Monday, July 30, 2012

Biking Nations: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Part II

It was the last day of biking in Santo Domingo, and the last day of the Urban Sketching Symposium. I told my wife I wouldn't be able to join her for lunch that day as I was on A Mission: 60 trouble-free miles in a country I barely knew, which, if I succeeded, would put me just over 100 miles over three days.

I knew I needed the right resources to do this kind of challenge safely: I packed three 16.9 ounce bottles of water. I fully charged my 2007 Garmin Edge the night before, and while it didn't have a map feature, the 'breadcrumb trail' would help me find my way back if I ended up off the paper maps. After careful consideration, I decided not to bring the Kryptonite New York Lock (which had been used as a hammer but not as a lock during the trip) and opted to take the lighter cable lock instead to save weight. I brought some Dominican Pesos with me to buy lunch; but where and what I was going to eat I had no idea.

With all my gear, I set off into the sunshine and headed west. I didn't have the whole route mapped out, but my plan was to turn right onto Av. Abraham Lincoln, cutting through Poligono Central, and possibly looping around the Jardin Botanico Nacional before heading north.

Despite the traffic, I soon arrived in a parts of the city that looked, with the chain restaurants and shops, like parts of Orange, Connecticut. A key distinguishing feature was the timers on the traffic lights; an innovation I want to see here in the U.S.

Save for the stoplights, the traffic flowed north easily, but about five miles into the trip I could already tell that my plan to ration my water wasn't going to work. I took shelter under the shade of an eagle's wing to take a few sips...and noticed an IKEA nearby.

Since I didn't travel all this way to buy flat-packed furniture, I pressed on. The traffic thinned out as I passed Jardin Botanico Nacional.

It was during this leg of the trip I saw something incredible: three roadbikers – funny outfits like mine and all. I waved at them with the kind of enthusiasm one would use when greeting a long-lost sibling.

They waved back skeptically.

After the spirit-raising encounter, I continued on until I reached an entrance to Parque Mirador del Norte, where I stopped for more water.

The road I was on was wide and sparsely traveled. Parts of it were hilly but the Bike Friday did well.

Eventually, I reached the Hermanas Mirabal commuter train station, which looked quite new compared to so many other parts of the country I had seen. It was around here the screen of the GPS stopped working, but I was able to turn it off and, more importantly, turn it back on again without a break in the mileage counter.

I also decided to pick a route that would make it difficult to get lost: I decided that instead of turning south and heading back toward the coast, I'd head north and follow the elevated train tracks. Once I made a terrifying series of Frogger-like moves, I turned left and headed north; soon ending up off my map...and into a whole new set of challenges.

The roads had stopped being sparsely populated. Stores, shops and people were increasingly crammed along my route. I kept a sharp eye out for dangers as the traffic got even worse.

Finally, I reached the end of the (train) line, which looked as though it still had a lot of expanding left to do. Still confident I could find my way back, I pressed on.

After a while, the traffic began to thin out again. I could see the mountains off in the distance between the buildings as I pedaled up a surprisingly smooth road.

Once the spedometer hit 20 miles, I stopped at a nearby filling station to drink some water and nearly inhaled an entire bottle before turning south. This involved passing back through the traffic gauntlet and, after passing the Hermanas Mirabal station again, seeing parts of the city I hadn't yet seen.

In addition to the traffic light timers, I saw a couple of great pedestrian bridges that I wish could appear in numerous intersections in the U.S.

On mile 30, I suddenly grew fatigued and realized I was going to run out of water before reaching 60. In a Bon, which is like a Roebek's Juice equivalent in the Dominican Republic, I bought a banana smoothie and a bottle of water. Unable to speak Spanish, a lot of pointing and gestures were involved in getting these items. But the young women behind the counter didn't seem to mind that I wheeled my bike right inside.

Somewhat refueled, I decided to do a loop by the Parque Mirador del Norte once again. It was a predictable route and I wanted the chance to get a better photo of the Isabela River.

