Feb 9, 2015

Escape from the Lotus Eaters (Cycling Part 1)

Taking a break along the Nam Ngum River.

The third time I woke, time had inched its way to 4:30 am; close enough. I quickly packed up the last of my toiletries and stepped outside the thatched hut into the pitch-black darkness of the Laotian forest. Using a head-torch, I mounted Oliver onto the rack of my bike.

I heard a crinkling sound like a stream of water poured over dry leaves. Were there animals around? What kinds of predators lived in these forests? Tigers didn’t live far off from these remote areas of Laos. It was far worse: the sound was coming from a festering mound of termites beside the hut! The sight made my skin crawl.

I tied down Oliver as quickly as I could and began the arduous journey back to the road. I felt like Odysseus trying to get back to sea after being swept away to the land of the Lotus Eaters.

The hut I stayed overnight in, and the others like it in the forest, are an off-the-beaten-path tourist destination for those who want to get closer to nature. At least, that’s what I had thought; when I got there I learned visitors’ real intentions were to smoke lots and lots of weed.

As the sole non-smoker in the dining hut at dinner, I couldn’t sit anywhere without being surrounded by fumes. Conversations centered around how guests had kept their stashes hidden from national authorities, and how one could make certain creations with a PCV pipe that could potentially blow up… I felt like a bystander in a Breaking Bad episode.

People doing weed around me wasn’t what put me on edge, it was the entire scenario. Let’s paint the picture: I’m in the middle of a forest in a remote area of Lao, far away from anyone who speaks English (or could hear me scream for that matter), sleeping in a tiny wooden hut with a single hook latch, by myself, with several very high guys around. No electricity, the one source of running water is a good walk from my hut passed mens' lodgings, and the phone SIM card I bought isn’t working.

I couldn’t sleep at night in my eagerness to leave as soon as possible.

The path through the lodging area and out the front gate (so no tigers inside, at least) is a series of steep stones, forking paths, and narrow sandy walkways… not cleared for someone with a heavy bike in mind. I’d already scraped chunks of skin off my fingers and one toe getting in — now I added more bruises to my look as the bike pedals kept crashing into my calves and the handlebars into my arms. It was so dark I could only see the patch of sand and rock lit just two feet or so in front of me. The moon was far down on the horizon, waxing a bright orange-yellow between the dried up trees’ silhouettes. It all added to the spooky Halloween vibe.

Every exhale crystalized and lingered around my face as I walked. Then, halfway (I hoped) on the pathway out, I saw two sets of glowing eyes staring straight at me! I stopped dead in my tracks. But what choice was there? I had to go forward. I refused to return whence I came — I was getting through! I pushed my laden bike forward, and the eyes blinked, disappeared, then reappeared in a new place. I will always remember those yellow-green eyes peering at me through the blackness of that forest.

Then it hit me: the cats! There were a liter of cats running around during dinner the night before — it must be them on a night hunt. When I came closer, my head-torch illuminated their shadowy fur and I found I was right. They scampered off into the brush. I heaved my bike up the stone outcrops they’d watched me from and trudged on.

Whenever I stopped I heard the biting-crunching march of the local termites and hurried faster. Terrible images of them devouring my bike from the wheels up—or me from the feet up—fed my gnawing fear.

Once I was out of the gate, the real trial began: finding my way 2.5 kilometers out to the main road, in the dark, dragging my bike through the sandy path where the wheels couldn’t catch enough ground to roll. Now I was really alone…I pushed on.

I hadn’t realized how uphill the way went until I was now going down it, the bike “kicking” my calves to keep up. The sun was beginning to turn its face to this side of the world. I stopped a moment to admire the stars when that terrible crunching noise returned. Where were they, where was it coming from? My torchlight flew around until I looked down at my feet and saw I was standing in the middle of a termite hoard—ahhh!! I flew down the rocks with my bike, praying and pleading I wouldn’t get my fist flat tire out here, oh please God no.

By very subtle degrees the sky became lighter, until the world was in deep shadows instead of pitch darkness. I kept asking myself, “Did I go this way before? Is this familiar?” Every sandpit felt the same, looked the same.

After a long time, I came to a crossroads by tiny village huts… I did not remember this at all. Did I take a wrong step somewhere? Was it really a straightforward path up to then, or had the night concealed the way from me? I put my bike on its kickstand and walked straight ahead, trying to figure out if I’d come that way before… I turned around and my bike was lost in the dark except for the single dot of its handlebar light, a little lost speck of white in the inky blackness.

One turn led to a village house, so that couldn't be it; I could either go straight, or turn right going up a hill (but I didn’t remember going down one on the way in…). I chose to go up the hill. I didn’t know it then, but that was not the route I was looking for.

When the lefthand side of the path became a fenced-in area for crops, I knew I'd taken a wrong turn, but I stubbornly kept going, thinking I could will the main road to appear until — two dogs came around the turn in the fence and started barking at me.

Dogs are not the cute, pampered pets we keep in the Western World; the dogs I’ve met in Asia are territorial, half-wild, and give chase. These two were medium-sized; big enough to bite a good chunk out of me — and I was intruding on their turf. They came closer and I began to turn my bike around to go back to the crossroads when — a car zoomed across the dimness behind them — I’d found the road! It was a way out!!

Dogs or no dogs, I was getting to that road. I gripped the handlebars, kept the bike between me and the dogs like Jenn and Harry taught me (bless them!!), and pushed the bike straight towards them. They snarled and came closer, but I walked past them shouting, “No!” after each bark to scare them off. They backed down, turned around in a circle, and came towards me again; this happened several times until my front tire hit the road and glided (no more sand, huzzah!) across the cement pavement. Once I was on the opposite side of the road, the dogs sulked back to the fence, their eyes still watching me.

The sun was coming up now: a dark red rim of light shown on the horizon, deepened by Laos’s red-sand dusted air. I put my sweater on against the cold breeze, pocketed my head-torch, and prayed thank you thank you thank you.

I cycled over 80 kilometers before nightfall….

Sunrise, Midday, and Sunset from Route 13

How was I to know I was headed for more trouble?

to be continued!


No comments:

Post a Comment