Words and photos by Beth Puliti
Fun is a relative concept. What someone finds enjoyable—say spending two weeks on a cruise ship—can cause someone else to run, bike over shoulder, for the hills. Likewise, a long-term bike tour will have loads of people researching ports of call faster than you can say Royal Caribbean.
Two summers ago I was laboring my overloaded touring bike up a steep ascent in Croatia on a brutally hot day when a guy called out to me from his car, “This is fun?” Nope, I thought. “Why do you do this?” he insisted. I opened my mouth to answer, but couldn’t find the words to articulate a response— especially to a person who so clearly couldn’t comprehend why someone would choose to “suffer” if they didn’t have to. I continued up the climb in silence.
More recently, I shared a photo of Myanmar, one of the most culturally rich countries we visited in nearly two years on the road, with my mom. The image was of a Burmese man wearing a traditional ankle-length longyi gazing at a pink sky as the sun rose above the city of Bagan. “It looks beautiful,” my mom wrote to me. “Are you having fun?” At the time, I was suffering from a fever, full-body muscle cramping, joint pain, a massive tropical bug bite, severe stomach discomfort and, um… what you might call the opposite of constipation. By the time the fiery sun had bathed thousands of ancient brick temples in a warm orange glow that morning, I had ingested four different kinds of medicine.
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that traveling through undeveloped foreign lands is all rainbows and unicorns, or in this case pastel sunrises and bacteria-free food. But I also knew I couldn’t tell her exactly how I felt in that moment because, like the baffled driver who called out to me, she wouldn’t understand why I was choosing to put myself through a bit of pain. I knew before entering Myanmar that there was a strong possibility of getting ill and I went anyway. I also knew that I’d hate every minute of that steep road in Croatia and pedaled up it anyway.
Why did I do it?
For the same reason many of us partake in things that are unthinkable to a sizable portion of our friends, family, coworkers and strangers. Because we’d rather experience a little discomfort than miss interacting with a culture that has been unseen for 50 years.
We’d rather endure a climb in stupid hot weather than sit out the spectacular view and sweet descent waiting for us at the top.
We know the pain won’t last forever. We also know it makes the pleasurable moments that much more enjoyable. In our temporary moments of agony, we feel our hearts beating and our lungs working. And that suffering, it makes us feel alive.
When it comes down to it, I’ll choose the 360 degree view after a hard ride to get there over relaxing in a chaise on a cruise ship any day. I know I’m not the only one. Sure, it might not be fun in the moment, but damn if it isn’t the most satisfying to look back on.
Beth Puliti is a writer and photographer whose two-year bike tour through Europe and Asia prompted hi-fives from some and looks of pure bewilderment from others. Follow her travels at @bethpuliti.
This article originally appeared in Bicycle Times #43.