Dropping the Fan Milk Man
I am an avid road cyclist have ridden as much as 105 miles in day, and when I was racing, I rode as much as 5,000 miles in a year. I like to think that I can ride pretty fast. In Benin Peace Corps gave all volunteers a fairly nice Trek mountain bike to use to get around on since we didn’t have a motorcycle or a car. It was so hot in Benin that I couldn’t really enjoy riding for exercise, so I was a little out of shape. I was still riding a lot for transportation purposes, so I thought that I was fast by Beninese standards.
One day I was riding down the paved road returning from a village where I was working, and I passed a Fan Milk man. Fan Milk is a brand of ice cream, and men would sell it from their specially made bicycles that had a large cooler welded to the front of the bike. They traveled from village to village, and this particular Fan Milk Man must have been returning to Allada from a day’s work at the Ouegbo market. With a cooler full of ice cream, his bike probably weighed three or four times as much as my bike did, so I was sure that when I passed him, I would look back and he would be way behind. A minute or two after I passed him, however, I looked back and he was right on my wheel! I couldn’t believe it! I proceeded to ride harder, and a few minutes later when I was sure that he had tired out and was way behind, he was still hanging on! I was dumbfounded!
I had a fairly light mountain bike with 18 speeds, and his bike had one speed and weighed a ton. I was wearing thick soled shoes. He was wearing flip flops. I rode even harder until my legs were screaming, and I was breathing as hard as I could. It took me about two miles before I dropped him (i.e. I opened a gap between him and me), but by that time I was almost to Allada. When I got to Allada, he was still close behind. I figured he must have sold all his ice cream and his cooler was empty, so his bike probably was not that heavy (which was really just wishful thinking). I stopped to tell him how impressed I was that he was able to ride so fast with such a heavy bike. I looked in the cooler hoping to see it empty, but it was not! It was still a quarter full, and I felt like a real loser. The reality is that the Beninese are very fit because they eat very low calorie, low fat diets. They get a lot of exercise walking, riding heavy bicycles if they can afford one, and doing household chores such as fetching water, carrying food home from the markets, and of course working in the fields with only hoes, machetes and hatchets. Although there have been few African cyclists in the Tour de France, I bet the Fan Milk man would have been a good candidate. Unfortunately, very few Beninese have the resources to get involved in cycling, as it is an expensive sport. As for me, I felt humbled and I gained a greater respect for the physical strength that the average Beninese person must exert every day just to survive.
(This is an excerpt from my memoir- "To Benin and Back" to be published Sept 2011.)
The best short stories, essays, and reflections from my Peace Corps diary about life in Benin as a Peace Corps Volunteer and the subsequent readjustment process.