This time, after finishing the loop, I headed south immediately and wove my way back toward Poligono Central. I re-entered the same Bon for a second smoothie, and the same hand gestures and pointing I had used before (though for a different employee) yielded a blueberry smoothie rather than a banana one, but I didn't care since I just wanted something cold.

I again bought a bottle of water, and I again drank much of it at a speed that caused me concern. Still on A Mission, I finished the smoothie, stowed what was left of the water, and pressed on.

Amazingly enough, I found another bike shop (Bici Centro) completely by accident. I didn't stop for a visit, that's how much on A Mission I was.

Finally, I was pushing past 55 miles. I put the breadcrumb screen on the GPS and tried pointing myself toward the 'start' as best I could. Instead of following the roads I had been on before, I tried new streets to make the most direct route possible. In doing so, I came upon places I didn't expect to see, like the workings of a market set up, seemingly on a highway overpass. I winced as I pedaled over the debris in the road but did not get another flat tire.

My sun-addled mind wasn't working particularly well at this point as I pressed on, trying to get to a familiar part of the city so I could find my way back to the hotel. I was pretty exhausted at this point and my legs were starting to cramp up. I was covered helmet to toeclip with dust, grime and sweat, but I was happy that I'd soon be able to say I had biked 100 miles in the Dominican Republic. Upon the conclusion though, I really just wanted to be dropped in a bathtub full of ice like Tim Robbins in Jacob's Ladder.

I was almost to the spot where the word 'START' appeared on the GPS, but two unsettling things happened.

The first is I crossed the Isabela River again, the second is I passed a familiar landmark. It's a little sad that this is the landmark I recognized, but you know those annoying, inflatable beings mostly associated with car dealerships? I saw one earlier in the day, far from the hotel, and remembered it. To my dismay, I had forgotten the GPS restarting earlier in the day changed the 'START' of my journey.

I could almost hear Lloyd Bridges' character from Airplane: “he could be miles off course!”

And I was.

Lucky for me, there was another Bon next to the Annoying Inflatable Being so I stopped in for another smoothie. The same hand gestures I had used twice before for two different Bon employees this time yielded...a strawberry smoothie. I didn't mind.

I nearly collapsed in a heap. I had spent so much time pumping myself up for a 60 mile ride the prospect of riding another foot, much less another six miles, seemed impossible. My right leg in particular felt like it was wrapped in razor wire. I had used sunscreen that morning, but I wasn't sure where the suntan began and the 'grimeline' ended. I decided to take the commuter train south toward Gazcue, which would shave several miles from my trip but still put me over 60.

I headed to the train station and took a quick photo so I'd make sure I'd know what train I'd be on.

I entered the newly built train station and saw a pristine floor and an escalator – the first one I had seen so far this trip. I walked toward it, but a security guard walked right up to me and put a stop to my intention. While I had used pointing and hand gestures several times that day to order nourishment, he used pointing and hand gestures that told me loud and clear that I couldn't bring a bike onto the train.

“No bikes on trains?” I asked

He pointed to the Bike Friday again. “No bikes,” he repeated.

On vacation, I don't like to think about the pressures and hassles of home, and one of those things has been an inconsistent and counterproductive view of mass transit problems (which I wrote about for the Stamford Patch). But now, I was thinking about it.

Wherever you go, people are the same, I thought sadly as, defeated, I pushed the Bike Friday out the door and back into the 90+ degree heat.

I would have partially folded the bike and tried to get it past him, but I wasn't sure he'd fall for it. I resigned myself to riding six more miles. I remounted outside of the station. I snarled and mashed the pedals. The odometer hit and passed 60 miles and I didn't even notice until another mile had gone by.

I headed as far south as I could and eventually turned east so I could ride along the Caribbean Sea once again. It was at this time I could feel just enough strength to smile: I had done what I had set out to do even though I got it done in a way I didn't want to do it in.

