I just got back from a month in South/SE Asia. I spent two weeks in Sri Lanka, where my first interaction when I arrived at my hotel at 230 am was an argument with the desk clerk who insisted (incorrectly) that I was sharing a room with someone, that I should sit down and wait for my guide to come, and who, despite my protests, called a stranger on the phone and said “I have a woman here for you.”
I finally managed to convince him that I wasn’t anyone’s woman, that I didn’t need my guide to get out of bed and come to me, and that all I wanted — all ANYONE wanted at 230 am after flying all day — was to go to bed. At breakfast the next morning, I worked overtime to try (and fail) to get a very specific coffee. Later that day I spent far too much time trying fruitlessly to get laundry done.
These arguments, this trying to make things work the way they “should”? I wasn’t in travel mode yet. I hadn’t yet found that space of letting go, of surrender, which is what I really seek when I’m traveling. Away is not home, and the further away you are, the more you have to peel off your expectations. And as I get older, and my life gets more and more overstuffed, “time out” from certainty, from expectations, from thinking I know what’s coming, becomes a more and more important part of my mental and emotional resilience.
Over the month in Asia, I was on the seat of a bike for about 16 days. I blogged about my two week cycling trip in Sri Lanka here and here, and about riding in Laos here. It was a fantastic experience. Bikes bring you into mountains and remote places you would never “feel” from inside a vehicle or get to on your feet, and bring you into intimacy with people in villages, farm creatures, small cities. There’s no other way to find your way onto roads that are literally 6 feet wide that wind through tea plantations, the tiny places where the people who pluck the leaves we drink live, the unexpected tiny Buddhist and Hindu temples in every village.
On a bike, you realize that coniferous forests and burning garbage both smell the same wherever you are on this planet. Roosters sound the same in California, Myanmar and Uganda. You learn how to greet people in their language, and to make eye contact with people where you find them, bathing or shopping or gossiping or working. You stop for breaks in random places, and children come running. In both Sri Lanka and Laos, I was continually surprised by how many people exchanged glances that showed that they thought I was simultaneously crazy and remarkably strong for riding a bike up a mountain — they laughed WITH me. In a vehicle, you’re walled off from everyone, driving through. On a bike, you’re at the same pace, more immersed. More available.
And, pedaling for 16 days — a total of about 885 km, with a hell of a lot of climbing (and two crashes) –is not what most people think of as a “holiday.” It’s mystical and illuminating and magical in many ways — and it’s physically HARD. At the same time, I get bone tired and fully, totally awake. I think the reason this effort is so energizing is that it forces me to surrender to what is. And that wake me up in ways I never feel anywhere else.
At the most basic level, for me, cycling is about mindfulness. I’ve written a bit on this blog over the past year about how pedaling is sometimes the only way I have to make sense of the world — that there’s something meditative about moving my body with the exact force needed for a long ride that frees up my mind from “stuckness,” as Pema Chodron calls it. Riding requires you to “be here now” — you have to have your senses alert to what’s around you, what’s on the road, how the bike is balanced — and for me, it also opens up the kind of flow that enables me to let go of the stuff that’s besetting me, let in creative ideas.
Using a bike to explore a completely unknown world is, for me, the most powerful alchemy of letting go and opening up. It’s all about comfort with uncertainty. No matter how many lists you make, no matter how prepared you are, you will not have all the right gear, and you will not know what the roads feel like under your wheels, what the borrowed bike will ride like, when it will rain, whether the cloud forest will descend or not, whether that mountain road on the itinerary will be surrounded by trees or open drop offs, whether those villages will be charming or filled with garbage and wild dogs. There is no way to know these things, and no way to plan for them.
For both cycling trips (and a night jaunt in Bangkok), I traveled this year with a company called Grasshopper Adventures, who are a great outfit. Well organized, professional, good communications, experienced. I began to plan this trip in the summer, worked out every flight or hotel night between trips, made long lists. Checked off boxes. Debated — camelback or water bottles? Bring pedals or not?
