Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Cycling to Camelot: The Buddhist route to a safer and greener Goa

Hurray for Anibel Ferus-Comelo, hurray for Luis Dias, and hurray for Ulrike Rodrigues! Together these three musketeers have created a group called Goa Cycles! On its website Goa Cycles! describes itself as “an independent, citizen-run organization that advocates for cyclists and cycling in Goa”, whose goal is “to increase awareness, safety, and enjoyment of transportation, recreational and travel cycling in Goa”. I don’t know if there have been other cycling groups in Goa’s recent past, but if not, then it’s about time we had such a group.

Having heard about Goa Cycles! I checked them out online, and found an essay about the group written by Ulrike Rodrigues. The essay (available online at the group’s website) could just as well operate as a manifesto for a political group, since it covers an impressive range of social issues. It questions the gender and class biases of our society and suggests that cycling could in fact be a way to not only challenge them, but also get ourselves a reality check on the real Goa. This real Goa she talks of is not just of the pretty green fields that spreads out as one cycles through the Goan villages, nor of the smell of paddy cultivation, nor of the smell of coconut plantations. She also points to the efforts of Manoj Joshi whose multi-day Goa bike expeditions show “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”. Ulrike quotes Joshi pointing out how the “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.”

One of my all time favourite stories is that of the encounter between the Buddha and Angulimala. Angulimala bounding toward the Buddha insisted that the monk stop walking away. The Buddha calmly turned around, looked at Angulimala and told him that he (the Buddha had stopped walking) it was Angulimala who was running. Modern life tends to be like Angulimala’s experience. We are so intent on dashing from point A to point B in our little automobile capsules that we fail to realize the beauty of the world around us. Consequently we see the world as blur, an impressionist background to our frenzied traveling. As a result we loose out on the beauty, but also loose track of how this frenzied travel is itself helping destroying the landscape and in the process our quality of life.

Rodrigues essay is high on gender-sensitivity and she describes in some detail her frustrations as she tried to locate a suitable ‘ladies’ cycle. Reading her adventures in this respect, I recollected my own experience with the wonderful initiative that started in the French city of Lyon, but has now been embraced by Paris as well. Vélo'v is an initiative that allows residents of the city to hire bikes at nominal rates from locations all around the city (the idea being to have bike parking stations not more than 300 metres from each other). The rental is cheap, and with these parking stations located so close to each other, is extremely convenient to use. When I first encountered the system in Paris, I was a bit skeptical. I don’t like these large bikes that I have to jump over to sit on. What about the handle-bars? The height of the seat? Delightfully it turned out, almost everything on the Velo-cycle, can be adjusted, the height of the seat and the handle-bars as well! In addition, there are no men’s cycles or ladies’ cycles. There is just one standard type, which both women and men can use, and this cycle does not have the bar which defines the men’s cycle. What a wonderful example of gender-sensitive engineering and planning! I myself have been contemplating to get myself a cycle and if so, would rather go in for the gender non-discriminating model, which for some strange reason we call the ‘ladies’ cycle!

I had thought that riding a cycle in Paris would be a charming experience. My expectations were not entirely realized. Parisian drivers can be just as rude and aggressive as the very best in India. On more than one occasion as I pedaled through the city, I thanked God and the city administration for the bicycle lanes that made space for the slower paced traffic. Many a time, the cycle –lane shares space with sidewalks, making me realize that the cyclist is the natural ally of the pedestrian. They both have something to fear from the faster and heavier traffic around them and it would be interesting to see if Goa Cycles! is able to work out an alliance of some sort between these two groups in Goa. In fact, a vocal cyclist’s group would also allow us to make the move toward more humane public transportations systems. While the Goan towns are largely flat, they also include hills, like the rest of the Goan landscape. Cycling up these slopes in the heat of the summer is not exactly easy. San Francisco, that Mecca for the alternative lifestyle, is a city located across hills. They resolved the bikers’ problem by including a bike stand in front of the bus! So in case you don’t want to cycle up a hill, all you have to do is wait for the bus to arrive, load your bike onto the stand, enter the bus, get off where you have to, and then pedal away all over again! If there is no stand, the bus is designed in a manner to allow for you to, without any inconvenience to yourself or fellow-travelers, carry the cycle into the bus. This system operates not just for the buses in San Francisco, but for the transportation system around the San Francisco Bay area. It is possible therefore, for you to cycle from your house to the train station, wheel your bike into the train, get off somewhere in the city, and continue to use your cycle! In combining these two systems, one can easily traverse a distance of 128 kilometers with your cycle, and not have to rely on a private petrol-powered vehicle!

A politically alive and active cycling group could be just the solution to address some of Goa’s civilizational problems. Making cycling options more convenient would address issues of class, gender, make for healthier persons, a healthier environment, taking us one more Buddha-like step toward realizing that wonderful Camelot all of us dream off.

I don’t know about you, but I for one am signing up as a member of Goa Cycles! Join me.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 8th April 2009)


Rakesh Vanamali said...

Your writings offer a very deep insight into the Goan socio-political strata! Good work! I too am signing up as a member of the Goa cycles! :)

Do visit my spaces when time permits!


Ulrike Rodrigues said...

Thanks for your mention of our humble-but-growing cycle club! Kudos are also due to Joe Rodrigues who has started a Goa Cycle Club on Facebook ( The group already boasts over 100 members and regular weekly rides.

We hope to blend fun with activism, and I believe we have an excellent blend of skills and enthusiasm with Luis, Anibel, Joe and myself.

Ulrike Rodrigues