Like a Pinto among Porsches

21 03 2010

When most of y’all read my entry about how I dislike swimming and the beach, you might have thought that I couldn’t get much more backward than that.  But a few of you know better, and could probably even spice up this blog by adding some stories of your own.  Just keep in mind that all comments must be approved by me before they go public, ok?  You can’t sneak that stuff past me.  Although if you post it on Facebook in the middle of the day, while I’m sleeping on the other side of the world, the embarrassing tidbit will likely fester for several hours before I catch and delete it.  That is, unless it’s funny… in which case I will probably add it to the “about me” section of my Facebook profile.

But don’t get any ideas.

Ok, so I have another confession in the meantime: if riding a bicycle required a test, similar to the driving test one must pass before getting licensed to drive a car, I would fail.  Actually, the summary that I often give of my swimming skills also applies here… “I can get where I need to go, but it’s not gonna look pretty on the way there.”  And much like driving a manual-shift car, I have one hell of a time getting going from a standstill – but whereas most people can identify with the difficulties inherent in letting off of the clutch while giving gas in just the right proportions so as to not stall, nobody over the age of 7 (except for my mother, who also cannot ride a bicycle with any grace… sorry to out you, Mom…) can identify with having trouble of keeping the bike erect while at the same time getting the position of the pedals to a point where one can get them to go around in circles rather than making it only a quarter of the way and then not having enough momentum to swing through the bottom of the arc. 

Once I’m going, I have to fight the kamikaze urge to squeeze hard on the front brake rather than the rear brake when something scares me by coming within a 3 meter radius.  Of course, I could also try the ‘not panicking’ approach, but that’s a bit advanced for me at this stage.  

In the U.S. none of this is a problem, because I drive everywhere in my steel-reinforced, fully-airbagged, automatic-everything Volvo.  But there was the one time I took the bicycle that I bought just for Burning Man out on the streets of downtown Los Angeles… or more accurately the sidewalks of downtown Los Angeles, because I was too nervous to ride alongside cars… and a flotilla of hip teenagers on bikes came up beside me at a traffic light.  I had my blinking light on the back and was wearing my helmet (dweeb!), and staring at my gearshift waiting for it to all make sense.  When the light changed, I tottered back and forth and used one foot to balance the bike as I used the other to move the pedals into position, before slowly taking off.  As the cool kids glided away, one shouted over his shoulder, “hey, wanna ride with us?” and started laughing.  At me.  Oh, the shame.

Right, so the point of all of this is that being able to at least ride a bicycle would come in super handy in Asia, where most people use some sort of two-wheeled device to get around.  I did briefly entertain the idea of renting a scooter, since it would bypass all of the gear and pedal stuff, but when I weighed the costs of just hiring a motorcycle taxi whenever I have a long way to go against paying the medical bills that would likely result from attempting to drive myself, I opted to stick with walking and mototaxis. 

However, tonight, in a stroke of unjustifiably confident rebellion against my own shortcomings like usually only a man might have, I thought it was high time I gave riding a bicycle a try.  They’re free at my hostel, and the place where I wanted to eat would have been a half hour walk, and since it was going to be neighborhood streets the entire way I figured I’d have all of the space I needed to do my spot-on impression of someone who could really use a set of training wheels.

The bike had a headlamp, but I could not figure out how to turn it on and there was nobody around to ask… so I put my little AA-battery camping light in the front basket so that at least people could see me wobbling their direction and I set off, determined to not be held back by a lifetime of poor coordination.  It was me against the bicycle, and an empty stomach was sure to give me the extra motivation I needed to prevail.

I passed the guard station at the entrance to my section of the neighborhood, and they shouted hello.  I felt bad for not responding, but I couldn’t let myself be distracted from the monumental task at hand: a right hand turn.  After overcoming that obstacle I rode without incident for a few minutes, but then the road got dark.  And there were speedbumps.  Oh!  A patch of light outside another guard booth!  “Where are you from?” one asked as I approached.  “California!” I shouted, without budging my eyes from the path ahead.  Doin’ good.

And then the road got VERY dark.  And very narrow.  Puddles spanned the street, obscuring entire swaths of whatever small amount of surface topography I might have been able to make out.  My camping light was the little engine that could not.  A scooter came up behind me, and remained there for quite some time… a guardian angel lending me his light, or a bandit about to run me off the road, or (more likely) just a guy afraid to pass me because I was swerving and braking erratically.  Finally he went around, and left me to fend for myself in the pitch black night once again.  Fortunately, the restaurant was right around the corner…

… but was closed.  I knew I couldn’t go back the way I came – at least not without scooter escort – so I decided to trust my sense of direction and head for the main road.  I knew this was going to mean eventually crossing the busy thoroughfare twice, but the unknown evil is sometimes the lesser of the evils. 

When I got to the main road, there was a car waiting to cross.  Perfect!  I would just ride alongside it as it cleaved the traffic.  I almost rolled into the intersection prematurely as I did my signature “getting the pedals ready” dance, but managed to hang back and then move forward at just the right moment with my giant shield.  After I arrived on the other side, I would have done a fist pump in the air if only I had the ability to release one of my hands from their deathgrip on the handles for a second.  I settled for smiling a goofy little smile, and then I decided to head straight home and make instant noodles rather than endanger myself further in the name of dinner.

But a right turn, in a left-hand drive country, would mean merging from the shoulder of the road to the center of the road, and then braving the middle of the road where (in Asia) no motorist fears to tread, even if it means driving on the “wrong” side of the road.  Oh god.  So I rode past my turn, thinking that I needed a minute to strategize.

And that’s when I saw the guy in the middle of the road with a light baton, like the kind people use to direct airplanes as they back out of airport gates.  It wasn’t just a signal, it was a sign.  It was a siren song.  THAT is the restaurant where I must eat. 

After my meal, I did not have to ask for his assistance… he took one look at me waddling toward the road with the bike between my legs like a toddler who hasn’t quite grasped the concept of her Big Wheel tricycle, and picked up his glorious baton to part the sea of cars and scooters.  The hard part over, I could finally relax. 

I turned at the grocery store, just like I am supposed to.  Then I turned left, just like I’m supposed to… but it was the wrong left.  And here were the sleighbells jingling ring-ting-ting-a-ling of the “SA-TAY” man’s cart (see my last entry), making his rounds.  As I made an awkward U-turn in front of him, he said something to me in Javanese.  I paused, mid-turn, and looked up at his smile of recognition.  He said something again and pointed to the next street over… 

“Stupid white girl doesn’t even know her way home.”



6 responses

22 03 2010
Diane Milliner

You are laugh-out-loud funny, girl!! I love you!

23 03 2010

Thanks, I get it from my brother.

23 03 2010

too bad you’re not in france instead of just being confused for a french tourist. my short horror film is making it’s european debut! how about making a quick hop!

23 03 2010

Soham – I thought you would arrange your film debuts around *my* schedule! Congrats, nonetheless. 🙂

26 03 2010
Jodie Coher

very funny! And, amazingly, I can relate!

6 04 2010
Sue Considine

Christine, truly you should be considering writing as a career. Your article is wonderful. Best wishes to you and I’ll be “tuning in” again. Love, Sue

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