Before long, I was back in familiar territory, and, as I thought, the total run of the day was to be 66 miles. With both me and the bike covered in dusty slime, I pushed it sluggishly but triumphantly into the hotel lobby a few minutes before 4:00pm. After cleaning the filth from myself and the bike, I packed the Bike Friday – much more carefully this time – into the suitcase.

However, I ran into a problem on the way out of the country: anticipating another 'what is this?' round of questions from airport security about the Kryptonite New York lock, I put it in the outside pocket of my carry-on bag so it could be reached easily. But the surprise came when the young security worker, who spoke little English, told me I couldn't bring the lock on the plane.

“But I brought it down with me as a carry-on,” I said repeatedly, even opening and closing the lock with the key to show them it wasn't anything dangerous. “Why can't I bring it back the same way?”

To everyone's amusement but mine, the worker mumbled something that included the English word 'weapon' and waved the lock in my face like it was a giant pair of brass knuckles. He may not have used the exact phrase “you have to go back and check it,” but that's what was being said.

I protested. The worker wouldn't budge. Frustrated at the prospect of heading back through security and paying extra fees and hassle to check the lock before wading back through the land of X-ray machines and pat-downs once again, I finally told him he could keep it and that it would 'make a nice paperweight' as I wasn't going to let him have it with the key.

My wife, who had enjoyed her sketchcation, was having none of it. She got into an 'I'll handle this' mode and before I could stop her she took the lock and darted back through the metal detector in the general direction to the check-in counters. For about 15 agonizing minutes I waited (unable to see her and with no cell phone I had no way to get in touch with her) but she soon reappeared with a triumphant little smile, explaining that she didn't have to make an additional payment to check the lock, but it couldn't head into the Toy Story 2 luggage maze unless it was in 'a bag with a zipper' so she bought one at an airport shop for $10 to put the lock in.

I groaned, but she reasoned the $10 was a worthwhile price to pay to ensure the lock's return. She also assured me she'd reuse the bag she had purchased. When it finally emerged, after the four-hour flight and an hour wait at the luggage carousel, I wasn't so sure – and was immediately embarassed for the lock.

Yes, my trusty Kryptonite lock had made it home in a bag that looked like someone had vomited tiny flowers over a black tarp.

Still, I was thankful that the lock and ourselves had made it safely back home. I was also glad to have made the trip to the 2012 Urban Sketching Symposium with my Bike Friday and am pleased to report I rode over 100 miles in three days while on vacation. I hope the Urban Sketching Symposium continues to pick interesting places to hold their annual event and that they give Montreal consideration because it would be nice to bring a mountain bike and road bike because it is a beautiful city that is truly sketchworthy. Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Biking Nations: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: Part I

I decided to go to the Dominican Republic because I wanted the opportunity to clone a dinosaur from a mosquito trapped in fossilized amber – and go biking.

Okay, the first part isn't true. I went to the Dominican Republic for the same reason I went to Portugal last year: my wife was going to the Urban Sketching Symposium and I decided to go with her. Parts of the trip involved spending time with her fellow artists, who are among the nicest and most talented people I've ever met – even when I'd inadvertently overhear passionate discussions about pens.

This is the second time I've hung out with the global representation of sketchers, and I must say that as long as the Urban Sketching Symposium organizers pick interesting places to hold their annual event, I'll always have another post for Biking Nations.

This trip was going to be different from that of Lisbon because instead of renting a bike on arrival at Bike Iberia, I was bringing the Bike Friday New World Tourist. I'll save some of the praise and details for Folding Bike Week 2012 (coming soon), but I had a problem before I even left the house: it's such a good road bike in its own right that one can easily forget how that it folds. I hadn't folded my Bike Friday since my trip to Orlando in December.

Here's the problem: if you forget how it folds, you forget how to fold it. If you forget how to fold it, you forget how to pack it in the suitcase. If you forget how to pack it in the suitcase, you are going to be in for an unpleasant surprise when you unpack it later.

