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  • Mark Smith

A Tale of Two Cyclists


There’s not much of a story in it, really. But it is interesting to sniff around this world and compare the daily concerns, styles and environments of two users of bicycles in two quite different places on the planet at more or less the same point in time. Whether one considers the exercise edifying or shrugworthy is an individual matter. Back in January we were staying in a hotel on the edge of the Ngorongoro National Park in northern Tanzania, “resting” after a rough few days of riding around in a jeep looking at all the animals that country has taken so much care to preserve. We decided to take a walk through the coffee plantations to a nearby village to see how the real people lived. Along the way, on a dusty road winding over steep hills and dales of remarkable beauty, we met a man pushing an old British Royal Enfield bike loaded with a bulging sheaf of grass. He didn’t speak English and our Swahili is not so good, but understanding the scene was no great undertaking. It was hot. The hill was steep. He was sweating like a stevedore carting those cuttings home, where I guessed he was going to feed them to his animals. His is a tough life and a simple one. This wasn’t the first time he’d climbed that hill, and it wouldn’t be the last. A few cold and rainy weeks went by in Paris, then I flew to San Diego to spend some time with old friends. Yesterday morning I was walking to a coffee shop (this is what one does in SD) when I came across an elaborate-looking fellow on a chopper bike towing a kiddy trailer piled high with his belongings. This was clearly one of the city’s many cycling homeless, who can be found pedaling along the roads and sidewalks near the beaches here, sprawled under shady trees and camped out in the bushes on Mission Bay. Theirs is a relaxed way of life in a sunny warm place of multiple natural attractions. Their lives may not be all cake and cream, but they deserve envy from homeless people nearly everywhere else on the planet. “Hey buddy!” I called out to this weathered wanderer, whose thick Hell’s Angels mustache and dark wraparound glasses gave him a menacing air. He turned around immediately and brought his machine to a stop at my feet. “Where you going?” I asked. He didn’t flinch. You’d have sworn he was expecting the question. “Robb Field,” he said, referring to a nearby public park where you often see rag-bound folk of his ilk occupying benches and picking through sacks of junk. His name was Bob. He explained that he had a mission to accomplish at Robb Field. “Yeah there’s a girl over there who’s strung out on heroin pretty bad, so I’m going over there to give her something to eat and drink. I try to help her. That’s all you can do.” The addict wasn’t his only beneficiary, he explained, not without pride. He helped a bunch of friends like addict, down by the beach. This was his life. “Keep up the good work,” I said with a wave of the hand, and off he went. I wondered what the Tanzanian would think of Bob and vice versa. Probably not much. Their worlds are pretty far apart and they have work to do. At least they’ve got their bikes.


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