Friday, May 19, 2006

The Tour: Part 1 (of 12)

March 31, Day 1

We may run the race for ourselves, but it is significant that we do it in front of spectators – Grete Waits (1986)

You’ve got to ask yourself the question: “Where are you now?” And you ask it a lot on the Tour. It is a 1000km cycle (500km for the girls), with 60 individuals, and an extra 10 who organize everything from food, to free accommodation, to repairs.
The Tour (in Afrikaans it’s Sendingfietstoer) attracts different people for different reasons. It attracts hardcore cyclists, hardcore Christians, and sometimes a mixture of both. The attraction for me, believe it or not, was having a holiday from my mind. I was looking for an intensely physical holiday, but also needing balance my psyche out with the spiritual aspects. I find God on my bike though, feeling the gush of my own blood, being in the outdoors, under the sun, much more than I do singing songs or reading the bible or hearing someone preach.

I have not attended the meeting on the Thursday before our departure, and the night before we’re due to leave I suddenly have to pack everything. I feel lazy and unwilling suddenly, but force myself to find a mattress and sleeping bag, and quickly pack a bag full of cycling clothes, and throw t-shirts, socks and something warm into another bag. When I arrive at the Kovsiekerk (our departure point the next morning) it’s past 10pm. The organizing committee are there, snoowing amongst piles of bags and bicycles leaning against the walls.

Having been back in South Africa for about 6 months, and having abandoned church going during 4 years in South Korea, I wonder what it will be like to be thrown in the spiritual deep end – so to speak – by becoming part of the Tour and its daily spiritual staple. Actually, I have been too busy and tired to think about the Tour but this spiritual tenseness is tangible.

Most of the people who go on the Tour are from the Free State University’s Christian church (NG Kovsiekerk). I am filled with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation at the prospect of having to suddenly make the transition to happy clappy Christian. On the other hand, since I have been on two Tours before, I know what to expect. Plenty of cycling. Meeting a large bunch of energetic and positive young people. And singing. Yes, the singing is usually amazing, and adds a warm and colorful backdrop, a buzzy compliment to the sunburn and the fatigue after a hard and shockingly beautiful day between flowers and fields in another undiscovered countryside.

On Friday the 31st, at about 12:00 a barely roadworthy bus filled with about 60 of us groans out of the campus church parking lot, and with a few trucks (filled with over 60 bicycles and mattresses)and Barlow World sponsored bakkies, heading in the direction of Free State frontier dorp, Ficksburg.

I immediately strike up a conversation with a sunny, blue eyed girl called Elzanne. We stop about 3 hours later at Ladybrand to stretch our legs and buy snacks. It’s there that I meet Nadia and some of the others. We are all cautiously making ourselves available, but obviously still a little tentative and shy. Once again, on this Tour there is a large contingent of medical students. More than 10.

I have a chance, back on the bus, to make a few comparisons to my two previous Tours (more than 10 years earlier).
The Tour has definitely scaled down. 10 Years ago it was about twice the size: 60 guys and 60 gals, which creates huge logistical challenges in terms of meals, sleeping arrangements etc. But even half that number still creates a special talent for logistics.

We arrive in Ficksburg and settle into our first accommodations: a beautiful sandstone hall. I visited Ficksburg a few weeks earlier (for a few minutes-on-the-fly) on my way through Lesotho (on a writing assignment for Heartland) and now I am back.

Quickly I find out that two people on the Tour are two people I encountered in a bicycle race. Then the guys in the band, Rian and Barney join us and ask San Marie, who is next to me, what she is studying at university. It makes her smile. She’s 15, in Grade 9 at Eunice. Her father is a truck driver in Iraq. Not all of us are university students, and some of us are younger than they seem. Others, are older. I’m 34, and there’s a doctor who is about 50, and a few other strong cyclists like Andre, Hildegaard, Annetjie and Kallie all in their 30’s or 40’s, and all good riders. We’re here with our bicycles, hanging out with mostly 21 year olds. It’s going to be interesting how we get along.

What makes the Tour special is how many brief but intimate encounters you have with small sleepy places, and the locals there. Having skipped through Ficksburg in less than a minute a few weeks before, now I was here again, this time sitting on the steps of an old building, one of the oldest in Ficksburg, watching kids throwing tennis balls, unpacking mattresses, feeling the day fade. The Tour is about being in one place, soaking in a beautiful building, often the building around which a town was built, meeting the people around me, and getting a feel for temporary accommodation.

And then it all changes. It’s another day and you move on to another place. You arrive there spiritually refreshed but physically slightly worse off. The people wrapped around you color the route with light and laughter. Tomorrow we will be a bright Technicolor scarf wheeling along strips of bouncing tar. Where will we be? Wherever we find ourselves, it’s certain that we’ll at least find that: our selves. Yes, I can tell it’s going to be good.

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