It’s Okay To Suck At Bike Riding

And other lessons I learned from Haruki Murakami

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It’s not often that I have a special experience surrounding a book I read.  This one involves the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and what was probably the worst bike ride of my entire life.

September of last year Yun and I planned a do or die trip to Jeju Island, the so-called “Hawaii” of South Korea. We were leaving Korea soon and it didn’t seem right to do so before we paid a visit.   Why not go all out, we thought, and turn it into an epic bike trip. So with some thought we planned our itinerary, where we would stay, and how we would pack.

We didn’t exercise as much thought when it came to the weather.

About two days before the trip it occurred to me to check the weather status on Jeju Island. “Constant rain,” the Internet told me. All three days we would be there. All day long.

We shrugged it off. What’s a bit of rain, anyway? We figured. Isn’t that part of the adventure? A raincoat each and we’d be set. How bad could it be? (Here I take a moment to pause and exhale ever so slightly…)

When we arrived in Jeju City the rain was fairly mild. See, this is nothing! My psyche made a valiant attempt to see the glass half full. We hopped on a bus headed south and crashed that night at a “pension” (something like a Korean B&B, minus the breakfast part). We had ordered our rental bikes to be dropped off the next morning. And then the next morning came.

Rain. Frenzied, relentless, pell mell. Half filled with dread, half mortified I couldn’t look Yun in the eye. The rental bike guy came with our bikes to the hotel lobby at around 9 am. Seeing our hesitation he asked, “You know how to use these…?”

“Well…”

It’s not that we didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. Rather it was at this moment we realized the second critical error we had made.

The bikes we had rented were…how to describe them?  Professional bikes. Bike enthusiast bikes.

The kind of bike with the hand bars one foot lower than the seat so that you’re bent forward like a yogi. The kind of hand bars that have little horns you have to grip on top so that it’s almost impossible to pull the brake without killing the muscles in your pointer finger. These were bikes meant for true athletes, meant for aerodynamic cruising around hairpin turns. They didn’t even have kickstands. My idea of a bike was (and still is) a low-rider with a fat, cushy seat and a big basket in front for carrying a thermos of lemonade. We both stared for a moment in silence.

The bike rental guy showed us how to adjust our seats (even the lowest setting still put us in the leaning yogi position) and with a brusque, I-don’t-have-time-for-this kind of attitude sauntered back out into the rain and drove off in his rental van.

The hotel manager watched us from behind the counter and said, “Are you guys really going to ride those things out there?” I don’t understand Korean all too well, but I can’t imagine what else he could’ve said. I’m pretty sure at that moment both Yun and I reconsidered what we were doing, but we had checked out of the room, paid for the bikes, and the ship had sailed.   We donned our helmets and our pitiful rain ponchos we’d bought at a convenience store and headed out.

Something to note about riding in the rain: there’s riding in the rain on a level surface. And then there’s riding in the rain uphill. And then there’s riding in the rain uphill in the wrong clothes.   And then there’s all of those factors, in addition to riding on a bike you have absolutely no experience with.

I did okay until it got to the uphill part. I tried to think of it as a whimsical sort of misadventure I could sort of laugh my way through. That’s when my thighs started to die.

I was wearing jeans – probably the worst thing you could wear in a rainstorm – and they were soaked to the core in seconds. Along with my muscles they resisted the upward pull of my legs as I pedaled. I was thoroughly out of humor by the time I reached the uphill peak, and my exchanges with Yun were few and terse.

Downhill, however, was a nightmare.   As you recall, the position of the bike forced me into a leaning forward position. This meant that in order to look up, my neck and shoulders experienced a terrific strain. But if I looked down I couldn’t see my path ahead, and in rainy conditions this was nothing short of suicide. In addition to that, the brake was near impossible to pull and I almost wiped out at one point. After a few moments of primal, childlike crying from shock I remounted and changed the position of my hands. I was now able to reach the brake easier, but at the cost of my hands and wrists being uncomfortable.

Over the few hours biking on the road along the south coast of Jeju Island we experienced little variation and a lot of monotony. When uphill became too painful for us we stopped to rest under a bus stop – otherwise we kept moving. When downhill became too painful we got off and walked. Any time delaying at a restaurant or store just meant more time until we reached our destination. Almost every second of riding the bike was miserable, but the anticipation of getting back on the bike was even worse. So we just kept going.

I have two distinct memories of that epically disastrous ride. The first was when we passed the “Health and Sex” museum that happened to be next to the road. I’m not sure why, but we stopped and took a photo. The museum name was too long to get in the shot, so in the photo is Yun, standing in a field, in his helmet and poncho, next to the giant letters “S-E-X.”

