After wedging the bulging contents of my bag into the straining front basket and wind my purse strap around the handlebars several times, I put on my bike helmet. False hopes of a good hair day are literally crushed. Wheeling my bike out the front gate, I balance the rear of it with one hand while closing the heavy gate with the other hand. Just inches from my front tire, a motor bike whizzes past, telling me it is now or never.
In a dress, no less, I take a running start and jump on my bike, and proceed down the road. If I slow, I tip to one side or the other. Even on tiptoe, I strain to put both feet on the ground from the height of my seat.
Dress tucked neatly between my legs, pedaling ensues. I dodge a huge pothole, within seconds of that a motorbike passes me on the left, another on the right, another is oncoming. All this while keeping a close eye on the stray dogs, a food vendor next to the road cooking breakfast for patrons, the gaggle of small children chasing the street dogs, and the construction workers on my left heaving loads of bricks and cement over their shoulders. They stop to point out the white girl on her bike. I am not sure why, as this is my daily ritual.
Vigorously I ring my bell to inform them I am coming. No one listens. I veer around one of the men who is casually lighting his cigarette in the middle of the street.
I need to turn left. Despite the “natural flow” of traffic being on the right hand side of the road, one cannot merely make a left from the right lane. So, I ease to the left side of the road, slow a bit, and turn the corner to face oncoming traffic. I am blind around the corner as a large umbrella over a push cart blocks all view. A car approaches from behind and honks. A bike and three motos approach from ahead. One passes on my right, the other two on my left. I ease over, while checking behind my shoulder simultaneously watching people headed into oncoming traffic from the next intersection. I dodge another pothole the size and depth of a small crater.
I ring my bell again as I enter the intersection. Traffic – all at different speeds – enters the intersection from all four directions. Left, left, right, straight, brake. Brake slowly, brake quickly. This is a split second of my thinking. It is all I can focus on.
Dust billows and I cough, blinking to overcome temporary blindness. A huge parked truck has taken up the right side of the road, so traffic moves into the left. My handle bars miss the truck by mere molecules of air, as an oncoming car squeezes past on my left. I can feel the breeze of the car, its mirror fitting neatly under my left handle bar grazes my leg. But, I am not fazed. This is normal. I brake as a tuk-tuk drives slowly ahead, heavy laden with white women in bright tourist clothing from the market talking and laughing within.
Since I sit so high on my bike, I survey the oncoming situation, quickly calculate speed and distance in my head, and begin pedaling with might-and-mane to overtake the tuk-tuk before the large SUV and three oncoming motos catch us. Head down, leaning in, I whip around the tuk-tuk and merge directly in front of him, but slightly faster just in time for the SUV to pass.
I have learned to ignore horns. They can mean one of many things.
One, “I am coming.” Two, “You are in my way.” Three, “You cut me off.” Four, “I just honk every few meters for the hell of it.” The latter is the most likely.
Despite it being morning, sweat rolls down my back. It tickles my spine, but both hands on both brakes are necessary at all times.
I turn down a very rutted road. Jarring every bone in my body, I bounce around choosing the least disastrous pothole to dive into. Not hitting a hole is not an option. I raise myself off my seat a bit, bend at the knees, and ride the potholes. Some filled in with loose rocks and I struggle to gain control as a moto swerves directly ahead of me to miss a huge hole on his end of the street. I take evasive action, while trying not to slam into the vehicle on my immediate right.
To take a left onto the next busy road, I cut quickly into oncoming traffic, turn at the petrol station, and bike through people pumping gas, followed by several motos who do the same. We meet oncoming traffic, dodge left, dodge right, and eventually end up in our lane again. A small steep incline greets me. I have two options: slow and look for traffic or pedal with everything to get up this hill. If I slow, I will tip over and fall into traffic, so I stand up on my pedals again and go for it.
I wedge through a tight jam of vehicles all trying to turn different directions at this intersection. They are woven together in a barely moving grid lock. I try to bike on the shoulder, but there are too many oncoming vehicles driving down the wrong side, so I meld into traffic. One moto barely misses me as the man talks on his cell phone neatly tucked into his helmet. I pass a moto with a melancholic toddler dangling over the front handle bar, a woman clutching the driver’s midsection with another child sandwiched between them, and a load of groceries balancing on back. Her dark hair is streaming in the breeze; plastic flip-flops clad her feet. Silently, they watch me go by.
