Living Life to the Fullest: My Bike Trip in West Africa
Riding my bike gives me a lot of time to think. I sometimes think about what is to come in the day, what happened yesterday, what I need to do in the coming weeks. But, ironically, most often my mind wanders to remembering other times on my bike.
One of the most cherished memories I have on my bike is a trip I did while working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal after graduating from college. It was a time of great freedom, fun, and growth. My bike was my primary mode of transportation during these years and so many times my mind drifts back to these years and the many bike trips I had throughout the beautiful country. One trip often comes to mind first.
This epic bike trip was over a decade ago but I still remember it quite clearly — over the mountains of Kedegou, Senegal across the border into Maliville, Guinea and into the heart of West Africa. I traveled with two of my friends, also in Peace Corps at the time, and had five awesome, grueling, bloody, and happiest days of pedaling in my life. A friend once told me “your 20s are for yourself, live them as fully as possible.” I was living these days fully, with plenty to spill over.
My friends and I had mapped our route with the resources we had; no computer at our fingertips only a map in a pocket and the confidence of encountering cow herders and other people along the way to point us in the right direction. We knew there would be Pulaar-speaking villages at which to stop and seek shelter. By this time I was two years into my service and had a decent handle on the prevalent West African language along with the culture, customs and traditions. Greetings are an important part of any culture, but even more so in the slower paced life of rural Sub-Saharan Africa.
If you know how to arrive in peace and are considerate enough to ask about one’s health, family, work, children, and other aspects, you are a friend and will be treated as family. After a proper greeting and being accepted into a home, the bags of Koala nuts we carried were enough to express our gratitude to our unexpecting hosts. In exchange we would be given dinner, water, a bed to sleep, and water to bath. This made our travels very light. Three young women on bikes – we had it covered.
We were all very comfortable on our Trek 820s – mountain bikes that we were each issued at the start of our service. That bike was a critical component of the agriculture work I did as a Seed Extension Agent. I remember it like a cozy pair of slippers. I had worn it on so many trips that I could hop on and immediately feel at home. It was my transportation to the local market, my connection to socialize with friends, and it was my easiest way to collect mail. My bike transported me not only to destinations but to mental well-being. I had spent the previous two years putting more miles on that bike than any other I’d had before. This was my first real connection to cycling — my first true love of a bike.
One of the things I like most about riding my bike is the connections it creates. When pedaling I become more connected with nature, more connected with the weather, and more connected to the people I encounter. Unfortunately, during this trip I also became connected with swarms of Tsetse flies (think horse flies). I would end a day with bloody wrists due to those miserable pests. Why they chose to just nibble at my wrists, I’ll never know. Maybe it was the shallow veins or the stillness of my wrists while I peddled. Riding over loose gravel, tall grass, and often time large boulders, my pace didn’t allow me out-race these blood-thirsty flies. We hardly stopped until the cooler hours of the afternoon because of the painful bites. Shade would sometimes be enough to elude them, but not often enough.
We stopped and chatted with women carrying water from the streams or wells and were always able to stay hydrated in the hot African sun by simply asking to fill our Nalgene bottles. We made it to Maliville, Guinea, tired but energized that we traveled the 60 kilometers over mountains, across rivers and through fields to make it. Three women off the beaten path, hundreds of miles from a true road, with more freedom on a bike than any other mode of transport could have provided.
While I know I still have a lot of years on my bike, I don’t think I will ever again have the freedom to experience such an adventure again. I partly live for others now — my kids, my husband — and the reality of jumping on a bike and heading off into an unknown like I did in my 20s is difficult to imagine. I’d like to think I’ll have the opportunity again. But if not, I am confident knowing that if such an adventure happens only once in a lifetime, I lived it to the fullest when I could.