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.