Halli Benson, 130 TESS
My mouth is wide open, breath heavy behind my Buff. Sweat is flowing from every pore, and sunscreen is running into my eyes. I can see the top of the second hill on the journey. My legs are already screaming. I’m all in my head, arguing back and forth:
“You won’t make it.”
“Yes you will!”
“You haven’t biked in months!”
“Your body is strong and ready.”
“These hills are too steep.”
“I’ve done these ones before, and this is just a longer distance.”
The fight is broken up by P. La pulling up next to me on her motorbike. “Wai mai?” she asks me for the thousandth time. “Yes, P. La! I can do this!” I scream out with energy from somewhere in my lungs. This reminds me how much power I still have left. I push it to the top of the hill getting my shoulders into it, bopping to the beat of my music, and then, after the crest, I enjoy flying down the mountain to the next valley, doing some stretches and mental prep on the way down to get ready to push past my usual stopping place. After another 10 minutes and the third big hill, we make it to the turnoff, and I motion to P. La for a water break.
“You are so strong!” she encourages in English, just like I taught her on Wednesday in our lesson. “You are healthy! You are strong!” she repeats. She calls ahead to P. Gai who is waiting for us at her house in a village near the beach. P. Gai has invited us to come eat goitheow (noodle soup) at her sister’s shop and then go to enjoy the ocean. P. La asks me again if I want P. Gai to come pick me up in her truck. “No, P. La. I really want to try this,” I say. She reports my response to P. Gai, hangs up, and asks me, “Ready?” “Yep, I’m ready,” I reply.
I cruise down the first part of the route easily and start the climb that won’t end until the top of the steepest hill. The bike path is aged and cracked with broken glass scattered every now and then, so I ride in the road protected by my motorbike caboose. It’s about 25 minutes uphill and then 5 minutes of cruising down into the village. I’ve been told countless times that there’s no way I’ll be able to do this, so naturally, I’m determined. I’ve also been itching for the confirmation that I can make it to the beach on my bike because of the freedom that comes along with that. I take one more water break at the bottom of the big one. I needed to catch my breath. “See, you haven’t biked in months! Give up now and you can try again after some practice,” the doubting voice says to me as I look up at the long steep climb ahead. “Wai mai?” says P. La. “I am strong, P. La. I’m ready to try,” I respond. She smiles at me with pride, and I take off with a little speed before slowing to a crawl. I adjust my gears for the steep climb. Halfway up and my breath is heavier than ever. My thighs and calves are on fire, my hands are tingly and my body is crouched forward feeling weaker with every exhale. “You are strong! You can do it!” I hear P. La yelling over my shoulder, and I push it. I adjust my gears again as it gets steeper and steeper. About 200 m. from the top, I reach my lowest gear, and my bike basically comes to a stop. I just tip over, catching myself from falling with my foot. I immediately kick my other leg over, resolving to walk the rest of the way knowing there’s no way I can get started again at this level of steepness. P. La speeds past me and parks at the top of the hill. She comes running down with a smile on her face. “Good job!” she yells as she grabs a hold of the other handlebar of my bike to help me walk it to the top. I know I could have done it on my own, but I am so grateful to have her next to me supporting me when she could have just met me at our destination.
P. Gai comes over the hill. “Bpen huang Halli! (I was worried about you!)” she calls out. I told her no need to be worried! I made it! She takes her phone out to take pictures, motioning to the sign that says, “Welcome to Ban Talay Nok,” that marks the top of the hill. We’re here! We all celebrate together with pictures showing strong arms and thumbs up. We cruise down into the village together, a celebratory parade of friendship, support, and strength.
This isn’t a most impressive story of strength and achievement. Many volunteers bike farther distances and can surmount steeper climbs. It isn’t a solitary act of support from some friends, although it was a very loving gesture by P. La and P. Gai that I’m incredibly grateful for.
It is a story of a good day, an example of the incredible people I am lucky enough to love and be loved by, a testament to what makes this place home and keeps me wanting to be here, and a tale of a small achievement that I celebrated big: with a sugary strawberry soda and an afternoon at the beach with friends. As I looked around at the incredible views on my ride, smiled at P. La and P. Gai while we sat and ate together, and laid under the trees listening to the waves crash while laying in P. La’s lap, I found myself not wondering at all why I’m still here as I think we all do some days when the going gets tough. It makes perfect sense, and I have a thousand more stories just like this. I can’t wait to remember these days when I look back on this amazing experience.
I notice P. La playing with her photo settings, looking around awkwardly, obviously wanting to take a picture together, maybe trying to figure out how to ask in English. “Let’s take a picture together!” I say. She smiles and relaxes. She repeats the sentence after me, as usual trying to take in every informal English lesson I offer her. “I want to have memory with you when you leave so I can look when I miss you. I don’t want to forget you,” she says half in Thai and half smiling. I sit down and squeeze her, my heart on fire, and with a silent tear escaping my eye I say, “I will never forget you.”