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.
By Beth Puliti. Photos by Beth Puliti and Justin Kline
Pinpointing our fears—and taking steps to address them—will help us overcome them and move in the direction of taking that first pedal stroke. Worried about getting robbed on the road? Invest in a bag set-up that will keep your valuables securely out of sight. Afraid of wild dogs taking a chunk out of your haunches? Get a preventive rabies shot before your trip and attach a small horn to your bike. Anxious about camping in a place foreign to you? Do a bit of research to find alternative, affordable accommodations.
If you can’t point to one specific fear, you just might be afraid of everything, like I was. This is more appropriately referred to as “fear of the unknown.” It’s when our mind won’t let us move forward until we know what lies ahead. This, my fellow wanderlusters, is where planning comes into play.
Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in Issue #32 of Bicycle Times. To make sure you never miss a bike review, order a subscription and you’ll be ready for the everyday cycling adventure.
While you certainly won’t ever know exactly what awaits around the next curve in the road, you can take steps before you depart on your tour to familiarize yourself with the area you wish to explore. Pour over online journals of cyclists who have ventured where you dream to. Make notes in the pages of a detailed guidebook. Order a local road map and highlight intriguing attractions and accommodations. Other practical things to consider are:
Time of year: Unless you are product testing swanky rain gear, chances are you don’t want to be cycling through Asia during monsoon season. Obviously, you can’t predict an unusually stormy summer (like we’ve been experiencing this year in Europe), but a bit of research beforehand will ensure you are pedaling in the most ideal weather possible.
Cost: If you plan on doing a fair amount of eating out and sleeping in hotels, you might consider spending time in parts of the world that are known for their affordable accommodations and tasty, inexpensive cuisine like Southeast Asia.
Culture: Each region of the world has its own beliefs and ways of life. Seeing these firsthand is part of what makes travel so fulfilling. Traveling to Albania? It might benefit you to know that cuisine is meat-oriented and society is patriarchal. Having a foundation of knowledge before you enter a country may help to ease any anxiety you may have surrounding the customs of a particular area—or steer you in a different direction completely.
Time: Don’t try to fit too much in a short amount of time. You’re not going to be able to see the world in a month, or even a year for that matter. So, it doesn’t make sense to pedal yourself silly trying. Terrain, climate, visa logistics and sightseeing are all things you should consider when planning how long it will take to get from point A to point B.
Route: Is it important to know if roads are busy with traffic? Yes. Or if they actually exist, like our recent experience in Macedonia? Of course. But don’t be set on sticking to an exact route before you roll across the border. Chances are you’ll meet locals who will suggest a quieter, flatter or more scenic road.
The very best way to begin the planning process is to set a date. Nothing will motivate you more than a looming departure date to start your dream bike tour. You’ll be pedaling before you know it!
One final thought: While planning can help get the ball rolling—or wheels turning, in this case—figuring out every last detail in advance can be restricting. Find a balance and be open to veering from the plan in the name of adventure. You may be pleasantly surprised at just how much you enjoy those “scary” unplanned parts of your journey.
Beth Puliti is a freelance writer traveling on an open-ended bike tour with her husband, working wherever there’s Wi-Fi and sleeping wherever her legs give out for the day. Visit www.bethpuliti.com.