Thursday, November 8, 2007

Travelogue #9: Bike-Riding Through Chuncheon

<---Travelogue #8: Come, Norebang with Me
--->Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind

Note: This article was featured in the Autumn 2008 edition of Emory Magazine.

November 7 2007

I haven't successfully ridden a bicycle since "Hanging with Mr. Cooper" was on TGIF. That's fourteen years. Maybe fifteen. I'm not sure, but I do know it's been a long time since I've pedaled outside an exercise room.

When I was eight years old, I powered up and down the sloped driveways and curvy cul-de-sacs of suburbia. I lost the training wheels but I didn't get cocky. No twisty-tire tricks from me, just steady-eddie riding before mom would call me back for chicken nuggets.

It was fun, but there came a moment when I just, well, stopped riding bikes. I think it happened sometime after my next-door neighbor kicked me in the testicles while scrambling for a football. The nut-kick was a cheap shot; I remember how his eyes narrowed and how his leg swung towards my groin like a dart to its target. He meant to kick me in the balls. That's how I feel to this very day.

Once upon a time he had been my bike-ridding buddy. We'd round the neighborhoods, sometimes just us, sometimes with his family. But after that kick, I didn't really want to hang out with him anymore. With that, biking gradually slipped away from my life, replaced by Taekwondo, soccer, basketball, and later, tennis. I didn't think too much about it until years later, when older and supposedly wiser, I was ready to hop a banana seat and ride with a pack of friends to Baskin Robbins.

But there were problems.

The seat felt high, the brakes felt impossible, the steering felt unpredictable. I dragged my feet against the ground. What was happening?

"Dude, you don't forget how to ride a bike."

"Nobody forgets how to ride a bike."

They were wrong.

I had forgotten how to ride a bike.

So I ran to Baskin Robbins. My friends rode bikes, and I ran. They beat me there by fifteen minutes, and my buddy's dad drove me back.

Not my proudest moment.

More years passed. When I told people I didn't remember how to ride a bike, they would gasp, as if I'd just told them I had six toes. "You don't know how to ride a bike?" they'd ask, eyes wide, jaws dropped. I'd try to laugh it off, but they'd be reluctant to laugh with me. Did they think I was a freak? Did I need to start a support group of brothers and sisters for We-Can't-Ride-Bikes Anonymous? Forget pink ribbons; we'd sport pink helmets.

Now I'm in Korea for a year. New foods, new people, new sights, new sounds? I'm ready for all that, but the last thing I expected to accomplish here was re-learning how to ride a bicycle.

Until Sunday, when I went to Chuncheon.

Chuncheon is a small, mountainous town in the Korean countryside. This time of year its landscape calls to mind east Tennessee, all lush greenery and dense slopes, but come winter, it's a hotspot for skiers and snowboarders. The town's a few hours outside Seoul, so I made the trip by train, bus, and car with a group of female teachers from work. The plan was to ride ATVs and bikes. Obviously, my plan was to ride an ATV, but the girls had other ideas.

"Alex, you're going to ride a bike," Janet told me, surrounded by four other teachers, their hands on handlebars, waiting for me at the side of a moderately busy country road. "Come on, guys," I said, waving them off, "I'm fine riding this."

The "this" I was speaking of was not an ATV, but a bizarre buggy-style machine from another century.

I'd decided to pilot these clunky wheels and I was cool with the decision, though I had to pedal like mad to reach a speed of 2 miles an hour. Cars buzzed by me and whatever poor soul who joined me at the passenger seat; incredulous Korean faces gaped at us from car windows. Yes, we were crazies riding a 19th century buggy through Chuncheon.

"Alex, get on the bike!" she repeated. With years of embarrassment and petty rationalizations seeping from my mind, I left my perch on the buggy and wandered towards the bike. Was I really going to do this? In Korea, of all places? This was not a straight multi-laned shoot to Baskin Robbins; this was a winding, unseen foreign road.

I got on the bike.

The girls were patient, supportive, but insistent. "If you fall," one said, "fall into the bushes, don't fall into the traffic. That would be bad."


"Keep pedaling," they said, "faster, faster!" I felt myself give way so I braked. "It's okay, keep going!" I appreciated their unironic words. While my male friends were all "Dude, just ride it, man," the girls were literally teaching me how. I felt like their little brother but I didn't mind, because, somehow, I was doing it.

Faster. Steering. Faster. The girls laughed at me because while they soaked up the gorgeous mountain scenery, all I could stare at were my handlebars and the pavement in front of me. "Stay steady stay steady stay steady," I muttered as I weaved around a hand-in-hand walking couple. When cars hovered behind me, I braked at the side. Whoo. I was doing it! I was riding a bike!

I felt like a little kid struck with the pang of a new discovery. I broke from the group and spent several minutes riding alone. I peered up at the mountains. The cool air nipped my cheeks. Usually I'm the kind of guy who analyzes a moment too much, who thinks of it too hard, who weighs it down until it can't breathe on its own. But this time, with the green mountains on the horizon, with me pedaling and staying steady, all I could think was: wow.


<---Travelogue #8: Come, Norebang with Me

--->Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind



Michael said...

Bicycling is forever.

Really...glad you had fun. Welcome to the club!

heyday said...

when you were riding alone, you seemed like the one who conquered the world. your next assignemnt is roller blading. :)

Anonymous said...

At what point did the girls remove the training wheels from your bike? ;~)

Glad to see you're having such a good time. Those are some pretty cute girls, too!


Jes said...

Yeahhhhh bikes!

I'm so happy for you! Now you can get addicted to two wheels. :)

Nick said...

hahaha.. I really liked the line about guys saying "Dude just ride it." I very rarely laugh out loud like I did at that.

Jessio said...

I stumbled across this treasure of a blog in a Google search for 'Winter Chuncheon South Korea'!

Your travels sound beautiful. I'm hoping to travel in January 2009 (from the hot Aussie summer to the chilly winter time - better pack my scarf collection and stripy toe socks!)to Chuncheon to teach English as a volunteer to kids age 9-12.

Congrats on getting back on two wheels, you look almost like a pro flying down the road on your bicycle in that pic! :P


p.s. i'd love to hear more about your experiences in South Korea teaching English. i'll keep reading :)

Anonymous said...

I don't know how to ride a bike and I'm 23 y.o, after reading this, I feel like a freak already..:(

Tracy said...

This made me laugh so hard, I cried. I'm not sure why because I fear that I have also forgotten how to ride a bike... Anyways, it's nice to read about your experiences. I'm a soon to be graduate of Vanderbilt, also originally from Tennessee, and I'm considering the Korea experience :) Oh and by the way, your "Fur" story's Homer Simpson reference was not lost on me.