Those who know me from Kathmandu will know that I hardly ever – or rather never – leave the house without my bike. My two-wheeled companion is my best friend and I would not know how to get around Kathmandu, or as a matter of fact any other city in the world. My bike gives me independence, freedom, exercise and it also gives me more exposure to the local population, wherever I live.
When I lived in London, I got my first new bicycle and I was so proud of it. I would nurture and clean it every day, especially when I biked on muddy roads or through the rain, which was unsurprisingly rather often. I would bike everywhere and even though I was told that cycling in London was dangerous, I managed to do it more or less every single day for about 10 years without being knocked off. It is the best way to get to know a city and even though I always run the risk of getting lost, it gives me an air of freedom.
Jonathan, one of my very best friends, who I met at City University in London, when I was doing my Masters in radio journalism, wrote the following about our first encounter on his website:
“She walked loudly (Billi never does anything quietly) into the lecture theatre on the very first day, scanned the assembled crowd and bounded up to me, bicycle saddle in hand (another story) and boomed, “Hello, I”m Billi from Germany, who are you?”
Yes – bicycle saddle in hand! In London, you had to lock everything on your bike and whatever was not fixed properly you had to take with you (like the saddle) as bike theft in London is very common. I am actually still amazed that I managed to get through 10 years there without having my bike stolen. As a matter of fact, the only place where I ever had a bicycle stolen was in Bern in Switzerland!!
The reason why I am writing about my bike today was a little encounter on Friday night when I arrived at the “Boarhole” (my friend Christian’s meeting place in Islamabad) together with a friend of mine in a car. Christian’s housemaid looked at me in shock and horror and said: “Where is your bicycle?”
And this was not the first time, someone had asked me that question. On my way to Everest Base Camp last year, I bumped into a Spanish guy who knew me from Kathmandu and when he was walking towards me, he was shouting: “Where is your bicycle?”
I guess I have become known for going everywhere on my bike. When I flew to Tel Aviv to start my job with the United Nations in Jerusalem in February 2008, the lady at the check-in counter could not believe that I was taking a bike and told me that it was dangerous to cycle in Jerusalem. “Because of the bombs?” I asked…. but no – because of the traffic! And as it turned out she was right. I don’t think I have ever cycled in a city where cars drive so recklessly and are so ignorant about cyclists like in Jerusalem.
I have biked in every city I lived in and wherever I go I either hire a bike or, when I am in Europe, I put my bike in my 22-year-old VW Passat so I can use it once I park my car. I hate walking in towns – it is too slow for me. However, when I found out about my job in Islamabad, my first question to the Swiss Development Cooperation, who sent me there, was whether I could cycle in Islamabad.
Biking in Islamabad
After having made a few phone calls, Corinne, who has now become a very dear friend of mine, replied saying that I could cycle. Phew – I was relieved! However, on my arrival at Islamabad airport I already felt from out of space as people were checking out the big box I was wheeling around, wondering what was in it.
And then came to first day I dared venturing out on my two wheels. I remember feeling very uncomfortable as people – mainly men – were staring at me. Of course, I was a novelty and even though there have been women cycling in Islamabad before, I think I am currently the only woman biking at the moment – at least I have not seen another female cyclist since I have been here.
However, after that initial shock of feeling like in a circus I decided that I would just ignore the stares and get on with it. Of course, I always wear some sort of longish robe when I get on my bike but that does not stop the local population from staring.
Good Morning, Billi
The nice thing about it is that most security guards and policemen at the checkpoints know me by now and when I whizz past them on my way to work or to the swimming pool they wave to me with a big smile and those, who know my name, shout “Good Morning, Billi”. And this normally puts a huge smile on my face and makes my day!
Of course, there are some people who do not think it is appropriate for a woman to cycle around Islamabad – and there are two reasons for their reservations: one is the culture and the other is security. The cultural thing is actually quite tricky, as it has stopped me venturing outside the capital city. I guess that in any other country I would have been on my bike on weekends exploring the surrounding areas but here it is quite difficult. Islamabad is reasonably open to modern things, however, when you get out of the city it changes and I guess that a woman on her own on a bike would be offensive.
So, I will just stay with my bike in Islamabad and cycle to work, the swimming pool and back and even though it is not really a great adventure, it still makes me happy!