Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

22 August 2019

A Bike Reunites Them

If anyone has ever given you a bicycle, you haven't forgotten it.  Even if the bike is long gone, you still have a memory of the person who gave it to you--especially if you were very young when you were so gifted.

That memory can be a very powerful force--enough, it turns out, to reunite you, a quarter-century later, with the person who gave you the "freedom machine." 

The power of that memory is intensified if you are a small child in a foreign country where you and your parent are just learning to speak the language--and your homeland is in ruins.

When Mevan Babakar was five years old, she and her mother left war-torn Iraq on an odyssey that took them through Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia before they arrived in the Netherlands.   A man befriended them while they lived at a refugee center in the city of Zolle. "My mum said the greatest thing he did was listen when nobody really treated you like a human," she recalls of the kind stranger.

Image: "For me it was a playground," says Mevan Babakar of her time as a five-year old refugee at the reception center in Zwolle, Netherlands.
Mevan Babakar as a child refugee in the Netherlands

After Babakar and her family moved out of the center, the man visited them and presented them with bicycles.  "I will never forget how joyous I felt," she explains.  "It's not about my bike, it's about my self-worth."

Eventually, she and her mother settled in London, where her father joined them.  They lost touch with the man.  (If you are young, remember that we are talking about a time before Facebook or most other social media.)  But, of course, she did not forget him.

Recently, she took a trip to re-trace her family's journey.  One stop took her to Zolle, where she hoped to find the man and thank him for his kindness.  After a series of dead-ends, she posted an old photo of her with the man on Twitter.  Arjen van der Zee, a volunteer journalist in the city, spotted it and recognized the man as a former co-worker in the center.  

He took her to a town about an hour away, just on the other side of the Dutch border with Germany.  The man--who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Egbert, believed his gesture "wasn't all that much to make a fuss about," but was "grateful that it brought us together again."

He's 72 years old now and is happy that his wish for Mevan Babakar came true.  "He was proud that I'd become a strong and brave woman."

I like to think that getting a bicycle had something to do with it.

21 August 2019

When Is A Bicycle "Irrelevant"?

I was intrigued by the headline:  Woman Flees Police On Irrelevant Bicycle.

It got me to wondering:  What, exactly, is an irrelevant bicycle?  Is it one that can't be ridden anymore?  Or is "Irrelevant" a brand?  (Now that would be terrible marketing!)

Turns out, said velocipede matched the description of one that was stolen in Hilo, Hawaii.  That is why cops pursued its rider--29-year-old Maria Duquette.  I probably would have believed, as they did, that she stole the bike, which she used to lead the gendarmes in a wild chase through Hilo Town to the Hilo Bay Front.  There, she ditched the wheels and jumped into the water.  

She swam, and cops lost sight of her.  A helicopter and boat search didn't yield any sign of her.  Later, though, someone saw her on Coconut Island.  She tried, again, to swim away, but officers pursued her into the ocean and took her into custody.  She was charged with traffic violations related to the chase and disobeying an officer's direction.

So they got their perp.  But, as it turned out, the bicycle wasn't the one that was reported stolen.  I guess that's what the headline writer meant by "irrelevant"--to the investigation.

As some of you might know, newspaper headlines are almost never written by the person who wrote the article.  I am sure that such was the case for the story and title I've linked.  I feel sorry for whoever wrote the article:  When I wrote for a newspaper, a few of my articles bore titles (not written by me, of course!) that were silly or even irrelevant.

20 August 2019

A 400-Year Debt

My birthday is 4 July:  US Independence Day.  So, what I am about to say may seem treasonous, or even sacrilegious, to some.

The most important, if not the singular defining, event of US history did not happen on 4 July 1776.  Rather, it occurred 400 years ago on this date.

On 20 August 1619, the White Lion (you can't make this stuff up!) landed in Point Comfort, near present-day Hampton, Virginia.  Of the White Lion's commander, one Captain John Jope, colonist John Rolfe wrote, "He brought not any thing but 20.  And odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Merchant bought for victuals."

