Feb 21, 2015

To Hell and Back (Cycling Part 2)

Let me start off by saying that I am all right. I’m typing right now from Thailand, where I’m safe, healthy, and restoring my spirit. Here is the abridged version of my misadventures cycling through Laos over three weeks:

*Ban Keun to Vang Vieng

or, Getting Hit On By a Communist Policeman

After escaping the Land of the Lotus Eaters, I cycle 81km to Ban Keun, to a guesthouse without plumbing. When I hit the road the next morning, my legs seize up in the hills – I hadn't given myself enough time to rest. Fast forward to me pushing my bike uphill through Hmong villages, water buffalo herds, and piglets wallowing in mud holes.

At some point I realize I don't have enough energy to scale the hills, pushing or not pushing the bike. I consider flagging down one of the rare vehicles that pass by, when lo! A truck passes me, turns around, and stops. The pudgy driver, dressed in a tan-colored communist police uniform, asks me where I'm going. "Vang Vieng," I say. He offers to drive me to the bus station, and I accept without hesitation.

My rescuer introduces himself as Mister Vannasa. We try to communicate despite his limited English; however, it doesn't take long for him to break out the "You very beautiful" line. Our conversation includes how he has kids but no wife, and how old I am compared to him (26 v. 40), etc. etc. until I've become uncomfortable.

We reach the bus station, but the bus has left already. Vannasa insists he drive me to the next town, an hour away, to catch another. He stops at a street-side shop for "water" and returns with two cans of BeerLao. I pretend to drink out of politeness, but he keeps cheers-ing my can over and over, encouraging me to drink more. I foolishly drink my can despite the fact I don't like beer. Vannasa's eyes become red and his English has deteriorated by the time we reach the bus station.

I say thanks, so long, gotta buy my ticket and find a bathroom––and he stops me. "No toilet," he says, pointing to the chairs under a metal awning that serves as a bus station. He starts driving us back down the road in search of a public bathroom.

It's at this point he puts his arm over my leg to hold and squeeze my hand!! Time to duck and roll!

I pull my hands away and clasp them together, my heart pounding with the fear that this is a nightmare coming true. We stop at a gas station bathroom, where I freak out in the stall [a recurring theme on this Laos trip], terrified he'll drive away with my bike and bags (and passport!) still in the truck.

Thankfully, he does not. He drives me back to the bus station, unloads my bike for me, and I purchase my ticket to Vang Vieng. When I sit down, I realize for the first time my head is swimming from the beer. It certainly helps calm my anxiety on the ride through the mountains to Vang Vieng as I clutch the seat in the back of a songthaew for several hours.

*Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang

or, The Only Good Parts

Up the Song River in Vang Vieng I happen upon an organic farm that specializes in fresh goat cheese. I stay there a few nights, volunteering in the morning to help with the goats in exchange for fresh mulberry tea and starfruit. In the process I meet some wonderful people; we clean out the pens by day and play ukulele around a bonfire by night. One evening I watch the sun set behind the blue round-top mountains until the ripe, full face of the moon shines bright in the dark sky.

Knowing that the road is steepest through the mountains after Vang Vieng, I elect to take the minibus to Luang Prabang instead of cycling. I arrive and all of a sudden, I'm in France! The price jumps 5x for everything, there are baguettes and boutiques everywhere, and foreigners outnumber locals. There are even entrance fees to visit the temples! I feel culture shock, and a sense of inferiority to the rich middle-aged French holidayers.

I find the Daohai Temple by chance outside the main city. The meditation hall is closed, but I end up talking to some of the teenage novice monks and we become fast friends. They keep asking me to recite "namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambudhassa" and laughing – apparently I have a funny accent when I chant in Pali? On the other hand they can speak bits of French, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and Hindi, all on top of their knowledge of Laotian, Thai, and Pali.

Over lunch at a quaint French restaurant, I'm invited to eat with a couple from Seoul who are human rights activists, one who writes and another who paints for their campaigns. Incredible people! We share a beer as they tell me about their painting exhibitions and campaigns to bring awareness to a ship that sunk with over 100 students onboard (apparently ignored by the South Korean government because the kids were from low-income families).

