Our itinerary has proved challenging for apparel. Temple visits require shirts that cover the shoulders and trousers that extend below the knees. Shoes and jandals are left at the door and sometimes socks. The hot, humid climate makes its demands too. T-shirts and shorts are preferred, made of light material like cotton. Anything donned in the morning may need changing by afternoon, especially if you’re participating in a half-day bicycle tour of local villages.
We arrived at the rental shop near Giritale where an array of bikes and helmets stood waiting. I chose a black bike with a black helmet not because I have to like black – but because this was the only helmet that fitted. And at that, it was tight, the front part pressing into my forehead. Maybe most riders here have smaller heads. Maybe they don’t bother with helmets at all. The most important part though – the bike – worked well. The saddle was the right height and the gears flicked easily up and down.
We set off along a track. I say ‘we’ lightly, because some members of the group had decided not to go cycling, and of course, this included Kate. She doesn’t like bikes. She doesn’t like saddles that are too small, pedals that don’t work on hills, and chains that always come off. As she’s so fond of saying, it’s against her religion.
My chain didn’t come off. Plus my gears worked perfectly though I didn’t use them much because the route was flat. We meandered alongside a waterway in which children played and a big water monitor swam. Rickety wooden footbridges crossed to houses and small gardens on the other side. One man cleaned his teeth in the shallows, while a couple of women washed clothes. This waterway is a lifeblood, fed from the nearby Giritale tank, a large reservoir built by King Agbo in the seventh century. Apparently recent usage of insecticides has pushed up harmful metal levels in the water and strictly the villagers now drink from water bottles. They still seem to use it for other purposes though – as we saw.
Further on, a man was removing coconuts from their husks. He used a long metal stake, jabbing the entire fruits onto the sharpened end and twisting the husks off. The mound of discarded husks beside him grew higher, while the coconuts themselves would go to feed workers at the local rice factory.
A little way on, we saw areas of brown mud being shaped into paddy fields. Low walls of mud separated the field into compartments, each of which would be watered and sown with rice plants.
At some houses, groups of children ran out to say hello. Except they didn’t say ‘hello’, but ‘bye’ – the same as all those children used to in Samoa. Brown and white dogs ran out as well, most of them friendly apart from one that bared its teeth and barked.
Lunch was a open air meal underneath the shade of a vast banyan tree at a local family’s house. The husband used to work as a field labourer but with the money he now receives from the tour company he can look after his family better. We watched his wife shred the white meat from a coconut to make coconut milk, while the children smiled and posed for photos. Then we sat down to eat. Dhal curry, dried fish, sambal, white and red rice, chicken and a local green vegetable diced and served with coconut. All served on banana leaves and supremely delicious.
Such a pleasant way to see these villages – at ground level rather than from behind the windows of a bus. Cycling is always therapeutic – and here it is helping to save the world, one family at a time, too.