Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bikes in India

Market at Kanyakumari - the southern tip of India

            A recent Twitter photo of a bike rider in India brought back memories. It’s almost four years since my visit to south India and, at the time, I was not the fanatical bike rider that I am today. Even so, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the things I saw people carrying on their bikes and notice how normative bike riding was. 

Outside a temple in Kanyakumari

  It was the first place I saw people with disabilities using hand-cranked bikes – not sleek high-tech versions – but sturdy vehicles cranked with contraptions that looked like old-fashioned eggbeaters.

Courtyard in Chennai

             My India blog maintained lists of the things I saw people carrying on their heads and things transported by bicycle, some of which I share here, along with photos of bikes I saw in India.

"Jew Town" in Cochin - at the time there were eight Jews remaining. 

 Things I saw transported on a bicycle:

On the road near Trivandrum
Porur - suburb of Chennai
  • stack of straw mats
  • pile of burlap
  • many (at least 6-8) large cans of cooking oil
  • 2 HUGE rice sacks
  • 2 big milk cans
  • garbage
  • inner tubes
  • fuel cans
  • aluminum pots
  • bananas
  • sugar cane
  • other fruits and vegetables
  • fresh coconuts (which grow everywhere)
Toy store bike - my Porur neighborhood for 2 weeks

 Businesses I saw conducted from a bicycle:

·       ice cream vendor
·       tea (the large urn and cups for the tea)
·       toy/mask store

Selling chai on the beach at Kanyakumari, where people gather to watch the sunset


            The courtyard in front of every school was filled with bikes – sturdy workhorses able to withstand rutted, dusty roads. 

Porur public school
My neighborhood in Porur
And if we think bike riding in traffic is bad in the U.S. – you can’t imagine the chaos of roads in India, in which the concept of “lanes” is nonexistent. Buses, trucks, autorickshaws, motorbikes, cars, and bicycles fill every inch of space – amid sweltering heat and pollution – making way for cows that meander along with priority rights. 

No bike here - but a sense of the traffic

Porur - try riding in a long dhoti!

 I don’t think I’d be up for riding a bike in urban India, but I’d certainly return for the sweet chai, spicy food, vibrant colors, and – most of all – the people.

Chennai - goat and bike coexist

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Guest Blog by the Cycling Yogi

While I was off in Wisconsin, my partner was having an adventure of his own in Massachusetts. It is with pleasure that I post a guest blog by the Cycling Yogi.

The most direct route from where I'm staying in Arlington, MA out to Walden Pond is to follow Route 2A, about 11 miles each way. Google Maps recommended following the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway all the way up to Bedford, then turning south along the Reformatory Branch trail for a total of 13.6 miles. I was feeling that the mid-Saturday outing, including a swim across the pond, might get too long, so I was inclined toward the shorter route. But once on the Minuteman, I was able to appreciate the venerable wisdom in Google's well-considered judgment. 7 miles without traffic noise, without hills, overhung by shade trees, mostly through suburban backyards, but with patches of woods and one pretty painless stretch skirting Lexington Center. My only regret was that the mountain bike I had rented on arriving in Cambridge was geared too low to take full advantage of the long, smooth straightaways. (I could have rented a road bike for $65 a day.)

It was Saturday and there were families. Occasional children with training wheels weaved across the path, a mother glided by on rollerblades with son in a jogging stroller, and I passed two older women pulling shopping carts. Traffic thinned as I progressed toward the outer suburbs, which still retain a good deal of farmland and forest, despite the development that greater Boston has undergone since I lived here three decades ago.

In Bedford, the Minuteman ended and I had to ask directions to the Reformatory Branch. It turned out to be a dirt path, quite passable after a long, dry summer, but a bit bumpy and much slower than the asphalt. Ah, but the wide-tired mountain bike seemed such a practical choice! The path skirted a farm, then ended near Concord Center, from which I was directed (duh) to Walden St for the last mile and a half.  

