Working for the UN has its privileges. The back of my UNICEF identification card tells me so: “The holder of this card is an official of the United Nation, and enjoys the protection of the UN Convention on Privileges and Immunities.” It also has its rewards. My reward will come in a month when I can personally deliver shoes to the needy, shoeless kids who cheered me as I cycled through their simple settlements during Windhoek’s 10th Annual Cycle Classic Race.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s true, I am working. The African vacation is over. Even more bizarre, I am volunteering. My project for UNICEF is to organize the distribution of 80,000 pairs of donated CrocsTM shoes and sandals to the orphans and vulnerable children of Namibia. My boss is a friendly South African named Matthew who enjoys being outside and active, mostly on a bike. On Friday Matthew tells me that he is competing in a bike race at the weekend, and offers me the use of his spare bike. Before I really think about the endurance required to ride a bike for long distances in the desert heat, I am registered for the 65 km division.
Jarrett ‘The Butterscotch Stallion’ Loubser, host of my Windhoek morning radio show, welcomes the 1400 racers at the starting/finish line with his usual crass sense of humor delivered with machine-gun-like intonation over the PA system. I listen to “The Butterscotch Stallion” every weekday morning, and today his voice is jarring and unexpected. It is eight o’clock on a clear Sunday morning, and I should not be listening to him. I should be in bed, sleeping or contemplating my breakfast menu.
Instead I am perched on the uncomfortable bike seat, wedged amongst hundred of spandex wearing, helmeted, cycling enthusiasts eagerly waiting to attack the course. People, you know the people who should know, claim Windhoek lies inside the caldera of an extinct volcano. They say that this accounts for the unusually moderate and comfortable weather we enjoy. The problem today is that I will have to climb out of the caldera and leave town well behind, before returning to climb the slopes again to finish. It’s been many a year since I rode a bike, and as ‘The Butterscotch Stallion’ says “Ready, Steady, Go”, I fear this is not the way to get back in the saddle.
The 65 km bikers stay compact as we wind through the residential streets of Olympia. At the intersections police officers block vehicular traffic, and wave us through. Most of the cyclists ride sleek bikes made for road riding. I am on a slightly more cumbersome and heavy mountain bike. I am relieved to find out the gears and brakes are working as I breeze through the flat, tree-lined streets. With a left turn onto Robert Mugabe Avenue, however, the breezing is replaced by sheer effort as we begin the first accent.
In the lowest gear of my 24, my legs spin easily, but the mountain bike climbs slowly. I keep my head down and look only at the ground as I pass the familiar wrought-iron fence of the palatial residence of President Pohamba. Wheels approach from behind and pass me continuously along the climb, but it does not bother me. I know I have a long way to go, and I know this is not a sprint. Perhaps I will save some energy for a big sprint to the finish line.
At the summit of the first hill, only minutes into the race I am sweating profusely. What makes it worse is that sweat, mixed with sunscreen, is running down my forehead and into my eyes. I sit up in the saddle as I descend to dry the sweat on my face. The wind feels good as I coast down the hill towards Maerua Mall. At the bottom of the hill I follow the elongating chain of cyclists coasting past my apartment complex, and veering to the right onto Jan Jonker Road.
The Cycle Classic has four divisions: the 20, 30, 65, and 100 km. The 100 km riders went off first, followed by the 65 km division five minutes later, and so on and so forth. Every division has a different prefix on their bib number, to differential which riders are completing which distances. By the time I am pedaling in the up-market, largely Expat suburb known as Ludwigsdorf, and pass Matthew's wife and children cheering on the side of the street, I know how far behind I am. I have already been passed by what seems like the majority of the 35 km division, and am currently being caught by the adolescents in the 20 km division.
After Ludwigsdorf the route runs along Nelson Mandela Avenue before turning north into an industrial area. We pass massive factories, with towering chimneys, and ride a strong easterly wind carrying noxious coal fumes from the Van Eck power station. Beyond the power plant, the road narrows before we are directed to turn left at an intersection by a young man waving a small, red flag. This far outside of town, the police assistance has finished, and young volunteers guide the riders along the course. Of course, I have not seen a map of the course, so I am completely at the mercy of these volunteers.
