Thursday, September 29, 2016

Filling the Bicycle-Shaped Void

A trip to Mae Sot's Bicycle Market

For anyone who choses to cycle as their main mode of transportation, one quickly realizes that bikes are more than material possessions. Some chose to express themselves through fashion, cars, or even interior design, but cyclists, bike commuters, and the like know that their steel, aluminum, or carbon steads are a reflection of who they are. For myself, when I awoke two weeks ago to find my bike gone, I was distraught (and throughly confused as it was fenced in behind a big metal gate).

Here is the Schwinn I lost…

The Blue Banshee

Bummer, right? But with each loss comes a chance to fill a recently excavated void. For me that meant searching diligently for what was taken, but also finding a new way to blaze through the streets of Chiang Mai. Those living here know that with any bicycle related query, the answer can certainly be sorted out at Two Revolutions Bike Shop. Located in a small garden, attached to a staple restaurant called Pun Pun, Two Revolutions was built out of sweat, blood, bamboo, and used bicycle parts. The architect? A 20-year-old quarter British, 3/4’s Burmese man named Ganji, whom grew up in Chiang Mai, yet speaks with an accent reminiscent of that of west-coasters from the states. He’s a madman who does great things, all in his own, unique way. So when Ganji heard my baby was stolen, he graciously invited me on a trip to the border town of Mae Sot to scout out the inventory at a market he promised had “millions of options.” The bicycle-shaped whole in my heart tingled at this promise.

Like any Ganji-led mission, this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. To start? Round-trip was around 10 hours. To navigate this trek in a single day, catching the market in its peak hours, we needed to leave Chiang Mai at 2:30am. In addition, we needed to fit seven bodies in a regular, 5-seater pick-up truck. With rain accompanying our ride out, and bikes filling the bed on the return, that meant the majority of the ride was spent with seven people getting very comfortable with one another. Be it the love of bikes or just the chance for adventure, all seven of us happily obliged.

Before I knew the layout of the car, I decided it would be a good idea to stay up until departure, napping on the 5-hours drive to Mae Sot. Between stolen breaths from squished bodies, I did manage to get a few minutes of sleep, but to say I was 100% when we arrived at our destination would be an outright lie. Alas, my fatigue was quickly placated with sweet Burmese tea, naan, and a chickpea and lentil curry that left my stomach happy. The town itself honestly didn’t look much different than other small towns I had seen in Thailand, save for a much larger of percentage of women wearing hijabs, and less Buddhist paraphernalia hanging in shops. Even so, being out of the car with a full belly had me ready for an adventure.

To get to the market, we had to drive for about 10 more minutes. With the sun shinning, we split our group between the bed and the cabin. I chose to let the wind run through my hair and talk with two members of our crew, one being a dive instructor from Brazil, and another a wander from China. Both had met Ganji through differing avenues, and both had some sort of interest in bikes that led them on this crazy fool’s errand.

When we arrived at the market, a concrete and steel jungle that looked like a standard warehouse district, I felt my heart drop. In my head, I had imagined a tent market in some lush area, set-up under the radar of the local government. What I found, though, was an industrial looking, permanent market, which was under the direct supervision of the Thai army…or at least people collecting taxes wearing army shirts, fatigue pants, and flip flops. No guns were present, though, which lessened the blow.

Though initially disappointed, as soon as I jumped out of the car and started to walk deeper into the warehouse maze, I realized Ganji’s promise was one he intended to keep. Each direction I looked brought into view another storefront lined with the most pristine, newest looking bikes, backed by rows and rows declining in appearance and increasing in age. Towards the back were bikes missing parts, as well as stacks of bikes that would either be rummaged or rebuilt, depending on their future owner. Impressed with what I saw, the sad truth set in that even if my stolen bike was here, the chance of me finding it could be chalked up to the “needle in a haystack,” idiom. I kept my eyes out for a light blue beauty, but my focus had shifted to a new whip.

While sifting through bikes, Ganji told me that many of these bikes were shipped in from Japan. Though their origins varied from stolen to factory defects, the merchants actually bought full shipping containers blindly, as opposed to individual bicycles. The Thai army was there to ensure that each bike sold was taxed, and before one could leave the market, consumers needed to show a tax slip given to them by the shop owner. 

Alex helping me find a new bike!

One interesting facet of the market was the emanating smell of kwan-yu, or betel nut, wafting up from the red spit stains adorning the cement. In Myanmar, chewing betel nut is ubiquitous. Most men and women seem to always have a smile dyed with red juices from the concoction. This is not a very common habit in Thailand, though. After speaking with many of the merchants (when I decided it was time to start test riding bikes!), it was very clear that besides the army men, most of the folks in this market had crossed the border sometime in their life or family history. Most spoke English, Thai, and a few dialects from their specific region in Myanmar. 

Through a long day of riding different bikes up the boat ramp road and haggling prices, I finally settled on a new whip..

Bridgestone Bomber!

After showing the army our “tax” voucher (the specific solider we worked with kept all his papers in a messenger bag with a weed leaf embroidered on it), we were off. Our crew of seven came away with four bikes. two cruisers, one vintage mountain bike, and my beautiful, steel-framed Bridgestone bomber, which is probably older than me. On the way back, save for an hour or so of rain, I decided to ride in the back with the bikes. What I didn’t know from the morning was that a majority of the ride followed the outskirts of differing national parks, traversing hills outlined in penetrating, limestone peaks. Beauty aside, be it steel or flesh prodding into my sides, I was very happy to hop on my bicycle once we arrived safely in Chiang Mai.

