The Joys and Lessons of Two-Wheeled Travel

The Buddha had a scooter. Jesus had a scooter. Even Gandhi was known to tear up the back roads of Gujarat on occasion. Of course none of this is actually true, probably. Though what is undoubtedly true is that some of life’s most profound insights and wisdom come while perched atop two wheels and a tiny motor, preferably with a loved one at the rear. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned while scootering through Southeast Asia for the past several months.

#1 – Life is Best When Chaos and Order are in Harmony

“Chaos is where things are so complex you can’t handle it, and order is when things are so rigid that it’s too restrictive. In between that there’s a place, a place that’s meaningful, where you’re partly stabilized and you’re partly curious. And you’re operating in a manner that increases your scope of knowledge. So you’re inquiring and growing…”

– Jordan B. Peterson

This one is quite obvious given that motorbiking is literally a balancing act. Lean a little too far to either side and you’re met with chaos, remain centered for stability and order. You would be correct in noting that a more trite and uninteresting statement has never been made. I apologize. But there is more to this lesson. A two-wheeled, petrol-infused journey snaking through the chaotic, often absurdly unpredictable roads of Vietnam is an exercise in tempting fate, though some might call it a death wish. Please note that I’m not trying to sound heroic. A large portion of my time motorbiking was spent attempting to avoid visions of the fiery wreckage that we were surely about to meet around the next corner. The moments after parking safely and retiring for the evening were often accompanied by a berating internal dialogue, scolding myself for being so irresponsible, the imagined angry disapproval of my father often joining in on the criticism. And yet the next morning I would voluntarily replay the entire act.

As noted in Peterson’s sentiment above and in his book 12 Rules for Life, growth happens when we are able to approach novel situations in life (chaos) while being partially grounded by the knowledge and skills we already have (order). In navigating unexplored terrain with an open mind we are able to acquire abilities that will lead to growth, greater confidence, and therefore the ability to continue approaching new challenges. We continue to grow as long as we continue this cycle. Chaos and order are harmoniously synchronized while motorbiking in Asia which is why it is the perfect embodiment of this ideal. Having some level of competence and experience on two wheels provides the element of order which allows one to embark on a journey into chaos as represented by the roads of a place like Vietnam. While one can be confidently grounded in his riding abilities he is constantly met by unexpected obstacles along the way. A stray dog, cow, chicken, or goat, a close call with an oncoming truck, car, or scooter, a bale of grass in the road, potholes and gravel, unexpected rainstorms, side of the road crop burning, hundreds of cycling school children, ceaseless honking, literal swarms of scooters, propane tank explosions, and other motorist’s complete disregard for the rules of the road – assuming there are any. This is a snapshot into the pandemonium that is driving in Southeast Asia. And it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because it keeps you present and on edge and because it is a moment to moment upgrade of one’s driving skills. It has to be this way otherwise you are met with ruin, which is an ever present possibility. The groundwork of order is constantly being laid over the rocky landscape of chaos as you, as a rider, become more competent behind the handlebars. It is within this interplay of known and unknown where life is at it’s best.

#2 – Meaning is Derived From Having a Destination

“Just live in the moment!”

– Everyone

New age gurus and pop spirituality junkies have repeated this phrase so many times and so often that it’s utterance now has about the same punch as glass of Coke that has been sitting in the hot summer sun for days. Once sharp and refreshing it is now tepid, flat, and causes all sorts of involuntary facial contortions when one is presented with it. This platitude, though it may have some value, doesn’t work for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason being that our neuroses and pathologies make continuous present moment living nearly impossible and the frivolousness with which this saying is usually delivered ignores this reality. Secondly, this cliché typically comes tethered to the idea that somehow the present moment is a wonderful place where suffering dissolves completely and a kaleidoscopic cascade of love bursts from our third eye for the rest of time. Wrong. Even if we fully drop into the present we soon notice that the truth of the moment actually brings with it the less desirable characteristics of consciousness, i.e. boredom, dullness, melancholy, agitation, and frustration, just to name a few. Positivity driven self-help types typically don’t mention the hidden truth behind this present moment philosophy – that most states of consciousness, most of the time, are unpleasant. If we are to derive some value from this idea we need to accept these unpleasant states as inevitable. This leads into the third, and most relevant point, living in the present means nothing if we are not oriented towards a goal. Undesirable states of consciousness, the suffering of life, and the promise of future suffering for yourself and your loved ones are pointless tribulations to endure if one does not have some type of justification for doing so. Such justification must be derived from having meaning, or to keep our scootering metaphor relevant, a destination.

