Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why Bikes Are Good Bargaining Chips (and Other Useless Information)

Since living in Ghana I've learned an awful lot about the ‘barika’ (or, the bargain); most importantly, I've learned that currency does not always come in the form of coins or bills.

In the village, I often held aloft small things – pencils, paper, chewing gum and other teeth-rotting concoctions, movie viewings, and temporary skull tattoos (lovingly referred to as ‘la stamp-la’) – as payment for chores and services rendered (because as Ghanaian as I think I am, I couldn't fetch an entire drum of water if I wanted to). Among the best of things I had to offer, however, was my bike. And my bike was a hot commodity.

On average, even with a flat, bikes have two more wheels than most humans. What this meant – in midday heat – was the difference between ‘footing’ one’s way from shady tree to shady tree (which are sparse, at best) and rolling swiftly by all those suckers with their pathetic walking feet. It also carried with it the Flintstones equivalent of a drop-top: beautiful man-powered wind. What might take forty minutes to walk one-way was now fifteen at most and this, my friends, left a lot of time for socializing – the biggest benefit of them all.

In addition to the obvious advantage of two hollow, inflated circular tubes, a bike has a basket. Some bikes even have a basket AND a platform above the rear wheel – like mine. These come in handy when hauling heavy things like packages or a week’s worth of groceries; water is easily hauled from borehole to door, children can be hauled from home to school (riding on the back rack, legs splayed and looking surprisingly comfortable, though I tried it and it wasn't), and usually means that walking with such things on one’s head (or shoulders, or kicking and screaming at the end of an outstretched arm) is unnecessary. Last time I checked, humans have neither baskets nor built-in butt racks so, clearly, the owner of a bike is at an advantage. All of the time.

Bikes happen to have bells which, while much more adorable when rung by well-dressed old men, happen to make everyone who use them polite and endearing ( ... just try to squeeze past someone without ringing a bell and your charm is instantly lost, you dangerous vagabond, you). Bikes can be used to lean against in the midday sun, sat on in the absence of a chair, and is rather effective at parting crowds in times of need and desperation (though a white person on a bike will part crowds whether it’s necessary or not).

Conveniently, after the initial purchase, bikes are free. In the village this is the difference between waiting every three days (and paying a fare) to leave town or traveling wherever and whenever one pleases. When one has free, two-wheeled transportation at the ready, everything becomes that much simpler – which makes it so sought after to begin with. Especially in a poor farming village.

Of course, people don’t get things like flat tires – which makes having two feet rather convenient when a tube happened to pop – and I'm not personally equipped with a chain in danger of rusting or jumping the tracks - which are both things that happened whenever I loaned out my bike - but the fact that medicine and food and meetings were a simple ride away made my rusted, beat up little guy a resource to be collected frequently.

Thinking back, I probably could have gone all ‘Jaffar’  on my household, jealously coveting its power and convenience, but a bike is meant to be used and if it wasn't always going to be used by me, it might as well have been a village bike [insert ‘yo mama’ joke here]. Until people adapt to grow wheels in their heels like some kind of twisted, awesome opposable thumb, just remember: never underestimate the things you take for granted - turns out bikes are excellent bargaining chips.