Tuesday, November 15, 2011


It’s the middle of November already. Yikes. I’ve been in Thailand nearly a week (I got to Chiang Mai six days ago) and already I feel settled. I’ve found a Raleigh to rent, too small for me, but so upright that my knees are nicely clear of the handlebars. The tires are good and the pedals on straight, more than I could say of the bicycle I rented last time I was here.

Today I headed north up the Ping River. It was late, after rush hour, so there was little traffic. The disadvantage of setting out after 9 am is of course that the sun is higher. But I never got really hot and sweaty, because of that lovely cyclist’s breeze that cools even as you work at pedalling in the sun. Coming back down the western bank of the river I was in shade a lot of the way, and that too was a treat.

I was remnded as I sailed along by the moat towards the end of my outing that each time I start into something new I have moments of apprehension: Will this work? or, Can I do it? or, Will I goof badly and hurt myself or someone else? The fears or doubts may take different forms, but they all spring from the same place of anxiety... And so it was this morning. I got worried because I don’t have a helmet, wondered about being too hot at the later hour, wondered if the bicycle was any good. And yet in my first minute, not more, of pedalling, all that fell away and I was truly rolling.

The same kind of thing happened with my travels in Burma. Yes, I’d been before, but still on my first trip three years ago for the cookbook I felt oppressed and a little fearful. I was under no illusions that the junta was paying me any special heed or that I mattered to them. I admit that the oppressive totalitarian-ness of the regime is enough to oppress and to create anxiety, just the mere thought of it, of course, but that wasn’t it.

I don’t think my anticipatory mild dread had much to do with those realities. Rather, it was just exactly that: anticipatory anxiety/dread/doubt/self-doubt. And once I had landed and found my way into Rangoon, it all vanished in a puff of smoke. I was there, I was still putting one foot in front of the other, and even though I was no more enlightened or clued in about what I was going to do, or how I was going to proceed to learn what I needed to learn to do the cookbook, the anxiety was gone.

Perhaps there’s a useful biological basis to anticipatory anxiety. Maybe it stops us from taking too many risks? But I think it’s just a trick, a way of making us uncomfortable, a kind of mean thing that some people suffer from way more than I do. I am lucky that mine goes away quickly, once I’m embarked. For some, every day, every dawn or perhaps every waking moment, is filled with a dread or anxiety of what comes next.

I feel for people in that state. Even the minor worry that I have felt at the start of something new, whether relatively major (Burma) or quite minor(getting back on a bicycle in Chiang Mai) can weigh on me. But it lasts only a short while. A more substantial worry is truly paralysing. People who feel that way a lot have to be brave just to get up in the morning. And they must get so exhausted pushing back the dread enough to function.

I’m not sure why I’m writing this right now. Perhaps it’s because I’ve just come through my small bicycle worry and am exhilarated to be on the other side of it, pedalling freely through the small lanes and busier roads of this complicated animated place. I don’t plan to bicycle at night, but I now feel freed up to head out in the morning for explorations in and out of town, sitting upright on my Raleigh, with my floppy sunhat on, looking somewhat ridiculous!

FOOD AFTERWARD: I’ve been eating a lot of grilled pork here in Chiang Mai, succulent and irresistable, and som tam too, and sticky rice, but I have to say that at the moment my mouth is remembering the taste of the perfectly ripe papaya I ate today. It wasn’t big, a nine- or ten-inch-long cylinder, with dark red flesh and mottled yellow skin. I cut it crosswise, then scooped out the seeds of one half, to make a deep cup. I squeezed half a juicy small lime into it and then slowly spooned out the flesh, each mouthful with a little of the lime juice from the bottom. What I was left with when I’d finished was the hollowed out cup of fine skin, thin enough that light passed through it in a stained-glass kind of way. I saved the other half for later. Yum.

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