Sunday, July 27, 2008

Riding a bike in Kabul

Let me begin by saying that I cannot remember the last time I rode a bike.  I'm guessing that it's been at least five years, probably more.  But there is some saying about never forgetting how to ride a bike, right?  Well, with some other factors thrown in to my first Kabul bike riding experience, I had some moments where I was wishing for training wheels. 
My friend Erica asked me if I wanted to go on the walking tour of the neighborhood today. We live in a place called Karte Seh. It's right along the river and is an area that a lot of foreigners call home.  This morning when she showed up at my house she asked "Do you know how to ride a bike?" She had asked one of our doormen, Gulrahman, if I could borrow his bike for the day so we could get places quickly. 
Bikes in Kabul are all at least 10 years old, mostly manufactured in China, the same height, rarely have brakes, and are usually held together by wire and duct tape.  They, along with many other items found in the area, are left over from the Soviet period.  I must say they are sturdy.  I've seen men riding them without tires, without handle bars, with four people piled onto them...Some of them have lasted 20 years of ongoing war. And any contraption that can survive the streets of Kabul deserves some recognition. 
Which brings me to my next point, roads.  There is no such thing as a bike lane in Kabul.  In fact, there are no such things as lanes in Kabul (bike, driving, pedestrian).  But driving in Kabul deserves a post all of it's own, for now I'll stick to today's experience.  The roads are sometimes paved (and full of potholes).  Mostly they are just rocky unpaved roads.  So, if it's paved you avoid potholes, if it's not you avoid rocks.  Navigating takes all senses on high alert, dodging cars, pedestrians, goats, and gawkers.
Final point.  Being a woman and riding a bike is the icing on the cake of the Kabul bike riding adventure.  Afghan men think it is absurd to see a woman riding a bike.  In popular opinion, women are too stupid to drive a car or ride a bike.  Therefore, seeing a woman on a bike elicits two reactions.  Either the men catcall, whistle, or simply stare.  Or the more frustrating reaction; since women shouldn't know how to ride a bike, some men take it upon themselves to prove how badly women ride by causing distractions or obstacles.  They yell or honk their horns, open car doors to get in the way, swerve at the bike with their car or bike, try to hop on the back of it (every bike in Kabul has a place for a passenger to perch on the back) or force the bike off the road.  They laugh and scoff when their distractions cause the bike to tip or swerve.
All of this was compiled by the fact that my brakes barely worked, I couldn't stop to touch the ground because the bike was too high, my shalwar (long shirt) was getting caught in the wheels, I had to constantly make sure my chador (headscarf) had not flown off, I had my purse under my arm, and the chador also takes away my peripheral vision.  Needless to say, my first bike riding experience was quite an adventure.  We got from point A to point B and back without incident, but with lots of great stories.  I know that each time I go out life here will seem a little less awkward and a little more normal; that bike riding and stares will become part of my daily routine.  For now, I'm enjoying (or at least bearing with) the culture shock.  In some ways learning to live Kabul is a lot like learning how to ride a bike.  At first it's a little scary and seems like it is nearly impossible.  But with time, practice and experience (and a few bumps), it starts to feel natural.  


Ailsa said...

I'm so, so excited for you. I wish there was video footage of this!

I had a mighty misogynistic weekend myself - maybe not as bad as yours - but I was up in Connecticut with my conservative grandparents. My grandfather is extremely traditional and Republican. He's not fond of the notion of me being a career woman in NY, esp. working for the Democratic Party - so we had some heated words. And mostly my job, as a dutiful granddaughter, was to bite my tongue.

But tonight, after returning to the city, my grandmother called me. She had be keeping her opinions to herself all weekend, as she generally has to do in front of my grandfather, but she said: "I wanted to tell you this all weekend... Go, girl! Go!"

So, Julie, in the words of my wise grandmother, "Go, girl! Go!" You show those antiquated misogynists who's boss.

love you.

The Gores said...

Wow, great job for getting out there. I do also wish there was video footage. I am appreciating this stories since it is humbling to think of how easy I have it here in my comfy house with paved streets starting at my garage door. I am excited to see what the Lord does through you there, but also know that possibly the Lord may change my heart and mindset through your stories and "ADVENTURES". Love ya, Kj

Alicia said...

oh my goodness, you are so adventurous. I am proud of you for getting out there and doing things that you know will be uncomfortable, but necessary to your adjustment there. I don't know if I could venture out by myself with those reactions and stares from the other men. I can picture you being so composed and totally unflustered by their distractions!

Hang in there, friend and keep telling us more interesting stories. Your blog is by far the most interesting one out there!!

anya* said...

Great post Julie. So was the tour of the neighborhood worth the bike trek?

Jacob and Carlee Loya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jacob and Carlee Loya said...

julie, you're amazing. i'm a huge fan of the mental imagine of you pedaling around..."should i REALLY be doing this...ah, what the heck."...and thanks for being such great writer! i'm geeking out on your blog big time.