They Say You Never Forget How to Ride a Bike, But I Had to Learn Three Times
On training wheels, my older sister used to race me. If she won, she would get an orange-flavoured Chupa Chup. If I won, we would both get an orange-flavoured Chupa Chup.
She always let me win.
At four, or some there-about appropriate age, I was hot off training wheels. But I never got back on the bike. My adolescent sister wasn’t interested in teaching me anymore. Dad had a bung foot, mum a bad hip and my older brother a hefty dose of drug-induced teenage apathy.
Flash forward 12 years: I’m 16 and still don’t know how to ride a bike. This had been a relatively unimportant though sore fact, until now. Until I’m here, Angkor Watt, a Cambodian religious temple and Wonder of the World, for a guided bike tour.
I knew this activity was coming. It was always in the itinerary of our tour. I’m on a school trip comprised of year 10s and 11s, through which we would develop leadership skills, volunteer in disadvantaged Cambodian villages, enjoy some RnR in Siem Riep and trek through the jungle in Laos (low-key voluntourism, I see now, but please join me in gliding over this factor).
My game plan up until now has been “figure it out on the spot”. Prior to leaving the country, I’d successfully pedalled to the end of my street with my step-dad cheering me on, but had neglected to practise turning and slowing down – apparently key features to this bike riding thing.
As my peers zoom off ahead toward the temple, I confess to my teacher, trip leader and tour guide that I, a 16-year-old, do not in fact know how to ride a bike.
With patience and care, they make me feel very supported and start from the basics.
“Don’t look at your hands, look where you want to go.” (Ground-breaking.)
“The faster you pedal the more control you have!” (Counter-intuitive, but correct.)
“You’re a jet, Jules!” (A bit of encouragement goes a long way.)
We reach a fork in the path through which we would get to Angkor Thom, which is the temple where Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed.
“Now, Jules, you and Mr. A can go around the long way on more of a flat path, or, if you feel comfortable, you can try to go through here.”
Here is a narrow gap in the jungle surrounding the temple. The route is dirty and uneven, complete with hazards and obstacles galore. Best left to the experienced rider. But, as previously established, I am a jet. Obviously, I go through the jungle.
Barely half way through, I realise the error of my ways. This shit’s hard. I’m constantly stopping and starting, wheels caught on something minor I can’t yet sufficiently tackle on two wheels.
I pick up some degree of forward motion and ride past an upper-arm height branch, which slices me on the way past. Never-mind – onwards.
My sandal snap straps and I am left with a solo shoe. I’m kicking way above my weight. Onwards.
Place yourself in my broken shoes: physically exerted, bleeding, barely heaving thick breaths through the humidity, pants torn at the knee, face bright red from a combination of all of the above and a mighty helping of embarrassment.
“You look like a homeless tomato,” my friend says to me as I emerge from the jungle worse for wear. He snaps a photo to commemorate the occasion. I happen to be standing in a puddle, just to ice that cake.
Onwards, into Angkor Thom.
I leave my shoes by the bike and walk to the entrance. The guard points to my feet and wriggles his fingers: “worms”. Not heeding this as a warning of the parasites in the dirt I am about to willingly walk on, I make an awkward but polite ‘I don’t understand you’ face and charge through.
Angkor Thom translates to ‘great city’, and great it is. The atmosphere is that of being lorded by nature, yet surrounded by man-made stone architecture. Trees root themselves into the walls. Lush green nestles amongst the eroding yet intensely detailed grey-brown stone work of the temple.
I’m hot, as one could expect a homeless tomato on a humid 37-degree day to be. Sunscreen sneaks toward my eye. My rose and chamomile solid perfume mingles with my sweat.
Then I see it. Reprieve. Relief. “Shade!”
An archway of sorts, a doorway lacking a door. A stony, shady sanctuary just wide enough for a sweaty teen to lean against and recoup.
“Shaaaaaaaade.” I run.
My freakishly long second toe cops the brunt of the stone I smash my foot into as I step not quite high enough into what should have been sweet shady safety.
My toenail jams backward into the cuticle. I hop around, a confused, rather in shock tomato. Seeing the blood always makes it hurt more. Blood trickles between my toes and onto the stone.
Angkor Thom — great city, historical site, religious temple, speckled with my toe blood.
I sit down back in the heat. Those of my friends who are nearby gather around me. The in-training tour guide who happened to be close by fumbles with his first-aid kit, seeming way out of his comfort zone. I’m laughing it off, but am seriously concerned that betadine and a band-aid seems to have frozen up the guy supposedly taking care of us.
A woman bends down in front of me. Her movements are gentle. Her face is covered by a broad brimmed hat, secured under her chin. She wears a long-sleeved fuchsia shirt and carries her own first-aid kit. This lady is Responsible (note capital R).
Wordlessly, she uses her own water to rinse the blood from my foot. She takes what I trust to be some kind of anti-bacterial cream and fearlessly applies it herself to my grotty, dirty, bloody toe. Next comes the bandaid. Then the gauze and butterfly clip.
The group around me watches on, as silent and in awe as I am.
The deed is done. She rises and we lock eyes.
“Thankyou,” I say with as much feeling as possible, as I can’t be sure she speaks English. She nods. She walks away.
My toenail falls off and grows back three times over the course of the next three years, and each time, I think of her.
Oh, and I said I had to learn to ride a bike three times. Apparently you can forget, because two years later, I find myself 18 and on a bike tour through Munich, well behind the group and deeply perplexed by the pedal-backward-to-break deal.
Yes. I can ride a bike now.
Cover by Kristen Sturdivant