13 October 2009

Bicycling in Burundi

I have a guest poster. It's Mike! He wanted to share his mountain bike riding adventures. (He posted this on a mountain bike forum as well.) He's got some awesome photos to share at the bottom of the post. Enjoy!

As most of you know, I've been living in Burundi for a little over a year. Living here was an adjustment and work was hectic, and the security situation left us quite restricted. I just wasn't in a place to even think about biking. But things have gotten better and we security goons have been easing back the restrictions for those of us under our provenance. So I reassembled my Turner and rebuilt my Evil into a singlespeed, and we've begun exploring. I take a few security precautions and items of equipment while we're out there, but I still honestly feel that during the day we're just as safe as anywhere else. Medical care and transportation, however, barely exist, so we do play it safe risk-wise while riding.

Burundi is entirely mountainous, except the plain on the lake where the capital of Bujumbura is. There are roads into the hills but the vast, vast majority are unpaved and the main thoroughfares really are footpaths. Outside of a few real population centers, the entire country is evenly rural--very few "wild" places, and pretty much every square inch is lived on/ subsistence farmed by people living in small clusters. There are some larger coffee and tea plantations as well.

So yeah, anyhow, we've started riding up the dirt roads and out into the country and hitting the footpaths, crowded as they are. It's been incredibly liberating and positive and just a damned lot of fun. The tracks we've found have been somewhat technical... tiny off-camber ribbons of dirt with large dropoffs on either side in many cases, and every corner needs to be carefully considered b/c you're liable to run into a dude carrying a bundle of thatch, bananas, or a dinette set on his head.

As soon as we're out, the child network of "Mzungu!" alarms goes out through the countryside and everyone comes running, but we've learned how to handle all the attention and have a good time. We tend to bring big smiles to people's faces, which is nice, and things that seemed aggressive to me months ago I now just know to be business as usual.

We've also hit the roads for some mileage, and really seen how the bicycle is the dominant form of transport here. You see them when you drive, but you just don't see quite how many are parked on the side of the road as you dodge the psycho traffic and motorcycles. We collected a huge peloton of guys loaded with massive towers of bananas, 55g drums, passengers, huge bags of charcoal, etc etc as we headed north on the pavement yesterday. There's a Chinese model of cruiser which completely dominates central/ east Africa. They hook 'em up with rebar cargo racks/ passenger seats, paint 'em with many layers of housepaint, hang decorations all over, and ride these machines everywhere. Having a bike is a pretty big deal. Most of the velo-taxi riders don't even own their bikes, but are working for someone who does.

Alas, during most of this I've been camera-less, and/or just too busy to take photos. But we finally got a camera out on this morning's ride. My battery died before we climbed to the more technical/ singletracky portions, but I did get a few photos from the lower dirt roads/ doubletracks/ wide singletracks. A friend's photos should be available soon and I think he got a few more good ones higher up.

With that, here's this morning's ride:

One of the many portages; erosion is no joke with a heavy rainy season twice a year.

This enterprising kid grabbed my bike and ported it while I was taking the photo, so I let him have a ride.

Taking a short break with some short kids.

Easy spin with mobile cheering and motivation entourage.

(Click on photos to make them larger.)

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