[This story appeared as a feature in Herald "Mirror" Sunday March 29, 2009. Herald is Goa, India's largest circulation English language daily newspaper - UR]
The best way to see Goa is from the seat of a bicycle
by Ulrike Bemvinda Rodrigues
“The young lady wishes to ride a cycle all around Goa,” Aloysius explained to the sales clerk, “And she requires one with a basket.” Aloysius and I were standing in the entryway of a cycle shop and since I was a newly arrived visitor, my 74-year-old father’s cousin had guided me here to buy a bicycle.
I’d left my home in Vancouver vowing to buy a one-speed made-in-India bicycle, visit my grandparents’ houses in Olaulim and Nachinola, and – over the next six months – learn about the rest of Goa slowly, from the seat of a bicycle. This, I discovered, was apparently a radical idea.
My first lesson came in the cycle shop.
“I want a bicycle that is simple, and of good quality,” I told the clerk, “And it should be able to carry stuff because I want to use it for transportation.” The fellow gave me an odd look, then led me through the dark shop and into the alley. A shipment of Barbie-pink bicycles rested against the wall, and I could tell through their cardboard wrapping that they were not designed for the kind of cycling I had in mind.
I peered past the impractical cycles to a dusty pile behind and immediately recognized the archetypal Hercules- and Atlas-brand Indian bikes I’d been seeking: elegant frames, steel brake systems, heavy-duty tires and sturdy carrier racks. “What about those?” I pointed.
The young man shook his head. “Those are work cycles – for sellers, and shops and hotels.”
“Do they come in ladies’ models?” I persisted.
“No,” he shook his head again, “Ladies don’t work.”
Work cycles, designer cycles
I eventually found a small, sturdy version of the Atlas cycle at Raikar Sales in Panjim, but over the next few months, the clerk’s words followed me like the stares of surprised Goans. I seemed to be the only female using a bicycle for transportation in all of Goa; and when the clerk had said “Ladies don’t work,” what he was trying to say as kindly as he could was: “Women don’t ride cycles – especially not foreign women, and especially not work cycles.”
How odd, I thought. In Goa, the roadways are filled with women on motorbikes and it’s not considered a gender issue. In North America, riding a motorbike is considered so “macho” that the sight of a woman in a salwar kumeez astride a motorscooter barreling down a highway at top speeds and loaded with groceries and unhelmeted children would be absolutely unimaginable.
And while here, women shy away from riding a cycle in their day-to-day lives, women in other countries are taking to their bicycles with great aplomb. In fact, as perception of the bicycle shifts from a piece of sports equipment to a useful mode of transportation, even more ladies (and men) are riding bicycles as a badge of their fit, sustainable and smart lifestyles.
A publication that I write for out of Vancouver called “Momentum: the magazine for self-propelled people” concerns itself entirely with transportation cycling and culture. Alongside articles of women-only repair courses, high-tech lighting systems, and bike-themed coffee shops; the cycle magazine includes photos and adverts of cycle-specific clothing, must-have accessories and designer bicycles.
Interest in urban bicycles is becoming so great, in fact, that a bike designer can demand more than the price of a Tata Nano for a single bicycle. Over 100 designers and 6,400 enthusiasts attended the annual North American Handmade Bike Show in Indianapolis last month, and at last year’s show, Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong paid Rs 636,000 (almost $10,000 USD) for a one-of-a-kind cycle crafted by Canada’s own “Naked Bikes.”
Clearly, cycling is gearing up for some unimaginable concepts of its own. I don’t agree with the cult-like status that the bicycle is earning in my culture, but I do appreciate how my Atlas’s petrol-free combination of metal, rubber, gears and wheels transports me in this one. Arriving at a Patto bookstore recently in a modest skirt, sleeveless kurta and windblown hairstyle, my Goan friends were impressed by how cool and elegant I looked and asked how I managed in the heat.
“Well,” I prompted, “If you think about it, most of the area around Panjim is flat. Plus, a one-speed cycle goes slowly enough that you don’t generate body heat, and the air cools you at ten kilometres an hour!”
But early in my visit, I also learned that the joys of riding a cycle in Goa can raise some difficult cultural issues. Coasting down a long hill from NH17 to the Betim ferry, for example, two young men on a motorbike pulled up alongside me and offered suggestions on what I could do with them once I was done with the cycle.
I was mortified and wondered if I had misguidedly brought my Western ideas of transportation to the streets, the way Western women brought their nudity to the beach. Was I – a foreign woman on a plain Indian work bike – mocking them with my culture’s peculiar fondness for the lowly cycle?
It’s true that I come from a country whose class system is less defined. When I look around in Goa, I don’t see class, caste and status separation, I just see people on cycles: selling bread, ice cream and fish; carrying gas, milk and passengers; and braving steep hills, rutted asphalt and crowded highways. I admire them, and I appreciate that they are a viable part of every roadway’s melee of foot, cow, dog, flower cart and puri wagon traffic. In fact, I feel safer and more kinship peddling on Goa’s National Highway in the midst of this slow-moving community than on Vancouver’s car-dominated mean streets.
