It’s what I like to think is the last relic of the child I was: hysterical, terrified, subject to daily sobbing break-downs until the age of 8, my parents called in for concerned conferences with teachers. I was afraid of everything, and that included learning to ride a bicycle. My parents couldn’t come up with a good enough reason to force me—or themselves to teach me.
So I never learned. The older I got, the more ridiculous it became. Every once in a while I’d try, boyfriends valiantly declaring they’d teach me. It always ended in me flush-faced, ashamed, the jack-o-lantern cackle of crackheads at the park we’d hang out it, laughing as I fearfully raised one foot, then the other, then wobbled and swerved. It always ended in tears, and I’d be embarrassed about that too.
So when my two friends wanted to rent bikes to cruise around Siem Reap, when they smiled so sweetly and suggested, “There’ll probably never be a better place to learn. Flat roads, old cruiser bikes—a lot better than a roadbike in Oakland.” I nodded at the logic. Yes, I thought, the time has come to finally learn.
I’d actually thought about it the day before, as we rattled in our tuk-tuk through the temple sites. We were trapped on a painful tour, which actually felt more like a school field trip—our guide a well-meaning fellow who insisted we take photos at all the popular spots (“Stand sideways here, so it looks like your nose is touching the statue’s”). A girl had passed us on a rented bicycle, sundress and a basket, steering with one hand as she ate a pineapple wedge with the other. She looked so leisurely, so relaxed, in her own world of solitude with the trees, the stones, the road.
I’d wanted to be on that bike more than anything.
“But I have to warn you guys,” I told my friends as we walked to the rental shop. “I turn into a five-year-old when I try to ride a bike.”
“It’s gonna be fine,” they reassured me. “You’ll pick it up no problem.”
I had a knot in my stomach as they tested the different bikes, adjusting seats and cruising slowly down the dirt road and back. I distracted myself with plans for a blog post, a tender and life-affirming meditation on overcoming fear, letting go of old identities, on the role of place—on how, I imagined, being in a different environment could help you to find yourself or lose yourself, parts of yourself you don’t like—or maybe discover a new version of yourself. Yes, something like that, I thought as my friends paid the rental fee.
We walked down to a shady street with only occasional traffic, bicycles and motorbikes passing every few minutes. I felt nervous but confident as my friends gave me pointers, suggestions, but most of all encouragement. “You’re totally gonna get this,” Suki assured me with her sunlight smile, as Alicia held on to the back of the seat like a father, explaining the science of forward momentum to reassure me.
I wobbled around, lifting feet to the pedals one at a time, then both for quick moments of breath-held balance. “Oh, your so close!” Suki exclaimed behind me. “Any minute you’re gonna take right off!”
A frustration started to mount. It came, it seemed, from some very deep place. As I went back and forth down the country road, the feeling grew. It began to turn into anger, a seething self-hatred I haven’t felt in years but know too well to mistake. A burning began behind my eyes.
“Goddamnit,” I kept muttering under my breath. I knew logically that I could get this—I’m an able-bodied person with full control of my limbs. But my forearms tightened as I gripped the handlebars, staring down at the dirt before me—I couldn’t bear to look up at the world. You’re defective, a voice said.
I know this voice. It’s a tape I like to think I’ve outgrown, that I like to think I’ve smashed the casing of, pulled out the shiny reel, spun it like a fat black spiderweb, like I’d do as a kid—then crumbled and thrown away. I like to think I don’t even own a cassette player anymore.
But it’s there, always there (“What we really have is a daily reprieve…”)—perhaps collecting dust but still waiting for something, feet on pedals, to push play. The more I tried to ride that goddamn bicycle, the louder and clearer the voice became.
The good news is that today, I know it’s just a tape. And I told myself that, sweating in the morning heat: These are just old beliefs. They aren’t true, and you can choose not to believe them.
A motorbike and a bicycle passed concurrently, raising a plume of dust. I glanced up. I saw five faces, turned back over their shoulders to look at me. The expression wasn’t of pity or amusement or superiority—it was of concern. They’d seen me, these strangers, glimpsed a very private and shame-filled and ultimately very true part of me, on a roadside in their city.
I put my feet down, stood up. “I can’t do anymore guys,” I said in a shaky voice. I grabbed my purse, not wanting to look my friends in the eye. “I’m going for a walk; have a good day.” I rushed away.
The tears came freely as I kept my head down, walking through the roads of outer Siem Reap. Tinsel New Years decorations hung from doorways as amplified voices of chanting monks filtered through the trees, along with the lethargic sunlight.
“Fuck, fuck fuck,” I chanted to myself. There I was, 28 years old in Cambodia, and still feeling like a little kid, like that girl I used to be and hated.
Can travel really change us? Can discovering new external landscapes help us to discover new landscapes inside ourselves? Does anyone really ever “find themselves” traveling? Is it all one massive distraction from the pain of it, the pain we’ve nestled away, the way they say we store memories in our knotted muscles? Can travel be a kind of accupressure? What are we hoping to find, and what are we hoping to get rid of?
I walked. I passed a group of half-clothed children playing with a ball. They smiled and waved, “Hello!” and giggled when I said hello back. I passed a cemetery, where a shirtless young monk hung his orange robe on a clothesline, then lit a cigarette and stared. A skinny-ribbed dog sniffed through a pile of rubble, a magazine of tired black nipples. She looked up at me with startled eyes, flinched at the sight of me, lowered her head and stepped backwards.
I wanted to take that dog, to sit down and let her lie her head in my lap. I wanted to sit like that, the two of us in the trash and smashed cement, a random road outside Siem Reap.
But I just kept walking.