One common theme in all of these densely populated Colombian cities is heavy traffic and noxious fumes. The traffic in Cartagena in particular seemed to always be at a standstill within the small historical center of the walled city. The roads are narrow, and sidewalks are insufficient in width for the amount of foot traffic they receive. Within the Centro Histórico, bicycling is absolutely the best mode of transport. I cannot imagine having to navigate a car there (and having to sit in it for countless hours while breathing in those fumes over the course of a week).
Driving in Colombia has been quite an experience. All of the times I’ve ridden in the car with my dad didn’t even come close to preparing me for the style of driving that people are accustomed to here. It makes me wonder where these people learned to drive and leaves me astounded that we haven’t witnessed any serious crashes so far.
From the taxi and bus drivers to the police, the motorcycles and our own personal host in Cartagena, nobody hesitates to cross into oncoming traffic lanes in order to pass other drivers, even when oncoming traffic is imminent. Our host, Miguel, even crossed into the oncoming lane to pass cops and buses. I’ve learned that as long as there is a bit of space in front of the vehicle, the driver will continue to accelerate, probably to avoid another car coming to cut them off. If there isn’t much traffic on a road, it doesn’t matter how twisty and narrow or hilly it is – the drive will be fast. However, in the city, there is never not much traffic. It always smells like diesel and gasoline exhaust, and the fumes are sometimes intolerable. The only vehicle where the seat belts were actually in working order was the tuktuk we took up a long, steep, unpaved road from San Jeronimo up to the Finca where we stayed in the mountains for a few days.
Whenever I’m in a moving vehicle on the road in Colombia, I have to relax and tell myself that these people know what they’re doing. Besides, I have little to no control over the situation, so if I want to get somewhere I have to trust the drivers with my life.
In Cartagena, I had the great fortune to try my hand at driving myself. Miguel was driving us back from the beach after a tiring few hours of kitesurfing. Traffic was moving more slowly than usual, and Miguel suddenly asks me if I know how to drive. I’m sitting in the back seat with Hannah, a German who is also staying at his AirBnB rental, and Dallas is in the passenger seat. Miguel suspects there is a police checkpoint up ahead, which is slowing everything down. He hadn’t had so much to drink that he couldn’t drive, but he didn’t want to risk getting checked by the cops. I was the only one who hadn’t had any beer, so Miguel pulled over so we could all switch positions.
Miguel has a small Kia Picanto that I had never seen before. It’s very cute and perfect for driving in a congested city (not counting the motos and bicycles). I hadn’t driven a manual transmission in a few years, but the car was easy to drive and handled well. Even though there were police up ahead, people didn’t change their driving styles, and cars were sneaking in front of me if I left them enough space. It wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be, but I was happy to hand over the wheel to Miguel again once he deemed us clear of the checkpoint zone.
So many people have been shocked and maybe impressed that Dallas and I are riding our bikes through the winter. At least once a day someone tells me, “I can’t believe you’re still riding in this!” Well, to be honest, I would much rather ride my bike in this snow than drive a car. Don’t get me wrong. Cycling in the winter has its own drawbacks and discomforts, but I feel I have no right to complain about the choice I made not to have a car, even in the worst of winter conditions. I have no regrets and am happier than ever to ride my bike instead of drive. Here’s a few reasons why.
I am still getting outside and incorporating activity into my daily commute (and sometimes for fun as well, although we have both been heavier on the yoga and other indoor forms of exercise these past few months) – as long as I’m dressed appropriately, I feel much better than I would if I were sitting in a car (and in the crawling traffic jams that seem to be everywhere during snowy rush hours). From the moment I step outside I am moving, keeping my body warm. The snow adds a bit of a balance challenge, and the cars sliding around add a danger factor (how exciting). I have to ride my bike differently in the winter, watching out for snow and ice and taking my turns cautiously. I may have to change my course to avoid hills or roads that present hazards I would rather not deal with. I have a little more trouble looking over my shoulder for cars because I have to turn half my body around to see beyond my hood, which I have pulled up over my helmet. I adapt to these challenges, and I even enjoy them for a time. I feel more confidence on my bike as I learn how to improve my balance on these challenging surfaces.
Driving a car in this weather actually seems like hell. There is no room on the roads for cars to pass each other on many of the side streets, because the snow is stacked so high along the sides of the roads. The sidewalks are so inconsistently cleared that pedestrians are forced to walk in the street, creating yet more obstacles for drivers. Cyclists are forced to ride in the middle of the road, if there ever was a bike lane, because all the snow is in the parking lane and cars are parking in the bike lanes. Where there are parked cars, they stick out, adding to the difficulty of navigation. Why drive when you end up sitting in a line of traffic, catching the same red light for 3 or 4 (or more) cycles before you finally arrive at the intersection? Why drive when there’s nowhere for you to park your car? What are you supposed to do when you finally do arrive are your destination and there’s a parking ban because of the snow? It’s more work to have a car in the winter than it is to bike, in my opinion. If you’re not spending hours shoveling your car out of your driveway, you’re spending money for someone else to do it for you. Unless you keep your car in a heated garage, you spend the first 10 minutes of your trip just sitting there freezing, waiting for the heat to kick in.
The one thing I could live without are cars. And salt on the road. I know the salt makes the roads less slippery, but it really destroys my bike. If you are riding in the winter, make sure you clean off the salt to prevent corrosion on your bike. It’s not an easy task. If it weren’t for cars, the roads probably wouldn’t get salted. I wouldn’t have to worry about them slipping on ice and sliding into me, or driving way too close because the roads are half as wide as they normally are. I wouldn’t have to turn around so far to look behind me before making a left turn because there would be no cars to plow me down from behind.