“I could never ride a cycle here,” a neighbour remarked when I shared my perspective of cycling, “Drivers are so reckless.” I agreed, but I also pointed out that – for a capital city – Panjim is cursed by bad drivers and outdated infrastructure: dangerously uneven road and walkway surfaces; major intersections with no traffic lights; and no information and signage on safe alternate routes.
In an effort to do something about it, cyclists Luis Dias, Anibel Ferus-Comelo and myself created Goa Cycles! and Goa Cycle Club to increase awareness, safety and enjoyment of transportation, recreational and travel cycling in Goa. We’ve already connected with other cycle groups in India such as Bangalore’s RideACycle Foundation; and have recently caught the ear of architect and Regional Plan 2021 facilitator Dean D’Cruz on improving cycling infrastructure in Goa’s future.
As RPG 2021 works with panchayats to survey village lands and laneways, Goa Cycle Club is working to help residents see their country in a different way: on their bicycles. With the philosophy that Goa is a perfectly safe and enjoyable place to cycle once you get out of the city, Goa Cycle Club has already organized three social rides this year. A recent day ride out of Panjim included a ferry ride to Betim, village roads to Pomburpa Springs, a pastoral crossing of Chorao Island, a Ribander riverside lunch and a safe return to the city.
“I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen any of this,” said art instructor Alisha Colaco of the peaceful meadows of Chorao Island. “I’m really glad I came.” Her brother Nikhil agreed, and admitted that the scenic ride had also disguised a healthy thirty-kilometre workout. Goa Cycle Club hopes to make novice rides a regular event as well as create interest with events inspired by “Critical Mass” (a group urban ride, see below) and “Ciclovia” (car-free street festivals).
Toddy tappers and mining trucks
Manoj Joshi knows the value of a good cycle ride to shift perspectives. In 2008 the director of Youth Hostels Association of India‘s (YHAI) new bike program added multi-day Goa bike expeditions to YHAI’s popular trekking program. Outfitted with knapsacks and geared cycles, youngsters and grandparents alike from across India learned about the state’s natural beauty and social issues as they pedaled a circular route that reached as far east as the Karnataka border. Along the way they experienced first-hand how Colva’s touristed beaches, Balli’s paddy fields, Cavrem’s ore mines, Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary’s biodiversity and the Mandovi River struggle with issues.
“We wanted to create a tour with the activist in mind,” said Joshi of the expedition, “Cycling is a sport for people who have an awareness of environmental and development issues. This expedition shows beaches, nature, and water falls but it also shows how Goa is being deforested; how the greed of the few is displacing families, and the rape of the nature.”
As the only non-resident Indian on the tour, I took in this journey into Goa’s heartland eagerly. I marveled at how – travelling one slow kilometre after another – the green state could simultaneously welcome and assail. One moment the scrape and shuffle of a toddy tapper prompted me to look up and watch his ascent, and the next the roar and dirt of mining trucks urged me to speed up to avoid inhaling the red ore dust that villagers breathe everyday.
Traveling slowly around and across Goa by cycle as a visitor, I’ve learned many important things: to pause at cane juice carts by the side of the road; to get lost on purpose; to watch for kingfishers in teak forests; to connect local issues with their villages; and to reassure new friends that Goa is a complex place that deserves to be explored radically: by bicycle.
The cycle, I tell them, doesn’t care if you are male or female, foreign or Indian, rich or poor, alone or surrounded by traffic. It’s the countryside that cares. Grab your cycle, get out of the city, and see Goa, slowly. Watch for the lush, green paddies of your youth, the woods and plantations of your present, and the hot, orange rock of your future. Bring it with you home, remember it, and know – with all your senses – why you want to keep it safe.
Ulrike Bemvinda Rodrigues is a freelance writer, photographer and cyclist based in Vancouver, Canada. She has published her Goan stories and photos at www.girlgonegoa.wordpress.com . She invites opportunities to return to Goa to live and work: mail at ulrike dot com.
Regional Plan for Goa 2021 (RPG 2021): Read, review, download and comment on the draft plan. Visit the Government of Goa website at http://goagovt.nic.in/tcp/, email the Town & Country Planning Department directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact the office in Dempo Tower at 2437352, 2437353, 2437354, 2437355.
Goa Cycles! Learn more about cycling in Goa, view photos of past rides, or contact Luis Dias or Anibel Ferus-Comelo of Goa Cycles! Visit the website: http://www.goacycles.wordpress.com. Membership is free and open to individuals and organisations in the community that support cycling.
YHAI Goa Biking Expedition: tours run December/January of each year and are open to Hostelling International members. Bicycles, rucksacks, safety equipment, accommodation, and meals are all included in the price of the trip. For more information contact Manoj Joshi at email@example.com or visit YHAI’s web site at http://www.yhaindia.org.
Momentum: the magazine for self-propelled people [http://www.momentumplanet.com]
North Amercian Handmade Bike Show [http://www.handbuiltbikeshow.com]
Naked Bikes [http://www.timetogetnaked.com]
Goa Cycle Club [http://www.goacycles.wordpress.com]
RideACycle Foundation (Banglalore) [http://www.rideacycle.org]
Critical Mass (in Wikipedia) [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_Mass]
Ciclovia (in Wikipedia) [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ciclovía]