a mountain's pine trees, so I can swap it out for the dry heat of the desert patches where we don't see shade for eons. I inhale the mint groves and fresh haystacks with all my fading might, to compensate for the reek of the sewage in the smaller villages we roll through. As I wring out my clothes, twice before washing, twice during washing, and twice while rinsing, lucky number seven finally sees the water go clear instead of black with soot and vehicle fumes -- a grave reality of most urban or highway cycling in every country.
For now I woefully still push my bike up the big hills, while the others wait patiently at the top for they don't say how long. Sometimes I kid myself that I'm getting a better view because I get to enjoy it longer. Joy will find the day when I can keep pace with these other four very experienced riders, when I can forego the need to steadily pass them during their rest times. Of course I want to bolt ahead to catch a few scenic video shots -- BikeAbout folks drudging past camels and kasbahs, pulling the two trailers chock full of digital everything for this Internet Expedition -- then catch up. But I have neither the strength nor the skill right now to risk falling even further behind and then trying to get back with the group. I'll find a new kind of empathy with the pack mules used by the farmers we pass on the road once I'm required to pull a trailer too. (Ea often compares herself to a donkey with the trailer. It's gonna suck out loud.) But I half look forward to it, simply because I'll no longer be instantly qualified as the wimp of the group.
The truth is, I had wondered for a long, long time how I would do riding in a group rather than by myself, as I was used to. I'd never even toured with just one other person, so I hadn't a single point of reference. The verdict for now remains the same: I don't bike with the others, at all. I lose sight of the gang of four early on, with no expectation to see them all that soon. Regardless, their collective patience is endearing and embarrassing at the same time, and I certainly do appreciate it, as I steadily try and make progress, instead of obsessing over why I hadn't properly trained for this wacky adventure. As far as I can tell, none of us really could have.
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* Rider Cartoons by J.R. Lara. Used by permission.