The details that would have fleshed out Rolfe's clinical description are lost to history.  Did he mean that  twenty-some-odd black people disembarked from the vessel?  What sort of "victuals" were exchanged for the captive human beings?  Peanuts?  Corn?  Barley?

What is not in doubt is that the dark-skinned arrivals from Africa were the first documented black slaves in America.  This does not mean, of course, that they were the first black slaves in the so-called New World:   Columbus reportedly brought slaves on his second voyage, and some historians argue that there were Africans--who may or may not have been slaves--on this side of the Atlantic even before Columbus' arrival.  But the arrival of black slaves on the White Lion is the first documented importation of African slaves to the soil of what would become the United States.  Moreover, it is the first documented sale of slaves.

The White Lion was not the first ship in which those slaves would be imprisoned on their way from the West Coast of Africa to the East Coast of North America. They started their terrible journey on the San Juan Bautista (really), bound for the Spanish colony of Vera Cruz on the coast of what would become Mexico.

But just a couple of days before the San Juan Bautista would have reached port (Transatlantic journeys in those days typically took about two months), it was attacked by pirates looking for Spanish gold.  Some of those pirates were on the White Lion; the others sailed on the Treasurer, which would arrive in Virginia a few days later.

As James Baldwin has pointed out, African-Americans are the only race of people (save for Native Americans) to be conceived in America.  And, at the time he was writing his seminal essays, the United States was the only nation besides South Africa that had a legal definition for black people--and used it to subjugate them.

I believe, as some black historians and writers believe, that the arrival of slaves (even if they weren't the first) on this date 400 years ago marks the real beginning of American (or at least US) history.  For one thing, it marked the beginning of European subjugation of a land and its people, which would not have been possible (at least under the conditions that prevailed) without the forced labor of black people.  The wealth of this country was built, literally, on the backs of Africans, even in those parts of the country where there weren't plantations and slavery ended before the Emancipation Proclamation.

What is commonly forgotten is that during our Civil War, there were large pro-Confederate contagions in some northern cities.  In fact, New York, which then consisted only of the island of Manhattan, was a bastion of Dixie sentiment, as many of the city's bankers and merchants had ties to the cotton- and tobacco-growing industries of the South.  (In contrast, Brooklyn, which was then an independent city and didn't have the same ties to plantation owners--and where freed and runaway slaves settled in Weeksville and other communities--was staunchly pro-Union.) 

So, no matter where one was at the time of the Civil War--or long afterward--its economy was, in some way or another, a product of slavery.  Everyone in this country is a beneficiary, in some way or another.  I include myself:  My grandparents, as poor as they were, still had more rights in this country than any African (or Native American) had the day they arrived in a port built, at least in part, by the labor of those people who had no freedom--and the profits of those who traded them, or traded with plantation owners, merchants and others whose prosperity built by them.

Of course, it wasn't just our economy that "benefited" from slavery.  The terrible experiences endured by slaves--and their children who were "freed"--were the raw material of some of the greatest art this country has produced.  I am talking, of course, about works by writers like Baldwin and Toni Morrison, but also jazz--the only truly American musical genre besides country and western--which has influenced all of the music, everywhere in the world, that's come along since.

And, finally, it's hard not to think that the "generational trauma" and prejudice experienced by the descendants of slaves motivated some of the greatest athletes this country has turned out.  Forget about "some of":  I am willing to say that the four greatest athletes to come from the United States are Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, Jackie Robinson and, of course, "Major" Taylor, the incomparable cyclist who became the first African-American champion in any sport.  

The country in which I was born and have spent most of my life owes, I believe,  much more to what took place on this date 400 years ago than most people realize--or I was taught in school.

(In my next post, I'll return to matters more directly about cycling--my own and in general!)