For myself and many other cyclist, our bikes are a reflection of ourselves. They are a means of freedom. They are facets of our lives which often consume more time than our friends and family. When my bike was stolen, whether or not I chose to show it, I was devastated. I felt I had been robbed of something truly important. But after my adventure to the bike market in Mae Sot, I was reminded that loss is just another aspect of change. Loss is a transition. With each loss comes an open space that is eager to be filled, and it is up to us whether we see this as a blessing or a burden. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


I remember I was invited to a house party a week or two after returning home from two years spent abroad. I had only seen family, so the idea of reconnecting with friends was exciting. The problem was, when I arrived at the location, something wasn’t right. I recognized the faces, and the house was familiar as well, but everything felt a bit…foreign. I thought, maybe it was the jet lag?  Maybe it was the end of a horrific bout with Giardia? Maybe it was the change in weather or scenery? Something just didn’t click. After a brief time socializing, I found myself feeling suffocated, anxious, and longing to be alone. Why didn’t home feel the same way? 

It’s amazing how quickly something exotic can become familiar. In the same regard, the velocity at which one’s perception can change is astounding. I have been lucky enough to visit over 30 countries, spanning 6 continents, and countless plane, train, car, boat, motorcycle, and self-propelled rides. In the midsts of these adventures, I’ve encountered an immense amount of transformative experiences. The crazy thing is, I realize that the trip that changed my life was not to a foreign destination, but to a place I know better than any. The trip that changed my life was the first time I returned home after a long travel.

On the plane back to Colorado after two years of travel throughout Asia and Australia, I was excited. I had become a new person. I had a new array of life experiences, as well as new ideas about faith, love, purpose, and almost anything worth talking about. I had a new hop in my step, and I couldn’t wait for those steps to grace my native soil. The initial landing in the Denver Airport was fantastic, and seeing my family was something I savored, but this euphoria was short lived. Much like honeymooners returning back to work after the excitement becomes a memory, home felt like…home. The problem was, even though things looked very similar to when I had left, home wasn’t the same. It would take weeks to figure out the culprit, but the truth was home was exactly what it was when I departed. I was the one who changed. 

The realization crept in slowly. Little by little I found that I now processed my surroundings in a much different way. Although I went to some hectic markets in southeast Asia, I remember visiting a Bed, Bath, and Beyond, with consumer products from the floor to the ceiling during the holiday season, and it giving me anxiety. Listening to the news and being surrounded by TVs, after only having limited wifi and no cell phone while traveling, was a shock. Hearing conversations about careers, kids, mortgages; things that are completely normal for people around my age, were so far removed from the esoteric conversations I was having just a few weeks prior. I hadn’t thought about this stuff for years, and now, it was at the forefront of my existence. Much like my life had changed during my time abroad, so had that of my friends and family. Our trajectories seemed to be aiming in differing directions. 
What challenged me the most was the concept that many of the people I hold dear didn’t see my travel as relevant experience. The first couple times I heard, “welcome back to the real world!” I thought it was funny. I even used it myself. That was until I realized this wasn’t just a colloquialism. Many people believed those two years were just a break from what they believed was reality. A reality, which I used to accept as my own. I pondered how if these folks believed travel was time spent in la la land, what the hell were all us vagabonds doing? If experiences in different cultures aren't part of the existing world, what does that mean for the places, the people, and the epiphanies encountered each time we don a backpack and passport?

After a few weeks, I started to understand the “reverse culture shock,” a bit more. I found that while people would ask about my trip, their attention was quite limited. If I could limit my tales to headlines like, “The Motorcycle Crash I had in Bali,” or  “Experiencing a Cremation in Varanasi,” people would listen for a story or two. The deeper moments I yearned to share seemed to grasp very little attention. I could talk about travel romances, nights out, or more familiar concepts, but the intricacies of a city I love like Chiang Mai, the feeling I had while listening to the hauntingly beautiful wail of the call to prayer on Lombok in Indonesia; these stories fell on deaf ears. After a headline, conversation would turn to how I financed my trip, then, travel talk would cease. My experiences, my friends, my new way of life, still so potent and empowering, seemed to have no place back in the “real world.” 
If you talk to any traveler who has left home for a long period of time, their return will involve setbacks. The truth is, traveling is a way to shift one’s paradigm. With any action there is a reaction, and gaining a new lens comes at a cost. If you allow travel to seep in, the change becomes permanent. It is hard to unsee the things you saw. It is difficult to unlearn lessons, or forget deep-seated feelings you had for places and people. Certain facets of your past will evaporate. Those associated with these facets will also begin to drift away. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but all growth and change comes with collateral damage.

Returning home was difficult, but it taught me two very important lessons. The first: your experiences, regardless of how they are met by others, are relevant. You are not “returning to reality,” because what you have seen is reality. Some people will understand this. Hold them close and allow them to aid you on the long road to understanding. The second: belief is a powerful tool. I left with belief that I would find what I was looking for abroad, even without knowing what I was seeking. While I didn’t expect a trip planned to last only 6-months would evolve into two years, I also didn’t expect to find myself still drawn to being abroad more so than “home.” I believed I would thrive abroad, and it manifested in a way that I never would have believed possible without taking the leap.

With practice, I’ve gained the awareness to permeate between current home and homeland, but my first trip back to Colorado was not so graceful. Sometimes it isn't the moments of ecstasy that teach us valuable lessons. Often, it’s moments where we find ourselves starring up from the bottom, wondering how we ended up here. Though I thought returning home was the end of the journey, I found it was just the beginning. Each trip has its purpose. It may not be what we expect or plan for, but I can say with certainty it is what we need.