It was one cloudy Friday, twenty-seventh day of July when I found myself spaced out of so many random things rendering me into deep thoughts. Before embarking on a day trip with students, I needed to make sure that everything is well-prepared. We planned for a cycling trip right after their final exam. I was hoping if all twelve of us could come, but it was just eight who showed up. Cycling, for me, is something I had been doing for so long and that I am doing it again after several years. But my excitement grew more and more that day, and it was quite visible while I amusingly took random selfies and groupies with them.
Through the car we hired, we reached Mine Thouk, a prominent and tourist-friendly village in the Southern Shan State of Myanmar. The place is just around Inle and apart from the typical boat trip, the best activity may well be a long bicycle tour around the lakeshore, passing through the villages and connecting the countryside between the parallel mountain ranges. I’ve been to Inle several times, but I have never tried exploring it independently through a bicycle ride.
I was inside the car waiting for any signs to rent a bike. Feeling a bit bored, I began playing songs from my phone, songs that would interest the students with the handy speaker I brought. Three of them were singing along with me while others had to inquire about the availability of the bike and how much it would cost. Soon after, a decision has made. We had to move and find a new bike rental shop. No one told me why, but I knew that they were making sure that the cost wouldn’t be too much and everyone could go cycling as a group. So it happened to be that way, and the next shop we stopped by was finally the place we rented the bike. Everyone went down from the car and gathered themselves near the parking space. They were all talking in their language. All I could do was to silence myself and wait until they ask me for the rental cost. They could voluntarily have chitchat with me. However, I was thinking they wouldn’t do such a thing because their appearance seemed so shy to consistently talk in English, afraid to commit mistakes. I would not have spoken like that either if I were in their place. It seems like this inevitable sympathy towards these students, so to speak, had ever been my unpleasant and childish habit even before. I tend to distance myself and not speak at all to any foreigners I meet because I was too shy and afraid speaking the second language and because for me, it’s awkward that my friends would correct and laugh at my mistakes. It was not only I reached college when I had the courage in talking to foreigners, especially to native English speakers. I learned to overcome my fear, so I tried talking to an American schoolmate of mine and then to some other foreign classmates and guests in college. I guess, there would come a time for them to consider this.
Each started choosing a bicycle and so did I. All of a sudden, I was a bit reluctant of going for a ride as I thought of not being able to ride well like a kid still on his cycling training. That would be too embarrassing for a teacher who can’t ride a bike at all. After a couple of minutes, we kicked off our cycling adventure. One by one, we rode off ahead. I pushed the kickstand back, mounted my bicycle, and began the long journey around the town. I was riding, clumsily at first, obviously showing it was my first time to ride a bike. I blushed in embarrassment, but I was also thinking that nobody would notice it. I still kept going on.
The first route we passed by was a traffic-laden road with trucks, buses, and other vehicles. I was shocked seeing some more cars coming on our way. “This isn’t a good spot for cycling at all!” I exclaimed with a voice overwhelmed with what I’ve seen, but I couldn’t help it. Htet Su, a student who was with me at that time said that every cyclist has to go on the same route before heading a couple of hundred meters down the road. That’s how it is being set up. Traffic lights even reminded me to slow down and stop when I thought of heading straight. The road to Mine Thouk on the next route was wider and better; thus, I sensed the comfort of going straight ahead without worries. It came to my surprise that I can cycle well, somehow. “I just need some more practice,” I thought to myself. Coated with sweat, I was even happier and more excited to ride. I wanted not to end this day yet of enjoying and reminiscing my childhood days.
My enthusiasm, when I knew I could ably ride, was what keeps me going. I kept on cycling, not minding I hadn’t eaten my breakfast that much nor drunk water at least. I could remember saving my noodle in the fridge and having it in mind to eat it after coming back from the outing. I was in a hurry, conscious as the time lapses while cooking a well-known Filipino dish chicken adobo for the first time just as I promised to the students. It’s only here, outside my comfort zone, far from my land that I did such thing all for the love of them. My mother used to cook this at home, and I had no idea how it was being prepared and cooked. Just a consultation from the phone’s internet would do to create the dish I planned to cook. It’s clear to me that cooking such a dish or if not, any other dish never cooked before is pleasing and fulfilling when you try cooking on your own. I’m so glad to have learned this practical skill from my mom.
“Teacher, you’re so active!” Htet Su added, but didn’t have it in mind if I was worthy of such compliment. However, I smiled to her in return. To continue more on this cycling journey was what I am taking into pleasure by this time, and that we took another route getting to some places I didn’t know we could pass by using a bike than an easy commute. Along the way, few students I know from our institute while riding a pick-up car for a trip on the same place called me by my name. I did not expect to have seen me the way I was still positioning my bicycle ride, but I joyfully waved at them just as they called and waved to me.
