“I did this to myself,” I mumbled. I kept thinking, “This is my fault. I am stuck on this bike in this heat in Bagan to celebrate my big birthday. I chose this. I must be crazy.” I wondered, “Why am I torturing myself? Are we having fun yet?” George, my happy husband, seemed so calm and collected on his bike. I wanted to be an intrepid traveler and young at heart but turning 45 made me wonder: “Am I too old for adventure? Do I need to get off the road and settle down? What will the next five years bring?”
Certain birthdays give us the chance to take stock. Have we met our goals? Where are we? As I map out where I want to go on this, my sabbatical year, I wonder in the next five years where will we go?
For the last six years, George and I have talked about traveling in Myanmar together. Now we were here for my 45th birthday and I hated it. I hated the heat. The bike. Even myself for choosing this terrorizing trauma as a gift to myself.
Who would bike in 104 degree heat at midday to see old rocks? What had I done? It seemed smart back in Los Angeles when we met online. I first saw the Schwedagon Pagoda in 2001 during a 50-day cruise from Athens to Bangkok. Seeing the Schwedagon Pagoda at sunset and then at night is one of my most special and enduring memories from seven years of working at sea like Julie McCoy on “The Love Boat.”
I entranced George before our first blind date because I spoke of Schwedagon but had not yet been to Bagan. During our 2008 sabbatical year when we got engaged, we wanted to visit Myanmar but with the political situation, it was challenging to get a visa and we did not go.
When planning this sabbatical year in South East Asia, Myanmar was on the top of both our lists. George longed to share Bagan and its temples with me. When he spoke of bicycle riding, I did not realize we would bike on dirt paths with roads full of potholes and rocks.
After a teenage bicycle accident, I never got back on the bike and for the first time since then I biked at night (on a street where the street lights did not go on), uphill, and in sand. I decided to share my feelings and as I struggled to get my battered bike up hill, I screamed out loud, “I don’t like this.” I felt a bit better, but George felt a bit worse.
In Hsipaw, my first bike had a broken chain before we went two blocks; my second bike had broken front brakes and the back brakes worked a bit. I jumped off on the first downhill and walked on the rest of them. I felt like a bike failure and maybe even a travel failure. The German couple we were with never owned cars only bikes. They glided on and off their bikes so gracefully. I thought, “I am a sucky bike rider. I am too old to ride bikes.”
Then we biked in Bagan with high temperatures, challenging terrain, in the darkness and after that I got a flat tire. I thought if only we had better bikes. Then in Nyuang Shwe, my seat kept slipping down and was at a bad angle, I pitched forward pressing with my palms the entire time trying to stay upright, and then I felt dizzy in the heat.
Finally, there was a day that was cooler, the road had shade, my bike had tread on its tires and a seat properly angled. And I thought, “I almost like this.” Then we saw oxen and their babies, fields of red lotus flowers and a woman leg rowing her boat while holding a baby and transporting two other children. Another backpacker said pointing toward the rower: “And there goes someone who should get gold in the superbly talented Olympics.”
I remembered the day before on our boat trip on Inle Lake we learned that children begin leg rowing at age five so this woman could have been rowing for more than 20 or 30 years. I thought about my first grade students. When I helped them with a science project that required cutting, they would say to me, “Mrs. Rajna you cut so fast.” I always reply, “Years of practice. When you are my age, you will cut fast too!”
I decided, maybe I do not suck at biking. Maybe I don’t hate it. Maybe I need practice. I wonder how well I could bike if I practice for five years. When I am turning 50 maybe I will feel like the fellow traveler, I saw after breakfast. She looked so happy to get on her bike. I felt envious.
For my 45th birthday, I asked for 45 friends to donate $45 to help 45 refugee families from Darfur. Together, we raised enough money to aid over two hundred people in the camp who will benefit from the Solar Cooker Project and their lives will be safer. I wonder what the next five years will bring. I hope for adventure, health and opportunities to learn to be a better biker and not be so hard on myself. I need to recognize the terrain and adjust. I need to get a better bike, sometimes it is the equipment!
As a teacher, I am a perpetual counter. How many minutes are there for this experiment, until we need to clean up, days to vacation, points on this quiz. Using my 45th birthday as an opportunity to reflect, I am glad George and I are vagabonds on a journey. In the last month, I have been on national television for the first time, helped refugees in Africa and made my dreams come true. I love spending my time, with George, living the life we want, choosing to be on the road together and even biking in Bagan.