Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Tale of Two Bicycles

Many Peace Corps Volunteers in Tonga have bicycles. They seem like a ton of fun. One basket, one Peace Corps-mandated helmet, two wheels, and a whole lot of freedom.

I decided not to get a bike, though. My island is perhaps two miles long, and there are few instances when I need to go to a village that might merit a bike ride.

A month or so ago, one such instance arose. The store in my village ran out of phone credit, and the only other place to buy credit is about a 20 minute walk away. My school principal also wanted to buy credit, so she suggested we get bikes and ride over.

We walked around our village. Pauline pointed to a bike she saw in someone’s yard and said, “Hey, ask him if you can borrow that bike.” This is the way to get things in Tonga, it seems. You see something someone else has, and if they’re not using it (and even if they are using it, but you really want it), you just ask for it. So Tomasi gave me his bike. “The seat is broken, though,” he warned.

Sure enough, that seat was broken. All the cushioning that is so essential for protecting one’s backside on a bike was gone. Tomasi’s solution was to stuff coconut husks between the pole and the seat cover. I can’t say it worked well, but I surely didn’t want to try the bike just on the pole. We rode on that rocky road to the next village and back, and my rear end felt sore for the next few days.

A few weekends ago, the second instance arose. I was sitting in my yard, enjoying the view and reading my book, when a couple of high school girls who came back for the weekend stopped by. As we were chatting, they asked me whose bike that was, propped up over by the fence. I said I didn’t know, but I joked that I was going to steal it and go ride around. We laughed, but after the girls left, I thought that might be a fun thing to do on a lazy Saturday – go on a bike ride. I’d have the wind in my hair and my dog chasing as I blew down the island. The fact that I didn’t know the owner of the bike didn’t seem so important.

I asked my neighbor if he knew who the bike owner was. Did my neighbor think the owner would mind if I took his bike? I got the same answer I get every time I ask for something here in Tonga: Sure, no problem.

Just as I was heaving the bike over the stone wall and onto the road, a guy passed by on a bike. He suggested I take the bike he’s on. “It’s much better than that bike,” he said. I said the bike I had was fine, but thank you and I mounted my bike for my freedom ride.

Tour de France it was not. I felt like I was on the first bicycle ever built in the history of bicycles. The gears were so stripped they hardly gripped the chain, but when they did grip the chain, they would lock up. It was impossible to get any speed, but that’s probably a good thing, since the brakes didn’t work either.

I laughed to myself (and perhaps a little aloud too) as I clunked down the road. A brisk speed walker could have probably passed me, but I was enjoying the ridiculousness of the situation too much to not continue on my adventure.

As I rode through the bush, I passed a handful of people. Two people from different groups made fun of the state of my bike. I told them it was brand new and cru-cru-crunged on my way. I’d never felt more Tongan.

I returned that bike too, of course. I never saw the owner, so hopefully he wasn’t worried about the theft of his precious antique. Of course he wasn’t worried. It’s never really stealing in Tonga; it’s just borrowing for a shorter or longer period of time. And my borrowing took all of about an hour, but it was still my little hour of freedom.

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