Further on a girl stands before a ramp leading up the B1 Highway leading south, back into Windhoek. She yells, “30 kilo dis way!” as she brings her extended right arm and red flag from her thigh over her head repeatedly. Ahead, beyond an underpass, another volunteer waves a flag to direct racers onto the B1 Highway heading north. I must have ridden less fifteen kilometers, and assess my physical condition: my legs still feel strong, but my arse is getting sore. I want to turn towards the finish line, but I also want to ride my bike on the highway, just because it seems ridiculous. I pass the girl with the flag, and head to the next person, and merge onto the B1 Highway, northbound.
Vehicular traffic on this Sunday morning is light. Now that the race split cyclist traffic is also fairly light. The chain of cyclist has become a series of drips; one rider 200 meters ahead of me, and another some 200 meters behind. Occasionally I pass someone with a flat tire, their spirits as deflated as their tires. They crouch on the side of the highway, their chins resting on the offending wheel while the flaccid inner tube lies lifelessly on gravel beside it.
Namibian highways are not exactly like US highways. It is not uncommon to have cyclists ride along the shoulders while groups of pedestrians and livestock nonchalantly cross the road ahead of you. Pick-up trucks, known as bukkies, ply the highway with their beds full of people sitting with their heads bowed to keep out of the wind. In the bush highways are little more than two-lane roads, and there are very few exit ramps. While riding towards a weigh station, I glance over my shoulder to see a truck approaching with its turn signal on. The off-ramp is long, and he is going moving quickly with a full load of cattle. He is not going to give way to the Cycle Classic, so I stop the bike and let him pass.
Restarting is hard. My legs do not want to turn, and my arse is unwilling to climb back onto the saddle. There is a wind out of the east that somehow I did not notice until now. I push my legs down with my palms and press on. I slowly crawl along the highway until I reach the small farming community called Brakwater. At the Brakwater exit a young man with a red flag waves me off of the highway, and onto a paved district road. The road heads west towards the coast before meandering south towards Windhoek over red, rolling hills.
I ride through the dry, rocky scrubland, but with each turn my desire to continue lags. I think that I bit off more than I can chew. Old ladies riding alone and young kids riding with their fathers smile as they pass me. It feels like I have been riding for hours, but a glance at my phone tells me it has only been two. As I climb another hill, I see a small settlement on the crest of the hill and a few small silhouettes patrolling the road across from it. The settlement is nothing more that a collection of twenty corrugated iron shacks, each with its door open for ventilation. The silhouettes beside the road are children. I can tell that because they scream with high-pitched voices as another cyclist passes them.
The first child I meet is about two years old. He is overwhelmed by strange visitors that pass him, and can only stand by the side of the road with his fingers in his mouth and watch. The second child, perhaps his four year-old, older brother, starts running as I approach him, his bare toes throwing gravel into the air as he sprints. He sprints without looking where he is going, and only looks only into my eyes as he runs. He screams at me in a high-pitched voice. He wants to communicate something, but I cannot understand what he is saying. I don’t know if he is speaking English, a tribal language or Afrikaans, but I know that my ear cannot decipher his high-pitched squeals.
After twenty meters another boy, perhaps another brother, picks up the chase. This boy introduces himself with a double thumbs and a broad smile before following my bike up the hill. He is more shy that the middle boy, and runs beside me, pleading with his eyes. The four year-old lungs and legs show great stamina as he continues to run beside me and the other boy continues his unintelligible, piercing mantra. Perhaps because he is getting tired, or perhaps because I have time to slow my own rapid breathing, I finally understand what he is trying to say, “Give me CHO-CO-LATE.”