We stopped three or four times, as far as I can remember. Not too far from where we left, our group had come to the point of getting lost. One drove quickly whose energy seemed to be that full, so he went ahead and the rest of us were left behind. I supposed to join Htet Su’s batch who had just arrived late. They were quite tired of driving. They told me to go ahead when I planned on going with them instead. I was worried about them, but they insisted. They could have caught-up on us, so I let them do as they said with assurance. I left them. Upon reaching a highway, on the right side from where we drove by, others stopped again and waited for us. I met them.
I dropped by the corner of a store while waiting for the arrival of others. Slowly, I felt overtaken by a painful mark left on my butt. I realized that I was riding the whole hour sitting on a narrow seat of my bicycle. I stepped onto the ground leaving the bicycle near the post. The area, from which we stayed, showed us a spectacular greenish view of mountains and trees. Refreshing winds were passing too and I even felt much better, much cooler now. “Hmmm… Why not take a photo of it?” I suggested. I was bringing out my phone to ask another student named Thura to take me a photo when somebody called him on his phone suddenly. I was wondering, but I knew there was something wrong. He then approached telling me that Lawunn Kaing, one of their comrades has given up on cycling and wanted to go back to the bike rental shop. Worried, I let Thura go back to take his classmate to the entry route and from there, she would come along with her family by the car they had at the same destination for a family event at that time.
I was left with three girls and a boy named (Sai One), so we set off again on our own going to where the current road could take us till we reached, unknowingly, a heritage private school at Inle built in a fancy wooden architecture which can easily catch the attention of whoever passes the way. I had seen the same architecture twice during my previous trips riding in a vehicle. It was just passing by but never had the chance to drop by and wander around it. Glad that this time, we could finally take a glimpse of what’s in there or at least, make a mark on its entrance. The school was closed, unfortunately. Lately that we realized that it was a holiday. Instead, we took a break on its benches outside and had to consume the remaining snacks they brought from their bag’s pocket. We were hoping if anyone left behind could catch upon us. After half an hour of the wait, we carried on. I could barely drive despite the butt pain that keeps cramming. Even my face could tell that I was holding on something I had wished not to show.
It was another hour of rides and stops, breaks, and selfies. On the road where a small monastery resides, we heard familiar voices from a distance. We turned around and saw Thura and the guy who went ahead earlier named Maung Tin now coming along with us. They informed that they took their classmate safely back to the shop and let her picked up by her family. I was happy and relieved.
The road was becoming steeper and yet, my energy seemed to be gradually consumed when we tried going onward. We went higher and higher, knowing that more and more droplets of rain fell. Good that I brought a transparent coat been keeping for long and had worn it as the rain continuously sprinkled on us. Steep as it was, we came to the point of dragging our bicycle upwards, then passing side by side until reaching a tourist-dominated park where we could stop and have something for a late lunch. There, my student who didn’t continue riding a bike and was fetched up followed and joined us. We parked the bicycles and looked for a good spot to sit and eat. While others were taking their typical portraits at the place, others started to order for lunch. Everyone, after, was at the kiosk and was patiently waiting for the food and drink to be served (found out that the service was taking longer than usual), I felt drowsy looking for a space to take a nap for some minutes. The pain was still aching and rest was all I could do.
It was around an hour when the orders were served and luckily, I got up from my slumber before my students called me. The lunch was fine. We had more time to talk about themselves and their plans after studying in our institution. Many of them were matriculation exam passers and were about to go to a university on their own or their parents’ preference. It was a long and well-rounded talk we had and I got to know each of them more. I’m gonna miss them. I felt very freer and thankful that I was taking a short break away from my restless work. As the culture says before leaving, they paid for the cost without me spending anything. There was so much gratitude from them though I felt bad on my part. Leaving, we took class photos while bicycles were held. Glad that the rain stopped. Lawunn Kaing, not having a bicycle with her, bade farewell on us for she was about to go with her family. She as well expressed her thanks for having a great and splendid time with her class. We parted ways.
I knew I have to get my body moving for some more ride. At least, I had fueled myself with a good appetite. We rode down the road as the ride was smooth and no hassle but at a fast pace. I enjoyed the ride, though. Down the road where we had passed by was the well-known Inle Lake visited by many local and outside tourists. It happened to be that crowded, but I didn’t expect to have managed our way of going there. We even came across another group of students and their teacher of our school touring around the same place. We then placed our bicycle at an empty parking space and had another tour on foot towards the bridges. We didn’t take a boat ride nor spend more time to explore the lake. Time was short and we had an hour and a half to go back to our point of entry.
