Thailand to Singapore – grief cycle

We have 11 days to cycle 1250km.

On the evening before we left Koh Samui I spoke to my dad. The virus that had taken my stepmother’s eyesight had finally been identified. We understood now that it might be fatal, and if not the damage that had been done was irreparable. The one possibility was a treatment that might help her fight it off.

The news was bad.

For the next 11 days Jamie and I cycle between 110 – 150kms a day. I spend the first days thinking up plans to make Pua’s sightlessness less difficult.
When she gets better we could do this or that… I will go and help out… I google tech and services and support.
However, as the days pass, and her symptoms worsen, Pua decides she has had enough.

No more tests. No more fighting. She’s ready to die.

My sister and my father look after her day and night. Friends are told and start visiting to say their goodbyes. I ride further and further away not knowing what else to do, caught up in a conundrum of whether to dash home, to finish my trip, to carry on… what each would mean for me, for Jamie, for Pua, for dad and for all my siblings.

One morning I find myself bawling as I cycle down the road, a hole opening up inside me. Compelled to meet our deadline, I feel unable to just stop and feel the agony of what is going on.
Realising I’m a liability on the road, I carefully sellotape up the gaping hole in the centre of my chest and carry on cycling.

However the bike provides its own counselling and during the hours in the saddle I begin to come to terms with the situation.
I conjure up some of our times together, I imagine telling her all the things she meant to me.
I make promises and I make apologies.
I begin the process of reinterpeting my memories of our life together into stories imbued with meaning.

Remember that time I asked you to teach me to dance, and instead you taught me to listen…

I spend minutes off the bike trying to form words into sentences to write or read to Pua, but then the most profound moment comes as I the realise that I don’t need to write or say anything. That Pua has loved me without question for most of my life, and I her, and that this had never been in question for either of us.
The chasm of grief opens wider.
Round and round go the thoughts, the pedals, the wheels, the emotions.

Nothing resolved. Nothing fixed. But we slowly edge towards our destination.

Meanwhile, Jamie and I are cycling the east coast of the peninsula down to Singapore, through Thailand and Malaysia. We’d heard that this coast was less developed than the west coast – particularly in Malaysia.

We pass endless sandy beaches, unfortunately contoured with lines of rubbish washed ashore. Plastic bottles, straws, plastic wrappers and so many flip flops…

For a day I become obsessed with spotting and counting single flip flops, half an eye scanning the verge for abandoned ones. I count 27 in one day before I order myself to stop.
I still don’t understand how so many people can be so careless with their shoes…

We stop for an hour each day after lunch in the shade.
I fall asleep almost instantly.
Jamie has to encourage me back on the bike again every afternoon with promises of better times to come.

My saddle sores are still incredibly problematic, and to make things worse the (factor 90) sun cream we bought turned out to be utterly useless leaving us horrendously scorched.

In the last few days of Thailand the population becomes majority Muslim, and we see mosques in every town and the call to prayer begins to punctuate our days again.

Most of the women wear headscarves and long loose clothing. They smile conspiratorially with me, and I feel genuinely welcome despite my foreigness. This area seems far from the normal tourist trail, and we seem to be as unusual sight.

Sometimes the younger women find us utterly hysterical – unable to serve us for laughing. They hide behind piles of produce and send someone else out to deal with us.

The mosques amplify different members of the community reading and singing prayers and verses from the Quran throughout the day, and it isn’t unusual to hear a woman read. We are pretty certain we hear a couple of female muezzin too – something I’ve never come across before.

We’d been warned against travelling in this area, against the problematic Muslims. I don’t know the history and whether that view is or was justified, but we are very impressed by the communities we passed through.

We leave Thailand by boat, boarding a small car ferry with a load of locals early one Friday morning.

We disembark in Malaysia and are almost immediately surprised by a huge lizard, over a meter long. During the following week we see more of these, as well as troupes of macaques on the roadside. I have a terrifying moment with a bright green snake on the road which – distracted by news from home – I almost run over and then panic as I think it has got caught in my wheel and is about to bite my calves. Jamie runs in to the back of me as I slam on the brakes – the snake wriggles off unscathed, laughing to himself. We don’t see elephants or tapia though the warning road signs get our hopes up.

The food in Malaysia is great. Roadside stalls selling hot fried things with bags of sweet chilli sauce or huge containers of iced chocolate milk. Night markets selling roti, noodles, grilled chicken. Fruit stalls overflowing with exotic fruit – mangosteen, rambutan, mata kuching, langsat, alongside more common pineapples, durian, apples and pears.

The riding remains a challenge – nothing technical, just the heat, the wind, the saddle sores, the unrelenting need to keep moving. We attempt some bigger days to give us time for a day off, but the nightly calculations keep telling us we need to do 112km every day to get to Singapore in time.

All the while news from home, pulling me a different way. What to do…?

Do I even want to go to Singapore, or New Zealand? What will Jamie do if I don’t come?

I don’t know, so the safest thing seems to be to carry on. Get the bikes to New Zealand, work it out from there.

We arrive in Singapore and stay with a delightful family who are outrageously generous. After a half day exploring the city we spend the rest of the time scrubbing and cleaning all our belongings in preparation for New Zealand’s strict biosecurity screening.

And so somehow, still reeling and unsure of whether I am going in the right direction, but unable to do anything but follow along, we board our flight to New Zealand.

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