Posted in February 2013

American Accent

February 8th, 2013


Country/Day:    India/3

Bikes fixed:                5

Bikes/Day Avg:             1.6


I last left off with a general description of the experience of being here, and especially the presence of bicycles, the traffic, and the food.


I forgot to mention last post that while on a ride with the local cycling group I had to go around an elephant. He was just being ridden down the side of the road… I also saw some monkeys. Oh, and today I had to wait for a monkey family to cross the road on my way to work. I mean, it’s India, so waiting is just a suggestion… but anyways.


At some point on the ride that morning, Prabhat said to me, “Left! Left!” What I thought he meant was “turn left,” which was confusing, because there wasn’t a turn to make. What he actually meant was that there was a car coming and I had instinctively pulled to the right side of the road — wrong. So, there are still some things I’m getting used to. That was day 2; on day 3 (today) I don’t think I once passed someone on the wrong side. People will give you a second to figure out what you want to do, and I have used that second quite a bit. But I don’t think I passed anyone on the right. Awesome.


View from the shop.

I mentioned in my last post that I learned a lot, that the main bicycle of India has components they don’t even mention in American mechanics’ school, and that I didn’t even know their type of brake existed.

In the US, the vast majority of wheels are machine-made. When building bicycles for sale, they come mostly assembled, and the wheels need only minor adjustment. Building wheels from scratch is considered an art form reserved for only the most experienced mechanics. Hand-built wheels are revered, not to mention extremely expensive. As the head mechanic builds them everybody else in the shop oohs and ahhs and takes notes on his technique. In fact, the ability to build a quality wheel is very much the benchmark of someone’s skill as a bicycle mechanic

In the type of shop I work in, none of the wheels are machine built. I got to work the first day and not only was I to build a bicycle of a type I’d never seen before, but I was to start by building the wheels for it. Granted, these are pretty basic wheels — the kind a head mechanic at a bike shop in the US wouldn’t care to spit on — but building a wheel of any quality still takes skill (some would argue building wheels with low quality parts takes more skill, because the thing compensating for the low quality… is you).

I knew what I was doing, but seeing the mechanic at this shop whip through a wheel build in half the time it took me was very humbling.


Coworkers: Mechanic on the left; the three little helpers to his right, who lace wheels just as fast as I do.


While I have learned a lot, I have also taught a lot, too. I don’t want to start making suggestions for at least a few weeks, but sometimes I’m just plain asked how I might do something. As soon as I opened my tool bag, there was endless oo-ing and ahh-ing and “How much does this cost?” and “Can you get us a wholesale account with Park Tool” (you guys really should have sponsored me, BTW)? All in broken English, of course. I can’t overestimate how much of our communication is gestures. The mechanic can count to eight, the manager speaks broken English, and the kids just speak to me in Hindi.


I keep hoping I’ll “talk pretty one day” — re: David Sedaris’s story where he learns French by not hearing any English. I do get to use English now and then — mostly at home and sometimes with the manager at the shop — but 80% of my communication is gestures and asking people to repeat things. Hindi is nothing like English though, so it is hard. For starters, it’s not a Latin language (I now realize why I so easily picked up French and Spanish. Perhaps our early schooling should not teach us just any foreign language, but one without Latin roots?). On top of that, it’s written in script, so no dictionary can help me learn it unless I first learn the script (that is, looking up any word yields a set of symbols, which I can’t possibly pronounce nor rewrite with any justice). I’m working on learning the symbols, as they are the sounds of the language. I’ve got a few down but still have a long way to go.


Anyways. Technology barriers. Language barriers. It’s all part of the fun.


Oh, and here’s a bike I built today:




Okay, mostly it was an excuse to photograph the kids, but I did build that bike.


And yea, it’s a kid’s bike — building every bike in the shop before you do anything else is sort of a rite of passage in the bike world.


Also today, I was putting  a bike together and couldn’t figure out how to get the chain guard on (a chain guard is a piece of plastic or metal covering the top of the chain, both to protect the chain from the elements and to protect one’s clothes from the chain). I tried a few different things and was feeling quite flustered, since it’s something I’d done a million times before on different bikes. Anyways, at some point I called over the manager. He took a look at it, had me try a few different things, then called over the mechanic. They chatted for a while in Hindi, then the mechanic looked at me and said something relating to “Indian parts,” for which we all laughed. He took the part to the neighbor (a picture framer) and used his circular saw to cut off the part I was having trouble with. Go figure.

