Zen and the Art of Motorbike Maintenance:
Finding the eye in the hurricane of fear
My fear is an internal panic so ravaging it sinks its teeth into every organ, every blood vessel, every raw bone.
A few months into this trip, some new and thrilling experiences under my belt, I lay awake in bed and truly felt that I wasn't afraid of anything anymore. I felt I was able to transcend the pettiness that can over-complicate our decisions and just let myself live. One of the phases of my travels in Vietnam that I was looking forward to the most was buying motorbikes and traversing the web of well-worn roads up to the north. I was nothing but excited until the exact moment when I had a wad of Vietnamese Dong in my hand, standing in front of a 150cc motorbike on a small side street in Danang, about to buy a bike. Hand outstretched, something inside me screamed "don't do it." I walked away, and it took twenty minutes of tense conversation with Dain, two Vietnamese men and a language barrier looking on, before I relinquished the cash and my control.
Does this have the makings of some sappy tale where I tell you I was afraid of the bike, grew to love it, and discovered that I made myself sick with frantic worrying for nothing? Sorry folks, life is a little more colorful than that, and the powers that be have a very sophisticated sense of humor.
I will say that after some practice (practice meaning shaking turns, darting out in to busy traffic, and general slowness as I felt the bike out) I got more comfortable, Before the first big leg of our journey, Dain convinced me to drive for a few hours out to the mountains. I got a taste of what it's like to drive through rice paddies where the road is just 4 meters across, insane nighttime highways where trucks pass other trucks on a two-lane road, and braking in the middle of the street because a herd of cows is lazily milling about. Not only were these conditions good to experience- they made me feel more confident and comfortable on my bike. The balancing and controls don't really come naturally to me so the learning curve seemed bigger than my friends'. As I strapped in my backpack the next morning and set out on the 100km-plus journey to Hue, I felt as confident as ever.
But there's more to the story. Mere hours before I sat on that seat ready to go, I'd been consumed by a nightmarish panic attack in the middle of the night. Visions of me losing control of the bike and careening off unceasingly smashed into my head as I fruitlessly tried to go to sleep. I couldn't shake the blind foreboding fear of it just being me, the bike, and the unforgiving road tomorrow. It got so bad that my usual attempts to seek refuge from myself weren't working. So I decided to say a prayer.
My prayer was short: I asked for God to keep my friends free from harm, for a safe journey, and to carry my anguish for me. There simply wasn't enough room on that bike for me to carry it myself. I finally got myself to sleep and to my surprise, the next day, a much welcomed calm seemed to surround me like Glinda's pink bubble.
My fear is sneaking, creeping, as seemingly innocuous as a trip-inducing crack in the sidewalk.
As we made our way around hectic Danang traffic circles, across bridges, and up through winding mountain roads, I had a clear head and was able to enjoy the journey. The Ha Van Pass is an absolutely spectacular drive showing off mountain ranges, steep ocean cliffs, and bright city views in the distance. I caught myself beaming a few times which made me even happier and sure that this motorbike trip was the right thing to do. I had sought new experiences outside my comfort zone, and this was my biggest challenge yet.
But the drive wasn't all photo stops and beautiful views. The turns were sharp and in both directions there were massive trucks blaring their horns and trying to pass me. I felt pressured to keep up with the more experienced riders but didn't feel comfortable enough to take the turns that fast. Nearly every meter warranted a little audible pep talk encouraging myself to keep going. The anxiety the night before was paralyzing but once I was in the very situation I feared, it kept me hyper alert and was almost a motivating factor for me to press on.
I soared through the rest of the day's journey with no problems only to find trouble just as I was pulling into the hotel. I tried to give the bike a little gas to get up onto a high curb and accidentally gave it too much, which sent me flying. The motorbike works by pulling the handle towards you to accelerate which is great when you're driving and not so great if something goes wrong for two reasons. One is that if the bike is going too fast it'll push you back and, two, when you panic you tend to pull your hands closer to you, both of which only tug the accelerator more. Whatever the case, I plowed into the side of a building and ended up with the bike partially pinned on top of me. I was fine save for one large purple bruise covering most of my right thigh.
Despite my small accident, I wasn't as deterred from biking as I thought I'd be. It was almost a relief, a self-fulfilling prophesy; what I feared might happen did happen and I survived. Little by little I got more comfortable with my bike and was able to improve every day. But no matter how many kilometers I had under my belt, the panic would jump into my field of vision like bolts of lightning. When I hit a sharp turn too fast or couldn't swerve to avoid hitting a semi barreling down my side of the road, it would haunt me as if to say, "remember this? You're afraid of this."
My fear is a sneak attack, appearing from nothingness before returning to the darkness under the bed with the rest of the monsters.
Just to be clear, I had a fantastic time biking around Vietnam. It was a truly unique and exceptional experience and I wouldn't have wanted to travel any other way. But it was difficult. Really, really difficult. My hands, arms, legs, shoulders, and neck ached after 10 days of constant driving. You feel every single kilometer because it's just you and the road. You feel them in your cold aching hands clutching the gas and brake, the wind puffing up your jacket, the extra gust of air that hits you after a big truck passes. It's a lawless road and staying alert for dogs, chickens, cows, buffalo, people, bikes, and trucks darting out at you is exhausting. Breaking down, running out of gas, losing a travel companion, and getting stranded on a remote road are real things to worry about because they can (and did) happen.
I'm glad I had no choice but to keep going because if I had an out, I might have taken it. I didn't overcome my fears: I adapted. Some fears will never go away because, like this one, they're based on the primal need to avoid dangerous situations. But when you're in such a position, you need to know how to manage both the situation at hand and your internal panic button. I'm really proud of myself for getting out of my own way so I was able to enjoy the incredible adventure I had looked forward to for so long.
In the end, as bad as I may make it sound, this is why I left my mind-numbing desk job. Feeling anything is better than feeling ambivalent. I feel really alive, and I'm really glad I still am after such a trip!