The second memory was another time I nearly wiped out, although I managed this time not to hyperventilate. The front end of my bike swerved this way and that, and I had just enough presence of mind to steer it and pull on the brakes before crashing into a fence. When I finally stopped and looked up there was a giant, brown cow standing a few yards in front of me.   Its huge, unblinking eyes directly met mine. The sight of me had probably stopped it in the middle of chewing its cud. Normally I find cows to be less than intelligent animals, but this one regarded me with an unmistakable expression of both wonderment and disgust. I quickly backed up and rode off, ashamed.

Through some sort of miracle we made it all the way to Seogwi-po City, the only largish town on the southern coast. To add insult to injury the first two hotels had no vacancy. Finally we found a decent place with a friendly and sympathetic clerk. We peeled off our clothes, showered, found a Laundromat, ate a dinner of pork barbecue and called the bike rental guys to come pick our bikes up early. They said they would be happy to, but it would take a while because they had to pick up some other bikes that their other clients had quit using. Gee, go figure.

***

The next day of our Jeju Trip Yun and I were walking and riding in cabs instead of biking, but the memory of the day before still stung. After seeing a couple of waterfalls we found a coffee shop. It was another cold, wet day and we needed something warm, but we didn’t intend to stay long.

Unlike Seoul, the people of Jeju Island are rather friendly and casual. When I rattled off a stock-memorized sentence in Korean (“Do you happen to have hot chocolate?”) the barista became delighted and tried to start a conversation.

Oh dear.

I tried to muddle my way through her questions, grasping at any words I recognized and answering her as best as I could understand. Of course, I denied that I could speak Korean well, but this seemed to have no effect on her. She said something else I couldn’t understand, and came back a few moments later with a book in her hand. An English book. It was What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami.

“It’s one of my only English books, so you can read it,” she said, in essence. “This is a very special book to me.”

Gratefully I plopped down into a chair with my hot chocolate mug and it didn’t take me long to realize that Mr. Murakami’s book was strangely apropos to my whole Jeju misadventure. I lost track of time and soon had read the whole thing.

For the record, I have not read any Murakami novels. I am aware that he is a both a bestseller and a sort of darling of the critics, and maybe for that reason I felt a bias and didn’t bother. Illogical, I know. I guess I imagined he was someone pretentious and boring. And for all I know, his novels are that. But his memoir, Running (I’ll call it that for short) is anything but pretentious. And certainly anything but boring.

In a modest but riveting 127 pages Murakami matter-of-factly explains why he enjoys running long distances and how the self-discipline and enjoyment of it help him write novels. He shares pieces and glimpses of his life and his beginnings as both a writer and as a runner. I can’t tell if the self-effacing way he talks about his flaws and foibles is a Japanese cultural thing, personal modesty, subtle humor or all three – whatever it is, it’s delightful. His attitude is either genuine and honest, or so brilliantly contrived that it doesn’t matter if it’s not. He gives you the straight talk on marathons he’s run and the leg cramps, dehydration, crappy weather and other ignominies he’s suffered along the way.

The ecstatic moment for me on that rainy day in the coffee shop, though, was when he began to share his triathlon experiences. Guess which is his least favorite part in the triathlon. One lucky guess.

Murakami seems to feel almost as awkward on a bicycle as yours truly. I think I laughed out loud when he described the hunched leaning position as “a praying mantis with a raised head.”   “It’s next to impossible,” he tells us, and goes on to say that:

Sometimes it [cycling] strikes me as an intricate form of torture. In his book the triathlete Dave Scott wrote that of all the sports man has invented, cycling has got to be the most unpleasant of all. I totally agree.

 If a worldwide bestselling Japanese novelist and triathlete feels like cycling is “torture,” I guess I’m not quite such a baby after all. Not quite, anyway.

But Running is a memoir filled with so many more witty and straightforward insights than cycling. After all, it is mainly about running. And about inspiration. Above all, it is personal – he never claims to have found the ultimate answer to anything, but rather, shares his own experiences as an artist and as a runner, for what they’re worth.

One thing (among many) that I think Murakami hits on the head is the concept of pain – and by extension, effort we put into anything we do. That could also include writing a novel. Or overcoming the discomforts of traveling to a new destination:

It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive – or at least a partial sense of it.

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The glorious cliffs of Jusangjeolli.  Was it worth it?

I felt cranky, tired, dirty, soiled and grimy on that long bike ride. I felt pain both physical and figurative. And yet I certainly felt alive. It was the pursuit of that aliveness that gave me the mad impulse to go out in the rain anyway, even though the hotel manager and Yun and I knew it was folly. And while I will never get on one of those lousy praying mantis bikes again I can’t deny that there was a sort of triumph of overcoming.   Yun and I first felt a spark of that triumph when we managed to get our bikes all the way to the cliffs of Jusangjeolli and forget our misery for a few serene moments as we stared at those ranging waves rising towards the sky like something out of a 19th century Romantic painting.