I, of course, wasn't aware I had packed it incorrectly. The lid closed easily enough and I checked it at the American Airlines counter without extra fees and a total weight of 42 pounds (my bike shoes, tool bag and a light cable lock were also crammed in the Samsonite suitcase). Later, I passed easily through security, although my Kryptonite New York U-Lock I brought in my carry-on (in addition to the light cable lock checked with the bike) got a TSA agent to hand search my bag and send the big U-Lock through the X-ray machine by itself before I got a friendly 'have a good flight.'

After fewer than four hours in the air, we arrived, claimed our luggage and rode in a small van to Hotel Frances, located in the oldest and most historical part of the city that featured a serene courtyard.

Once we were settled in the room, my wife unpacked her wide and bewildering array of artist supplies (she had even brought a small scanner with her to post her sketches each evening of the Urban Sketching Symposium) while I began reassembling the New World Tourist. It went together easily like Bike Fridays do, but I was alarmed to discover the lightweight pump wasn't putting much air into the tires.

This wasn't good. I had no other means to put air into these tires (I'll eventually write a lengthy post on why Presta valves are stupid) and didn't understand what was wrong with the pump. I finally assumed that months and months of disuse, coupled with temperature changes when leaving the bike and tool bag in a Honda Element baking in the sun, had damaged the seal.

In full panic mode, I managed to coax just enough air into the tires that I thought would get me to Planet Bike, a Santo Domingo bike shop I had looked up weeks earlier, where I would just pray that the mountain bike-loving country would have a pump for my (stupid) Presta valves.

I also had the problem I was alluding to earlier. Upon turning the crank and shifting I discovered the derailleur hanger was bent. Horribly bent. Just-been-in-an-accident bent.

I ended up dealing with that problem in the morning, just after my wife left for her first day of sketching: I removed the rear wheel and derailleur before picking up my U-Lock (seen on the floor below) and banging the derailleur hanger into shape like Tony Stark making the first Iron Man suit. It was early in the morning in the hotel room and I was producing quite a din, but I hoped whoever I may have awoken just assumed it was the construction that was going on in the bar at the hotel's courtyard (which came out really nice, by the way).

After using the Kryptonite Lock in a manner inconsistent with its labeling, I suited up, applied sunscreen, put the heavy lock in my backpack, put the map I had gotten of Santo Domingo in the handlebar pocket, and set off in search of Planet Bike.

I wasn't able to find a whole lot about biking in the Dominican Republic before I left, so I wasn't sure if there was a big reason why more people weren't doing it. When I wasn't crossing my fingers in hopes the tires wouldn't get a pinch flat before I found Planet Bike, I was checking the city out.

There aren't a lot of cyclists there, unlike Delhi. For the most part, I'd see three-wheeled ice cream vendor trikes. As temperatures would be in the nineties all week, I was sure I'd take advantage of them before trip's end.

I found the traffic to be no more or less aggressive than some of the other places I've ridden. I don't ride without my helmet rearview mirror and am convinced I'd be a chalk outline without it. The cars passing me was fine (cars are left-hand drive and drive on the right side of the road!) but the real adjustment was the motorcycles. They come out of nowhere. Some are quiet. Some have bad mufflers and lung-choking fumes. All are fast. They scared me even more than the lurching buses or the cabs that would stop in the road and back up several feet for unknown reasons. If you go to the Dominican Republic and don't look both ways when you cross the street or if you are careless on your bicycle, you may be hit by a motorcycle that looks something like this: the Honda 50 Super Cub, which, with over 60 million sold globally since it was first built in the fifties, is the most popular motorcycle in the world.

Once I got used to the presence of these fast little bikes, I focused more intently on my destination. I made the proper turns mostly by accident since some street signs in Santo Domingo are hard to see or missing entirely, but eventually I found Planet Bike. To my relief, it was open.

