My primary mode of transportation around the chaotic, traffic-choked Indian metropolis I am calling home this semester is a retro-looking yellow fixed-gear bicycle with a big basket in the front, the kind of upright job the kids ride around in “Stand By Me” or “Now and Then.”
I almost look like I’ve made a wrong turn out of my 1960’s suburban cul-de-sac, except for the decidedly not-nostalgic helmet I bought the first day I took the thing out on the roads. This was not entirely my own decision—when I told my mother I was going to be biking, she asked if I had a helmet. When I said I didn’t, and that athough bikes are ubiquitous here, protective headgear is not, she wondered whether I wouldn’t feel very stupid if I ever sustained an injury I could have prevented but didn’t because I was worried about standing out. (Her point was well taken, since in Pune, as a white woman wearing jeans and standing a good few inches above at least half the people I pass by, I’ve already pretty much lost the battle of not standing out. So I wear the helmet and endure feeling like a complete dork, and repeat the mantra, “better to be uncool and sentient, than cool and vegetative,” while I’m en route.)
Along with Vespa-type scooters and motorcycles, bicycles are definitely one of the popular ways to get around in Pune. On a bicycle you can cut through the gaps between cars and trucks to the front of a line of traffic, or successfully run red lights—as long as no cars are coming perpendicularly to you.
The most common bike (actually, the correct term is “cycle;” when I say “bike,” people assume I mean motorbike, the operation of which, incidentally, my study abroad program prohibits) is a black, single-gear set-up made by Hero with handlebars that curve in toward you; American hipsters would pay through the nose for these bikes, though here in India, they sell for a few hundred rupees—no more than $30 maximum.
I spent my first few weeks here going around in auto-rickshaws, perpetually frustrated by the language barrier that prevented me from communicating with drivers. My unfamiliarity by the new city, compounded with the fact that only the major roads have names, made it very hard to figure out where I was in relation to where I needed to go, particularly because rickshaw awnings substantially limit your field of vision.
I started walking and began to get a better lay of the land on foot, but there were some serious drawbacks there, too. First, walking takes a while, especially since—again—given the lack of street signs, I was initially hesitant to stray from the routes I knew would take me where I needed to go, even if they weren’t the most direct. Sidewalks, like street signs, are rare, so being a pedestrian in most places means being the slowest-moving stream of traffic on the road. Not to mention the fact that it’s summer, and temperatures get up to the 90s.
The cycle has changed all of that. Merging into traffic for the first time was one of the more terrifying experiences: traffic here is—to the untrained observer—total anarchy. Buses, cars, trucks, rickshaws and bicycles weave and swerve in and out of each other’s paths, careening through the very potholed streets at breakneck speeds. Everyone seems to be on a collision course for their final destination and other vehicles just have to get out of the way.
Being on wheels of my own in this chaos puts it all in a different light, and I’ve come to appreciate the emergence of order out of this chaos that only comes when you’re moving within it. There are very few traffic signs or stop lights except at major intersections, so merging and turning is a big game of chicken and Frogger rolled into one. The key to making right turns (they drive British-style here) is to use bigger vehicles as shields to get next to a car or a few motorcycles who have enough bulk to really stop oncoming traffic, and turn with them. I keep to the far-left side of the road and let the faster vehicles zip past me. I fall into this mindset that’s a strange mix of hyper vigilance and tunnel vision, focusing only on what’s immediately in front of me.
I’ve developed an appreciation for the honking that as a pedestrian I find intolerably grating and horrible. When walking, I assumed the honking was for my benefit, and found it totally unnecessary, because obviously I could see them coming and they could see me. I saw it as a bizarre, infuriating assertion of their presence bearing down on me.
But what I’ve realized is that honking is an essential organizational tool when you’re on wheels. You can’t look behind you—and you can’t really even look to the side for very long—so honking when you come around corners, or come up behind someone, is really important; drivers in Pune have developed urban echolocation.
Having the bike has also meant I’ve had to develop a rapport with one of the local bike mechanics in my neighborhood. (It’s also really mitigated the language barrier issue—it’s much easier to convey what you want when you just point to the wheels on your bicycle than it is to, say, explain via charades to my host mother’s cook that I’m not going to eat lunch until later in the afternoon.) The guy who works in the storefront around the corner from my house is fantastic—not that I have lots of experience dealing with mechanics. But this guy really knows his way around bicycles and he’s fun to watch.
The other day, my back tire was completely deflated for the second time in a week and I though the tube might have a puncture. I told him that and he smiled at me very kindly and shook his head—“no puncture”—and just inflated it. I wasn’t convinced, and shook my head vigorously. He obliged me and turned the bike on its side—no messing around with removing the wheel first—and in about 30 seconds he had the tube out of the tire. To check for punctures, he pulled over this tub of water and submerged the tube in sections to check for bubbles of air. I thought this was terrific—my dad taught me that you had to go around with your fingers and feel for air escaping. This way was so much more efficient; the whole job was done in a flash and he only charged me 10 rupees (approximately 20 cents).
Since I moved off the Quad after my first year I’ve biked around Bowdoin, but biking on campus is always more of a minor convenience—it cuts a 5-minute walk down to two minutes. My bike was something I used a lot but didn’t think very much about. It was a very utilitarian thing that got me from point A to point B and that was about it. But now, halfway around the world, I get on a bike everyday to travel four kilometers to school, and it’s not just about getting to class quickly. Biking in India hasn’t just made my commute easier (arguably, given the regularity of traffic accidents here, I’m taking a somewhat significant risk), it’s been the focal point of a whole set of experiences that have made me feel at home here.