I like biking — not the hardcore Harley-Davidson type of biking, with the tattoos, heavy drinking and Hells Angels, but rather the ‘soft’ bicycling that involves pushing pedals and holding onto handlebars.
I have fond memories of my dad teaching me to ride a bike, a daily ritual that continued until I had perfected the art. Sadly, since those childhood days are far behind me, I now only bike with my family when travelling, along park trails and scenic routes on city tours.
It’s a lovely way to explore a city: you can stop to admire the local colours and take pictures for posterity, or just soak it in and collect vivid images in your mind to cherish and relive at your convenience.
Biking in Karachi had definitely been on my bucket list, but I really didn’t know how to go about it. Imagine a woman riding a bike down a Karachi street when just walking down the street in some places is enough to get you unwelcome stares. I thought I’d enlist a friend and take the gawks in my stride but, yes, it would have made me more than a bit uncomfortable.
Then some time ago I had these sightings, more than once, of a group of bikers: once, on my way to the gym I spied two cars with bikes mounted atop a roof rack; another time, a group of bikers assembled in a corner of a busy intersection, poised and waiting for a break in traffic; and then finally near a fast food chain at the beach, offloading bikes and getting ready to go.
Of course, I knew I was going to join them. There’s safety in numbers, and this group was my answer! So after a little digging I found they were called Critical Mass and I signed up on their Facebook page.
Now I just needed a bike. Helpful group members told me I should look for a Japanese model, preferably Mongoose or Giant, and that the gears should be manufactured by Shimano. Having a helmet and a water bottle was a prerequisite, and elbow, knee and hand guards were optional. I took notes, but they worked like college notes do in the real world — I had the information, but no clue about how to apply it.
Luckily Asfandyar Kazi, an organiser of Critical Mass Karachi, kindly offered to take me all the way to Jackson Market for the best bargain deals on reconditioned Japanese bikes, as there is no outlet for new ones.
At Jackson Market, all I had to do was trek behind Asfandyar while he explored and bargained. The one time I opened my mouth I nearly put my foot in it and we both decided it would be wisest if I took a backseat in the bike-buying expedition. After meticulous checking and testing, we settled on a bike that was light, sturdy, road-worthy, had unworn tires, working gears and brakes, and a bell too, all crucial points that were on Asfandyar’s checklist. As for me, my major requirement was that the bike looked pretty!
We picked a bike that was at the lower end of the price range. According to Asfandyar, since these are all second-hand bikes, they don’t have any fixed market price and the seller usually quotes prices on a whim. Striking a bargain gets you a decent bike suitable for your needs and also keeps the market stable for everyone else.
Before joining the group on a ride I did a few runs on my own to get into the groove. I opted for one of the shorter rides lest I got tired. The first time I joined the group was also on a short ride closer to home so that I could call it off if I couldn’t keep up. I ended up testing my pedal power on the relatively easy Sea View ride and when I didn’t disgrace myself, I plucked up the courage to go on the Old City Ride.
We covered our run within the set time with ease and efficiency. The group itself was like a bike: at once quiet and efficient. It held us all together and yet was elastic. It made allowances for individual stamina and expertise, accommodating both the slow and the fast, encompassing both the seasoned biker and the first-timer. It was in sync with everyone’s needs: giving tips for a novice like me about adjusting gears and seat height, helping out with flats, arranging an accompanying truck for the tired, keeping an eye out for errant traffic and making pit stops for the photography aficionados among us. It was not tardy and yet not rushed. We moved like a group and yet we were flying solo.
Biking in Karachi was a beautiful and liberating experience. I could stop and stare instead of having to zip off because I was being honked at. My perspective changed once I saw things from a different pace and angle: it made me look at my surroundings with more awareness. Everything became more real, more alive, more vibrant and closer to my heart. Suddenly the pedestrians were not cardboard cut-outs or matchstick figures that whizz by your speeding car. They were real people. I could see their faces up close and personal. I could see the sweat on their brow, the furrows of worry on their faces, the grime and dust in their hair.
Now the cars seemed like heartless machines whizzing past us in their indifference and inexplicable impatience. Some of them almost knocked me down, and I wondered, what’s the rush? My supremely busy life slowed down, and the feeling carried through the rest of the day. Suddenly, everything was put into perspective.
Of course, we also got our fair share of curious onlookers. A lot of people, on foot or in cars, rickshaws and buses, stopped and inquired about the group. Some took pictures; some took down the group’s details with the intention of joining us, while others looked on bemused at the bunch of loonies. Some were cheeky and gave out catcalls; some displayed civic sense and waited for us to pass; some nearly ran us over.
As for me, old routes suddenly had a new charm. With the bike under me, I could actually feel the land, its slopes, gradients and inclines. I had been driving up and down Khayaban-e-Hafiz for years, but never noticed that it was a slope till I cycled along the road. I saw Saddar in its virgin state (well, as virgin as possible), free from haphazard traffic and teeming pedestrians. The old buildings, aglow in the morning light, bore the marks (such as pan pichkaris) of our callousness and indifference with quiet dignity and forbearance as they stood guard over our history. It was surprisingly clean.
My bike ride around Karachi instilled in me a sense of ownership for my city. The strong Clifton Bridge, graceful Frere Hall, matronly St. Joseph’s School and College, quirky Empress Market, massive Bunder Road and towering Habib Bank Plaza — landmarks of Karachi that I had never appreciated before — rose in splendour when I shed the comforts of a car and got out on a bike. This was my city and it can look pretty decent — all it needs is a strong blast from a fire engine hose and a slightly different perspective.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 24th, 2012.
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