I took advantage of the neat little ramp and wheeled my bike right inside. I began to breathe easier when I saw Presta pumps to my immediate left. The repair part of the shop was on a loft area in the rear of the store, where a woman working on a bike smiled at me while she was working on something. The floor associate, whose name I can't remember, came over to talk to me. He spoke good English and I explained the problem I was having putting air in my tires.

“What are you using now?” He asked.

I showed him my bruised Presta pump. He took it carefully in his hand and studied with an appalled expression before looking at me with a sincere smile and a certain look. It was a look I had seen on the faces of bike shop employees all over the world, and I found it comforting. The look meant: “The Bike Part or Accessory I am About to Sell You is Superior to the Bike Part or Accessory You Have.”

Wherever you go, people are the same, I thought happily as I broke into a smile of my own.

He showed me to a lightweight Bontrager frame pump, which, for $1,050 Dominican Pesos (About $30 U.S.) was a steal at twice the price. For the first time, I felt comfortable riding in Santo Domingo.

With the friendly Planet Bike employee helping me steady the Bike Friday as I got the tires back up to rock hard status, I thanked him for selling me the pump and a bottle of Gatorade before I set off. The bike was more responsive and livelier, and I felt I could finally open up the throttle.

I swung down into the south end of the city and came upon Parque Mirador del Sur. It was there I came upon a rare sight: someone on a bike.

Following his lead, I meandered through the park peacefully, and at one point came upon a bike rental spot that was closed, possibly since it was a weekday.

I would have meandered around longer, but the U-Lock blacksmithing of that morning and the slow and careful ride to Planet Bike had cost me a lot of time, so I headed back to town to reunite with my wife for lunch. We and a number of her fellow sketchers sat at outdoor tables at a restaurant on the outer edge of Colonial Park, where the statue of Christopher Columbus stands (the first picture on this post). Nearby was a guy making hats out of palm leaves to sell to tourists, and he was churning out a hat every 15 minutes. My picture came out poorly, but my wife's sketch of him didn't.

Soon after eating, my wife headed to her afternoon session and I returned to the hotel to collect the Bike Friday. I noticed that it was quite hot, so I decided to take a shorter ride around the colonial part of Santo Domingo. You could see the history of the area everywhere you went, such as the cannons that were installed on the wall near the 16th century Museo de las Casas Reales - possibly to fire upon cruise ships centuries later.

I also rode north of the colonial area, coming to parts of the city that weren't as economically advantaged as others, and some of it reminded me of Old Delhi. Here, however, the streets were wider, had larger vehicles, and four way intersections with nary a stop sign to be found. I didn't take out my camera as much as I wanted to because I was too busy keeping a sharp eye for dangers.

I soon returned to the colonial part of the city and rode about to get a better lay of the land. This wasn't easy because of all the one-way streets. The map I had didn't show me what directions the traffic moved in (which is information a cyclist needs). Additionally, many of the streets were paved much the same way one applies peanut butter to bread: just like you don't smear the peanut butter all the way to the crusts some of the streets of Santo Domingo don't go all the way to the curbs, so that was an extra hazard that made me wonder if there was a reason I wasn't seeing a single, solitary roadbiker. I saw a couple of purposeful bikes, but my New World Tourist may have had the only road handlebars for miles.

Still, it was nice to see the city, but the heat eventually made me call it quits after a 28 mile first day. That night I found another map of the city that had valuable information on it I copied onto the map I could keep in the map pocket.

The next morning, after more sunscreen and again packing the New York lock and water, I decided to head for the coast, which meant riding on the path set up between the road and the Caribbean Sea.

It's not a bad place to ride, but if you go biking in Santo Domingo just be aware the condition of the path isn't exactly topnotch since large sections of it have been pounded by angry seas.

I also decided during this period that on my next visit to this sort of climate, I'd bring a Camelbak. I packed a bottle cage for the Bike Friday but forgot the bottle, and even if I didn't I'd drink it extraordinarily fast. Even though I packed a 16.9 ounce bottle of water in my pack, I'd always want more and would buy a bottle from somewhere just to have something cold, and I'd drink it all in one motion if I didn't stop myself.