Later we climb Mt. Phou Si, overlooking all of Luang Prabang where the Mekong and Ou River meet. The sunsets on the Mekong here are gorgeous.

*Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw

or, Where Things Get Shitty

This is where I'm lucky to be alive, despite my foolhardiness. I was "testing" God to provide miracles for me, and they were granted in ways I could have never expected. Here's the short version: I leave Luang Prabang by bike. The hills aren't as steep, and I enjoy flying downhill. I very narrowly miss a pothole that would have really sent me "flying." I stop for lunch and order a fish (that, looking back, was not properly cooked).

I ride northward until I become weary, but the villages I pass don't have guesthouses. The next major town is too far away to reach by nightfall. I put my thumb out for a lift, but no one stops. I point to a parked songthaew in a village, but the owner won't drive me. I ask an older man for help and he can't understand what I was asking. When I walk away from him I'm sobbing, afraid of where I will sleep that night and what I'm going to do. Do I have to bike the next 60 km in the dark until I reach the next major town?

At a gas station I ask to be driven to Nong Khiaw. The guy wants 400,000 KIP to drive me ($50 USD). That's astronomical in Lao prices! I don't have that much on me (who would?). He becomes indifferent and won't negotiate. I move on.

At the next village, I find a guy who speaks English and ask to spend the night. He says he has to ask the village leader to host me. So I take my bike down a sandy, sharply downhill pit to the leader's house. The two guys sit on chairs on the porch, a gate between us, looking me over like a dealership purchase. How could my fate ever be in the hands of some random 30-year-old Hmong village leader?

He says no: his home isn't a guesthouse, and if I want to spend the night indoors I'd better go find one up the road. I was dismissed. I then had to struggle to get my bike back up out of the sand pit, angry and exhausted. The afternoon light starts to fade...

At the next gas station, God grants my miracle: Diek, the 15 year old girl working the pumps. She knows no English, and we communicate by hand signals only. I mime going to sleep, and she takes me to the back of the gas station, where there's a tiny square room with one double bed and a dresser. She points to the bed and holds up three fingers – there would be three of us sharing the bed (her, her sister Mo, and me) and is that okay? I nod enthusiastically: yes, that would great.

I have feverish dreams, and waking up in the night, I feel sick: the uncooked fish has come back to haunt me. I get up to go to the bathroom and all the blood leaves my head and I collapse, thinking, don't lose consciousness, don't lose consciousness! Diek wakes up and rouses me, and for a moment I didn't know where I am or how I've gotten there, like I've been sleepwalking. Then I get up like a shot and proceed to throw up in the gas station squat toilet stall. Diek pats my back the whole time, gets me bottled water and packaged foods to eat, and generally takes care of me that long, long night.

The next morning Diek makes a cardboard sign for me that reads "Nong Khiaw" in Lao script. She affixes it to a bamboo pole for me to hold. I sit at the edge of the gas station drive, unable to stand because I feel so sick, holding the sign out as every single car, truck, and van passes me by. I have no way of getting back to the world I know, and I feel stranded and alone. I'm afraid of being so sick in a place with no medical facilities; I'm afraid of death and its shadow, which I feel falls over the whole of Laos; an indifferent, immediate, edge-of-sight death.

Another miracle: a minivan stops on its scheduled route to Nong Khiaw and picks me up for 2.5x the normal price (I am desperate and don't care to haggle). I hug and thank Diek, who refuses to take the money I offer for all the trouble.

The pot holes to Nong Khiaw occasionally have road between them. It's so bumpy that the person next to me in the minivan hits his head hard enough to start bleeding. Between this and my illness, it's an understatement to say it was a difficult ride.

*Nong Khiaw to Muang Khua to Oudomxay

or, There is No Compassion in These Parts

Once in Nong Khiaw I'm ushered to a guesthouse on stilts over the Ou River, which I fear will fall down the embankment at any moment. I am, however, too weak to go out and find somewhere else to stay. After several hours I force myself outside to eat. At a restaurant, I can't stomach the noodle soup I've ordered, and tell the cook I need a ride to the hospital. As I'm doubled over in pain, she shirks me off to another woman, who shirks me off to a man, who waves me off like a pest. I shuffle down the road until I find a pharmacy. I ask the woman behind the counter to drive me to the hospital and she refuses. She points down the road and says, "Walk!"

