Completing the cycling circle

I wrote two more posts for fitisafeministissue on my cycling trip:

Why do a self-guided trip?

From Riga to Tallinn: Why I Chose a Self-Guided Cycle Tour

And some practical lessons from my cycling experience.

Self-guided cycle touring:  10 Practical Tips

And now I’m home!

Working away, work work work.


Riga 1

I make decisions about travel the way I decide everything, from buying clothes to getting a kitten:  I ponder the question in the back of my mind, sort of surreptitiously picking up information by osmosis and letting nagging worries emerge — then I just sort of impulsively pounce.   That’s certainly how I bought my last two cars, and how I ended up with my kitten Georgia.  (“You had to get a kitten on a Wednesday?  You couldn’t wait until the weekend?” Asked my gently exasperated business partner when I was facilitating a meeting on no sleep.)

I plan my traveling the same way. I get a place into my head, I sort of shape what I want to happen, then I make a bunch of decisions without carefully weighing most of the options. I end up with this weird paradox of really precise planning (how to maximize Aeroplan points, the exact seat on the plane I want, a detailed itinerary for the bike riding part of my trip, the right visas), and some surprisingly vague bits.

This trip is about 17 days, and half of it is a solo bike ride from Riga to Tallinn. I let a bike touring company map the route for me and book the hotels for the riding part, and other than that I’m on my own. I booked my own trip to St. Petersburg, learned some bike mechanics and first aid (which I weirdly used at Pearson to help a woman who fell and cracked her kneecap), and agonized over what to pack that I can carry. But in that flurry of planning, I realized I hadn’t looked at all at the hotels the bike company had booked for me until I was in the taxi from the Riga airport.  I looked up what the Lonely Planet said about my hotel — basically, “don’t confuse this well located but spartan and worn out former convent with the really cosy lovely former convent next door.”

I had one deep burst of disappointment, that kind of “I did it WRONG, this is going to be terrible!” moment.  That surge of regret that indicates a kind of grasping attachment.  Why wasn’t I in the perfect hotel, the one with the cosy alcoves for curling up and reading?

And then I paused and remembered.  It’s never perfect.  And it’s always just right.  I do all this traveling for a lot of reasons, but one of the most important ones is about slowing me down and reminding me to be here, now — truly embrace what I’m given in the most improvisational spirit.  Not trying to control the experience by planning, the perfect packing, the choreographed moments.  It’s about being present to what is, be here now — and letting myself sink into it. It makes me whole and it’s utterly restorative, when I find that space.

I’ve written before about how fancy hotels make me a big edgy because I always fixate on the imperfections, whether I’m really getting from it enough to justify the cost.  My room in this former convent is just fine — it’s clean, it’s comfortable, the water is hot, it was the perfect place to have that jet lagged nap where they could have taken my tonsils out and I wouldn’t have noticed.

I woke up from that nap and went for a cobblestoned walk.  The rain had stopped by my brain was still fogged.  My watch wouldn’t sync and I didn’t know what time it was, but I was hungry.  I walked past a restaurant right next to the spartan convent hotel  that has a symbol, not a name, with a sign for wild and organic food.  I walked out of the old town, past a bunch of touristy and traditional food restaurants, past the opera house that seems to have no performances in July, over a bridge.  Made space for the different impulses to come together.  You’re in the Baltics.  You need to slow down and focus.  You need to read Anna Karenina finally, before you go to Russia.

I went back to my hotel and picked up my ipad.  Anna Karenina has been on my kobo app for a while.  I went back to the organic restaurant and talked to the waiter about what his favourites were.  I ordered the five course tasting menu and ate it while being introduced to Stiva, Anna, Dolly, Levin, Kitty.  It was.. sublime.

Unchoreographed means room for serendipity.  And veal, wild mushrooms, asparagus, beetroot ravioli, tiny venison pies.  Caramel done 5 ways, including “snow.”  The letting go to let in.

On Spring Pass

I’m at the top of the mountain pass, every metre of the 17 km climb eked out. My skin is hot with the sun, and my hands are so nerve pinched from gripping I can’t hold the knife to spread cheese.


I’m not elated yet, just spent and soggy, happy to sit for half an hour for a lunch of baguette, cucumber, laughing cow cheese, a hacked off piece of sticky rice in a banana leaf with … meat… in it. We’re at the top of the pulsing vietnamese jungle, at a little table in front of a house where the woman will sell us a pepsi or a red bull, and will make food if we want it. My guide Linh lets the local kids try out his bike, triangles of the bland soft laughing cow cheese. They spit it out. He makes them say thank you in english anyway.


“Is there a toilet?”

“Go behind the house — in banana leaves. No toilet.” Linh doesn’t want to ask because we haven’t bought anything. I can’t explain my actual needs to this guy who only speaks present tense english, and who is young enough to be my son. And frankly not that interested in me. He was so far ahead of me on the hill he didn’t notice when my chain fell off. I fixed it. My hands are still covered in chain grease.

I greet the skinny cats and slip beside the rough concrete house. Laundry dangles, broken bits of things are everywhere. The metal roof is anchored down with rocks. I am completely visible to the road. I yank open my bike shorts, fiddle about, semi-deftly do tampon exchange without exposing my big white bottom, using the last of the hand wipes and the empty package to deal with the rubbish question.

I gingerly make my way back around the house, hideous package clutched in my hand, my cleats slipping on everything. The woman who lives in the house comes around the corner, asking me something I don’t understand. I’m sure she thinks I’ve been peeing on her house.

I’m actually dehydrated and don’t need to pee at all, but I say toilet, hopefully, and she smiles and leads me through the cement house to the latrine at the back. It’s a ceramic squat latrine, surprisingly clean. “Flushing” happens with a dipper of water from an ominous built-in cement vat. I squat and promptly drop my (expensive, prescription) sunglasses into the latrine. The previous user has not used the dipper of water.

I fish them out, pee, dip, and try to look poised when I exit. There’s a hose running from a hanging bucket. I wash my sunglasses, no soap. Wipe them on my filthy bandana that is tucked at my waist. Hope I don’t get face cholera. Clack my cleats through the house.

“Did we buy anything from this woman?”

“You can buy pepsi.”

“Have we given her any money?”

“You want a pepsi?”

Talking to Linh is sometimes like talking to Siri. It’s in the neighbourhood of shared meaning, but so far away. I give the woman 25,000 dong — the equivalent of 1.5 pepsis — and mime thank you. My mime looks something like a yoga namaste with a muttered, butchered Cam on, thank you. I appreciate her kindness. I get back on my bike for the descent of my life.