Honk! As the moped to my right alerts me of its imminent overtake, the sound is lost in a cacophony of other similar squawks, rings, and shouts, as the perpetual melee that is morning traffic in Udaipur arises from the tranquility of the dawn. We have been in the city for a week now, and learning the rules of traffic, like all things, is a gradual process. Prior to our arrival, our group paid relatively little attention to the specific etiquette observed on metropolitan roads, opting instead to trust our rickshaw drivers to the task. Everything changed when we got bicycles.
Testing out the bicycles themselves was a rather ordinary process; we were taken to a shop close to our program house, and proceeded to make our way around the cramped parking lot until we found our metaphorical noble steed for the next six months. Then, after outfitting our new rides with lights and locks, we began our first ride, a relatively short affair halfway around the lake. However, it was more than enough time to learn the ways of the road. Besides the obvious but still significant challenge of riding on the opposite side of the road (for six of us that is), the myriad details of road etiquette was an entirely new frontier.
The aforementioned horn, for instance, adopts an entirely new context in Udaipur. Whereas back home in New York, I tend to respond to most horns on my bicycle with a series of mutterings and gesticulations which I will not elaborate further upon, it soon became apparent that horns are used in Udaipur not to express animosity, but rather to caution fellow drivers, akin to flashing one’s hazards. Initially, the honking grated on me to no end, but as they continued, I grew to appreciate the warnings of an upcoming pothole, stopped car, or other potential obstacle. By the end of our short excursion around the lake, I had learned to heed these warnings rather effectively, rather than giving in to my occasionally chronic road rage.
The horn, however, was simply skimming the surface of a multilayered, multifaceted series of unwritten rules, which none of us can claim to comprehend as of now (or ever, in all likelihood). What has become apparent to us is the profoundly different way in which we interact with the local municipality through riding our bicycles. Take, for the sake of comparison, a rickshaw. While initially, many of us were intimidated by the sparse structure of these ubiquitous vehicles, they soon became our preferred mode of transportation around the various cities we visited, owing to the combination of speed and ability to weave in and out of the dense traffic occupying many city street in Jaipur, Delhi, and Udaipur. However, riding a rickshaw—or any motorized vehicle for that matter—has a tendency to render us one degree removed from the road. We simply negotiate a fare, sit back, allow the driver negotiate the traffic, and the motor to counteract any faults or changes in gradient in the road.
When riding a bicycle, on the other hand, this degree of separation is removed. Every fault in the road, every slight incline or decline, every traffic jam or chaotic intersection is our sole responsibility to negotiate. We cannot rely on the experience of a rickshaw driver, nor on the capability of a motor. We are not sitting on a comfortable seat, casually observing the road as we pass by. Rather, we are completely invested in our surroundings, alert to the slightest patch of sand, the most nondescript start of a motorcycle. We feel the road reverberated in our hands, and rely on our own feet for propulsion through whatever obstacle lies ahead. We expose ourselves to the outdoors, existing in a no-man’s land between the tranquility of the lake and the hubbub of the city. We notice things which we have never noticed before: the differing quality of the road, the different food stalls which cling to the side of the road, the changing foliage as we progress outside of the metropolitan area and enter the outskirts of the city. Riding bicycles has irrevocably changed the way we interact with our local community, and through this, has created a deep, powerful connection between us and the environment we will reside in for the next six months.