After exploring the path for a while, I decided to head back on the road itself. I was a little worried about the heavy traffic, but the drivers, probably used to avoiding the shoulders because of the peanut butter/crust gap with the pavement, mostly gave me a slightly safer berth than New York City drivers. The pavement was also in fine shape and I was able to really move at a fast clip. In no time, I arrived at the impressive, Caribbean Sea-side statue of Fray Anton de Montesinos, who defended the human rights of the Taino indians in 1511.

With my new knowledge of traffic flow, I returned to the colonial part of town...where I quickly got a flat tire. Thankfully close to Hotel Frances, I wheeled the bike into the room and, after much grumbling, got the tire off. A big-old Adam Savage 'Well, there's your problem!' moment came in seconds when my finger discovered a piece of steel wire, barely a quarter of an inch long and not much thicker than a human hair, sticking out of the tire. Not a serious enough problem to warrant using my one (and only) spare tube, I got out my Park Tool patch kit and sealed the tire. Thanks to my new pump, I reinflated the tube and got it back on the frame without problems.

Between the pump fiasco, the bent derailleur hanger and my first flat tire in eight months I was wondering what would be around the corner on day three. I decided it would be a perfect day without mechanical defects. Having gone just over 40 miles so far, I wanted to wrap up the trip with sixty more. This time, I'd bring plenty of water and have a plan, so I skipped riding the rest of the day to rest and figure out my route. No matter what, I was positive the last day of biking in the Dominican Republic would be both successful and memorable.

And it would be. Sort of. To be continued.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Saved From the Scrapheap: The Basket Case Columbia Roadster

Going to the dump is like going to Facebook. You don't really enjoy going there and most of what you see is forgettable junk, but every once in a while you see something you like...or will take from the top of the 'Metal Only' bin.

This is a Columbia Roadster, and the photo above is exactly how the bike looked the day I took it home. It looked as though it was in pretty good condition, but had a greasy black film all over it. I imagine it spent many, many years hanging from a hook in someone's garage. I wasn't sure what year it was, but according to (really!) the badge told me it was built in Westfield, Massachusetts between '61 and '75.

The whole bike seemed to be the American equivalent of the mysterious Raleigh Sports. However this bike didn't have purposeful baskets, it had frivolous tassels on the handlebars. Well, one, actually. I looked the bike over and knew that the tassel needed to have the wind pass through it once again, and I was determined to make that happen.

So first I set to work cleaning it. It took several towels and a few gentle chemicals, but eventually I got the bike cleaned up of all of the strange grime. Those of you with really good screens should see the difference right away - and I encourage iPad 2 people to compare the shots with iPad 3 Retina Display people.

Once done, I did something I should have done before I went through all that work: I put the bike on the workstand and spun the pedals. I witnessed something I had never seen before: the crank moved, the chain moved and the cog on the hub moved...but the wheel didn't. I was baffled.

Then I remembered: just like the Top Banana find of last summer, the Roadster had coaster brakes, and there must have been something wrong with the hub itself. I don't know how to fix hubs.

I broke out my floor pump and tried inflating the tires. Neither held air particularly well, and even if they did, doing something silly like coasting the bike down the hill so I could take a picture of the tassel would have been dangerous since the bike couldn't stop either.

So I was left with a Scrapheap bike that I couldn't fix unless I could find parts for it. I didn't have time to do a proper search, but then one day at a tag sale, I found what I realized I was looking for. I attached it to the handlebars of the bike with wire ties I disguised with leather shoelaces, and set up a brace at the bottom to make sure it would hold weight.

Yeah, it's no Peteroboro Basket Company basket, but for $2 - and for what I had in mind - it would do.

Next, I brought the bike up the basement stairs and into the backyard. I put a few things in the basket I thought were appropriate and carefully arranged a 'glamour shot.'