Sometimes pain is worth it. And even when it’s not, it can make for a great story later.

The barista was kind enough to let me read Murakami’s memoir till the end, but she did rather anxiously let me know that I needed to give it back when I was finished. It was one of her few English language books, after all, and other patrons needed a chance to read it. Maybe some day another poor unfortunate soul on a praying mantis bike would stumble in and need some validation. Or not. Either way, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a book that goes wonderfully with hot chocolate, and it just might change your life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

198 Yammerings: How I Ran Out of Patience With Gunnar Garfors

198: How I Ran Out of Countries, by Gunnar Garfors, is a sloppy afterthought of a travel memoir.

Before I say anything just take a good look at the cover design of this book. Yes, you are indeed looking at a photo of a guy slam-dunking a “globe” into a basketball hoop. The background design raises some questions as well. What’s up with the breezy-looking cocktail and the sexy reclining woman? Is that…King Kong on top of the Empire State Building? Not sure if the author and staff were just giddy late at night after one too many Red Bulls but if I happened to be a random guest perusing the bookstore aisles I would have mistaken this for a bar guide rather than a travelogue.

So how the heck did this book end up on my list of “29” this year?

It would not be an understatement to say I’m obsessed with travel. I have travel dreams and goals ranging from Mozambique to Greenland, and travel is a big part of the reason I ended up in South Korea four years ago. I spend a lot of time reading travelogues, blogs and websites online – so it was only a matter of time before I ran into the infamous Gunnar Garfors.

Garfors has risen to Internet-fame after being allegedly the youngest hobby traveler to visit every country in the world. He has his own blog and a host of followers and fans – he’s even broken a few other world records. I read this book of his as a supplement to my other travel “studies.”

The book is rather loosely organized. Garfors has a chapter on every single country, but that’s about it for continuity. For the most part it is not organized chronologically, alphabetically, geographically or culturally. Rather, it’s organized into sections based on themes, with titles like, “I Don’t Relax Like You Do,” or “Here Comes Trouble.” Throughout his narratives he continually introduces new people and refers back to old ones, jumping around in something close to 20 years’ of traveling history, such that it’s impossible to ever get a clear chronology of his life. Not that that’s the point, but it’s just one more factor in why this book is something of a hot mess.

Garfors does introduce his odyssey with a bit of a backstory that starts with a bet made in a beer joint. Then he explains his criteria for 198 countries:

I count all 193 UN countries. I also count the 2 observer states, the Vatican and Palestine. Yet another 3 countries are acknowledged by a number of the 195 above. I do therefore also count Kosovo, Western Sahara and Taiwan.

 193 + 2 + 3 = 198. So there you have it. But what exactly counts as having visited a country? Garfors explains this as well.

A lot of people ask me how I count a country. The answer is short, I must have done something there and have a story to tell. And no, I do not count transit stops in airports. It should also be needless to say that I prefer to stay awhile. To have time to explore, to meet people.

 Fair enough. And while I think his criteria is sound and good, the disappointment is in how rushed, vague and even random his descriptions of each country are. I understand that documenting 198 countries is a daunting task, but even so, Garfors has no consistent structure for how he introduces each country. He promises to include a “story”, but this ranges from an actual narrative with dialogue to a slapdash one-sentence description.

For example, his entry on Iran chronicles the progression of his flirtatious relationship with a rich girl and her loyal bodyguard. It’s written like a memoir. Yet in his entry on Thailand, he merely gives a bit of trivia on the history of Bangkok, and mentions that he got a fish pedicure. Other entries are somewhere in the middle: a mixture of vignettes and musings, usually with a couple of obligatory facts about the country thrown in for reference. It’s the travelogue version of a grab bag – with each entry you have no idea what you’re going to get.

It goes without saying that some of his chapters are better than others. Some of his entire sections are even better than others. His section “TIA: This Is Africa,” gives some really interesting insight into a lot of the sub-Saharan African countries, including with the AIDS epidemic and the failure of traditional aid.

There is a lot that doesn’t work in Africa. We know that. But we don’t do anything about it except for donating money when we see offensive footage on our TV screens…But traditional aid is one of the main problems that the continent struggles with, or so my brother claims, who has see the misery up close when he lived in Malawi.

 A mixture of narrative and insight, with distinct characters such as Garfors does in his chapter on Malawi, and in much of his “TIA” section, is how I wish the entire book could have been.   There are a few other entries in this book that have such a quality. Among the better ones are his entry on North Korea (he outwits and out jogs his guard), Afghanistan (explaining to the baffled consulate staff that he’s really just a tourist), and Papua New Guinea (an impromptu visit to a parent-teacher conference). In these few entries are the substance of actual adventure, of experiences truly unique to that destination, or just unique in general.

