Wednesday, June 12, 2013

In Which A Cap Is Not A Helmet

Jon and I ready for our ride. Note the funky bike frames.

No, no, blog fans, nothing bad happened during my maiden bike ride in winter in Paraguay. I just thought about it a lot during the ride—how I wished I had a helmet. I didn’t, and I rode anyway, but I am fine.

In fact, if you’re going to ride a bike in winter, I definitely suggest a Paraguayan winter might be more relaxing than an Iowa one. Jon had been to a meeting in Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción on Tuesday (usually called just Asunción, it’s the capital of Paraguay) and we stayed up late waiting for him to return. Consequently we got to bed late, and Wednesday started kind of late.

But, we had planned that today would be our bike ride day, and after lunch ended around 2, we decided we better get going because the winter sun sets by 5 p.m.

It was warm, probably around 80 or so, as most winter afternoons here are. I tried on Nalena’s helmet, which is too small for Nalena, and it didn’t fit me either, so I decided to wear my sun cap. I filled my water bottle, we got out the two cheap Brazilian bikes that the Peace Corps provided, and we were ready to be on our way.

The bikes were a bit of an adventure. The frame size is too small for a tall American, and the frame design seems to have the goal to add as much extraneous metal as possible, so the frame can be lots heavier with no discernable gain in comfort or strength. The derailleurs on my bike were a bit iffy, with the both the front and the rear tending to overshift when you aimed at the largest cog, and the rear one was frequently “chunking” in intermediate gears.

There was one other difficulty right away—Jon lives on a cobblestone street. In Paraguay, cobblestones are very irregular rocks imbedded in a clay path. It made for several continuous blocks of “rumble strip” riding.

The start of the ride. Note the cobblestone street. It was a bit rough riding at first, but it only lasted a few blocks.

But it was a fine sunny day, and even if I felt a bit like my knees were in danger of banging into my chin, it did feel good to be out on a bike. Jon said we would aim for the main campus of the Catholic University (Universidad Católico) that is south of town here, although he was not sure that we would have time to reach it.

The ride was a bit hair-raising. Paraguayan paved roads are asphalted cobblestone, and not as smooth as North American roads—although the paved surface was way better than the bare cobblestones. The streets are a bit narrow, and there is all sorts of traffic, including many “motos,” small motorcycles that keep way over to the right in the lane where bicycles are trying to ride.

Paraguayan drivers pass very, very close, blog fans, and they do not slow down for bikes.

We made our way through Villarrica to a country road that went down a hill. After a couple of miles, the pavement swung left through a gate, and there we were, at the campus.

The ride had taken us about 30 minutes or so, so reaching the campus was no big deal. We parked our bikes (the only non-motorized bikes there, and we had to lock them to a sign since there are no bike racks in Paraguay) and walked around the campus.

Jon in the central student lounge at the university. He found a poster on a bulletin board advertising a class he and Nalena started back in March.

There were no dormitories, because in Paraguay college students live at home or in apartments and don’t usually go very far to go to a university, and the campus is easily reach by moto or bus from Villarrica.
The Catholic University has "Holy Spirit Hospital," which has this rather cool symbol.

In one building we passed an office where a lady called out to Jon and invited us in. She was a “secretary” who chatted with Jon and me for a while. I was able to speak a little Spanish, but much of the conversation eluded me. “Secretary,” by the way, is a title for a high-ranking official, the head of the whole university (whom we did by chance briefly meet) is the secretary general, and the lady whose office we visited would probably be the equivalent of an academic dean or provost in the U.S.

Anyway, after a nice chat, we had a pleasant walk through several buildings and in a central quad area. The campus was a bit threadbare, as all things in Paraguay seem to be, but the atmosphere was not all that different from a U.S. college campus. There are classroom buildings, a student lounge, a medical school with a hospital, even an “experimental” high school where Jon and Nalena have done some programs.

Central area of campus at the university.
After a nice walk, it was time to head back.

The ride back proved a bit more challenging than the ride there, since the long hill we had come down we now had to climb. But we left the campus around 3:20 and were home by 4. Jon estimates the distance is not that different from my daily commute from my home to Mount Mercy, but I must say I feel like I can’t complain too much about the condition of Cedar Rapids streets anymore. Yes, I know, our CR streets do need a lot of fixing, but trust me, there are lots of places that would envy our wide, smooth streets.
A pause at a bend in the road on the ride back. the road is a bit narrow, but luckily, once we left the city, traffic was light. There is lots of trash. Sadly, Paraguayans are terrible litterbugs.

It was a fun ride. We’re going to do some bus traveling to see a bit of Paraguay outside of Villarrica in the coming days, so I’m not sure if I’ll get many more chances to ride a bike in South American. Without a helmet, I suppose I should not overdo it. But I’m glad I did go on this ride, although 9 miles in three weeks is not a very intense RAGBRAI training schedule!

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