On less busy days while in Vietnam and elsewhere we would often ride aimlessly without any specific destination in mind, a sort of attempt at pure moment to moment living. Though we would sometimes stumble upon beautiful scenery or an interesting landmark such days would otherwise be filled with a something of a meaningless void. We would float in the openness of possibility but fail to be grounded by purpose. An intrepid backpacker may point out that this is what traveling is all about – throwing away the guidebook, tossing aside expectation, and trashing any notion of a set destination. While I can sympathize with this romantic ideal I would argue that serendipity is best when it happens nested inside some greater meaning, at least in the context of traveling. As travelers when we orient the day with a destination in mind – a distant temple, another city, a hidden cave – it builds purpose for the day and from within this structure stumbling upon unlikely gems is all the more special. From here you don’t aim for spontaneous discoveries to give meaning and then get disappointed if such discoveries don’t happen. Purely attempting to ‘live in the moment’ and expecting to derive anything other than disorderly meandering marked by spurts of excitement is to wander for the sake of wandering. When we ground ourselves with a goal, whether during regular life or scootering the countryside, we give meaning to the day and therefore justify the potential hardships and chaos along the way.

#3 – Be Mindful of Death

“People go through life blindly, ignoring death like revellers at a party feasting on fine foods. They ignore that later they will have to go to the toilet, so they do not bother to find out where there is one. When nature finally calls, they have no idea where to go and are in a mess.”

– Ajahn Chah

As your annoying Buddhist friends may have mentioned before, one of the three characteristics of existence in Buddhist philosophy is anicca; or impermanence. Impermanence lurks not in the hidden depths of the underworld or at some distant point in the future but is, in fact, all around us, all the time. We witness it’s truth when we accidentally drop a glass and see it shatter, when we end a relationship, when the sun sets on the day, and if we are attuned to it, we see it in the unfolding of this very moment into the next. Exploding supernovae demonstrate this reality on the cosmic scale and spinning electrons at the subatomic. Nothing is stable or permanent. The inescapable truth is that all conditioned phenomena are in a constant state of transience; birth and death occurring continuously and ceaselessly. And though we often avoid the thought, this truth, of course, applies to our own lives as well.

For most people reflections on death come not as a daily exercise but rather as a depressing episode forced upon them by the passing of a loved one or after a particularly dismal medical diagnosis. Death is a reality that we’ve collectively banished to the periphery of our minds and to the edges of our culture. It’s not something to be spoken of or reflected on and certainly not something to think about on a regular basis. However, while death has been exiled from most of conscious thought it subconsciously drives almost all of our actions and worries. If we weren’t aware that death was lurking somewhere on the horizon what motivation would we have to do anything? We could always afford the opportunity to push responsibilities off to some other time given that there would be an endless supply of it. Why patch things up with your sister or pay a visit to your mother? Why prioritize anything and do the difficult tasks required to construct a good life? Why engage in anything difficult or uncomfortable at all if you have an eternity to do such things? An unlimited time horizon would enable us to endlessly give into our lazy, pathetic, procrastinating tendencies with little consequence. There would always be more time to act. Reflecting on the truth of impermanence and considering the narrow window of existence we’ve been allotted serves to sharpen our focus on what is most important. When we allow this to happen we begin dedicating our mental and emotional resources towards the people and things that matter most. It is this reflection that demonstrates impermanence is not something to be shunned but rather it is what allows life to have any meaning at all. With death in mind we take strides towards creating a life of meaning.

Scootering through the mayhem that is Southeast Asia is an exercise in reminding oneself that death is always knocking. Several times we witnessed the aftermath of accidents involving cars, trucks, and other motorbikes, debris scattered across the pavement. On other occasions we witnessed near misses that would have surely resulted at least in serious injury. A quick glance at the road safety statistics in Southeast Asia will confirm that such incidents are by no means uncommon. Motorbiking in this region is to put death in the forefront of one’s mind and to reflect on the significance of impermanence. I fully accept the criticism that this is perhaps an unnecessarily stupid and dangerous way to come to such reflection and in no way can I recommend inexperienced riders to take to the roads of Asia. Having considered the potential risks beforehand I deemed myself an experienced enough rider to take on the risks. However, I fully grant that the gods of misfortune can strike down any rider at any time regardless of his level of competence. And yet, although to perhaps a lesser degree, this is true of any moment in life. The truth of impermanence is fundamentally tethered to life in every moment whether we are motoring down a Cambodian highway or laying at home in bed. Regularly reflecting on this truth can provide us a window into who and what is most meaningful in our lives and motorbiking forces this truth to the surface of awareness.

We often close ourselves off to the obvious lessons that lay directly in front of us simply because we are too consumed by the trivialities of daily life. Surprisingly, hopping on a scooter and tearing across the paved labyrinth of Southeast Asia can recenter our minds on some of the important lessons that we may have forgotten or ignored. This essay is not an invitation to hit the road but rather a reminder to ground ourselves in order before embarking headfirst into chaos, to align ourselves with meaning, and to pick up the damn phone once in a while and call the ones we love.

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