Here’s what they’ve got in common
I found myself back in Candolim area and had a couple of hours in the beach area before it got dark – Candolim is about fifteen kilometres from my house in Porvorim, but at least forty-five minutes by one-speed bicycle. I turned the bike onto one of the laneways that lead to the beach.
The beach laneways are always hard-packed rutted roads and too narrow for anything but the slimmest car. Pedalling the bicycle along them is a pleasure because the souvenir, fresh fruit and ice cream vendors are usually teens who spend the day catching up with their friends and are less aggressive than their main street counterparts. They’re also usually girls and they grin at the bicycle with its pink plastic basket and call out, “Nice cycle!” when I pedal past.
Big, flabby, relaxed bodies
At the end of the lane grassy, sandy dunes pick up where the road leaves off. I locked my bike to a sign post that pointed to the “Bob Marley Shack” and headed the opposite way. My feet sank in the soft sand and I slipped off my dusty white Crocs. The surrounding trees formed a leafy corridor, and as I continued west towards the Arabian Sea the late afternoon sun, the beach shacks emerged. I stood and took it all in – the gorgeous, relaxed touristness of one of Goa’s famous beach stretches. To the left and to the right as far as the eye could see, palm leaf and bamboo pole “shacks” lined the high tide line.
Each “shack” is actually a respectably-sized open-air restaurant area with ceiling fans, padded rattan chairs, and inexpensive Goan seafood. After the monsoons have passed, each shack owner pays the Goan government an exorbitant amount for a license, builds their shack for the November to March season, lay out lounge chairs close to the water’s edge, and wait.
They wait for the air-con buses of mainly British and Russian package tourists to wander into their own little patch of sand, and they serve them hand and foot. By the end of the day, the lounge chairs are strewn with big, flabby, relaxed bodies – brown and white, men’s and women’s, covered and uncovered.
Rubbing and staring
I perched on the edge of a lounge chair and watched a wandering cow and her calf nuzzle the hands of a fellow in the neighbouring lounge chair. He was brown and looked like he’d been there a while. His girlfriend was paler, but her nipples were brown. I knew this because – contrary to Goan modesty, custom and law on beach attire – she was naked from the waist up. She lay on her back, eyes closed, her white breasts flopped to either side of her chest like a couple of eggs, sunny side up.
She was surrounded by people, but she’d chosen to be oblivious and go topless here in her own private Eden.. No one – including the shack owner – was about to tell her this was inappropriate. To the contrary, when the boyfriend paid for an arm and leg massage, the shack owner positioned himself to ensure a close and continuous view. I remembered something I’d read in a book recently: that in India, women don’t get naked, even when they’re being intimate with their husbands.
The shack owner’s stare as he rubbed the man’s arm and watched the woman’s chest – intent and unabashed – was familiar to me. It was the look people (mostly men) gave me when I rode by on my bicycle.
In western countries, women on bicycles are a common sight, and, as the bicycle becomes a popular mode of transportation, more women are doing away with sports clothes and riding in dresses and heels. It’s flirty and sexy, they say, and they feel free.
In Goa, you don’t see women riding bicycles, especially for transportation. You see women on foot, buses and motorbikes in sarees or salwar kumeez (the combination of loose-fitting pants and flowing tunic). You might see a foreign tourist on a rental bike, or a traveller on a tour bike. But you won’t see an Indian woman on a bicycle.
Is a bicycle the equivalent of bare breasts, I wondered? Am I bringing my western ideas of transportation to the streets, the way western women bring their nudity to the beach? In my shorts, short-sleeved shirt and “work bike” am I trying to prove something? That bicycles are – what? Fun? Freeing? Environmental?
Here in Goa, the only people who ride a bicycle are those who can’t afford anything else. They carry eggs, milk, propane, cardboard, ladders, and people. Workers ride them, and old men, and children. Sometimes you see a man in office clothes on a bicycle, but his jaw is set and you wonder if he is saving for a motorbike or car.
And I wonder if I am inadvertantly mocking them – like first-world backpackers who dress like third-world peasants. A wealthy foreign woman on a plain Indian work bike? What is this – low-caste chic?
I told someone recently that the big thing in North America is “hand built” bikes. I showed him a copy of Momentum Magazine and pointed to a photo of a plain utility bike. A woman in a dress and heels was draped over it. “That bike, there,” I said, “That could cost up to 90,000 rupees.” His eyes popped. Minimum wage is 110 rupees a day (2.40 CAD).
The longer I’m here, the more I’m mortified with how my culture toys with the bicycle.
My job here in Goa is not to show Indians that bicycles are fun, and free, and environmental, I tell myself. They’ve been there, done that and in so many respects they put North Americans to shame. My job is not to show Indian women that cycling is sexy, either. They look sexy enough carrying their children to school on a 50cc scooter, groceries resting between their knees, kumeez blowing in the wind.
To be honest, some days I wonder what the hell I’m doing on a bicycle. I draw stares and comments – and I’m not the attention-grabbing sort. In India and isolated from my North Amercian fellow-cyclists, I struggle to hold the faith: “bicycles are great!”
Then it gets down to the most base and selfish reasons: it feels good. Like nude sunbathing, I guess.