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2 Bikes, 2 Days

February 7th, 2013

Country/Day:    India/2

Bikes fixed:                2

Bikes/Day Avg:                2

So I’ve had two full days here (okay, technically only one  (okay, technically today isn’t over yet, but let’s forget about technicalities) and I’ve already managed to make my daily average of one bike a day. I admit, I was expecting to worry about housing more than bike repair for the first week or so.




India. It’s big. There are lots of people. There aren’t really any lanes. I mean, it’s confusing enough as is, because I’m used to driving on the right side of the road, but to make it even worse, I can if I want to. See, the rules of the road are more like “guidelines” here. It seems like people intend to ride/drive in lanes on the correct (left) side of the road, but if it’s more convenient to drive elsewhere, they do. It’s like a game of Tetris… except all the pieces are bendable… and it’s a race… and there’s another game of Tetris being played next to the first, except upside-down.



So here we have: us, a bus in front of us in a magical lane a bit to the left of us, a car ahead and to the right of us, a few motorcycles who decided they could fit between the car and the bus, and a pedestrian asking one of the motorcycles to move out of the way so he can cross the road.


It really is quite interesting. The other thing — it works. You’d think with all the rule-breaking (*ahem* — suggestion breaking) there’d be many accidents, but… well, there’s not.


I think the honking helps. Honking is used like turn signals, except in places where you can’t see the turn signal. Approaching someone from behind? Honk. About to get merged into? Honk. Going to pass someone? Honk. It actually works really well. It takes a bit to get the hang of it, but I did a lot of biking today and had no problem not getting run into (bikes use bells in place of horns).


Oh, so the biking.


There are bikes everywhere. 



I see your bike and raise you a bike.

There isn’t really a photo that can do it justice, because it’s very much an ongoing thing (though, I think I did a pretty good job — in the photo above, you can see two cycle ricksaws and two cyclists on the road, more than you’d see in the US). There are never hoards of cyclists (except at the metro stations, where rickshaws are lined up like scales on a snake), there are just cyclists everywhere. They are carrying only themselves just as often as they are carrying other people (rickshaws carrying people in the back, or just regular two-wheelers carrying a baby or even a full-grown person on the rack) or anything else you can think of — pipes, food, trash… if it can be carried, you can find it on a bicycle somewhere in India (a favorite scene thus far was watching some folks at a furniture shop load a full size mattress onto a rickshaw).

Anyways, more on bikes later. I have 90 days to talk about bikes. I also have to mention that aside from traffic being everywhere — well, everything is everywhere. There are people getting a shave on the side of the street. I recently learned that if it doesn’t have a cement roof, it doesn’t need to be registered as property, so it can be set up on public land without a permit. And to maintain the potential of future expansion/renovation, the government owns the land on either side of most major roads for anywhere from 5-30 yards. Read: That’s public land. Read: Anyone can set up any shop they want to on it.

…I guess I should get a picture to put here.

The food is wonderful, but my stomach is confused. No, not upset — confused. The food isn’t processed… at all. (Keep in mind for this paragraph that I’m staying at a private residence:) My host family owns a plot of land outside the city and all the vegetables we eat have been grown there (we only eat vegetables, grains, and (rarely) dairy). They aren’t sprayed with anything, and the old/bad vegetables become compost for the next season. I’ve had (and grown myself) food like this, but never have I had it as the entirety of every meal for multiple meals straight. I think the only thing I’ve had to eat that wasn’t harvested locally within the past few days has been the grains — rice and bread. The roti (sort of like naan) is made fresh, but the millet or corn was bought.


So here’s what I had for dinner tonight. In the bowl upper left, you can see… erm, I’m actually not sure what that’s called, but it’s some kind of pureed vegetable. From top right to bottom right, a glass of water (it’s always either that or chai), some masoul qui dal (“legume soup,” but I spelled it wrong, and also it’s a specific kind of masoul qui dal which probably has a different name entirely (hey, I’m trying, okay?)), and some pureed spinach, without ghee (clarified butter) (ghee helps things taste less… raw).

On my plate you can see sabji (mixed vegetables, but again, probably a specific kind with a different name entirely), roti with a spinach-like vegetable cooked into the dough, and potato… prepared… somehow.

Okay, I’m still working on figuring out what exactly this all is. But hey, at least it’s good.