In the end, there was a long list of things that either I “got wrong” in packing or that went awry on the road. First, shoes. I asked the tour contact if road bike cleats made sense for Sri Lanka (I used them in Vietnam last year); she said yes, but she was wrong. They were completely wrong on muddy, broken mountain roads, and I destroyed them on the second day. I had no real back up — I had some vague notion that I could wear running shoes, but they kept slipping off the pedals. So I ended up riding more than 800 km wearing my keens sandals. (I actually tried to fix this by having someone in Canada go to huge effort and expense to find me mountain bike shoes and ship them for the Laos trip. I got them, and the shoes were too small. Back to the keens).
It was a lot colder in Laos than I expected in the mountains. The other people on my trip had long tights and sleeves and puffy jackets. Not me. I had to wear every layer I owned, including sacrificing a lacy top as a cycling layer and adding polka dotted socks with the keens.
On the last day in Sri Lanka, after getting a bit discombobulated by a crash, I left my glasses — my expensive progressives I need for, you know, basic SIGHT — behind in the bathroom at lunchtime, when I pulled them out of my pack to look for toilet paper. (I was wearing prescription sunglasses). I had back up glasses — completely inappropriate for riding or everyday wear, the sequined cats eye ones I call “party librarian.” And it rained in Laos, so I had to wear them every day.
I didn’t expect the monsoons in Sri Lanka, or the muddy roads, or the steepness of the hills. I didn’t bring enough head wrap thingies. The bike in Sri Lanka was much heavier than I’m used to or comfortable with. I brought a little front pack so I could keep my phone handy, and the new phone I got just before I left didn’t fit in it. The GPS on my new-last-summer bike Garmin just completely stopped working my second last day. The guide in Laos forgot I don’t eat red meat and made a pork-only meal for lunch one day, with backup pork for dinner. In Sri Lanka, there were tons of discrepancies between the itinerary we’d been sent and our guide’s plan. We got lost a lot. A new group joined us halfway through the Sri Lanka trip with a whole new dynamic. We got on a train and someone had taken our reserved seats so we had to take the bus. We had to ride in the van more than planned in Laos because of fierce rain. I crashed the first morning in Laos. And so on. And so on. I adapted. And it was — all GREAT. None of this mattered.
I never found the point of complete surrender — it’s not super easy when you’re tired and sore (and keep crashing), and I got very cranky when someone on our Sri Lanka trip cut her riding short one day and requested a special transfer to the hotel just so — I’m convinced — she could steal my room and I had to go to the overflow, yuckier hotel. Then there was the day we rode 90 km then got on a bus immediately for four hours to sloooowly go up a mountain without snacks. When we reached the lodge, I needed to eat right away — and we had to dress up and wait for a formal dinner (See: Why I hate fancy hotels). I hit the hangry point and demanded bread and butter and ate it right in the lobby. I’m hardly the poster child for adaptability and surrender.
But, I know this about myself. My life is overstuffed, and I don’t let go easily. I need to push myself into places where I need to adapt, be reminded of what happens when you surrender. And doing it in a world where adaptation is a requirement is for life is the most vivid reminder of all.
I know I’m privileged, to have the physical and financial resources and support to enable to me to take this kind of trip. And engaging with such a different world, with people living completely different lives from me, making the most elemental human connection on the tops of mountains and in rice fields … lifting myself out of assumptions and expectations … all while using my own steam to cover almost 900 km of space… all of this solidifies deep awareness of that privilege, gratitude for what I have.
Riding hard, you slow down at the end of the day. Most days, there was some kind of sunset. You look and immerse yourself in it. This sequence of sunsets from this trip is the mental imprint now that reminds me to still myself, practice gratitude, feel each day as it was.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, a regular contributor to this blog. She lives in Toronto and explores the world whenever she can. She also blogs at fieldpoppy.wordpress.com