I hadn't been to Walden in several years, and the path from the intersection at Route 2 had sprouted a sign, “Not a Legal Park Entrance”. Ignoring it, I continued toward the stones that marked Thoreau's cabin, and the little cove I remembered just below, where half a dozen blue kayaks now were anchored. The best surprise of the day came when I got out to the middle of the lake. Traffic! I'm used to being the only one who ventures more than 100 yards from shore, but Walden has become a destination resort for long-distance swimmers. Swimmers lapping length from the guarded beach at the East end as well as people like myself who took off across the width from various spots along the perimeter. There were smooth, strong strokes and lazy breaststrokes, multicolored bathing caps, men in wet suits and a teen trailing a tethered kickboard (just in case, I supposed). The Chamber of Commerce is raising money to install traffic lights.

Bicycling is ever so much more popular than when I made my living as Boston's only cycling piano teacher in the 1970s, but lake swimming has yet to take off. I was thrilled to see so many devotees in one body of water.

For the way back, I was tempted by sheer perversity to ride on the shoulder of busy, 60 mph Route 2 for just one mile, after which it comes out to the 5-mile, meandering trail through the Minuteman National Historical Park. More mountain bike country, with signs describing historic buildings and sites along the Midnight Ride. I followed other cyclists and navigated by the sun for the trip back to Lexington. There I rejoined the Minuteman Trail and enjoyed the last few miles of smooth, shaded bike path before mounting the ridge and descending through suburban landscape back to the home where I'm staying, overlooking a golf course and the Mystic Lakes.

I'm reminded how much I miss the landscape littered with lakes that surrounds Boston. I see why Miles Standish opted to settle here, and wonder why I ever moved to Philadelphia.

Fly Away Home

            It was with some trepidation that I locked my bike at the airport, knowing it would sit in an out-of-the-way parking area for three days. I had ridden into work with all I’d need in two panniers – in one I’d shoved a backpack with my clothes and such; in the other I stashed both my U lock and a heavy cable lock. I left my “good” pannier at the office and took the bike to the airport via metro. I had printed out the bicycle parking areas in advance, and managed to find the larger of the two that are closest to the metro station. I could see that this parking area had signs pointing to the Mount Vernon Trail, which I would use to return home after my trip. There were about four other bikes parked there, so with some thorough locking and a backward glance, I left the bike – complete with the “old” pannier, helmet, and water bottle.

            I always look forward to a visit home. I enjoy spending time with family that I only see a couple times a year, at most. But, no matter how old I get, what happens at mom’s house is predictable. Upon arrival, I scan the fridge and cupboards for familiar comfort foods. There are always homemade cookies – at least three varieties. There are nuts, and good old Wisconsin cheese. The local paper informs me that Wisconsin is still number one in the nation in cheese production, although California has edged it out in the milk category. I know that I’ll eat too much, my mother and I will both complain about being too fat, and I will sink into a torpor – pulled by a strong urge to take naps (a rare occurrence for me) – and I will sleep long hours at night…despite being a time zone farther west. And I won’t get enough exercise.

            I had planned to rent a bike and ride out to Devil’s Lake State Park – just a few miles from my mom’s house. But it turned out that the bike shop in town only offered the option of paying $50 to test ride a top-of-the-line carbon fiber Trek road bike. I declined, and wished I’d managed to work out how to take my bike on the plane. It just seemed wrong, wrong, wrong that I had not taken advantage of Frontier Airlines’ awesome policy of taking bikes for the same price as any piece of checked luggage: $20. But I was intimidated by having to take off the pedals, didn’t know where to get a box, etc. Ah well, there’s always next time.

            We did manage to walk in the various parks a couple times, but my mom is almost 86. It’s great that she can still get out and do a little hiking – but the pace is slow. All this is to say that I was looking forward to getting off the plane Saturday evening and riding my bike the nine flat miles home. It turned out that I’d parked the bike quite some distance from the old terminal that Frontier is consigned to, but I hadn’t wanted to risk missing my flight on the way out by looking around for a closer lot. So I had a nice brisk walk back to my bike, which had waited patiently for my return and had survived the ordeal of parking at the airport quite nicely. All my accoutrements were still on the bike, and by my return there were about 15 bikes parked there, so I was in good company. 

