Monthly Archives: July 2014

I could get used to this…

As we rode out of Chiang Mai, we approached a small village where music was blasting from speakers. We had been in Thailand long enough at this point to know something entertaining was about to happen.
As we rode up to the masses of chairs covered by a big blue party tent, several party-goers motioned for us to come in.

We entered to find a stage with several older ladies wearing different colored silken suits and sunglasses, dancing wildly to very loud music. Naturally, they invited us (insisted) that we come join them on the stage, and we obliged. We danced and drank homemade white rice whiskey. As Anshuman did a shimmy shakedown with an old and very tipsy woman, I giggled and exchanged a wink with him. After dancing, they invited us to eat. We munched on piles and piles of litchis and ate bamboo stew with sticky rice. Not long after dinner, we casually excused ourselves, thanked the hosts, and went on our way.

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Daniel getting down with the party-goers

After this event, I was reminded of the first party we accidentally crashed. We were stunned for at least 2 hours straight during the event and afterwards. We kept glancing at each other excitedly across the room, we couldn’t believe our luck, we couldn’t believe the amazingness of circumstance and coincidence or fate.

In general, our first few weeks of the trip held an air of whispered excitement. We giggled our way onto the bus, staring at everything, gasping at views, taking photos of everything.

In recent weeks, this excitement has started to wane. We don’t feel like blogging or taking photos, awe-inspiring views don’t phase us, we are only slightly surprised when we stumble into a party with spirit mediums and homemade white rice whiskey.

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What we normally wake up to…

I suppose this is a natural progression, but it is somehow amazing to realize that even the most unpredictable and seemingly ‘unroutine’ lifestyle – a nomadic one – can begin to feel mundane. Indeed it is not the circumstance which determines the level of gratitude, but rather the mindset.
How does one maintain perspective and ‘fresh eyes’ in the midst of everyday life? And everyday life can be anything – from that of a blue collar worker, to that of a Queen, to that of a nomadic bicycle tourist.

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A view to keep us on our toes

I try to remember ‘where I am’ and how unique an opportunity this is, but that method might not apply in a more traditional everyday life situation. Instead of constant stimulation and newness, I wonder if it is possible to look at the same thing again and again, and by ‘looking a different way’ actually see a different thing – like close reading a painting or a text.

If not, perhaps this feeling of boredom or complacency is not something to be feared? Maybe it is an essential part of the human experience? Maybe it shows us that we have learned and that we are adaptable and that we are curious?
Just keep pedaling, just keep pedaling….

 

The Trouble With Hills

Today is our forty-eighth day on the road. While that statement sounds dramatic and is a good conversation starter at Vang Vieng’s coffee shops, it doesn’t fully tell of how we have actually spent most of those days on the road, counting kilometers, navigating traffic, and studying fold-out maps. As is to be expected, life on the street has taught us a thing or two.

Road signs, for instance, have become a big part of our lives. They rarely lie, and only occasionally deceive. We have gotten used to two Thai classics:

1. The Truck That Climbs
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The sight of this sign usually makes Marcus stop to pull out his chewing gum, (“I need the sugar, bro.”) and makes Daniel go into his ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ climbing stance.

2. The Truck That Descends

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This one makes everyone but Daniel heave a sigh of relief. While Kei, Marcus and I stand in our seats and switch to high gears, poor Dan (who is fighting a phobia of falling) clutches his brakes and hangs on for dear life.

A few days ago, when Marcus and I were riding from Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong, we arrived at a rather ridiculous climb. After huffing and puffing our way up the slope, we stopped at the top for a breather. A little kid and his mum were sitting in a shack by the road. I walked by bike over to them, and asked if we could eat at the village nearby. (When you ride with Marcus, you eat whenever possible.) Although the lady replied in the negative, she felt sure we could find food at the bottom of the hill. She pointed further down the route, where the road fell into a gorgeous, meandering decline lasting a few kilometers. Marcus and I exchanged a smile, thanked her, and rode away.

What got me thinking, however, was the little boy. The sight of me did not get him excited. He did not look at my strange face, my curly hair, or my funny clothes. He did not participate in my chat with his mother. I’m pretty sure he was altogether unaware of my presence.
Something else had caught his eye: my chakrayan. He stared at the wheels, their rims so shiny. He looked over the gears, the contraption so bewildering. His gaze lingered on the tires, the tread so muddy. It pained me to ride away: I have never seen anyone look at Gio, my bike, with more love.Map sketch

It wasn’t until much later, while riding an altogether different road up an altogether different hill in an altogether different country, that I realized why that kid has reacted so. It was like when someone tells a joke and you pretend to laugh but only actually understand it afterwards.

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He lived in a village on the ridge of a hill, sandwiched between The Truck That Climbs and The Truck That Descends. That little child had never seen a bicycle before, because little children cannot climb hills on their little-child bicycles. None of his friends in his village had bicycles, because they were too little for motorbikes and because bikes cannot climb hills.

