Shifting Gears

I want to ride my bicycle...

Two wheels and a slender frame make it hard to wrap, but I still marvel at the unexpected Christmas gift leaning on its kickstand. Santa came through big time this year. It’s 1994 in the urban sprawl of São Paulo, Brazil. The gear shift mounted on the stem between the handlebars looks like a speed boat throttle. In my head I hear the roar my new bicycle will make as my eyes shift the throttle from first up to fifth. Imagining myself on this bicycle with speed boat features summons the opening montage of Thunder in Paradise, a short-lived TV show that just premiered. And, with that, it reveals its name: Thunder.

I try to memorize the landmarks on the way to my buddy’s house. The payphone on the corner. The pizza shop on the long stretch. The point where the blacktop switches to a brick-paved road. It’s my first expedition of significant distance and I’m nervous I might get lost on the way home. Upon my return, I coast triumphantly down the last stretch before my house. Thunder facilitated my first taste of independence. Many more adventures would unfold.

***

The Peace Corps office demands that volunteers wear helmets when we take motorcycle taxis, but come on – I already stick out enough as the only American in my Dominican neighborhood. Passengers never wear helmets, and so I don’t. I’m self-conscious about how stupid I would look carrying it around town as I run errands. I don’t own a motorcycle. Breaking this rule adds to the thrill of a moto-taxi ride in Puerto Plata.

The moto-taxi drivers from my neighborhood know me well. When they see me approach the stop where they congregate, their eyes light up, they call out “Andrés!,” and their hands go up – a signal inquiring whether I’m riding or not.

I jump onto Roberto’s bike and we speed off. My knuckles are white as I hold onto the seat. The wind whips across my unhelmeted face as we accelerate down the only paved road in my barrio. Roberto’s yellow vest, indicating he’s registered and syndicated, flaps open and closed.

We pass a bicycle shop and I look longingly at their wares. They remind me of Thunder. I remember the freedom, and if I had a bike now, I could be more spontaneous with my errands. I could go for joy rides along the malecón. But the price tag is far too large, even considering how much I would save from moto-taxi fares.

Near the end of my 27-month service, a new Peace Corps volunteer is assigned to a project in my barrio. I greet him when he passes my place on his way home. One day, his return is not by foot or moto-taxi. His wide smile and his expressive eyes pierce through me as he rides his beautiful new bicycle past. I walk downstairs to my host-mom’s place to lament and express my jealousy.

“Andrés, estás loco. Every time those moto-taxi drivers pass by here, they don’t ask me how I’m doing. They say, ‘And Andrés?’ The new gringo isn’t gonna get to know people very well on that bicycle.”

***

Full-throttle. High gear. Intense pace. These are the descriptions I use with friends regarding my transition into my new teaching gig. Delicious moments of stillness are interrupted by dread about the lesson I haven’t quite planned, the stack of homework I haven’t graded, the unresponded emails that glare at me.

Please, slow down! I whisper to life, certain of its deafness to my plea. I fantasize about the day when I feel caught up; when I can coast. At the end of another long day, I climb on my bike. The early autumn sun is nearly set, and I hit a long stretch of road between the school and my house. I downshift into a gear that takes little effort to pedal. I relish the slow ride and am calmed by the cool air that caresses my face. Sometimes I even let go of the handlebars and sit up straight, hogging the empty street at an hour when traffic has dissipated.

I think about Thunder and our past adventures as I make my trek from work. And those memories are followed by discomfort as I remember my host-mom’s words. Some of my most fascinating conversations have been with strangers on public transportation. Some deep bonds have formed over carpooling and commiserating over traffic. And a distinct awareness of the resources I am blessed with in a religious community has come from mundane tasks like filling the gas tank. I forget how dependent I am on others when I savor the independence I feel when riding my bike.

But I have come to depend on this nightly ritual. I smile at the paradox of dependence on the one thing that has always made me feel independent. It dawns on me that my rides – whether by motor or pedal – have never been in solitude. They’ve always been in good company. My friendship with Roberto kept me loyal to the moto-taxi. A different friendship keeps me peddling on now.

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