The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

A positive ‘spin’: biking around Chiang Mai

We were warned, pre-departure, that we would have life-changing experiences together over the course of this year. But I would never have guessed that this would mean watching Vicky almost get run down by a double-decker Thai tour bus while bicycling behind her on one of Chiang Mai’s busiest multi-lane roads. I’ve never been much of a biker—a rough spill at age ten scared me off the streets for quite some time. But what better place than Chiang Mai to end my twelve-year bicycle hiatus? Guidebooks and maps raved that the Old City’s quiet, winding sois were ideal for a leisurely, unhurried weekend bike ride—and indeed, they are. But simply getting to that part of town takes about 45 minutes on some of the city’s craziest, most hectic main roads, which are dominated by what our friend Patrick likes to call the “rule of tonnage,” where the heaviest vehicles automatically have the right of way. And in this world of two-story buses, song tao pickup trucks, cars, tuk-tuks and motorbikes, our rusty, single-speed bicycles just can’t compete.

For our first few rides on these freeway-like roads, I was literally hyperventilating, trying to talk myself through the journey in between gasping breaths. But now that the initial shock of traffic and lane switching has become a bit more normal to me, I can see that there are certain benefits to our mode of transportation. This city is intense for all of the senses, and the slow pace of our bicycles allows for a fuller intake of all Chiang Mai has to offer. Unable to read street signs in Thai just yet, I still love the look of the rounded script with all its swirls and soft edges, if only for its artistic grace—the signs could be advertising street food or prostitutes, and it would all look beautiful to me! Growing between and around these signs and buildings are the city’s signature tall, leafy, flowery trees, and at the end of its long rainy season, Chiang Mai is at its most colorful. If there aren’t too many vehicles within crashing distance, I can even reach up and grab a flower to put behind my ear. Definitely an improvement on my helmet hair, right, Vicky?

Totally, Mairéad—grab two next time. Anyway, bicycles have added another amusing element to our lives at Payap. Most everyone—students, faculty and staff—drives a motorbike, or more rarely, a car. As we roll up to park our bicycles on a charming but underused, fish-shaped bike rack at our dormitory, we get more than a few puzzled looks. I must confess, however, that we do things besides ride bicycles to deserve those baffled glances. This past Saturday morning, unshowered and in cut-offs (weekend!), we set out on bicycles with one hand on the handlebars and the other holding 7-11 pastries. As we rounded the corner we saw 50 Chinese students sitting at the picnic tables waiting for their song taos to pick them up. This would have been uneventful if we weren’t their teachers—but we are. Thankfully, they played it cool by turning their surprised stares into an enthusiastic ‘Hello Teacher!’ pretending not to notice our unkempt state.

Fast forward to Monday morning when we began auditing their introductory-level Thai class. When we walked in, 7-11 pastries and coffees in hand yet again, we were greeted with a unison chorus of “Good morning teacher.” I had a second of panic when I thought, “Oh no—am I supposed to be teaching right now?!” Luckily, we sat three rows behind them, and as far as the teacher was concerned, we blended right in.

Some level of awkwardness is to be expected in the first month in a new country, and as the first pair of Grinnell Corps volunteers to head off into the great Thai unknown, we’re still in a phase of learning as we go. But no matter what, we’re trying to put a positive ‘spin’ on each new day—be it in the classroom or on a bicycle.

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