This morning, I woke to the call to prayers at 5am but then remembered, “I’m deaf in one ear!” and promptly rolled over to, heard nothing but a dull hum, and slept for another two hours. Bliss.
Thursdays are half days in Afghanistan – all offices close early so, the by afternoon it was time to hit the bike assembly. I brought my mountain bike to Afghanistan this trip in hopes that as a woman, I could successfully ride my bike here, thus becoming the first woman to do so. I packed up my Niner singlespeed back in Colorado, thanks the bike mechanical ‘angel’ that made me disassemble and reassemble more than once to make sure I’d got it down and which tools I’d need to bring with. The hope being, that I can ride in the mountain province where we want to look at building schools, thus connecting the projects and potentially getting some exposure for the work I’m trying to do here.
I know that many think this is crazy, dangerous, and frivolous. But I am mountain biker. I also am the founder of a non profit that focuses on women and children and risk in Afghanistan. The two are not always mutually exclusive. The fact is, riding my mountain bike here is the same thing as me riding a motorbike around Afghanistan, or walking through town by myself. If no one ever does it, then things will never change. If Afghans see Western women (which they will accept breaking cultural norms, unlike my female Afghan counterparts) then eventually that starts to seem more acceptable. I’m not advocating that I should ride my bike through Kandahar, but in the safer areas, why not try to break barriers?
My flatmates, Hamid and Parweez, were incredibly curious and helped pump up the tires and watched the assembly. We discussed the components, the tools, and what did what. Neither ride bicycles, but both ride motorbikes, and we talked about my plan to ride here. Neither understand per se, but both are supportive, and we discuss potential obstacles and how to dress. The beauty of where I’m staying is that its a private home with a walled courtyard so I can take off my headscarf and dress as western as I like when I’m here. And so, leaving on my dress and bluejeans, I pull on my bike cleats and take the bike outside to see if my re-assembly was adequate or I had forgotten something important.
The courtyard is pretty small, and it houses two raised porches, a car, and three motorbikes, and one frisky stray cat. So it was a bit like a small BMX track course, for 3 years olds. My handling skills are poor at best, I’m good with tight corners, so this is actually a challenging environment for me to ride in. I soon realized, I need more air in my front shocks and my rear tire, my seat was too low, but other than that…I actually did a damn fine job. This coming from a girl that rarely washes the mud off her bike and her only maintenance is occasionally remember to oil up her chain. Very occasionally. Hell, I’ve been known to bike in gloves that reeked of rancid milk because I had spilled chocolate milk post-ride and forgot until a couple weeks later when I found the gloves at the bottom and figured, well, they’re just going to get more muddy and sweaty anyways, what’s the harm in wearing them? It wasn’t until I realized it was like a whiff of smelling salts everytime I wiped snot from my nose that I realized some clothing maintenance was in order.
More importantly, I found that I could, in fact, ride in bluejeans and a skirt. Not ideal in the heat, but rideable and socially respectable. So that’s a start towards figuring out cycling attire over here! So I continued playing around, coming up with a little clockwise circuit, round the garden, through the carport, under the clothesline, over the grass, up the concrete porch, and down the other side. I got more confident and picked up some speed. The trouble came as I reversed direction, not paying attention, I rode towards the carport opening gap between the pillars that supported the clothesline I had been ducking under. From this angle I could get more speed but also had to go up the curb rather than down, I rode towards it, focused on the curb and lifting my bike up it, completely forgetting about the clothesline which cut me right across my right eye and the bridge of my nose, as well has whipping back my head with enough force to leave with whiplash for several days. “F@*#!!” I shouted – to myself for forgetting the damn string of death.
It was official. I had injured myself in my desire to be the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan on day one, in the private courtyard, by a clothesline. It sounded like a game of Clue… My guess is: Ms. Galpin died in the courtyard by clothesline. Supid is as stupid does.
My eye hurt, but one of the other flatmates, Najib. was on the porch watching so I got off my bike and chatted with him for a while. My eye starting to throb, I excused myself and Najib said, “Oh yeah, your eye is bleeding quite a bit, you should go clean that”… ah, thanks. How about telling me that 10 minutes ago when I was trying to pretend that I’m okay and have a coherent conversation.
I go upstairs to take a look and sure enough – gashed the bridge of my nose and my eyelid open and it was already swelling. Damn damn damn
I grabbed some ice, put my bike away and decided that was enough for one day, hoping it wasn’t a sign of Afghan bike karma still to come.