The exploration across bridges ended shortly and we recorded our last group pictures. On our way back, Htet Su closely accompanied me while exchanging conversations about any stuff of my country and not far from the parking space, my left foot accidentally hit a big sturdy rock due to fatigue. My foot became swollen, and that was a stroke of bad luck on my part. I was even feebler to walk but slowly continued till we unlocked the bicycles, pushed the kickstand back, and mounted again for set off. At that point, I could have justifiably bailed out and hopped into the back of a local truck with my bike for an easy ride back to Nyaung Shwe. Instead, I took the heed of the students to just keep going. We already made it halfway, so what’s the point of going back? I thought.
I was driving too fast giving all my remaining energy out that I overtook all my students. Annoyed and distressed, I kept on catching my breath when my butt was already aching. My left foot was swollen and my hands got numb. I stopped again joining the students in their short break. I sat still. I took the last few gulps from my water bottle. I took a deep breath. I was even more exhausted and lifeless to move. I told myself that it will soon be done and I can finally have a good and long rest after this wearying journey. I continued this never-ending trip. What I felt at the beginning was not the same now. The energy, the excitement, the joy: ALL WERE GONE…
To my uneasiness, I wanted to shout but I dared not to. I still felt the need for finishing this cycling trip without stopping. A short while later, I saw other people cycling every time I passed by another route. I was determined to cycle faster like in a race even if I was already suffering from body pain.
The rest of the hour was a bit of a blur. Despite the sunless weather and the threat of rain, I ended the daylight hours listening to the hum of my bike tires on the town roads. I felt isolated again. I looked on the roads while riding here and there. The bicycle I was using, is just a tool to get to my destination. It does move like scooters, BMWs, planes, or ships. Like any other transportation, it can be controlled by a driver and no one else. People do drive and ride a bike without realizing why it is made and is still being used today. But what is it in the bicycle that is so worthy, so meaningful? Is there a sense of where we are? Does is it teach us something valuable? Perhaps even in history, it was a bicycle that came first before motorbikes and cars and buses and airplanes.
A bicycle doesn’t need to be as quick as a motorcycle or a car because sometimes in life, we just need to take things slowly. Time may have been running quite fast just as the clock; with its hands seen in it ticks every second. But taking time to clear our minds and focusing on what we can do right now, we can do so many things. It may be that one becomes productive when he or she isn’t occupied by his or her thoughts and in that way, forgets the troubles just as this physical pain I felt, in a short period.
A bicycle doesn’t need to be as fancy as a motorcycle or a car. Just an update on its design or durability would suffice. We are so enticed of updated and worldly things that sometimes we aren’t looking back to anything old yet timeless. As we grow older, few or some become appreciative of little things that have a big impact when these are of no attention to others. The importance of the bicycle is nothing compared to the special vehicles we know. It is remarkably an expression of simplicity and is something that many can look for and need, just as this kind of life I have, and if not only me, others.
Its parts are our essential parts too that even its wheels tell us that one’s life is a cycle and this circular life is different from each because these wheels are under our directional control, as we are free beings, yet we couldn’t attain perfection in maintaining a straight path. I believe that growth requires freedom. As much as I want structure in life, I cannot resist the call to go with the flow or even with the chaos. Perhaps, I’m also meant to live a life that is senseless to some. Will do it anyway, unapologetic-ally. We only need to learn to embrace the randomness of our life’s journey.
Difficulties aside. A familiar wooden store loomed into view at long last, marking my return to a road where we first passed by. I drifted like a ghost through the narrower roads and soon made the turnoff onto a road full of local trucks and motorbikes. The small but incessant roadways, the fatigue of riding for hours on end, and the body pains; all conspired to make for a challenging stretch of cycling. These are also sensations that can be triggered by an hour after hour of long-distance cycling, so in this case, I couldn’t tell whether I was dying or having fun exercising. I and the rest of the group made it back to the starting point at half-past five and eventually put the bicycle back to its rental shop at Nyaung Shwe.
We came home at six. I thanked them for giving me an unimaginable and incredible day. As soon as the car dropped us by, everyone, with their tiring appearance, bade goodbye to me. Staggered, I walked towards the room from which I left the noodle I saved. There, I put down all the things I brought and immediately was carrying it to the kitchen. I sat down and ate it. I was worn out as if I was carrying a heavy load of things, cramming, and feeling the pain from my palms and ankle even more. Nevertheless, I felt so fulfilled and satisfied as I finally laid on my comfy bed.
(This narrative took place in the outing I had with the Pre-intermediate students of Communicative English Language Program (C.E.L.P.) at Mine Thouk, Nyaung Shwe, Shan State, Myanmar. I looked upon with curiosity in writing another story despite a breathtaking experience and a nostalgic day I never expected to have.)