– – –

So yesterday, among other things, I was introduced to Fauji Cycles, where Prabhat has arranged for me to volunteer. I’m not sure what all was said, but it was Prabhat talking to the shop manager in Hindi, then turning to me and saying, “He understands.”

I thought, well, that’s good. What is it he understands exactly?

The longer I’m here, the clearer it becomes to me that being humble is the best way to be. I really think there’s a way for me to lend a hand, but I don’t pretend to know exactly what way that is.

Also, the clearer it becomes that I need to learn some Hindi. I was under the impression I wouldn’t need to learn any, but that it would help. After day 1 I was under the impression that no, I didn’t need to learn any… but that it would help… a lot. So I went out and bought a book on how to speak, read and write Hindi. Add that to my to-do list. Day 2 and I’ve got a few forms of “Hello,” I’ve got “Yes,” “No,” “What’s your name?” and “My name is Kyle.” So, you know, progress.

Anyways, aside from a walk to, through, and back from market, I spent most of the day with Prabhat. While on that note, I want to shout out to him and say THANKS!!!! You’re making this project possible and it’s clear I’d be nowhere without you. So, thank you.

Today I spent the better part of the day by myself, and (accidentally) working at the bike shop. I went for a ride with a local cycling club this morning and instantly made some friends. This weekend I’m apparently hosting a “Bike Mechanics 101” class in Prabhat’s front yard. Three of the guys from the club want to see me completely take apart a bike and then put it back together. I haven’t done that in a while, so it should be fun. Also, they are paying me with beer. So, more fun.

After the ride I had breakfast, went to visit Prabhat at his work (he works at a place called Aravali Scholars, a non-profit after-school program for bright students. Interesting fact — they use Kahn Academy), and then went to take the metro (/light rail, sort of) to Dehli. I decided to stop at Fauji Cycles on the way, to confirm I would start tomorrow. I’m sure it had nothing to do with communication errors (…) but somehow I ended up working from then until 8 PM.

About that.

I came to India knowing how to do a lot with bicycles. I’m certified, I’ve worked professionally and as a volunteer, and aside from direct involvement with bicycles I just like to fix things.

I learned so much today.

For starters, the most common bicycle used in India is what I call the “last a lot.” It’s built like a tank and has a life expectancy of approximately forever:


Notice the front brakes are a last-a-lot special… but also non-existent in the US:


In every other model ever, the brake pads squeeze the rim or disc between them. Those models are, I think  (rudimentary mental physics at 12 midnight), able to achieve superior leverage. Those models also need regular service. These don’t.

There’s also the stand-up special.


Long story short, I learned a lot today. Through gestures and counting (the head mechanic can count to eight in English… that’s all the English he knows) we filled my gaps and I managed to build two of these guys before heading home for the day.

There really is a lot more to say but I am nodding off… so… more later. I apologize for any glaring grammatical/spelling errors. Sometimes fatigue gets the best of us.



2 thoughts on “2 Bikes, 2 Days

  1. Erik Noonan says:

    Those brakes are really cool and so extraordinarily more practical. They are also, from the pictures I have found of early 20th cent bikes, the original way of having brakes work.

    • Kyle says:

      Pictures! Show me! I always thought spoon brakes were the originals. At least in the US.

      Anyways, yes, they are really cool and freakin’ reliable. I worked on a bike that got hit by a car today and the brakes didn’t need adjustment at all.

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Welcome to India

February 6th, 2013


2:30 AM here in Gurgaon, India! Yes, I made it safely. I’ve been here for a grand total of two hours, so there’s not much to report.


Except that I’m, you know, in India.


From Minneapolis I took an A330 to Amsterdam. Here’s a photo of the route — remember, this is half of what I traveled today:


I think the curvy route you see mapped out is the actual route, not a “cartoon arrow” drawing. Being a math major, I was trying to figure what would be the fastest way to change longitude. Because cross-sections of the earth’s latitude lines have a smaller circumference at higher latitudes, you travel less distance  if you bend towards the nearest pole than if you make a straight line towards your destination. Hope that made sense — it helps to imagine a globe instead of looking at a flat map. Anyways, just me geeking out about optimization.