While this road boasts two traffic lanes in each direction, there are about seven vehicles wide going each way. I end up in group of motos packed behind a large dump truck but in front of a tourist bus. The flow quickly slows pace as a Lexus SUV decides to make a left turn from the right side of the road, blocking out everyone.
The only road rule here is the big vehicles win.
I am the only person on the road who seems to have a problem with this situation.
I try to balance on my bike without touching the ground as our pack of motos and bicycles grows tighter. More motos join from cramming in behind the bigger vehicles. I hesitate to put my legs down for fear of burning them on someone’s hot exhaust pipe, sitting mere inches from me. I tuck my face into my arm pit in a hope the black billowing smoke coming out of the truck will not go directly into my lungs.
While we wait, the nicely dressed moto driver on my right decides he should be on the left of me. He makes eye contact and then shoves his front wheel directly in front of mine. Despite the fact he will not fit, he seems to insist magic will happen. Rolling slowly forward, he moves closer and closer. I glare at him. He is unfazed. Traffic begins to move, but I am trapped until Mr. Moto can slide past and proceed to block out more people. I swerve behind him and start biking again. Looking over my shoulder while simultaneously checking my surrounding from every direction and watching oncoming motorists, I ease closer to the right side of the road. This time I slow to swerve around the metal cart, laden with coconuts, and is pushed down the road. Yes, a person is physically pushing this down a main street.
The vendor determined his coconuts will sell better on the other side of the road, so he precariously weaves his coconut cart through the dense traffic.
All the while, a car, three motos, and a tuk-tuk appear on my right. Without glancing in mirrors or over their shoulders, they shove me back to the left. I have no choice as they will not yield.
The immaculately clean Lexus ahead of me brakes without warning. How do I know it is a Lexus? The owners here find it a point to show their status by having the words, “LEXUS” printed as large as possible and painted on the side of their vehicle. A pale Cambodian woman with long painted nails and several large diamonds adorning her hands sits behind the wheel. She is also on her cell phone. She did not stop for any reason other than to gape at the buildings on the other side of the road.
I scrutinize oncoming traffic and proceed to pass her on the left while dodging more oncoming vehicles. Absorbing back into the lane, the vehicles slow again as a man steps into the road with his hand out and an orange glow stick. A truck reverses out of a business and onto the road. The man waves it back. Brave motos slide past from behind, as other vehicles squeeze around his front. I wait. After doing a five –point turn, the truck is now out and accelerating.
We start again.
Just as we pick up speed, a group of uniform clad school children are on the road. Some of them run. Some of them walk. Not one of them looks. Now they are in four different places on the road. My heart almost stops. I make eye contact with one directly ahead to determine if I bike around her on the front or the back since I have no time to stop. I decide to go behind her when she panics and freezes. I swerve to miss, cutting off a moto with three men on it who honks at me.
I am now stuck behind a moto with live chickens dangling by their legs off the back. The other moto ahead balances four natural gas bottles bungeed together. I hope and pray he does not crash.
I am sweating profusely at this point but do not notice.
Hitting more potholes and running over my one millionth plastic bag littering the road way, I merge again. This time. I need to make a left, but now there is a cement barrier down the road. I stop my bike, step on the barrier, lift the bicycle and contents, point it the other direction, and wait for traffic to clear before I set it in the lane, jump on, and start biking to match the speed of traffic. While doing this I weave right to take the next turn.
It is now raining. Tuk-tuk drivers pull over to put on their plastic rain ponchos. I just keep going. The potholes quickly fill with water, so I can no longer judge their depth or location accurately. The dirty, wet spray from the vehicle up ahead hits my face; I ease my speed and turn my head to avoid it. Soon I am pedaling in six inches of sewage running down the side of the road. My feet are coated. My nostrils assaulted but stopping is not an option.
Eventually, I make it. I just cycled about three kilometers.
Welcome to my daily commute. An extreme sport in and of itself. I lived another day. Praise the Lord!