never-intended-brave-140I Never Intended to Be Brave: A Woman’s Bicycle Journey Through Southern Africa
by Heather Andersen (Lesotho 2001–03)
Windy City Publishers
$14.99 (paperback), $8.99 (kindle)
260 pages
October 2011

Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-03)

WHEN HEATHER ANDERSEN COMPLETED her Peace Corps tour in tiny land-locked Lesotho, she wasn’t ready to go home right away. A seasoned cyclist who first fell in love with cycling 16 years earlier as a teenager, she had brought along her own knobby-tire mountain bike to ride during her service, and on a later exploration of southern Africa. But leery of standing out as a white woman cycling alone, she tries to assemble a riding group via the internet before embarking on her post-service journey. She finds just one taker, an American from Chicago she calls Paul, whom she first meets at the airport when he arrives, an experienced cyclist bringing his own touring bike. Each type of bicycle has advantages, she notes, depending on the terrain.

The author and Paul have essentially met on a blind date, albeit one spanning oceans and continents. From the start, friction occurs between them, which she initially tries to smooth over or ignore. Most other riders they encounter are white and none are women, so she isn’t sure it would be safe for her to continue solo, convincing her to try to stick it out with Paul. But as she gains strength and confidence, and as their riding styles and personal preferences increasingly diverge, she ponders how to jettison him without arousing hard feelings. The problem is solved when Paul himself proposes they split. Suddenly liberated, she is left free to explore the vast expanse of southern Africa stretching out before her, delighted to finally be on her own.

Despite being a cycling rarity in Africa, Anderson encounters few problems of security, mostly just kids running alongside begging for money or occasional wild animals up ahead, which she wisely stops to observe from a safe distance until they move on. She avoids riding after dark when human and animal attacks would be more likely. And she encounters abundant hospitality en route from ordinary folks, with whom she communicates in an eclectic mix of languages. Her most frequent problems are flat tires, bent rims, and getting wrong directions. Once she has to retrace her steps to recover a lost passport. By keeping a detailed journal throughout, she is able to recreate conversations and provide details allowing the reader to experience the ride right along with her, the bumps, sandy patches, and uphill climbs — the sounds, smells, sun at her back, and wind in her face.

Spunky and observant, Anderson is a woman after my own heart, pushing forward despite legitimate fears and daily challenges. She describes cycling as a way to get to know places more intimately than via vehicular travel — a “feeling of being so in sync with nature, able to just go, a connection with the universe that traveling under one’s own power brings.” She helps offset the usual media focus on Africa’s problems, revealing the underlying cultural richness so many of us have encountered there. She also gives a useful thumbnail sketch of the network of rural lodges and campgrounds awaiting budget travelers, including costs, food choices, and the availability of hot showers (a luxury I never enjoyed during 3 ½ years in rural Honduras). As she continues riding south, she meets more white people. Occasionally, she gratefully accepts the offer of a lift.

Use of the present tense gives the narrative immediacy, although the author also flashes back to her Peace Corps service and foreshadows future events. The whole journey takes six months, passing through Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, and South Africa, with helpful maps of each provided. Most of the trip’s dramas are low-key, but a climax occurs near the end which I won’t reveal. Andersen’s source of financial support is unclear, although she manages to pay for lodging, food, bicycle parts, and internet use, as well as phone calls home.

A striking color cover photo of a bike being ferried across an open body of water sparks the reader’s initial curiosity. Black-and-white photos interspersed inside further enhance the narrative, though sometimes appearing slightly grainy or fuzzy. Only at the end does a photo appear of the author herself, posing appropriately with her beloved bike. An odd typeface and text extending close to the edge of the page distract at first, but this soon fades with immersion into the story. Unlike several other Peace Corps memoirs I’ve read, I found no typos.

Every life is a unique adventure. Andersen generously shares a slice of her own life adventure in this fresh and beguiling book.

Reviewer Barbara Joe lives in a century-old house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, where she works as a freelance writer, Spanish interpreter, and translator. She served as a health Volunteer in Honduras and wrote Triumph & Hope: Golden Years in the Peace Corps in Honduras, declared Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009 by Peace Corps Writers, and winner of other awards (available from Amazon.com). See her blog, http://honduraspeacecorps.blogspot.com.