Bicycles in Korea are different, the handbrakes are on opposite sides from where they would be in the west. In a moment of panic, it’s easy to pull the wrong one. That thought would only occur to Barbara O’Connor after she had sailed over her handle bars and skidded face down on a mountain road with the bike hurdling behind. She had pulled the front break.
Once the shock of the spill had passed, she moved over to the side of the road where she slumped and began to cry. “I was alone in Korea and frightened,” she says.
Barbara had been exploring the mountains above her town on the bicycle that came with her apartment. When she couldn’t pedal any higher she turned to look down on the village and the steep road that fell away into the valley below. The sight inspired her to do something she hadn’t done since she was a kid. Barbara released the breaks and raced down.
The pines on either side blurred past. As she picked up momentum, Barbara did “The stupidest thing ever,” as she puts it. She took her iPod out of her pocket and looked for a new song. The bike started to wobble. She was going too fast. She panicked and squeezed the brake with her free hand, thinking she had pulled the back break. But the front wheel stopped and sent her flying.
She had been in Korea for a little over a month, teaching English in a rural town. It had taken some getting used to. Her jet-lag seemed to have lasted a month and her stomach hadn’t fully adjusted to her new diet. This ride in the country was supposed to clear her head, and now she was weeping on the side of the road.
A van came around the bend carrying a man and a woman in straw hats. They stopped. After a struggle to communicate, the man put his hand on Barbara’s shoulder and said, in his best English, “Don’t cry.” The woman smiled, said something in Korean, and removed her hat to reveal a shaved head. She was a monk. Something about that put Barbara at ease accepted a ride, at least that’s what they seemed to be offering her. The other monk rode Barbara’s bike behind them.
When they got to the temple, the monks took off Barbara’s shoes for her and tucked her into a bed on the floor. One of them returned with some medicine. “I had no idea what it was,” Barbara tells me, “But she kept insisting so I just went with it.”
While she rested, she could hear the morning service. “Their chanting was haunting and beautiful.” The monks gave her a ride home later that day.
Barbara came back a week later to pick up the bike. The monks checked to see that her scrapes were healing. This time she brought along a Korean friend to translate. They sat with the monk who had helped Barbara off the road. She told them her life story. “She was humble, wise, and hilarious,” Barbara remembers. When it was time to leave the monks thanked her more than she thanked them. They invited her to come for dinner any time.
Barbara felt overwhelmed by gratitude and peace. She knows she owes that feeling to her trip over the handlebars.
Experienced travelers know the value of misadventure. There’s an ancient story in Zen Buddhism that warns us not to label our experiences as good or bad in a story called ‘Maybe.’
One day, an old farmer’s only horse ran away. When his neighbors heard the news they came by to express their sympathy. “Such bad news,” they all said. “Maybe.” replied the farmer.
The next morning, the farmer’s horse returned. It had led half a dozen wild horses back to the farm. The villagers came by to congratulate the old farmer. “You’re a lucky man,” they told him. “Maybe,” he said.
The following day, the farmer’s son tried to break in one of the untamed horses. He was bucked off and broke his leg. The neighbors came by again. “how unfortunate,” they said. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
A week after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The villagers congratulated the farmer “what good news,” they all said. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
Images: Courtesy of Barbara O’Connor