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.