We had a bike ride scheduled in Panama City, announced two days before the ride itself.
When Maria heard this, her face dropped. The ride followed a perfectly level path along La Cinta, a long curvy road that stays above the ocean as it takes a big sweeping loop around the old part of Panama City, Casco Viejo. It is mellow and beautiful, with lights at night that light it up in rainbow hues of neon color.
"I don't know how to ride a bike," she gasped.
The rest of the group gave her the usual encouragement, “It's not that bad, you can do it!” Maria, with her Colombian passion, went into a large back story full of terror and attempts by family and friends to teach her to ride a bike that ultimately ended in frustration and little progress. She related a story of her ex-boyfriend at UWC, a mountain-biking maniac, who made a valiant attempt to teach her -- they don’t talk to each other anymore.
Winterline's wise Field Advisor, Dr. Beth Warsof, suggested that one of us could go out with her to ride a bike in the morning while the other students were at Spanish class.
Good idea I thought, I'll do it. A fiery Colombian with a rich history of burning bicycle wreckage littered across her past? No problem. Maria was open to the idea, even if it brought a visceral reaction and a tightening in her body. The morning of the day before the ride, as the rest of the students sauntered off to class, Maria was on the phone with a friend relaying her plan to ride a bike and the friend promptly responded by making fun of her with no reservations.
So we did it anyway. My qualifications to teach her were that I know how to ride a bike, and that I have taught several friends how to ski - thus learning patience and compassion when throwing someone at something I see as normal and take for granted as routine. Gravity, after all, is gravity.
We made it to the bike shop by 9:30am while Maria relayed the story of her mom's failed attempts to teach her to harness the magic of the bicycle. Over and over, she repeated, "my mom is going to be so angry at you if you teach me how to ride a bike." Challenge accepted. What I never told Maria is that there was never a doubt in my mind that she would be riding a bike by the end of our one hour rental. When you accept success as an inevitability instead of a possibility, it has a funny way of becoming normal.
We grabbed the bikes from an adorable Panamanian teenager, walked down to the path by the ocean, and tried to make sense of this awkward machine that Maria was so sure was going to kill her. I had no idea what I was doing. I started by having her sit on the bike and having her push off with one foot. Then I tried riding it. Then we did some sort of weird bike riding that involved using your feet on the ground as training wheels. Maria, in her utmost trust of me, never really knew that I was making it all up on the spot.
Finally, after 10 minutes of me guessing my way through how to teach someone to ride a bike, we had a system in place. She sat on the bike with feet close to the ground, while I had one hand on the top bar keeping her from falling away from me, and my shoulder against hers keeping her upright. It worked, and as we navigated the 200 meters of our training path, she would scream and yell, swearing to god and anyone who would listen that death and destruction were seconds away. My tactics quickly shifted as I realized it had little to do with the physics of bike riding. She is a salsa dancer, soccer player, and runner - which is why I took on the task. As we rode, Maria going 3mph hour and no more than 3ft above the ground, she was hyperventilating, shaking, screaming, and sweating more than the Panamanian humidity allowed for.
I had Maria close her eyes and visualize herself riding a bike - a trick I picked up from Mike Shanahan and the Superbowl winning Seahawks. See success and your body will follow. I had her take deep breaths, counting out the inhales to be shorter than the exhales. I also kept telling her to look to where she was going, instead of staring intensely at her feet and hands. There was no shortage of metaphors running through my mind about the similarities between living life and learning to ride a bike.
She slowly discovered what the bike felt like balanced. Then we worked to putting her feet on the pedals and what it felt like to put moving feet into the picture. Then she realized she had to relax her grip on the handlebars (her forearms were turning veiny) in order to not veer sharply left and right. On each run up and down our path, we passed two landmarks: some men in a parked truck on one end, and a guardhouse with a man sitting next to his assault rifle on the other. Each time, they made eye contact at me and grinned. Random families, runners, and bikers would also pass us - each grinning and wondering what the hell this gringo was doing to this poor screaming Latina. In almost everyone's eyes was the recognition of shared experience and the trials of learning to do something we were afraid of at one point or another.
Within 30 minutes, we had progressed to her sitting on the bike and me pushing her with a hand on her back. She would careen down the path, focusing on keeping the wheel straight while I gently repeated three key instructions: relax, breathe, and look up at where you are going. Each time, she would do just that and the riding got easier. At one point, I even took my hand off for a brief second and she veered hard left towards a light post, screaming something about dying. At this point she was still shaking and sweating, lost in the fear and terror more than the bike riding.
We stopped for a drink of water bought from a passing man, and took time to do more breathing exercises. As I walked back from throwing the bottle away, I was standing about 20 feet from her and stopped. Something in me whispered to hold still. I'm glad I did, for in this moment Maria's energy suddenly shifted. Her body surged with a sudden power and her eyes locked into focus on the ground 10ft away. With one fluid pedal motion and a wobbly front wheel, she was suddenly floating through space on a moving bicycle. No feet on the ground and no help from anyone else. She pedaled once, pedaled twice, and took a hard left towards the retaining wall that separated us from the ocean.
"Now", I said, "stay on the bike, let's go". On this pass I stood next to her, 3ft away as she coasted, pedaled, and meandered down the entire path. She was riding a bike!!! She didn't really know it, being still so absorbed by the emotional and physical response that the ownership of triumph hadn't quite caught up. We kept going, up and down the path, adding in a turn around a lamppost at the end so she didn't have to get off. The final instruction I gave her was to try using the brakes and putting a foot down to stop. After all, it dawned on me once she figured out how to ride, that now she must learn how to stop.
Maria learned how to ride a bike that day. From overcoming fear to learning how to stop, I have never seen someone so resolute and courageous in an attempt to learn a new skill. As we walked the bikes back to the shop (only 15 minutes late mind you), I couldn't help but feel inspired. In fact, it made me wonder where those places are in my own life that I am afraid of and want to embrace but struggle to due to fear. Where am I learning to ride a bike in my own life and who has a gentle hand on my back?
Maria and I celebrated by getting ice cream. Her hunger and thirst suddenly showing up with a vengeance once the adrenaline burned off. She repeated, this time with more certainty, that her mom would indeed be mad at me for this. Her smile, however, betrayed her glory at her new found skill and courage. After the first cup of ice cream, we decided seconds was in order to make the celebration complete. Full of joy and ice cream, we wandered out to the street only to return to the rest of the Winterline group returning from Spanish class. When she told them about riding a bike, there were hugs, kisses, and a ton of hearty cheers. There is so much excitement in our little family about how different and wonderful we all truly are.
Maria learned how to ride a bike and I once again remembered why I do what I do. Teaching a powerful young Colombian woman how to ride a bike in Panama is a good day indeed. It's just too bad I had to skip Spanish class to do so. It would have come in handy when I spoke with her mother later that night, explaining myself and what I had done, and to explain to Maria's mother how amazing her daughter is.
Nick Manning is a Field Advisor for the Winterline Global Skills gap year program.