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Saturday, June 9, 2012

The freedom of two wheels, two legs, and two lungs; using your own body to get you places.

       In Massachusetts, I live in the suburbs. In Vermont, I live in a small city. Buenos Aires is an enormous city. These three places are listed in order of increasing convenience in regard to human-powered transportation in comparison to public or private carbon-fueled transportation.
       If I were to take the Subte (metro) to the IES center, it would take me ten minutes to walk to the train station, 25 minutes to ride the train to the center, and ten more minutes to arrive at IES on foot. I would be underground for most of the time, crammed into a train-car, and out of the dynamic city streets that crisscross Argentina’s capital. Arriving by colectivo (bus) takes around 45 minutes as well, and you have to deal with traffic and stoplights. Boring. Taxis cost a fortune, and you have to deal with traffic. Not fun.
       It takes 25 minutes to bike from my apartment to the IES center if I take my sweet time. 18 minutes if I get lucky with the lights and hustle a bit. It’s 4.32 miles…not that far. I also burn more calories (more food I get to eat), and get to see the city from a whole different perspective. I’m neither a car nor a pedestrian. I can run red lights (always look both ways before running a red light), hop up onto sidewalks, squeeze between cars and buses, and stop and start whenever I need to.
       I’ve been told that I’m out of my mind for biking in Buenos Aires. That’s totally not the case. I do seem to tolerate a higher level of uncertainty than most, but that’s only what it looks like on the surface. I don’t just hop on a bike and start meandering down the street. I cycle at home, and I biked throughout Madrid every day last spring. If you didn’t know how to drive, would driving be dangerous? If you didn’t know how to ski, would bombing down a black diamond be dangerous? Yes! Absolutely! The same goes for cycling. Even though I’m surrounded by big metal objects and very hard pavement as opposed to being inside a big metal object or moving on top of snow, it’s all about reacting quickly, avoiding bad situations, and assuming that no one is ever going to adhere to the traffic laws (are there any traffic laws?). You don’t have to be faster than the cars; you just have to accelerate quicker than they do, and understand that the lines on the road and traffic lights mean oh so very little.
       Until recently, I hadn’t fallen at all. This past week, avoiding a pedestrian who decided to walk into the middle of the road, I swerved, went flying, and ate some pavement. The problem is that people don’t look for bikes, and at that they’re easier to miss. Luckily, I just have a bit of road rash on my arms, legs, and back, and was indeed wearing a helmet.
       The last time I rode in a car, bus, or train was about a month ago. I can get everywhere I need to go with my own human-power, and I’m not contributing to the pollution that Buenos Aires donates to good ol’ mother earth. It bewilders me that people drive such short distances, or at that, drive to the gym to run on the treadmill or ride a stationary bike.
       Something interesting about Buenos Aires and most other parts of South America is that property rights are poorly defined. What do I mean be that? People steal stuff. People steal everything, bikes included. When you ride somewhere, you either take your bike inside, or leave it at a parking garage for 1 peso or so ($.20 US) per hour. I use a ~10 lb kryptonite chain to deter hoodlums, gang members, and the like.
       For something that’s such an important part of my life, I didn’t want to skimp on quality, and have a pedal fall off while I’m bombing down an avenue. I spent a good amount of money on a nice mountain bike, but things down here hold their value much better than they do in the states; I’ll be selling it before I head back to Vermont.
       I have a bit more than a month left down here. Though navigating the streets has gotten easier, I can’t let myself get comfortable with it. When you drop your guard, that’s when things go wrong. My parents don’t want me coming home in body bag. That would put a damper on things. Though riding with traffic is exhilarating, getting hit by a bus is not; whenever I can, I stick to the bike paths. Just because I can ride with traffic, doesn’t mean that I should. It only takes one more awful driver that I don’t see to really ruin my semester. That being said, a bike provides freedom, and freedom is what we like most.
       Buses and trains have set routes, taxis are expensive, and walking takes forever. Having a bicycle lifts those travel restrictions, and for me is the difference between walking normally and essentially being on crutches. Time is always of the essence (cliché, I know), and as the world spins madly on (yep, Weepies), looking up and becoming a part of what’s going on around you can turn into one of life’s great but simple pleasures.