Published in the July/August 2009 issue of Momentum Magazine.
How an average cyclist became an accidental activist in India
Here in Vancouver, Canada, I consider myself just another person in the city who rides a bike. I keep a pretty low profile compared to the cycling artists and advocates I admire. But something radical happened when I bought an Atlas bicycle, rode it, and wrote about riding it in Goa, India for six months. I became an accidental activist.
“Hi Ulrike,” wrote a reader in response to one of my Girl Gone Goa blog stories, “We’ve recently returned from the UK, to resettle here. I’ve brought back a bike, but as it needs some basic work, I’ve not begun pedalling here. Everyone here tells me I’d be crazy to try, so it’s good to hear of your experiences.”
“We” was Luis Dias and his wife Chryselle. They were Goan and keen to ride, though eight-month-pregnant Chyselle admitted she’d need to have the baby first. Luis and I headed to the Panjim ferry jetty and cycled and chatted along the Mandovi River. He said he was looking for a community project to dig his teeth into.
A few weeks later, a writer colleague forwarded an email from Anibel Ferus-Comelo. She was also Goan, had also lived in Europe, and defied convention by riding a bicycle around Panjim with her husband Martin and two children.
I suggested we become acquainted over tea at Luis and Chyselle’s place and by evening’s end, we’d agreed to start a bicycle club to bring people together who wanted to ride in safety. We even joked about staging a Critical Mass ride and a car-free ciclovia festival.
I whipped up a rudimentary web site with WordPress.com (a free blog publishing platform), tacked on a photo gallery and a “Contact” page and voila: the “Goa Cycle Club” was born. Now anyone – Goan, Indian, tourist – who was interested in cycling in Goa had somewhere to start.
I invited friends to come along on my weekly Sunday rides, and then added scenic, persuasive photos from the day onto the club web site. “I’ve lived here all my life,” said a new cyclist on a thirty-kilometre ride to Chorao Island, “I’ve never seen any of this!” She and her brother had borrowed bikes to come.
A month or so later, Joe Rodrigues phoned. After we settled that we weren’t related, Joe told me that he’d heard about our club, and had started a group of his own called “Goa Riders” on Facebook.com. He was a karate instructor and had already persuaded eight students to join. Plus, he said, a newspaper reporter wanted to do a story.
“Listen,” I said, “Would you consider changing your Facebook group’s name to ‘Goa Cycle Club‘ so we’re joining efforts and no one gets confused?” Joe agreed.
The story about Joe appeared in Gomantak Times in April. Soon, other stories about the new interest in cycling appeared in other newspapers across India – and they listed the fledgling “Goa Cycle Club” with established bike clubs in Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata!
It kept on building: a hotel owner told me she’d bought four bicycles to rent to tourists. A hostel director wanted ideas on what to do with twenty bikes he’d acquired for a tour. A neighbour and facilitator for Goa’s Regional Plan 2021 wanted to know if I’d come meet his staff, a city politician and a director for India’s Centre for Sustainable Transport at his office – as a representative of Goa’s cycling community!
I was flattered. I was awestruck. And I was leaving it all to return home in a few weeks.
“Don’t worry,” Luis reassured me when I worriedly met him for a last cup of tea. “We’ll make sure the club keeps rolling.” Sure enough, the last time I checked, the club had grown to 160 members; Luis and Joe were leading nine weekly rides; and a Mumbai news channel wanted to do a story on the club.
I’m back in North America now, and I’m back to being just another cyclist in the city. I’m not as visible or vocal as the activists here, and I wonder how me and my daily ride actually make a difference.
But I realize that I learned something in India: that sometimes, just riding a bike is enough. People see you ride everywhere and they think you’re an expert. They come to you with questions, and the next thing you know, they’re on a bike too. You invite them on a ride, and it grows from there. Word spreads. It’s a pedal-ution.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I’d add that a little weblog and social media D.I.Y. seems to help, too.
Ulrike Rodrigues wrote 60 stories about living and riding in Goa at Girl Gone Goa. Visit the Goa Cycle Club site.