ZEN – purpose – and the art of bike touring

Three weeks ago I got on my bicycle in the morning heading north. I was gonna ride across the French Pyrenees to the Atlantic and then head towards Morocco through Spain and Portugal. But that night I ended up back in my ‘old’ bed in the house of the Heraclitus boatbuilding crew.

I’d started feeling sick in the afternoon, had a panic attack and collapsed as we got back to the house. The world was spinning. Later that night I realized that I had a sunstroke.

All of a sudden!
I’d been painting in the hot sun for a few days, but I thought I could handle quite a bit of sun.
It never stopped me before after all.
The next day I felt that there was no way I was getting on my bicycle in the next days.
The sunstroke and panic attack had really hit me hard.

I stayed another week in Arenys d’Emporda to rest.
As the dark clouds around my head closed in on me I lay on a bed in the shade going over my options.
Should I fly back to the Netherlands? Should I find a place in Spain to stay and take some rest? Should I give cycling another chance?
I had a relentless headache, felt exhausted, depressed and desperate and the only thing I wanted was to ‘feel good‘ again, whether that’d be on a bicycle or in the Netherlands or in a cabin in the wild. I couldn’t care less!

Whilst searching the internet I came across the website of Plum Village.
A Buddhist center near Bordeaux founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. A ‘Summer Opening Retreat‘ there would start on the 6th of July.
This new option seemed the most suitable, fun, interesting and (mainly) doable.
From the place where I was it was only 550km to the center and I’d have exactly two weeks to cross those kilometers by bicycle or (if necessary) train, to attend the second week of the retreat.

That Friday I got on my bicycle for a second attempt to leave Arenys d’Emporda behind.
Short riding days and campgrounds was my plan.

Already the first day I crossed the Pyrenees!
A piece of cake, after all the pass wasn’t much more than a tiny hill where I crossed.
I landed on a campground early, did some yoga, played guitar, went for a dip in the pool, got some groceries and cooked. Quite different from laying down on a bed in the shade all day.

It’s like putting an ocean swimmer in an inflatable children’s pool and telling him that’s all he’s going to get for a while.

The next few days I cycled about 50km per day. About half of what I used to ride. I stayed on campgrounds surrounded by people with mobile homes, cars, fat bellies and loud (grand)children.
I didn’t feel too bad on the bike but as soon as I sat down, taking a break or on the campground, the dark clouds closed in again. My head was still pounding, my body tired but most of all I felt unhappy.
You’d think I’d be happy to be back on the bike, even in this moderated way, but I wasn’t.

Maybe… it’s like depression. You can show someone the most beautiful things, but it just doesn’t ‘do anything’.
Or maybe… it’s like putting an ocean swimmer in an inflatable children’s pool and telling him that’s all he’s going to get for a while. Better than nothing, right?

Feeling depressed, emotionless, inert, anxious, is also part of burn-out.
And those feelings hit me hard now my attempt to get back on my bicycle and into my old (oh so longed for) life had partially failed.

During a night of wild camping at a lake, tired of campgrounds, me and my tent got put to the test as a fierce summer storm hit.
It made me a little nervous but at the same time it was so good to ‘be out there‘ again. I had to hold on to my tent from the inside out against the pounding of the wind.

Two days later also the dark clouds around my head opened up a little and let some sunlight shine through. The desperation and anxiety lessened and I managed to calm down a little. My body felt better too.

Four British guys touring on old postman bicycles.

The days after I felt ‘okayish‘ while riding and ‘not too bad‘ in my breaks and on the campgrounds.

Since Carcassonne I’d followed a canal. The cyclingpath along it turned out to be a popular route to ride from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. It’s overrun by cyclists and it’s all flat.


I found some alternative campgrounds. Even a small free one where I stayed with a French couple. In the evening we played a few songs for each other on my little guitar.

There are tiny villages all along the canal. Right now I’m staying in one that is incredibly quiet and it seems like most houses are empty. At the marketsquare there’s a guy sitting at a table all day hoping to someday sell a tour around the historic sights of the village. The church is empty and smells humid and moldy. There are a few empty hooks where Rembrandt‘s painting of Christ’s crucifixion is supposed to hang; probably lend to a museum.
Luckily I can still see it in print in the (also humid) extended flyer.

Even my attempt to get some bread at a bakery thing morning let to nothing. Two out of the three bakeries were closed on Wednesdays and the third one had closed period. Together with some other cyclists I stood in the supermarket choosing between rice crackers, biscuits or sweet factory bread with an expiration date way too far in the future.

The mini mini campground is situated next to the local park, where yesterday late afternoon some cars raced into playing loud music. Some young men got out (leaving the music on) with tinkling grocery bags.
Guys coming to hang out and drink, I figured. But apart from a beer and a coke all that they pulled out of those bags where some metal balls to play ‘Jeux de boule‘ or ‘Petanque’.
A sport that I know in Holland to be mainly popular in the (elderly) nudist community turns out to be a cool thing to do here for ‘tough’ young men, going accompanied by loud cursing and discussion.

Today I take a rest. After all it’s only about 48km from here to Plum Village and the retreat starts in two days. Somewhere between here and there I hope to find Wi-Fi to post this blog.

I’ve been wanting to do a Buddhist retreat for a while now. And now it seems like it’s the right timing. Eight years ago I cycled away from a Vipassana retreat in Thailand after two days. There we had to sleep on concrete beds with wooden pillows.
Here I can stay comfortably in my own tent and the program looks more relaxed.
I was surprised to even find ‘watching the World Cupal final‘ on the scedule.
I’m curious how the monks are going to introduce that to us.

I still feel like that’s where I want to be, cycling around the world.

I’ll stay for one or two weeks. And after that? I’ll see.
I still sleep far too little and I’m afraid I can’t keep going like this. I don’t recharge the energy that I use.

Over the last two weeks I’ve started to feel a little bit at home again though. I still feel like that’s where I want to be, cycling around the world.

I say it in my film ‘PEDAL’:
At this moment I cannot imagine getting off my bike. I wouldn’t know what to do that gives me the same fulfillment and sense of purpose‘.

These turned out to be prophetic words. Even before the film premiered in Banff, I fell off my bicycle and into burn-out and with that in a whole where, no matter how I try, I can’t find fulfillment or sense of purpose.
The dozens of times that I’ve watched my film with groups or individuals ever since, my heart feels like it’s pulled apart every time I hear myself say this.

Purpose; I’m curious what those Buddhists have to say about that in the upcoming week, I’ll share it with you,
hopefully from the bike.

At this moment I cannot imagine getting off my bike. I wouldn’t know what to do that gives me the same fulfillment and sense of purpose

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