They served dinner and breakfast which I thought was nice, and surprisingly good. Also, I managed to catch evidence of a something I call the “space shadow,” which happens when the sun is lower in the sky than an airplane. As a result, the shadow of the airplane can be seen somewhere in space, not on the ground (the place where we usually think of shadows being). In the following photo you can clearly see the sunlight coming from the bottom of the wing:


*ahem* Anyways… we landed in Amsterdam without incident, and I headed straight for my gate to India as I only had an hour and ten minute layover. Amsterdam was a really cool airport, and really interesting. The first thing I noticed was that all the ads were in Dutch, but all the directions were in English. Apparently their target audience is local… even in the international terminal. Just thought that was interesting.

This is probably a given, and so a little less interesting, but there were all sorts of languages and accents floating around. As many people spoke Dutch as they did English, and I also heard French, Chinese, Hindi, and some others. It was nice to be out of the US. On that note, the flight attendants on the Delta flight to Amsterdam spoke only English. The flight attendants on the KLM flight to Delhi spoke English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, and Hindi. Hmmm….


Anyways, made it to the gate with time to kill, because this was the line for security:



Amsterdam does security checks for international flights at the gate, so you don’t have to go out and come back in, you just have to wait in line again.


And now I know why 747s aren’t such a big deal. They hold 393 people. 393 people is a lot of people. In not-so-much-a-good-way.



Anyways, I can check off that childhood dream. I did have to check my backpack because it had a bike lock in it, which I thought was interesting, given Holland is the bicycle capitol of the world and all. There was lots of vehement discussion between two of the security officers about it, and I had no idea what was going on. It made me wish I had stuck to my Dutch lessons even though I didn’t get the Watson (side note — I did think about just staying there and doing Holland instead of India).


So we made it into Delhi, I got through passport control, grabbed my bags (nothing lost, stolen, or missing, which I’m told is rare when flying into Delhi), and stepped out to meet Prabhat, my host for the next week or so. He took me home — here’s my room:


I sat in a driver’s side-right car for the first time, and saw a lot of other things I’d never seen before, but I’ve got three months here, so I’ll get into that later.


Oh, and I won’t elaborate on this any more than I have to, because if you don’t know, you don’t want to know, but all the things you’ve heard about the bathrooms here are true.


Tomorrow: Bike hunting.

6 thoughts on “Welcome to India

  1. Jenna says:

    So glad to hear to made it savely! Can’t wait to hear more! Miss you already, Di! <3

  2. Laura Egerdal says:

    Excited for more updates on your trip. Be safe, have fun, and fix bicycles!! 🙂

  3. Kurup says:

    Hi Kyle,
    Great to know that you r in India. Glad to see that you had a very happy and nice trip.
    Hope you know me thro’ Priyesh/Laura. We r Priyesh’s parents. Please let us know your itinerary of the next 3 months. Pl mail us on the above ID. We r sure that you will make it a point to visit Bangalore.
    Shall mail more on hearing from u. Take plenty of rest at your friend’s house.
    Lots of Luv…..Kurup Uncle/aunty

    • Kyle says:

      Hi Aunt and Uncle Kurup,

      Not sure of the itinerary yet but you will be the first to know! I think I will be making it south at some point and I would very much like to meet you.


      • Kurup says:

        Hi Kyle,
        Tks a lot for yr reply. Nice to see that u r enjoying bit a bit of yr visit. We r excited to see that may make it a possibility to come to South before yr return. This morning Priyesh phoned up and informed us about your reply in the web…I usually wait reply on my home-page, hence missed your reply earlier!!!
        Well..all the best and thrill on your venture…Lots of luv…Uncle/aunty

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Things You Can’t Forget

February 4th, 2013


This project has come a long way, from being a proposal for a Watson Fellowship, to making it to the finals and not getting it, to having a few name changes and a few logistical changes, to Guatemala canceling on me the day I bought a plane ticket, to biking across the country instead, to spending three months getting a visa to India… the list goes on.

And today it becomes a reality.

Did I mention I get to fly in a 747? That’s been on my to-do list since I was like, five.


I’d like to make some long elaborate speech here about — well I’m not sure what it would be about, but that’s just the point. I’m not good at speeches… I’m just good at taking things for what they are. And what this is is me getting on a plane to India to try and make a small part of the world a better place.

So today I woke up, had some breakfast, took my dog for a walk, and started packing.

In a bit here, I’ll run some errands, finish packing, take one last hot shower, and then get on a plane to India.


I’m super excited.


Will try and update within a week.

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