As I mentioned, cycling does have its own drawbacks and discomforts during the winter season. But I believe they are far outweighed by the positives. The worst part about winter cycling (besides having to watch out for scary cars) is that my body can never seem to distribute heat evenly. My hands and feet and face are most vulnerable, while the rest of my body will be overheating. Maybe I just haven’t figured out the right gear – and this changes daily depending on the outside conditions.
My dad gave me a set of Bar Mitts for Christmas, which have been a lifesaver (or hand saver). They keep the wind off my hands and I’m able to wear lighter gloves, but depending on the temperature, but hands will still freeze with heavy winter cycling gloves inside the Bar Mitts, or they will be sweating profusely along with the rest of my body, while my feet are still solid ice cubes. This is a personal problem, and everyone needs to experiment with different layers in different conditions to determine what works for their own body. I’m afraid I’m just doomed to have perpetually cold feet (even in the summer). A face mask can help keep the cold wind off my face, but then my glasses usually fog up if I breathe. These are problems I can deal with temporarily, but they do require that I bring a dry change of clothes with me wherever I’m going. I still think it’s better than driving. All that said, I am ready for winter to be over!
Dallas and I decided to go to Durango, CO to visit with our friends and pet-sit for them and their friends over the holidays. In the month that we were living in the bay area, we were able to get by working random jobs found on craigslist. We also could not have stayed as long as we did without the hospitality of Dallas’s sister, Sherilyn, and step-mom, Sandra. We also were warmly welcomed by Dallas’s friend Linus and his family, his cousin Tommy and his girlfriend, and his Aunt Lisa (who makes excellent banana bread) and her husband John. I am very grateful for Dallas’s friends and family and so glad I could meet them!
Dallas was lucky to find a part-time job as an assistant for a man who had just had foot surgery and needed help running errands, picking the kids up from school, and general help around the house. He was just able to start driving again the week we left California, so the timing worked out pretty well. I found gigs as a foot model for ankle jewelry being sold on Amazon, and spent another three days as a background runner for a Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial. Sandra also gave me some work, as she needed help tagging assets for one of the biotech companies that employs her as their facilities manager. For the amount of time we had in the area, we did pretty well. Living as a temporary resident of the bay area, I was able to observe and take note of a few unique characteristics.
Biking around downtown San Francisco, everyone is in a hurry. There are also lots of traffic lights (and tons of traffic). I got to practice my track stand and acceleration from a stop countless times on each commute, while other bike commuters rolled on through most of the lights. This never happened in Portland. I wonder if the difference is that there is more enforcement of traffic laws applied to cyclists in Portland, or if they are just better educated since there is a higher percentage of bike commuters there. San Francisco has more tourists, and many more people riding around on rental bikes, but it is clearly the commuters who were riding on city streets and disobeying traffic signals. I also noticed that the bike share program, which was recently initiated in the bay area and is expected to be one of the largest in the country after its planned expansions, is getting plenty of use in the city. In Redwood City, however, where there is a hub of bike share bikes, I didn’t notice anyone using them. It is definitely promising to see so many people commuting by bicycle, and so many bike lanes in the area, but it has a ways to go to catch up to Portland (which, doesn’t even have a bike share program, yet). Most of the bay area is accessible by bike, but (especially as you get further from the city) there are plenty of inconveniences and obstacles for cyclists to endure in order to avoid autocentric areas and unsafe roads, heavy with multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic.
Another noticeable thing about the bay area is the smog. We actually lucked out with pretty sunny weather every day that we were there, but some days you could see a tan haze hovering over the city. This is apparently normal, especially in the summertime. Every time I went outside, there were numerous planes in the air. Sometimes you could see ten or more planes in the sky around the airport, which wasn’t too far from where we stayed with Sandra. This, plus all of the traffic on the roads, probably leads to some pretty unhealthy air quality.
While I really enjoyed my time in the bay area, I’m glad that we didn’t stay long enough to get caught up in whatever the big hurry is around San Francisco. Everywhere we turned, everyone seemed so rushed and stressed out, and most drivers seemed angry. I’m sure it’s because the cost of living is so high, people have to work so much just to pay for their home, food and gym membership – they probably don’t have any time to spend at home, eat good food, or work out.
On a positive note, San Francisco is one of the greatest cities in North America. There is literally anything you can imagine available at your fingertips. There are numerous selections of restaurants and markets for any kind of food you could want – plus, there are courier services that will deliver the food to you if you don’t want to leave your condo. Pretty much anywhere is accessible via public transit, and there are transportation options for everyone – trains, subways, buses, streetcars, electric trams, ferries, cars, and bikes. As for entertainment and recreation, there are museums and theaters that attracts all of the big names in art, music or acting and there are parks and gyms for any kind of activity you would ever want to do. For water sports, you can go swimming, sailing, kiteboarding, kayaking, rowing or windsurfing on the bay, along the Pacific coast or on one of the lagoons (we witnessed part of a rowing regatta in the lagoon behind Sandra’s house two days before we left). There is excellent road cycling and mountain biking just outside of the city. AND it seems there are job opportunities everywhere – San Francisco seems like the place to be if you want to start up a company or are involved with any kind of technology.
Dallas and I took a one way flight to Durango, but we left our bicycles behind so we do expect to be back in the bay area to pick up where we left off on our cycling adventures. Until then, we will definitely be borrowing mountain bikes and skis, and doing a lot of trail running with other people’s dogs!