I emailed the picture to a couple of garden shops but didn't get any takers. However, when I sent the picture to my mother she was enthused and said she wanted it...even though my wife later pointed out that the white 'flowers' I had arranged in the basket were really weeds.

It isn't the normal end to a Saved From the Scrapheap post, but the vintage Columbia Roadster is about to spend at least the rest of the summer near my mother's garden in Mystic, Connecticut, where the wind will blow through the tassel once again - just like I wanted. Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Biking Nations: Delhi, India: Part II

I managed one feeble sunrise photograph from the window of the taxi as it was heading from my hotel. My body was sure it was almost 9:00 at night in spite of the evidence Delhi was providing to the contrary. I had denied myself coffee as I was trying an experiment to combat jet lag: to confuse my body clock as little as possible, I was going to drink my usual two or three cups of caffeinated goodness at 6:00 in the morning Stamford, Connecticut time, which was going to be in mid-afternoon, well after my group bike ride was to be over.

A Google search had brought me to Delhi by Cycle weeks earlier, and after a couple of e-mails between myself and one of the guides, I was convinced the Shah Jahan Tour, the company's 'classic' tour of Old Delhi, was the one I wanted. It also fit into my schedule, but barely: the day of the tour was the same day my wife and I needed to check out of our small Delhi hotel and check into the Leela Kempinski hotel in Gurgaon. So immediately after the tour I was to head back to the hotel, gather our bags, and take a reasonably-priced car service to Leela.

First I needed to accept the early meeting time, which was 6:30 in the morning in front of the Delite Cinema. Once I met the guide, Bert, I took a look at the provided transport for the three-hour tour.

The bikes looked good to me. Delhi was pretty flat and nearly none of the bikes or even trikes I had seen up to this point had derailleurs to speak about. I'm not sure of the brand that the bright orange bikes hailed from, but they were rugged, had reliable brakes, a comfortable seat and a cargo basket. The only thing that bothered me was the absense of the words 'Delhi by Cycle' in big, block letters on the down tubes. Didn't they realize what a great piece of marketing real estate that is?

Never mind.

In a few minutes, we were all assembled: the pretty Holland, who was on a six-week vacation far from the Netherlands. The friendly Frankfurt, who was on business from Germany, and a nice couple from the East Coast: Washington and Alexandria, who were in Delhi attending the wedding of a friend. Our group also included a co-guide riding in the back of the group, ostensibly to make sure none of us would fall behind.

Within minutes of setting off, I found appreciation for the 6:30am start time: it wasn't blazingly hot and the streets weren't altogether crowded. At first.

We were encouraged to use our bike bells as frequently as possible and we almost always rode in single file. While I had been assured we would stop from time to time so we could take pictures (we did) I found myself trying to capture everything about Delhi while I was in motion. I also became an expert at pulling my battered, on-its-last-legs Canon PowerShot out of my pocket, turning it on, taking a picture, and putting it back in without endangering myself, the other cyclists, or any of the citizens of Delhi.

For parts of the trip, it didn't feel as though there were any roads; just empty spaces between buildings that were wide enough to move through. On more than one occasion, things got narrow and I could literally touch the filthy and fascinating buildings – complete with the unusual utility wires that looked like that had been put on the buildings with Silly String containers. 

As we approached the spice market, the smells in the air began to change. Depending on where I was and whether I was inhaling or exhaling, I'd smell trash, people, spices, assorted food, and animals. From time to time we'd see livestock such as oxen pulling improvised wagons.

At one point, Bert stopped, parked his bike, and indicated to the rest of us to do the same. He headed into a building and we followed him as he led us on foot through a number of staircases that would give OSHA representatives cardiac arrest. But when we made it to the roof, we had our payoff.

Had Andy Dufresne been up there to hand out beer, it couldn't have been a more surprisingly tranquil morning on the roof.

The sun was higher in the sky by this time, and it was getting warmer. Moments after descending the stairs that may have been used as props in a Wes Craven film, we were back on our bikes and headed away from the spice market.

