“Don’t let go!” I bellowed as Graham sprinted down the alleyway after me. His long hair flapped on his neck alongside me — grasping tightly the silver bar attached to the side of my shiny new bicycle.
While the other Peace Corps Volunteers whizzed in and out of the busy Sri Lankan streets, I was forced to walk back with my newly purchased bike from the tiny shop on the Colombo/Kandy Road. I was the only one who didn’t know how to ride a bicycle.
“Please don’t let go,” I pleaded. Graham, a kind volunteer, promised to be my teacher.
“I won’t Elana; I promise,” he said. Even though we’d only met a few months earlier, I felt completely safe in his hands. In the middle of our lesson, I saw locals standing in groups staring at me. I looked up and spewing out of our hostel were the fascinated faces of my bicycle-proficient batch mates. They took out their cameras and played paparazzi with my riding lesson. They ran out in their bohemian garb and began to frantically shoot and giggle. Eventually, they cheered me on.
Graham did not let go. He held on tightly with such force, as promised. His grip would end up scarring him as his hand cut the rim of the blade. He wiped off the small droplets of blood and continued running behind me, determined to teach me how to ride.
It was so easy for all the other volunteers. They could ride since they were children, stepping onto their bicycles with such precision. “It’s easy,” Myah chided, but when I hobbled onto the mechanism my legs quickly turned to Jell-O and I simply could not get my balance right. As if joining the Peace Corps wasn’t difficult enough, learning how to ride a bicycle in less than an hour seemed inconceivable.
As a city girl, I managed to escape this natural transition of youth without question. My alibi was always the same; us city kids didn’t do such things. The truth was this lack of motor skills gnawed at me for years. My whole life I wanted to conquer that fear, but how? Graham was my answer.
After a few practices getting on and off and only falling twice, I ended up wobbling, nearly toppling over, and then eventually, I was riding. I was actually riding a bicycle! I couldn’t believe it! I looked behind me and Graham was running diligently like a track star, keeping pace until I told him he could let go. It was at that moment I knew what it meant to fly. I understood the rush of bungee jumping, skydiving, and all those adrenaline-related sports. I finally got it!
I learned how to ride a bicycle at 24. No training wheels. No kneepads. No shame. I felt invincible. I mastered the beginning of a long battle with overcoming fears that I can’t really explain in words, just as I cannot truly express the joy I felt when — for that first moment — I was able to do what I believed was impossible.
Once I began to ride, I was often seen on my bike swerving in and out of my village. It became my trademark. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure how to stop or break properly — we never got that far in my training. Instead, I often used a ditch near a hairpin turn to cushion my fall. Somehow, I always managed to land on the same exact spot on my right kneecap. A slight star formation that remains like a tattoo on my leg. It is somewhat malformed as a result, and I love that. It is this imperfection I turn to when I lose my confidence, or when I need to remember what it’s like to take chances even if I think it’s too late. It symbolizes all the risks I took those years abroad. It reminds me of what I am capable of — even when I think the deadline has expired.
(Photos via Getty)