Downtown Tunis, Tunisia.
A little cafe on Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The waiter offers me a “personal discount” on my coffee because of something I’ve come to describe as “the bike effect”: my rig looks bad ass resting next to my table, and here the travel-worn, custom-grub adventure bike is out-of-place enough to mark me as an adventurer, a traveler, not just another tourist who comes on the ferry from France for an afternoon-in-the-medina to say “I visited Tunisia!” It’s not just literally that a bike is “open to the world” – it opens the very soul of the rider, and affects the first impressions of others in a mysterious but undeniable way.
The table next to me is taken by a man in a wheelchair, his wife in hijab, and their little daughter. Now, when I see wheels with tires on them – not counting cars – I pay close attention. At the bike shop, on the street, all over the world, I’ve noticed that most people don’t maintain a proper, or even safe, air pressure in their tires. I can’t count the number of times I’ve yelled “Air your tires!” to passing cyclists, or preached to parked bikers, “More air pressure directly translates to more speed. And if you don’t want to go fast, it converts to ease – less energy used.” The same goes for wheelchair tires. And fixing or replacing a wheelchair tire or inner tube is such a hassle that it’s even more important to keep the pressure up; if you’re rolling low enough, just hitting a sharp bump can pinch-flat the tube, and if you can’t fall back on your legs and walk….
Subtly I confirmed: the poor fella at the next table was running this risk. Not to mention spending a lot of extra effort pushing himself around under the Tunisian summer sun with sloppy tire pressure. So after my coffee, a bit nervous and feeling like this might be a dumb idea, I approached their table with my pump in hand.
“Excusez-moi, je ne veut pas vous importuner, mais….” He doesn’t speak French. “Do you speak English?” I ask.
I’m weird and this is uncommon, but he lets me help him. “Yes it is a normal valve, just give me one minute.” I know the thin wheelchair tire can take a hundred pump strokes or more to reach maximum, but he cuts me off after fourty or so. I let it slide; he’s past the danger zone now, at least.
I give the same treatment to his other tire, and before I can escape as an unidentified good samaritan, he starts asking questions. I give a brief account of where I’ve been on my bike, and mention that Libya is next. “No, I don’t think the visa is easy to get – I was just at the embassy this morning. Inshallah!”
Then the cosmic serendipity reveals itself, stunning me nearly to speechlessness:
“By the way, we’re Libyan. If you need contacts in Benghazi…”
Everyone was smiling when I left that little cafe on Avenue Habib Bourguiba – the Libyan man and his wife, their precious awe-eyed little girl, the waiter, the tables nearby – and especially me. The Bike Effect in high gear, blowing away the fog of fear and indifference, to let truly meaningful life shine through!