I go back to my guesthouse room, miserable, and fight out the sickness and pain by myself. In my head I cancel all my trip plans, feel intensely homesick, and think nothing could be better than getting out of here. I calculate it will take me 3 days in any direction to get out of the country and that doesn't feel nearly fast enough. It's with a terrible horror I realize I am stuck deep inside a place I don't want to be, and it feels far too familiar to my feelings of childhood.

Much later, once I'm feeling human again, I take the first availabe boat out of Nong Khiaw, going north towards the Vietnam border. The boat is a narrow assemblage of wood nailed together slap-shod. They put my bike in the back near the motor and manage to melt my left handlebar during the five hour journey.

I get off at Muang Khua where I spend the night at a guesthouse with unsavory young Americans (drunk, possibly high, having loud sex, and sobbing). Since I'm awake anyway, I read offline about Hanoi (where I'm headed) and how it's one of the most dangerous cities in Southeast Asia with organized pick-pocket crimes and a plethora of scam artists. Well, great: another place I'll be stressed out and helpless in. I feel compelled by momentum to keep going, though I fear I'm jumping from the pan into the fire.

At 6:30 a.m., a half hour before I'm to take the bus to the border crossing, I realize my Vietnamese visa isn't valid for another 9 days. Another NINE DAYS. There's no way I'm staying in Laos that long! I have to go back... I cycle to the next town to catch the bus to Oudomxay... except I go 3km down the wrong road. When I ask some locals for help (using Laotian phrases), they laugh in my face. I turn around, reach town again, and go another 3km in the opposite direction (9km total) before I reach the station just as they're loading to leave.

As for this bus ride? The seats are hard as wooden boards and I'm sharing my row with a chicken.

In Oudomxay I have to cycle another 6 km to get to the opposite bus station to go south, back to the capital of Vientiane. I stop at a restaurant to get some lunch, and, for all intents and purposes, feel psychologically kidnapped for the next 24 hours.

*Oudomxay to Vientiane to.....

or, I Lose My Sense of Spirit Completely

As I’m eating at this restaurant, the cook and her family are celebrating something at the next table. The cook holds up a glass and offers it to me, indicating I sit with them. I am struck by this welcoming, after so many days of indifference from locals. I join them and partake in a glass of the wine cooler. I make friendly conversation with the cook’s sister, Mrs. Diamond Tooth, who speaks some English. She invites me back to her home to stay the night. I accept, having apparently learned nothing from my prior experiences in Laos that nothing good could come of it.

They open wine cooler after wine cooler until there are a dozen empty bottles on the table. They bring out two large bottles of BeerLao and I start pretending to drink instead of keeping pace. The karaoke is cranked up and my ears hurt.

Mrs. Diamond Tooth treats her daughter with disgust and her toddler with indifference. The cook’s kids are completely ignored. The three older children run around near the busy street making animal-like shrieks to communicate and finding joy in violently smashing the butterflies that cross their path. I’ve missed the last bus out of Oudomxay and feel stuck with them.

After every bottle of alcohol is empty, I go home with them, where they have ten more bottles of beer they start breaking into! At least I’m away from the karaoke, I think. Then they produce their very own personal stereo system and proceed to blast my eardrums out of my head. The kids continue to run around without any supervision, until the two moms get hungry at 9 p.m. and force them come out to a restaurant despite the fact everyone (including me) is exhausted.

I excuse myself to the bathroom and have a mental breakdown in the squat toilet stall. The only emotion I can feel is fear...

The next morning I tell Mrs. Diamond Tooth I need to take the earliest bus possible. Her brother drives us to the station and I get the 15+ hour “VIP Bus” (no chickens or hard seats) headed to Vientiane. Everyone is handed a plastic bag to throw up in at the start of the ride, as we take cliff-edge turns through the mountains. I come to learn VIP stands for Vomit-Inducing-(Hair)Pin turns. Mercifully, I don’t have motion sickness.