Sadly, a gross majority of the rest of Garfors’ stories seem to be limited to two settings: a bar, or a bar-like restaurant. Garfors has an uncomfortably strong obsession with alcohol, and uses his Norwegian heritage as a defense (“We aren’t rude, really. Only shy. Alcohol is the social glue…”). I’m not one to blink at someone who enjoys a buzz here and there, but when the majority of the plots follow the same scenario of tracking down an establishment and bonding with a “local” over several drinks until they nightmarishly blend into one never-ending saga of bar hopping and raunchy stories it’s hard not to mentally check out.  But if there’s one thing even more obnoxious that Garfors keeps referring to throughout his idylls than drinking it’s women. Let’s just say wanderlust isn’t the only kind of “lust” he suffers from.

Throughout the book he throws around the terms “young and beautiful girls,” “beautiful women,” and “gorgeous girls,” with the almost creeping air of the sex tourists he so happens to look down upon. His beef with Qatar is its gender imbalance – apparently he can’t be celibate even for a few days. And to be sure, there are loads of stories about both his brief dallies and his more serious relationships. There’s a term for such a thing, actually. It’s called TMI.

Being a progressive from Scandinavia, Garfors doesn’t fit the stereotypical chauvinist mold, but perhaps rather the horny, free love one. I hope he forgives me if I am mistaken, but I’m not sure what else to think when his entry on Croatia is reduced simply to an encounter with a stranger that begins with a hostile interrogation and ends in the best and wildest sex of his life. The hook up vignettes are the least of it. When Garfors mentions his ex girlfriends he seems to get a thrill out of describing the raunchiest thing they almost managed to get away with, even if they break the laws of the land (Laos), or disturb the neighbors (Taiwan). His most bizarre experience of all, though (Canada) has to be a sex favor for his 29-year-old Muslim friend who wants to lose her virginity before she turns 30. Remind me once more what any of this has to do with world travel.

Sex and drinking aside, Garfors also enjoys emphasizing his rule-free, guidebook-free, tour-free way of traveling. “Easy is boring” is his favorite mantra and he repeats it like propaganda. He looks down on others who join tour groups and go the beaten path. He revels in living on the edge. He describes several close encounters to death yet insists that he never felt truly scared in any of the countries he visited. That’s great for a young single dude high on adrenaline. Not so relatable for the rest of us.

Finally, considering how well traveled and well rounded a person he promotes himself, Garfors refers to fellow travelers/people from other countries in oddly judgmental ways. “Typically African,” “definitely British,” “typical expat” – these are among the descriptions and phrases that he spouts along the way. At one point he says he’d rather count the grains of sand on a beach than talk to a “stereotypical American” wearing “mandatory white tennis shoes.” Ouch. Oh, and I have no doubt the Belgians would appreciate his opening sentence about their country: “Seriously, who has anything good to say about Belgium, without thinking about it?”

To give him the benefit of the doubt, it could be a cultural Norwegian tongue-and-cheek thing that goes way over my head. Or a language barrier. But man, even if that’s the case his editors needed to tear themselves away from the water cooler and nip this crap in the bud.

What could have been a delightful and inspirational pastiche of travel stories is actually an obnoxious, egomaniacal train wreck of a memoir. Throughout it Garfors shoves his now-cliché travel wisdom at his readers:

Travelers have learned that arrogance is their worst enemy and that being humble goes a long way. Only by acknowledging that people you meet are your equals can you understand and appreciate the world genuinely and truthfully.

 Or this:

Planning everything is not possible. And if you plan too much you will only annoy your fellow travelers. Because things rarely go as planned.

 The sad thing is that you can get most all his advice and insight easily from Wikitravel or any of the viral travel blogs people flock to these days. It’s only his hit-and-miss misadventures that are unique to this book. He certainly is a colorful character, and you have to wonder how self aware he is – assuming that he has been made more so by traveling as conventional wisdom suggests. At the beginning of his narrative Garfors tells us:

To travel to every country in the world may seem like the ultimate ego trip. And it is. But it isn’t arrogant or decadent.

Not necessarily.

 That post-script last sentence is an interesting provision– it hints that Garfors may realize that a world trip can indeed become an ego trip in the worst sense without the right steps. And the sad thing is, if Garfors is any example then maybe I’m better off having only traveled to a half dozen countries instead of all 198. “Easy is boring,” but so is an insecure, hypocritical, arrogant egomaniac who can’t wait to tell you all about it.