Profiles of the Bicycle

Based on observations of bicycles primarily in Thailand, I have compiled a list of profiles of the different Bicycles most typically seen:

The Basketal

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Description: An older v-frame bicycle, easy to mount for even the smallest of jockeys. A large front basket usually carrying an umbrella or goods from the market
Jockey: An older woman or man, age 50+, often wearing slipper-style shoes and a sun hat
Typically seen: in the morning, in small to medium-sized towns and in residential areas

 

The School-kid

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Description: The bicycle is an older v-frame,  usually mis-sized for its jockey. Popcorn or takeaway food dangle from the handlebars.
Jockey: A student wearing a school uniform, knee socks, and a huge school backpack
Typically seen: in the morning and afternoon, as transport to and from school

 

Spandexy

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Description: Newer, straight-framed bicycle, typically with water bottle holders, and grip tape. Usually traveling in packs.
Jockey: Man or woman aged 25-40, wearing spandex shorts, a quick-dry shirt, and a helmet
Typically seen: early in the morning or in the evening, mostly on weekends
* The Spandexy usually feels the most camaraderie towards us and shows it through waving or stopping to ask us where we are going or to check out our bicycles.

 

Tricycle

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Description: Not yet ready for training wheels, the tricycle allows for even the youngest jockeys to ride
Jockey: A young’n, usually using her legs for power and totally unaware of the existence of pedals
Typically seen: in driveways or residential areas, and on weekends

 

Slow but Steady

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Description: This bicycle is usually creatively rigged so that it can transport a lot of goods – everything from bamboo, roots, and herbs, to building materials and foods – from the rural areas/ fields and to the towns and cities.
Jockey: An older man or woman, wearing a sun hat or headscarf as protection from the heat, pedaling very slowly
Typically seen: on long stretches of roads between towns or in rural or agricultural areas

 

Joy Ride

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Description: A v-framed bicycle, usually with a bell and sometimes with a basket
Jockey: A mother wearing house clothes or pajamas, usually with a baby propped on the seat, or strapped to her back
Typically seen: in residential areas, traveling up and down the street, or around and around in circles to entertain or soothe the baby to sleep

 

Fixie Coolkids

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Description: Singles speed straight-framed bicycle, usually neon colored frame, tires, and wheels. Minimalist – no water bottle holders or accessories
Jockey: a child or teenager, wearing skinny jeans and a flat-billed cap, usually pedals standing up, and travels in a gang or equally cool riders
Typically seen: on the weekends and in the evenings, around the central parts of a town or city, less seen in rural areas

 

Tandem – redone

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Description: A v-framed bicycle rigged to carry two (or three) passengers, a rear rack supports a second passenger
Jockey: A father-daughter duo, or friends, or siblings. The more senior of the two pedals, the other holds on dearly
Typically seen: on the way to and from school, around rural villages at any time of the day or week

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Gratitude

During our first week of this trip, I bought a small notepad at a stationary shop in northern Malaysia.
At the time, I was not sure what I would use it for. Very quickly, however, its purpose became clear.

Since that time, I have used it to scribble random acts of kindness that people have done for us along our way. I can safely say that by now this little notepad is well-weathered, and its pages are close to filled. Indeed everyday, multiple times, we experience immense kindness and hospitality and help from complete strangers.

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A kind family in Ban Thung Maha, Thailand who welcomed us into their home, fed us for two nights, and let us join their weekend adventures horseback riding, visiting their coconut and durian farm, and swimming at the beach.

During the first few weeks of the trip, I struggled with the magnitude and frequency of these random acts of kindness. I did not feel I knew how to say thank you adequately. The outpouring of love and luck and help we received felt like a burden to me, piling up gradually on my shoulders. I felt that my capacity-for-good-fortune had to have reached its maximum, and that I should be weary of asking for anything else from anyone.

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A man in a small village somewhere in Northeastern Laos who started a fire and helped us cook some eggs from a Mama shop; it was our first meal of the day and we were desperate.

At the start, these acts of kindness actually caused some contention within our group. We could not agree on how to say thank you, and even to whom.
Indeed this raised some very interesting conversations regarding graciousness. It matters hugely who you attribute your good fortune to. Who is sending all this help? Is it God, the universe, the individuals themselves, blind luck, coincidence?
If you thank God or the universe are you discounting the kindness and agency of the individuals themselves?
On the other hand, if you thank the individuals, regarding them as completely disconnected from one another, do you run the risk of demanding too much without considering your role in the larger (perhaps karmic?) order of things?

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The young monks who strung an extension cord across the street and tied a light to a pole with their extra robe cloth. They also brought us bottled water and a mat for sleeping.

I have not resolved this question for myself yet, but in the meantime, I’ll keep “thank you” (in its various forms) on my tongue, and my little notepad in hand…

Sorry for the Silence!

We have been internet-less for far too long!
Check this space in the next few hours for some long-overdue updates.

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We successfully made it into Laos!

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