Participant Blogs

India: Cycling in Chennai

Kaleb Warbock - Chennai, India

I’m covered with road grit and every time I move even more grit tumbles to the floor. It’s all over my arms and legs, it’s built up at my joints, behind my ears and even lines the band of un-tanned skin under my watch to make a splendid supplement for my horrendous sunburn.As I sit here at the office nursing my wounds, I fight to suppress a smile while thoughts of my experiences bicycling in the city pull me elsewhere.

As the sun rises over the sea, the city streets begin to stir. Barges loom in the distance, and crows case the sand for skittering crabs. It’s 6.30am and I sit on a curb near my bicycle at Marina Beach. There’s nothing better than a morning at the ocean for a farm kid who’s living outside of his landlocked homeland for the first time.

kaleb-chennaiI take Santhome High Road South and the lighthouse slowly peers into view as the ocean speeds by on my left. I zip south of the lighthouse and pass the open fish market as it slowly comes to life while fishing boats lay idly among the nets on the beach after their morning runs. On my right are gutted concrete structures made habitable by tarps and woven palm leaves, and on the left, wooden pallets heavy with the briny aroma of the morning’s catch.It’s quiet, and thoroughly enjoyable.

There’s nothing quite like seeing the city by bicycle, especially when it allows you to see the back end, rather than what you can see from the city bus or a taxi. However, I’ve learned some valuable lessons when it comes to traversing the streets of Chennai.

Generally, the people of the city are very friendly. Their usual impression when they meet me is something like “Oh, you’re foreign! You must be lost,” and most of the time, they’re right. I’m obliged to ask them for directions in order to supplement the spectacularly terrible map I’d purchased when I arrived in the city. They’re always happy to help, but as soon as a Chennaite gets behind the wheel of a car, it’s every man for himself.

One thing I’m not use to, being a foreigner, is the constant struggle as automobiles and bicycles vie to fight through the gridlock. Back in the US, there are definite spaces for bikes and for cars, and is mutually understood that bikes have the right of way because of their inferiority in accident recovery technology. However, bikes here have to fight as hard on the streets as cars do, and the bike lanes are usually occupied by pedestrians anyway. Oh, and the occasional motorcycle or car cruising down the wrong side of the road still throws me for a loop.

I had one specific experience that really helped to teach me the importance of taking side streets. One morning, as I made my way south toward Guindy via Jawaharlal Nehru, I noticed that the sidewalks were beginning to disappear, and I was being forced onto the roadway. To make things worse, there were several exit and entrance lanes that I had to avoid to stay on the main road, so I had to make my way into the center lanes. After nearly being sandwiched between a pair of blaring city busses, I realized that because of my evasive manouvres, I was going to be riding into oncoming traffic. I once again commenced pumping my legs as hard as I could and blinging my bell as much as possible in a 50 foot sprint to overtake another bus. After setting a world record for wearing out a bicycle bell, the gravity of the situation finally dawned on me, and I decided that taking side streets from now on might be a good idea.

Now, as I fly down the narrow alleyways on my massive mountain bike, blowing past packs of dogs, cows, and unidentifiable things hanging in shop windows I definitely turn heads and am subject to angry shouts and gestures from workmen or young cricketers as I blow past. I find it hard not to smile. You get to see all sorts of things when you take the back alleys.

I snap back into focus briefly to assess what I’d missed of my meeting, but I can’t help but drift back to the street.

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