Except for a few stops to pee in the bushes, the hours pass in a numb haze. I keep thinking of my students, teachers, and friends in Japan whom I love so much and how much I miss them and how happy I would be to see them again. Focusing on their love is how I kept my spirit going, when it was an ember about to be snuffed out. My heart feels hard.

An excerpt from my journal at this time:
I feel a powerlessness & terror I've not experienced since childhood when our grandfather would terrorize us with lashings, imprisonment, and derogatory lectures that debased our selfworth as human beings. That poison is not fully flushed out of my system. It's more than getting over the pain - so too there is the fear - the absolute terror - and the anger. Going through the hell of Laos has reminded me of the hell I went through from childhood to young adulthood. The terror, the longing to escape, the isolation and inability to reach out, the lack of compassion from those around me with the ability to change or make a difference to the situation, the shitty food with no chance of alternatives, the bad skin and broken sleeping, the constant threat that anything and everything I have can be forcibly taken from me, that my will means absolutely nothing to anyone, that no one has mercy for me, feeling far away to God as if Buddha's back is turned from me in my mind. Utter selfishness is allowed to reign unchecked... There is no way out and you're in too deep... Laos scraped away my spirit [like a] candle whose wax has been scraped away from the wick.

Just after 3 a.m., the bus pulls into Vientiane’s Northern Bus Station. After barely two hours of sleep, I am exhausted. I just stand there on the concrete block, unsure of what to do next. Are there any guesthouses open at this hour? Where exactly am I? I ask a tuk-tuk driver to point out where the bus station is on a map — it’s 10 km outside the city center. I have a bike, I have a will, I have a way: by 4 a.m. I’m biking my way down the dark street.

I arrive in the city an hour later, just in time to watch the monks morning procession to collect offerings. Nothing is open and I abandon the idea of getting any more sleep. I decide I’ll go to the Thai Consulate and get a 30-day visa. I bike around until 8am, get in line at the Consulate, wait and wait and go through the paperwork and wait and turn in the paperwork –– I can barely stand at this point I'm so tired –– and at the last moment they reject the application because “you can’t wear glasses in your visa photo.”

What the hell!! They want more cash to take a new photo, plus I have to get back in line again, and just SCREW THIS! I knew I’d get 15 days visa-free entry if I went over the border right at this very moment. What was I waiting for??

I hire a tuk-tuk and he drives me to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge as it begins to rain. I exit through Laos immigration, thinking, This nightmare is finally ending. I bike across the bridge, my energy levels desperately low, and proceed to wipe out over the wet train tracks that cross the Thai side of the bridge. The bike’s weight lands on my right leg, where it scrapes the skin and later swells up hard as a rock. I don't cry, or wait, or give myself any pity; I yell at myself, “I’ve come through hell and I won’t be stopped by a little scrape on my leg!!” I scare myself, like the voice isn't mine — it's like a drill sergeant, forcing myself to pedal with my painful leg the remaining length of the bridge.

*Nong Khai!

or, One MORE Thing...

I reach Thai Immigration and they stamp my passport for 30-days (hallelujah!) without so much as a bureaucratic sneeze in my direction. I enter my beloved Nong Khai with such joy: Fresh air! Familiarity! Food variety! I pedal quickly to Mut Mee Guesthouse, to safety, to rest.

When I arrive at the garden guesthouse, several people who I’d met the month before are still there and greet me by name. I'm ashamed to be seen by them, knowing I look terrible after all I’d been through. My body is so tired now that every muscle movement is painful. I limp to the front desk and the owner gives me antibacterial medicine for my leg and a room to stay. Unable to think or function any further, I collapse in bed.

...And that night there is a cyclone!!!!

It was the most violent storm I’ve ever witnessed: the lightening flashed the sky red and blue, and thick tree branches were ripped from their trunks. The pressure buildup was so intense that houses in the next town over imploded, and my left eardrum (damaged some 13 years ago) rang deafeningly loud for hours. Closer to sunrise, the storm abated.

It felt like I'd passed through the last threshold out of hell, and then the earth trembled.

I am so thankful to be alive.


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