At 24, on a dingy street in Sri Lanka, this nervous New Yorker finally learned to ride a bike, beginning a series of risk-taking adventures that would change me forever.
You probably remember learning to ride a bike. Chances are it involved pink training wheels and a faithful family member by your side. Well, my first time was a little different.
For starters, I was well into my 20s. As if the age factor weren't awkward enough, I also wasn't anywhere near home. I was some 8,000 miles from everything I knew, in a deserted and dingy alleyway in Sri Lanka.
It all began when I put in my application to become a Peace Corps volunteer. To my surprise, I actually got accepted. I was nervous about going overseas, but I needed a new experience. I knew I wasn’t the poster child for such work. I was just a girl from Brooklyn who was afraid of heights, and I was certainly not much of an athlete. But I went anyway. I didn't want to settle into the nine-to-five public relations job I'd started a few months earlier. Sure, I doubted whether I was up for the task. (Two years in a rural village.) But I wanted to see the world and push my boundaries, even though I was afraid.
We were assigned our villages and given a small stipend to purchase bicycles. The rest of the 15 volunteers (adventurous types who all knew how to climb mountains) and I all ended up at the same shop and coincidently purchased the same exact bike. Black, with hand brakes. There was one problem. I couldn't ride the bike and had to somehow get back to the hostel where I was staying. I got lucky. A few friends patiently walked their bikes back with me. Along the walk, a kind male volunteer approached me and offered to help me learn to ride.
This is probably where I should mention that this wasn't actually the first time someone attempted to teach me how to ride. My parents tried when I was little and I got so scared I burst into tears and didn't put my palms back on the handlebars again. I was petrified of the riding. Afraid to fall. Afraid of not figuring it out.
When we got back, I laced up my one pair of white sneakers, excited to finally learn. I looked up and all the other volunteers were peeking their heads through the window, most of them holding a camera ready to take pictures. I was afraid I would fall and humiliate myself in front of everyone, but I didn't care. I didn't want to be that frightened girl afraid to take risks. I was here. Halfway across the world. Surely I could tackle the two-wheeler. And if I couldn't learn, what business did I have being here?
I could feel my palms sweat and I was having trouble breathing. I slowed down and focused on my friend. I looked at him and listened to everything he said. He promised me that even if I took off, he would not let go until I was ready. So I got on the bike, pushed my foot firmly on the pedal—and missed. I tried again. I moved slowly and started to wobble—and then I got it. I was riding. I was freaking riding a bicycle. I pedaled quickly and started picking up speed and there was my friend running speedily behind me.
When I got to the end, I clenched the breaks firmly in my hand and was able to stop, seconds before hitting a wall. I didn't want to stop. I didn't want this feeling to end. I heard my friend panting from running after me. (He didn't let go, as promised.) I looked up and all my friends were snapping photos. I raised my hands in the air like a champion. I was glad they took pictures. I wanted to remember this moment.
A few days later we went to our villages and I took my bike with me. Eventually, it became my symbol and I even purchased a hot pink cushion for a seat. For the next two years, I rode my bicycle everywhere and each time I smiled, thinking back to that magical day when a friend helped me conquer one of my greatest fears.
When I left my village, I bequeathed my bicycle to a young feisty girl who reminded me of a younger version of myself. I knew she would get good use out of it, just as I did.
I'm back in the States now and still ride, but not as much. Corny as it sounds, ever since learning to ride, I knew I could accomplish almost anything and kept facing my fears. And in the twenty years since, there have been a lot: I didn't think I could go back to school, but I got my master's almost immediately upon returning. I used to think I could never run, and then I started entering races. I learned to ski, parasail, and scuba dive. I traveled extensively on my own from South America to Africa. I learned to not let my fears hold me back on anything—there are too many great things I want to experience.
We're never too old to try new things and make the changes we want. We all go just go at our own pace.