When the three brothers give up the chase, I pass another couple of boys who also cry out for chocolate. Perhaps in the Cycle Classic most riders stuff chocolates in their jerseys to eat and give away during the race. Perhaps that is the normal thing for cyclists to do in Namibia. I don’t know because I am not a cyclist. I am just the idiot who signed up to ride 65 kilometers in the hilly desert without having been on a bike for many years. I do not have chocolate.
After the small settlement the road descends before rising again. As I start to climb the next hill the smell of human feces smacks me in the face. I climb and try to breathe only through my mouth, but it doesn’t help stem the unpleasantness. In the Middle Ages travelers gauged the size of a city by how far away they could detect the smell of human waste. The further the smell carried, the larger the city was. I cannot see a settlement yet, but I know it will be larger than the first one.
The climb towards the settlement is again lined with groups of young children, all hoping for gifts of chocolate. As I pass the first group of children they all hold their hands out into the road. They realize that I don’t have chocolate, but hold out their hands to accept ‘high fives’ in lieu of the sweets. The children are dressed in tattered, soiled clothes, and none of them have shoes, but they all seem happy and wear smiles. They squeal with delight as I touch their hands, and for the time being I forget how tired I am. Having contact with the children is the only fun I have had this entire morning.
Because none of the children have shoes, and I make a mental note to revisit the settlement once the shipment of Crocs arrives, and make sure they get shoes. I am thinking about which NGOs serve children in this area when a vision suddenly hits me. It is the image of a cartoon water drop, bar of soap, and hand that is the logo for the current UNICEF hand washing program in Namibia.
UNICEF figures estimate that every day 5,000 children worldwide die of diarrhea and other diseases that could be prevented by having adequate sanitation systems. In Namibia less than 40% of the villages have these systems in place, and the majority of the vast population practices open defecation. The ability to wash hands with hot water and soap after contact with human waste would eradicate many of these needless deaths. The UNICEF office here recently launched a national campaign to educate the children of Namibia about personal hygiene, and raise awareness of the unsanitary reality within the poorer settlements. Suddenly I am glad that Matthew gave me riding gloves, and I am glad to be wearing them to protect myself from anything the children are carrying, and vice-versa. Sometimes it is good to have all the gear, even if I did not want to wear them at first.
After the second settlement I can see Windhoek in the valley beyond. Down a steep hill, in an area known as Soweto, the neighborhoods turn from corrugated iron shacks, to cinder block huts. Many people wander the streets, most wearing elegant and brightly-colored church outfits. Battered Toyota Corolla taxis prowl the streets looking for fares, and have no intention of giving the cyclists the right of way. At an intersection a policeman directs me left, and I follow his instructions. Approaching the next intersection, however, just beyond the pink compound of Soweto Market, there is no one to guide me, and there are no other cyclists around me.
I am coasting down a hill towards Independence Avenue. I know where I am, but I do not know where to go. It is a four-way intersection, so I have three choices. My house is left, and the town center is left, so, I turn left. Beyond the turn I enter the heavy traffic heading towards the city center. By the surprised look on the faces of people on the streets beside me, I know that I went the wrong way. This is not the way to the finish line. I can backtrack and rejoin the course, or ride home. At a red light, for the second time today, I assess my options and my physical condition.
My legs don’t feel that tired, but when I put my feet on the ground I feel unstable, like I just finished a long boat ride. My arse is sore, and does not want to sit on the thin foam rubber seat anymore. I am sure that I rode through the best part of the race already with the children, and I already have some photos and videos.
I never intended set any land-speed records and I never intended to win anything. I just wanted to do something different, and the Did Not Finish (DNF) label does not bother me this time. The race, for me, ends right here.
I stop at a gas station and call Meg to come get me. She arrives, and we have the bike loaded in ten minutes. I am glad to be done, and glad to be out of the sun. I rode for almost three hours, and that was definitely enough. I do, however, drive to the finish line to have a beer in the tent, and collect my medal. Some might say I do not deserve the medal, but I say I do. In fact, I might say that UNICEF should reimburse my entrance fee since I did research along the way and definitely found great kids who need, and deserve a free pair of CrocsTM to help them in their quest for CHO-CO-LATE.