Painful Clarity

A few nights ago I rolled out of Shkodër with my life’s belongings once again packed up on my bicycle, some 60 pounds of plastic, fabric, and metal I call home. Like a turtle in his shell, carrying his house on his back, I am scuttling along with nowhere to be, just the feeling that moving is what I should be doing.

Unlike the turtle, I can’t claim to carry my whole world on my back, for my heart and soul are bound up in the hearts’ and souls’ of my family and dear friends. When it comes down to things of value, I carry nothing valuable in my packs, my treasures are immaterial: the freedom to wander, the love of a few, the joy to live, and my collection of Kindle e-books in the cloud.

A curious Albanian Turtle found wandering across the road

A Few Things

Two things became clear those first few days out of Shkodër.

First, holy hell, I am out of shape. After eleven months of not-quite sedentary life in Albania, my body has gone soft on me. It isn’t as if the past months were filled with consecutive Netflix binges and an abundance of tri leches (a light, fluffy sponge cake soaked in three milks and covered in salted caramel), though I do confess to having performed a Netflix binge and eaten a tri leche or two. On the contrary, I hiked, paddled, cycled, or did some form of outdoor activity nearly every week of my stay. But the occasional afternoon or weekend of hiking is not enough to keep the body and mind prepared for 10 hour days in the saddle climbing mountains in 95°F / 35°C heat.

However, I abhor training for training’s sake, it’s mind numbingly boring. You will never catch me in a gym or drilling hills. I’m a firm believer in the “just do it” approach to training. When there is no trophy or ribbon involved, and the stake is only your own pride, don’t let the thought of “I’m not ready” stop you. You’ll get ready, while you go, along the way.

Soon after Shkodër in the direction of Kosovo, the scraggy Northern Albanian Alps rise up steeply. They’re not near as steep as other mountains I’ve journeyed over, but for one hasn’t made cycling mountains an everyday activity the past year, steep enough. Armed with my “just do it” technique, I knew the only way I would get over them is to just pedal and keep pedaling.

So I pedaled. Round countless switchback, over innumerable potholes, across mountain passes, down into valleys, and up out of them again.

Switchbacks winding up the mountain near Lake Boville, not unlike the kind on the way to Kosovo (Photo by Yasmin, thanks!)

Paying the Price

I broke sometime on the second day. The sun was raging down without mercy, the entirety of road before me was swathed in golden rays of fire, and no shade fell except that given off by my own shadow. The sharp raw sensation of aching muscles in my legs was drowned out by the stabbing pain in my stomach that started growing that morning. Alarmed, I paused the pedaling for a moment, straddling my bike mid-switchback.

Like a white capped breaker, the nausea crashed into me, it tipped me over knocking my bike and myself violently to the ground. Crawling out from underneath the weight, the urge to retch my morning meal onto the hot asphalt was sudden and present in my mind. I swallowed it down, pulled out my small gray groundsheet, and beneath it I curled up in the fetal position. For a brief moment there, caught in the shade of my bike’s shadow, I felt a delirious peace and it was then I made the second realization.

“All suffering is born of desire,” I ruminated on words I had recently read. The mountains, the fiery sun, and the hard asphalt, they are all as they are. It is not them conspiring together that brings about this misery I feel. It is I who picked a fight with them, my desire to put in the miles, to continue despite my body’s protests.

Only I am responsible for my suffering. Isn’t it always so? I suffer hunger, for my desire to eat. I suffer in a downpour, for my desire to be dry. I suffer shame, for my desire for praise. I suffer a hangover, for the desire to be drunk and merry. I suffer bills, for the desire to have stuff. I suffer work, for the desire of wealth. I suffer love, for the desire to be in love and be loved.

Surely some desires are basic and beyond our control—I can’t long resist the desire to eat—but, to the extent I can reduce some desires, couldn’t I commensurably reduce some suffering? Often I simply accept the pain as dues for the pleasure of what desires brings: If I want to get drunk, I must suffer the hangover. If I want that gadget, I must suffer the work to earn the money to buy it. What freedom then, what peace, could be obtained if I shed some desires altogether!

Nature doesn’t dispense pain or pleasure. All the things in the world are as they are. In the end, suffering comes from within.

As these thoughts floated through my mind, the convulsions wracked my body, emanating not from the nausea in my core, but from my desire to conquer the mountain without regard for my body.

Curled up there on the asphalt in the harsh embrace of the switchback I sipped the tepid water from my bottle until the nausea subsided to a dull knot. Then I stood up, flexed my stiffened legs, reined in my desire, and pedaled on.

The mountains I crossed out over viewed from my meditative spot along Lake Radoniq
Met these two lovely travelers in Gjakovë, Kosovo