Cycling with Burmese Kids

I’ve gone on a lot of bike rides through the countryside of Thailand over the last two years (2006-2008) with the children who’ve stayed at my shelter and home-school. We’ve also gone through a lot of bikes. Of course, many of them, made of cheap steel in Thailand, were always going to be the ‘fix or repair daily’ bikes of the group. Not that any of the bikes stood a chance in a contest with my Burmese kids and the Thai countryside — none were ‘geared’ or suitable for riding across baked clay rice paddies or up and down tracks over the hills and across streams, ponds, and rivers. This means the kids were practicing for ‘Motocross’ without even knowing what that sport is. The guys at right are ‘naturals’ of course — tells you something about us humans who’ve lost their ‘sense of balance’.  My kids’ collection of scrapes, bumped knees, banged toes, cuts, gouged chins, nicks, bruised shins, and scars were the ‘badges’ of their victory over the Thai countryside. We reigned supreme in the group’s ability to go anywhere, on the road or off, at least, until recently.

This means we’ve also spent a lot of money on repairing bikes. For sure, one of the kids is destined to be a bike mechanic. Another should become a paramedic or at least learn a little first aid. We now have a dozen bikes in various stages of repair or disrepair. Some have been crashed beyond repair. We’ll soon be salvaging parts to build other bikes, I presume. At least, we’ve learned the value of a well-built Chinese bike, but only for riding on-road. To present, my own mountain bike has passed all the tests. It’s only required me to replace a broken pedal and adjust a derailleur once in the past year. I wish I could say the same for the other bikes. But, it has taken me many years of owning bikes to finally figure out which one will be the best for a given price. I must have owned a couple dozen bikes of my own during the past 10 years or so. I hope to use bikes in the future to generate electricity – another dream.

But, to get back on subject – bike crashes. I had my first at the age of 14 – same as our A-aaw who had his first serious bike accident a couple of weeks ago. I spent a week in the hospital and my elbow required reconstructive surgery. A-aaw is still enduring the merciless attentions of a Thai surgeon. He is slated for a third operation on his foot tonight. He’s lost a bit of it each time. I only hope his third operation is the last. He can’t afford to lose much more of his foot. Wendy, a friend of mine and a nurse, visiting me then, warned me of the dangers of wound infection in Thailand but I didn’t take her seriously. I’m the eternal optimist at times and a fatalist at other times. I’ve seen too much of Asia to hold life too dear. It’s a painful truth too often hidden from Americans cocooned in their comfort zones at home – maybe they need a dose of the Asian reality they hope to one day dominate.

A-aaw lost part of his foot to a combination of foolhardiness on his part and a hit-and-run driver on another part. I’ve lost a father and grandfather to hit-and-run drivers as well. So far, the score is all tied at 1-1 on the scales of justice. My father’s driver met his own death as well as causing others. The driver who hit my grandfather still roams the world, free and unidentified. The hit-and-run driver who hit A-aw has been identified and his employer will help us even though the driver himself is nowhere to be found. It’s amazing how many people in the world want to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their own actions upon others. While the world and its fools may never come to terms with each other, the rest of us are still here dealing more honestly with what we CAN do to help each other. Often, this means ‘giving up’ on tightly held and cherished illusions to grow into Truth and Light. Unfortunately, America’s journey upon this path seems destined to end up going off a cliff (too many lemmings). Or, has it already gone off the edge and the country is in free-fall, in that moment of ‘never-never’ before it ‘crashes’ upon the rocks far below? Many have concluded so – myself amongst them.

I am learning to live in a changed world. I no longer identify myself as American – I’m just a man lost in Asia. I may have lost my country and A-aaw his foot, but I think we are on the same path and journey into the unknown. At least, we will share one path for the foreseeable future. One would hope it doesn’t end in a presumptive, quick trip to the other side. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, especially for anyone unprepared to go there. It may yet be America’s fate – she has sent enough on in front of her. Perhaps, they are the ‘trailblazers’ – the true Americans, the native Indians who may only lay claim to the land that once was. But, again, I have digressed. It appears I still have ‘phantom’ limb pains. I have been self-amputated from America but the pain still lingers in my heart. The doctor would only say there is no going back. Not even a good trauma surgeon can transplant that heart.

I lost another good friend in Nepal. Synchronicity again – I only met him and his wife because I wanted to buy her bike. He was also in my Nepalese class. His wife was Japanese and they had two lovely children. They made a living hand-stitching beautiful silk embroidered Buddhist tangkas. Visiting his house one day to get parts for the bike, I was shocked to learn his whole family had just perished in a Thai airbus crash on a mountainside near Kathmandu. At least, their passing was quick and, hopefully, painless. Echoes of 9-11 ring in my mind. I went on with my bike journeys. I had a couple of more crashes cycling in Korea and China – once being knocked over by a van and another by another cyclist bent on getting through the intersection before me. Both hurt me and left my body with cuts, bruises, and scars – but I’m still here to tell this tale. All of these wounds have healed – I’ve moved on and am more balanced after building half a dozen bikes and cycling the countryside of China.

As for the wound in my heart, it’s slowly healing. If I can survive my three bike crashes, I am sure I can survive the economic crash of America. It has already happened for me. I have become a cold-eyed realist when it comes to what I once believed in. Non-belief, itself, is a more rewarding psychological space to be in. It arms the observer with a perspective that doesn’t lie. I’d prefer a painful truth to a comforting lie any day. For those still lost in the web of lies foisted off on us by those we once trusted, I can only advise them to ‘get real’. Life goes on, no matter whatever crashes we put ourselves through.

The kids in the shelter have learned their lesson as well. Now, we take it easy on the bikes – no more cross-country jaunts, except on the road. We have discovered a new sport – not Motocross – but water biking. The kids like to swim – Thailand has plenty of inviting swimming holes with cool, refreshing water. Now, we’ve learned that riding a bike into the pond and crashing it there doesn’t cost any injury to our body. The landing is soft and refreshing. We’ve already investigated all the local ponds this spring, during the dry season – at low tide, so to speak. All the bottoms are soft and muddy – no harm to anyone. Since we don’t have a water-park or slide anywhere near Mae Sot, I expect we’ll continue this new found sport. We only hope A-aaw joins us soon – foot or not – we still love him. I only need to learn to love myself after losing my American heart. Maybe, with a miracle, it can be transplanted with an Asian one.


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