Back in the saddle after 20 years

Last week, I rode a bicycle after 20 years.

Twenty years. The words trip strangely off my tongue. Since I turn 35 in two months and 40 in five years, I can now measure the intervals between experiences in decades.

This year, there are a few anniversaries I intend to make – or break.

It began last year, when my high school Facebook group decided to plan a reunion for 2014.

“I just realised it will be 20 years since we passed out of school. How amazing is that?” wrote one former classmate.

Quite amazing, to realise that these women I ate and studied and laughed or agonised with for half my life have been physically absent from it for 20 years.

Facebook keeps us in touch, though we live in cities from America to Africa, but it is not the same as seeing and hugging them, when we finally meet later this year.

Twenty years since I passed a note in class in defiance of a teacher. Eighteen years since I last put on a school uniform. Twenty-five years since I had a parent sign off on my homework, a daily duty my mother performed diligently, especially after my one attempt at forging her signature failed. In retrospect, I should not have used a fat red colour pencil.

Other things I have not done for at least two decades: nurtured a kitchen garden, had a pet and driven a motorised vehicle (the electric dodgem cars at fairs and night markets don’t count).

The first two are impossible given my family’s hectic travel schedule. I am not enamoured of trying the third, ever since the day I took my mother’s scooter out for a training spin and ploughed it into the nearest wall.

Bicycles are the lesser evil, but still require navigating traffic. Worse, in Singapore, cyclists stick to the pavement and I absolutely detest the riders who zoom past me on the way to the local library.

Their madly ringing bells disturb my quiet walking time, their speedy dash sends me hot-stepping along the grates and outlying grass. When my father bought a cycle last year, I laughed at his suggestion that I take it out for a spin. “Who wants to be a public nuisance?” I said.

Then last year, I spent an evening with Singapore writer Suchen Christine Lim, who daily treads the pedals of her trusty two-wheeler. Sometimes she brings home shopping in the front basket, more often she just enjoys the view and the ride. “When you cycle, you see trees, you hear birds, you learn patience,” she told me.

I finally understood the meaning of her words last week, during a family holiday which ended in the Vietnamese fishing village of Hoi An. It is a heritage town full of narrow streets lined with pagodas and old Chinese-style shophouses, bounded by a river and emerald paddy fields. The best way to enjoy the landscape is to cycle around.

So I hired a bicycle from the dealer outside our hotel and slowly wheeled it along the pavement for a kilometre or so, until only wading birds and cattle could see my attempts to ride.

There is a reason people use the phrase “like riding a bike” to describe something that is difficult to forget.

Within seconds, I was not only astride the beast, but also pedalling. Within minutes, I was taking selfies next to bored fisherman and honking herons. In an hour, I had ridden back to the hotel and insisted my brother and aunt join me on a joyride.

We rode past deep-jade paddy fields, down to a churning cold sea for thick hot coffee on the beach and back into the heart of the city, seamlessly navigating hordes of schoolchildren let out for the day and office workers riding their scooters back home.

I ducked low-lying branches, I wove between yelling teenagers, I avoided every dashing two-wheeler and finally came triumphantly to rest near the cycle rental stall.

Then I turned back to check on my companions. My aunt’s hair seemed a little greyer than before – a trick of the light? She said: “That was lovely. But once is enough, yes?”

My brother said: “Stay on the side! You keep riding off into the middle of the road when there are trucks behind. Didn’t you hear me?”

Ah yes, the other reason I stayed off a bicycle for 20 years. But never mind. Soon I will discover where my father has hidden his keys and will be off on another unforgettable ride.


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