There were a few drops of rain on the seat and the skies were heavily overcast. But the air was pleasantly cool – though disgustingly humid. There was excellent signage pointing the somewhat convoluted way to the bike trail, which runs right past DC’s National Airport. I was happy to pedal home at a steady clip – giving my legs a good workout. At about mile three of the W&OD trail, I noticed that a ladybug had hitched a ride on my thigh. She seemed untroubled by the constant up and down of my leg – crawling around from time to time. I was worried that she would get squished between my thighs, as she seemed headed in that direction. But, after a mile, when I turned onto to the Four Mile Run Trail, she was gone. I wondered about the life of a ladybug. Would she miss her family? Did she know where she was going? Had she hitched rides on cyclists’ thighs before? I wished her a safe flight home – wherever that might be for her – and was happy that I’d flown away home and back, returning safely and finding my bike unmolested. I got to my house just as big raindrops began splotching the sidewalk. Perfect timing.

Monday, August 13, 2012

August 13, 2012 - Love the One You're With

August 13, 2012 – Love the One You’re With

            For weeks, I put off taking my new bike into the shop for its much-needed 1,000 mile tune-up. It’s the height of biking season, and they said it might be as much as a week till I could get it back. Sure, I still have my daughter’s heavy old hybrid bike that I’d been riding happily until I spurned it for a lighter, cooler-looking bike five months ago. But I didn’t think I could bear to go back to commuting on the old workhorse.

            Maybe it helped that this morning dawned cooler and less humid than it’s been for most of the summer. But the experience was like reuniting with an old lover that you’d tossed aside for someone more attractive but less practical, less attentive to your needs. Suddenly you remember all the things that were so good between you and wonder, what was I thinking? Here’s what I discovered on this morning’s ride.

Things I Love About My Old Bike

1.     It’s stable. Not only can I ride it with two fully loaded panniers. I can also ride it with ONE fully loaded pannier and not feel thrown off balance.

2.     Its big fat tires absorb shocks. I can bump over the many tree roots on the path without feeling like my teeth are about to rattle out of my head, and the long stretch of boardwalk on the Mount Vernon Trail is barely noticeable – not a seemingly-endless rumble.

3.     It’s better for my body. I like the more aerodynamic position of my new bike, on which my body angles forward somewhat. But I’ve been experiencing wrist and low-back pain that I don’t seem to have on the old bike.

4.     It’s just as fast. I thought I’d shaved time off my commute with the new bike. I usually note the time I leave the house, and then check the big clock on the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue, which is just a few blocks from my office. Still 50 minutes! Apparently it’s not the better bike but that I’ve gotten stronger. Hooray! The bike is SO much heavier, but it has a wider range of gears and I feel like I get up the hills just as fast.

Things I Don’t Love About My Old Bike

1.     The seat. That wide, squishy old “comfort” seat is positioned at an angle that makes me keep sliding down toward the nose. But a new seat is an easy fix.

2.     Lifting it. There are things I now appreciate about its heavy weight – but lifting it onto the bus or car rack isn’t one of them. Also, there is no way I could get it onto a wall mount at work – but fortunately there are other locking options.

            So, I think it’s time to have an open discussion with my bikes about polyamory. My commitment will be to stay fully present with the bike I’m riding – not fantasizing about the other bike or making unkind comparisons (“you’re overweight,” “you’re unstable.”) Each bike has strengths to recommend it, but nobody’s perfect. I can get a new seat for my old bike and try tweaking the seat and handlebar positions on the new bike to make it more comfortable. But mostly, I’m counting myself lucky to have two beautiful bikes that are only too happy to take me wherever I want to go. Oh, there’s also a third bike at my boyfriend’s house in Philly…but I don’t know if my Arlington bikes know about her yet. One thing at a time…