After seeing a few highlights I wasn't fast enough with the Digital Elph Quick Draw, we arrived at Civil Lines, an area the British settled after 1857. Bert, Frankfurt and Washington led the way through the steel gates and into the couryard.

Moments later, we all stopped for a cup of tea. I can't recall the circumstances that led to this discussion, but I ended up being given the chance to...finally...pedal a cycle rickshaw.

Holland, who was egging me on to try it, ended up being my passenger as I climbed on and mashed the pedals. Moments later, we were around the corner, out of view of the others where Holland and I laughed at the prospect of a self-guided tour before I made (barely) a wide U-turn to return the rickshaw. I couldn't imagine pedalling it with multiple passengers for hours and I was glad I had generously tipped the driver my wife and I hired earlier in our trip.

Washington, Alexandria, and Frankfurt laughed and took cell phone pictures as I brought the rickshaw to a stop and, after I thanked the owner, we all remounted our bikes to continue the tour.

The streets were getting more crowded by this time, but by now I was getting used to dodging unusual vehicles, people and animals. I gave rickshaw drivers an extra wide berth, as well as pedalers who were carrying things that obviously needed to get to where they were going by a certain time.

We stayed in a tight group most of the way toward Red Fort, which was built in 1648 and was occupied by the British from 1857 through that August day in 1947 when India became independent. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage site and an impressive tourist attraction.
Later on, we stopped at Karim's restaurant, a 99-year-old institution. We snacked on some yellow dal (lentils) and goat in a spicy gravy sauce while we talked about what we had seen so far that day and places we had traveled to.

Immediately after leaving Karim's, the most chaotic and unforgettable part of the trip was left: riding through the markets along some increasingly crowded streets.

We rang our bells almost constantly as we navigated our way through, trying to dodge everything and everybody Old Delhi was throwing at us. I nearly ran over a sleepy goat while making room for a passing motorcycle. People were carrying things from one storefront to another, and my eyes couldn't keep up with it all. I rarely got my camera out as I was too busy holding on to the handlebars. It wasn't until I got the picture below uploaded that I realized that what was in one of the bowls was brains.


After I put the camera back in my pocket and continued navigating through the craziness, I saw a thin man pull two live, squalwking chickens from a little three-wheeled truck. As casually as he was delivering the mail, he stepped into a nearby shop front that had a crude, bloodstained table in front with severed chicken feet all over the ground. Just inside, leaning agains the wall, was another guy, who looked bored and was holding a knife.

I was passing by too fast to see what happened next, but I don't think it worked out so well for the chickens. Still, I was seeing the markets in all of their glory, and I wasn't going to look at any cellophane-wrapped food in Fairway the same ever again.

Eventually, we made it out of that fascinating place and back onto the street where we made our way back to the original meeting point, Delite Cinema.

When we all disembarked, I thanked Bert for his outstanding guidance and exhanged pleasant goodbyes with Holland, Washington, Alexandria and Frankfurt. I snagged an auto rickshaw and headed back to the hotel, collected the bags, and took the reasonably-priced car service to Gurgaon.

And I slept the whole way there.

When I awoke, I had arrived at The Leela in Gurgaon, and felt more dazed than I had felt since the trip began. The hotel was enormous and packed with luxury that seemed like such a contrast to what I had seen I felt as though I had landed in yet another time zone. Too exhausted to do much else, I drank a cup of coffee – as it was about six in the morning in Connecticut – before settling in and watching Dual Survival dubbed in Hindi. I couldn't understand it but I'm sure Cody not wearing any shoes was mentioned.

I enjoyed the rest of my stay in India, and even though I missed biking in Old Delhi immediately, I realized that I had ridden a bike in Asia for the very first time. Three continents down, four more to go. Hope you get to do some of them yourself and look up Delhi by Cycle or the equivalent thereof when you get there. Till then, ride on the continent you're with, and thanks for reading.