What I’ve Learned While Riding in India
Three months ago, my husband Mat and I moved from New York to Bangalore, India. In New York, we cycled regularly, commuting to work by bike, meeting friends for morning laps in the park, racing and riding long on the weekends. We brought bikes to Bangalore, hoping to plug in to some cycling groups or clubs. Though there is a small but growing cycling scene in Bangalore, the groups are few, hard to find, and ride somewhat inconsistently. Thus far, we’ve just struck out on our own, and have learned a lot along the way.
Head out early
The first time we ventured out for a proper ride was late one weekday evening. We had RSVPed yes to a night ride on a meetup group, but the ride fell through, and the leader texted us to say it was cancelled. We decided to try riding on our own, and left our apartment around 9pm.
Traffic in Bangalore is absolutely insane by U.S. standards, with a ton of congestion and virtually no lane discipline. Though I commuted on the streets of Manhattan regularly when I lived in New York, for me riding in Bangalore traffic is not worth the trouble. I thought that by getting out on city streets late in the evening, the traffic would be less of an issue. I was highly disappointed. We only made it about 5km before we decided to cut our losses and go home.
Not willing to accept defeat easily, I decided that the best approach was to get out on a weekend morning before dawn, which is the only time when Bangalore streets are quiet. Mat agreed and we made a plan.
I planned the route for our first ride by borrowing sections of routes from a club called Bangalore Randonneurs. This is a group of cyclists who organize supported rides outside of Bangalore at distances of 200km, 300km, 400km, 500km, and 600km. I looked at the Strava route from one of these rides, shortened it, and varied it somewhat.
We woke up at 5:00am on a Saturday morning and, having readied the bikes the night before, suited up and headed out the door with bike lights on. We made the left hand turn out of our apartment complex and onto what, during daylight hours, is a frantically busy road, and were thrilled with what we found: utter silence. Not a car, pedestrian, wild dog, or cow was to be found, and we glided down the road and out of the city.
Always have eyewear
It was too dark to wear the sunglasses I had stuck in my helmet, but I immediately found myself wishing I had eyewear with clear lenses. Bangalore (and India generally) has a lot of ambient dust and pollution in the air, and as we sped down the road, I was catching flack of all sorts in my eyes.
White is not a great idea
I had also made the mistake of wearing my very favorite white Velocio jersey, thinking it would make me more visible to motorists. However, we hadn’t cleared Bangalore city limits before I had brown streaks down my jersey from all of the airborne crap we rode through.
Don’t drink from your third bottle
As we cleared city limits, I reached down to take a drink from my bottle. I put it to my lips and took a swig of water, along with a mouthful of the dust that had accumulated on the mouthpiece. I quickly learned to wipe off the top of the bottle before drinking. I carry a third bottle in a cage on the underside of my downtube, and I learned that this third bottle should only be used for filling up the top two bottles, and I should never drink directly from it, lest I risk ingesting the gunk that kicks up from the road onto my downtube.
Eat the local food
Mat and I had foregone breakfast in lieu of getting out of the city as early as possible, so after about 15 miles we got hungry and decided to stop for a bite. We pulled over at a tea stall on the side of the road for some refreshment. We each got a chai, served piping hot in a tiny paper cup, some bananas (the local bananas are much smaller than your typical banana, and are best consumed in threes and fours) and some packaged biscuits. Indian spicy, milky chai is one of my favorite things about living here, but at a pit stop on a bike ride, it’s particularly refreshing.
Re-energized from our chai, we carried on. In 20 miles or so, as we rode into a small village of colorful houses and small storefronts, I spotted a guy selling fresh coconuts from a cart. We pulled over. I held up two fingers, and he grabbed two large green coconuts from his cart, took a scythe down off a hook on the side of the cart, and began hacking at the top of one of the coconuts. Once he hacked away a portion of the thick green flesh, he took a square chop to the end of it to create an opening. He stuck a straw in the top and handed it to me. I took a sip, and wouldn’t you know it, it tasted exactly like the coconut water you’d buy in the supermarket. Except that two servings of it cost us 50 rupees, which equates to less than a dollar.
Once we’d drained our coconuts, we handed them back to the vendor, and to our surprise he cut each of them in half, and used a piece of the rind to scoop out the soft, gelatinous part of the flesh, which was like coconut nectar, and equally refreshing.
At our halfway point, another, slightly larger village, we stopped again for some more substantial refreshment. We spotted small shack, where there was a man cooking dosas over a flat griddle, and next to him a woman making chai. We ordered two dosas and sat in the shade to wait. After a few minutes, the woman brought over two fresh masala dosas – crispy thin crepe-like pancakes, filled with spiced potatoes. We ate them gratefully and washed them down with chai, as a group of curious locals looked on, some of them getting close enough to examine us and our bikes, which were clearly a novelty. We even had a few people come over and ask us where we were from, or ask to take pictures with us, the strangely-clad foreigners with even stranger bicycles.
Prepare for the stare
One of the hardest things to get used to in India has been the attention we seem to attract just by virtue of being Caucasian. On my commute to work, fellow commuters in cabs and on the back of motorbikes will hardcore stare through the window at me in my car, completely unabashed. They mean nothing by it, usually – it is simply evidence of their natural curiosity – but it’s still difficult to get used to being the object of such focused attention all the time.
Imagine how this is compounded when I, a short-haired white woman, wearing an outfit that reveals my knees and clings to my body, sit astride a bicycle, riding it over unfathomable distances, working up a sweat and getting dirty in the process. The attention I draw is overwhelming, and to be honest, it’s not always friendly. Along our ride, we often were overtaken by motorcycles, and often got side-view-mirror or over-the-shoulder smiles from the (invariably) men driving them. However, on more than one occasion I got mean-mugged by women sitting side-saddle on the backs of those same motorcycles; they pointed their death-ray eyes at me and held my gaze until they receded into the distance, incredulous at the audacity I had to be out on the road in the state I was in.
All in all though, we found that most of the time, if we offered a smile to whoever was checking us out, we would get a smile and a head waggle in return. Not always, but most of the time.
Say hi to the kids
One constant that we found, however, is that children LOVED us. As we rode through villages so tiny I couldn’t believe they existed at all, little boys and girls saw us coming and ran as fast as they could to the side of the road to wave at us and practice their English. “Hi!” “Bye!”
Beware of the monkeys
Humans were not the only ones who gave us attention on our ride. At one point we pulled off the road into the shade of a tree to have a snack, and as we sat there, a little macaque monkey edged ever closer to us, eyes fixed on the food in our hands. I thought he was cute, so I threw him a banana peel to pick over when I was finished. No sooner had the peel hit the ground than I heard a noise coming from behind me. I looked over my shoulder to see easily ten more monkeys making their way towards me. I pulled out my camera and started snapping photos, until I started to get nervous about how close they were getting to us. They were clearly accustomed to people, and were not at all shy. Just then, I heard a rustling in the tress above me, and I looked up to see three more peering down at us through the leaves. “Maybe we better go,” Mat said to me. We chucked our banana peels into the grass and watched the frenzy ensue as we rode away. I don’t know how much braver they would have gotten if we’d stayed, but I’m glad we didn’t stick around to find out.
Riding in India is certainly more challenging than riding in New York (or anywhere in the U.S. for that matter), but it affords us the opportunity to explore parts of the country we wouldn’t otherwise, and to get a slice of rural Indian life that most people we know will never see. One could spend eternity exploring and learning the ins and outs of India, and we’re fortunate to have the fitness (and bikes and kit!) to be able to explore it by bike.
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