I’m on a mud-encased mountain bike on a rutted, red-mud road in central Sri Lanka. A red tuktuk selling baked goods, and playing a loud, tinny version of It’s a Small World to attract customers, veers straight at me to avoid a deep red-mud puddle. I veer off the road, giggling loudly. That would be an ignominious death.
I got it into my head that I wanted to ride a bike around Sri Lanka for the holidays. Today was day 2 of a 13 day trip with a company called Grasshopper, with three other people — a Russian woman in her early 40s who works in investment banking in London, a young Aussie woman from Perth, and a big guy from Pennsylvania who is teaching in Mongolia. It’s a mix of seeing “cultural sites” and riding. The first day, in the pouring rain, we did about 30 km; today we rode door to door from our hotels and did 75 km. All of the hotels so far have been unbelievably lovely properties, with pools and good restaurants. And my room at this place has a rainforest shower that is actually IN the rainforest — the bathroom is technically indoor/outdoor with a tight screen all around. It’s glorious and unnerving.
On an organized trip like this, the people matter as much as anything else. So far we’re a group of four, and we blend well. We all like dhal, we ride close to the same pace, we are all non-complainers. (Well, except for being a bit put out when the guide seems to swap down the distances on the itinerary in favour of bus transfers — I seem to have been designated the Feedback Provider, while everyone else looks at their phones).
No one would choose a trip like this who doesn’t want to ride pretty hard or who would complain about being wet. There are plenty of more luxurious options, like, say, a tour through wine country in France. Everyone here has traveled a lot, but isn’t all one-uppy about it.
Bonding in a group like this is an interesting thing because you have to get along, and you have to ride together, and you are suddenly spending a lot of time with strangers. And you end up in dinner conversations about dissecting cow’s hearts (Mongolia guy teaches biology), or yak curd tea (again, Mongolia), or how the Aussie woman literally bit a guy’s tongue off when she got assaulted in China. Mostly, we talk about Aussie woman’s love for bananas (she eats about 7 a day), and Mongolia. We are learning a lot about Mongolia. (“If you think this road is bumpy, you should see the roads in Mongolia.” “Are they paved with bitterness and yak curds,” the Aussie woman and I joke.)
It’s actually really lovely to only know these random facts about people. And not much else. The hotels are lovely, full of excellent buffets and men playing odd squeezy box things and attempting O Come all Ye Faithful. The riding is through miraculous landscapes, lush and relatively prosperous, and deeply stories. Children run to the road and shout HELLO. We’ve seen a mongoose, a huge monitor lizard, many monkeys all over the road, and a wild peacock. Many wild or protective dogs, which look the same all over the world.
And it’s surprisingly hard riding for me. I’ve never ridden a mountain bike with full tires before, and I am find it a surprising struggle to heft this heavy bike up hills, and don’t have a lot of confidence yet that I won’t crash in every bump or puddle. I dreamed a huge anxiety dream last night that I couldn’t get the bike up a hill and I was being chased by ghosts. (I’m also dirtier than I’ve ever been, and my fancy Castillo technical jersey has huge glob of tar on it accidentally thrown on me by a road crew). A good 20 km of our ride today was a lovely, shady road along a river but bumped me as though I was the toy of a giant, tantrumming child. I am really happy to be here, and the difficulty is good.
I love traveling like this, and it’s a big reset to a too-busy life, an overheated world. But for the first time on this kind of trip, I can’t unhook myself from the world. I’m remote, but every hotel has wifi, and the headlines buzz into my ipad and phone. I worry about humanity, and I worry about peace and kindness, and I ride. Because that’s what I can do to feel whole.