Living Within and Living Without
Words by Bree Monks | Photos by Trevor & Bree Monks
My husband yanked the key out of the ignition, and the bike continued to vibrate and sputter. His groans grew into sharply pronounced curse words as the keys dangled from his hand, and the starter continued to whiz. I squatted in the dirt and squinted in his direction, hoping that my willingness to be present would somehow cancel out my complete lack of knowledge and inability to help.
We had spent the last several days riding south through Laos on our Thai-bought Honda CRF 250, and Cambodia was just beyond the imaginary line in front of us. After enough wires were pulled and screws unscrewed, the engine shut off, and we made our way toward the dusty building that would admit us into the country. Moments later, we were back at the bike, frustrated and hot-tempered with the repetitive echo of “No!” in our heads. We were not getting into Cambodia on our motorcycle, setting this leg of the journey into rewind…
These defeated days happened more often than we had advertised. Once we got married, we decided to set out on a yearlong “honeymoon” committed to filling each day with countless unique experiences that would inspire ourselves and others along the way. But, after the first six months spent driving through the continent of South America and sleeping in our ’99 Nissan Frontier, followed by five months touring Southeast Asia by motorcycle, we discovered that long-term travel does not elude monotony, routine and failure.
Along with the typical aim to travel and fulfill unclear desires, we sought to chronicle our epic moments and publish them on social media. We wanted to prove to ourselves and to our family and friends back home that a life like this was not only possible, but also successful. It did not take long before the truth yielded an impression of dishonesty on our side of the WiFi, and we found ourselves particularly annoyed with what we were portraying. Not all days were total bliss, and our highlight reel felt misleading as we attempted to create and recreate an ideal picture of what we thought traveling should be. We were force-feeding ourselves to believe the hype, gagging on all of the omitted details, and then we were not able to stomach the truth.
Really, the insane mountain rides and magical jungle roads were only the crumbs of the loaf, and getting to those destinations involved hardships that we thought a honeymoon should be immune to.
The physical and logistical struggles we endured were easy to adjust to, as they occurred daily and often, and that is why we wrote them off as unnecessary stories to be told. The woes and (sometimes unwanted) surprises that a traveler adapts to are expected, but we had quickly decided that noting the painful monkey-butt and ant-infested bungalows could damper the dreams that we were creating for others, and possibly taint our own concepts as to what traveling should be. With those details left behind on the side of the road, we had only our helmets and our brains within them to question what was truly conflicting us internally. Were we looking to satisfy some stereotypical urge to travel, or was it more complicated than that? Our purpose, however silly it was, to ride around the world by our own transportation had become as unapparent as fumes diluted in air.
Together, we began to wonder why anyone even travels in the first place. There was not a single traveler that we had met who could give us an answer that did not sound like an annoying Instagram hashtag (#wanderlust, #newperspective, #soblessed), and eventually we began to question ourselves and our own intentions. For some reason, we thought that we were unique in the way in which we were exploring, which filled us with a small sense of superiority, as if our experiences would be even more authentic than the average nomad. We labeled ourselves as the “anti-backpackers,” because we had somehow pulled off purchasing a Thai registered bike without a real residence or any kind of more permanent visa. This, we had proclaimed, was above and beyond what other travelers were willing to do, making us genuine culture-seekers. As cool as we had convinced ourselves that we were, we were not the first to do what we were doing, and we could not stake any claim on originality. It became more likely that we would harden into the mold of a pretentious traveler.
One time, as we had buzzed by a group of starry-eyed tourists in bicycle helmets lining up to board a giant mammal, my husband turned to me and said, “Riding an elephant is not going to change a person.” His words were probably true, but we could have been wrong to think that we were any different from the anxious folks behind us. Of course, ultimately we wanted to end our adventure changed for the better, but we soon realized that our entire approach could have been misguided from the beginning.
Marriage is complicated, and we were boastful enough to think that simplifying our lives to one motorbike and two backpacks would somehow result in a partnership that was unwavering.
The first part of our year was a revolving door of conflict, partly because of our rocky past and partly because of the strains of travel, and it was frightening to think that we would pop out of the same door that we had entered. Once we had realized that our journey’s destination could be the entrance to a loop road, and the past could become more rutted and corroded with every lap, we knew that we would have to change the course of our outlooks and quit looking back.
Ultimately, I credit the motorcycle for changing the course of our intent. Traveling forces a person to think, and, in the beginning of the year, we sat together in our truck with zero obstructions on voicing our opinions, daily concerns and fears to each other. Slowly, our complicated living situation had transformed the cab into a metal battleground of clashing concepts and undeveloped ideas. There was no escape and no white flags of surrender, as we questioned each other without questioning ourselves first. On the other hand, the motorcycle had a magical way of binding us together physically, but silencing the confused and thoughtless dialogue that had hurt us earlier in the year. Our thoughts were given the time to marinate and evolve with only the sweet background music of a purring motor and the blur of rice fields and blue skies.
The bike had somehow revealed to us the Buddhist concept of “living within and living without,” which had mystified us in the beginning of our ride. Our relationship glided through foreign places as we were able to be together yet be isolated at the same time, a contradiction that allowed our brains to choose what was important to hold onto, within ourselves, and what to let go of. We began to recognize that change really is a slow process that can elude any human despite how long and tough a journey can be. It was never necessary for us to travel, but, after being bound to the seat of the bike for miles on end, we realized that travel was the implement that yielded the greatest gift: Time.
Yes, traveling is an easy way to connect to new perspectives. Without a doubt, moving within and among another culture is effective in humbling and altering the mind of any person who is open to it, but the willingness to take time and be susceptible to change is key. We had spent the majority of our year searching for a single moment that would shift us into new and better individuals, only to reach the end and realize that it was the collection of moments that equated to growth.
What we were eager for was change, but what we truly needed was time. Change does not require a culture shock, a new experience or a grand adventure. It cannot be projected, or faked, or forced. It must be self-provoked. Wherever in the world we were or whatever strange situation we were in, we arrived with the clarity given to us by the motorcycle.
As we drove the long, winding roads through adversity and change, it is the bike that can be credited with our new and ever-evolving purity of mind.