It struck me that it’s not only when cycling that, metaphorically speaking, sometimes our wheels stop rolling. Things we normally do without a great deal of conscious effort suddenly consume our every waking moment. A problem at work escalates from an inconvenience into a livelihood threatening catastrophe: I had an accident in a car at work once which eventually resulted in me getting fired. Consistent denial to face problems in a relationship causes them to fester until the core is rotten, and only good for the bin: I’ve had quite a few relationships and I’m still single – enough said. Progress towards big goals and dreams by nature will meet circumstances which seem insurmountable: I’ve lost count of the number of goals that overcame me, resulting in failure.
Whatever the challenge, if it’s worth fighting for, one simply must find a way to keep the wheels rolling.
Getting into Myanmar was a doddle compared to getting out of India. Mar Swe, a gentleman (I believe?) at Seven Diamond Travels, had arranged a letter of authorisation from the Government of Myanmar on my behalf, and his colleague was waiting for me with the letter when I reached the border. I then followed him to his hotel in Tamu, where I stayed the first night. Already I was warming to the friendly and helpful nature of the Myanmar people.
The next day crossed a significant distance marker:
On the lower ground south of the higher elevation of Manipur, India, the heat and humidity were back with a vengeance, and I once again hit rock bottom physically before reaching Kalemyo. Stopping at a roadside restaurant, the sudden onset of diarrhoea found me cramping at speed down a steep flight of stairs into a stilted cubicle, where I would learn a new skill I had been avoiding since Turkey: paperless pooing. When I say, ‘learn a new skill,’ that’s an exaggeration, and after an impromptu shower I returned to the restaurant even more confused about the art of paperless pooing that I was before trying it.
The short ride between Kalemyo and Kalewa was the calm before the storm:
On both Google maps and the paper map provided by the Myanmar Embassy in Kathmandu, the main road through Kalewa passed over a river, in reality, it did not. The alternative road proved to be more challenging than any I had encountered to date. Steep inclines and declines over uneven surfaces made progress desperately slow. Then there was the mud, which often became unridable, usually after I had fallen off unable to create enough forward momentum with a spinning rear wheel. When pushing Shurly my feet grew to twice their normal size, heavy with mud every step ended with a slip and my leg grating against the mud encrusted rear pannier. I thought to myself, ‘This is shit. This isn’t bicycle touring. What is the point of pushing a 50 kg bicycle through mud? Fuck this for a game of soldiers.’ And for the first time ever I considered thumbing a lift. But there was no-one there, I was in the middle of nowhere. ‘Just keep the wheels rolling.’ I said to myself.
Out of options, I resolved to find positive ways to change my perspective. In my childhood I was a keen mountain biker and would have revelled in the prospect of spending the day cycling through mud over uneven ground. That was it. Instead of cursing every bump and muddy section I began to see them as challenges to cross without stopping. Gradually I became better at choosing the right route through, and gauging the best speed and gear to reduce wheel spin and carry momentum. Forgetting about the schedule to reach Monywa, focusing on the present moment, and becoming absorbed in the challenge presented by the road released me from the prison of expectation.
Pushing a 50kg bike up muddy hills still sucked though…
The sun was heavy in the sky, ‘Aaaaaargghhhhh!’ The frustration of pushing Shurly uphill through the mud was getting the better of me. The half way guesthouse was out of reach and the day was coming to an end when on reaching the top of a particularly exhausting peak I heard the rapturous laughter of a family tickled by the sight of me doubled over covered in mud gasping for air.
The family were adorable, the evening was spent miming in between broken English and Burmese. The couple from across the road came to join us for tea, and I tried to learn some more Burmese words which they all found very amusing.
As I pushed on oscillating over more mud and rubble it felt more like an assault course than a road, I wondered if I would ever make it to Monywa. Eventually crossing the ridge the road descended and flattened out into the village of Gangaw.
A slight misunderstanding over the lodging arrangements meant that after showering and washing my cloths with laundry detergent in the back garden of the restaurant, the owners promptly asked me to leave. Fortunately, the chap who told me I could stay, whom I thought was the owner, saw what happened and very kindly offered to host me at his home for the night.
I followed him on his motorbike back to his home where he lived with his wife, mother-in-law, and three year old son. We had a lot of visitors that evening as word got out that there was a strange looking Westerner with white feet, brown hands and ginger facial hair staying in the village.
The house sat on stilts, was constructed in hard wood and well engineered. The kitchen was outside under a shelter and the cooking was done over wood-burning fires. There was a well to provide water, they also collected rainwater in large metal basins on an outside balcony which acted as an open air washroom for everything from clothes and dishes to people.
The house comprised of two rooms: a living room which also doubled as a dining room and bedroom, and a separate room which was also used for sleeping in at night. There was very little furniture, everything was done while sitting on the floor. Electricity was only available between 5:30pm and 9:00pm, however, the night I was there the power didn’t come on until 7:00pm.
We sat and ate a meal together of rice, vegetables, and fish and chicken curries. I was exhausted soon after eating and they laid out a bed and put up a mosquito net for me to sleep under. In the morning they prepared a breakfast and I followed Aung on his motorbike back to the main road. Thanks so much Aung and family it was a pleasure to meet you.
Despite pushing every last drop of determined effort into the pedals, the wheels stopped rolling. It was the start of the third day spent inching painstakingly from Kalewa to Monywa, a journey naively embarked upon with ‘A‘ day set aside to complete. Keeping the wheels rolling was proving to be an all consuming vocation, which in the context of ‘cycling around the world’, might seem obvious. In reality though, keeping the wheels rolling doesn’t usually absorb a great deal of conscious attention. Just get on the bike and pedal, and normally the wheels keep rolling.
Immediately upon leaving Gangaw began the steepest, roughest climb I’ve ever cycled. The gradients were so steep that I had to zigzag across the road to make progress, but often not even that was enough. It was like the worst kind of interval training imaginable: I would cycle for as long as I could until the point of failure, spend a couple of minutes doubled over on the verge of being physically sick trying to get my breath back, then start cycling again. That went on for twelve miles, at one point I was close to tears. I felt so helpless, I had reached the point of failure over and over again and the hill just kept on going.
Then the realisation hit me that I had spent most of the last few days outside of my comfort zone, continually uncertain if I would be able to reach the end of the road. But all personal growth happens outside of your comfort zone: you’re either breaking down or you’re breaking through, it’s simply a matter of perspective. You have to decide which it’s going to be. I had written about it a lot, the whole idea of cycling around the world was devised to put me in those very situations.
In moments of despair it’s easy to forget what brought you there in the first place. I was there because I chose to be there and reminding myself of that was exactly what I needed to get the wheels rolling again.
Whatever your challenges are, whatever the mud, rubble and steep hills are in your life right now, just find a way to keep the wheels rolling. Eventually you will get to where your going.
[Side note: This blog made it onto a list of the top 50 bicycle touring blogs based on Alexa ranking, page authority and domain authority – Whoop whoop! When I say made it onto the list, at Number 47 it just made it onto the list, but still, for a one year old blog it’s pretty good going.
I also found out that the children of Horizon School that I visited in Dubai raised a whopping 400 pounds for Room to Read through their sponsored dress down day. Thanks again to Liz, Paul and Lara for hosting, organising and contributing.]