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The Time I Became a Cycle Rickshaw Driver

In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this blog, I love biking. What’s more, I strongly believe in the concept of Chekhov’s gun – a writer should never make “false promises” or allude to subject material without delving into it. Thus, my very first blog post from Copenhagen is about one of my many biking adventures. While I could (and will) write about my experiences learning the Danish hand signals, snagging a cheap rental from Swapfiets, and navigating the cycling “superhighways” during rush hour, this post relates to none of them. Instead, this blog is about how I helped to share the joy of biking with someone who could no longer experience it for himself.

About a week ago, I found myself at the lovely activity fair hosted by DIS to highlight local organizations and nonprofits students could get involved with. While I actively volunteered through high school, I had a major drop-off in college, and I was hit with a pang of guilt thinking about how much of my involvement may have been for the sake of college applications. I thought some community work in Copenhagen would get me back into the spirit of service and help me integrate into the local community. The “Cycling Without Age” booth caught my eye given my love for biking and the enthusiasm of its founder, Ole Kassow, despite me likely being the 100th person he’d talked to that day.

In case you’re unfamiliar, this TED talk provides a good overview of “Cycling Without Age.” The idea behind it is to give Copenhagen’s nursing home residents a chance to explore the city and feel the breeze in their hair that every cyclist knows too well. The organization received a fleet of e-bicycle rickshaws from the municipal government that is stationed at old age homes across the city. These are operated by a team of volunteers on afternoons with pleasant weather. The bikes are a joy to ride, and the electric assist makes tackling hills trivially easy!

For my first outing with Cycling Without Age on Saturday, my passenger was Joe (name changed), a ninety-year-old retired naval officer and native of Jutland. Minh (pictured) and I took turns riding the bicycle and navigating our co-pilot on the confusing inner roads of the city! When Joe first sat in the rickshaw, he didn’t mention a word to either of us. But a few rounds of the neighborhood were enough to get him chatting – he pointed out the house he lived in during the 60s, the school his children attended, and the restaurants he used to frequent. He also spoke of his career in the Navy, which began during the tense early stages of the Cold War, when Joe was just 16 years old. He detailed his service patrolling the vast Greenlandic coast, where he braved rough seas, frigid temperatures, and imposing icebergs. Joe hadn’t been outdoors for a while and the sunshine might have been a tad too bright for him, but he improvised by tying a handkerchief around his head!

I learned from Ole that it wasn’t unusual for riders to lighten up during a cycle tour – staff at the nursing home report hearing lively conversations from residents who hadn’t spoken a word in months after a bike ride. Ole also works with residents who have dementia and are unable to verbalize their feelings, but their joy is visible from their movements and facial expressions. I saw the value of Cycling Without Age firsthand when, as I was dropping Joe back to his room, Erik (another resident) stopped me and insisted that I ride with him the next week. He wanted me to take him to his favorite magazine store in Copenhagen that he had been unable to visit in years.

My experiences at the nursing home got me thinking about the global problem of elderly loneliness. Arguably, in a country like Denmark, older people have most of their other needs taken care of – the robust safety net provides a pension, comprehensive healthcare, and other benefits at virtually no cost. Still, no amount of welfare will be able to create the personal connections that aging people so desperately need. People often look at Denmark’s high livability and happiness rankings and think of it as a perfect society and while that analysis is mostly correct, there are problems lurking beneath the surface. I am glad that in my short time here, I have been able to identify one such issue and dedicate my time to solving it as a way of giving back.

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By adarshabroad

Greetings, fellow traveler. My name is Adarsh Srinivasan (he/him) and I am in the Environmental Science of the Arctic program at DIS Copenhagen. I'm originally from India, go to college in California, and have lived in 4 US states and three countries just over the past 2 years! Join me for the next chapter in my adventure.

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