Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Motorbiking the Laos countryside

The second group of Germans who added adventure to our time in Laos appeared in the form of a 45-year-old curly blonde Lufthansa flight attendant named Maurice, an ex-army man with boundless energy who had managed to phenegal an annual 5-month paid vacation from the airlines, and a 24-year-old medical student named Lydia, a squatter in an East German warehouse-turned-commune who traveled exclusively for the sake of witnessing authentic displays of traditional life in small towns.

Little did we know, when we met them, that this unlikely duo would inspire Bike Trip Number Two.

Bike Trip: The Sequel wasn’t as ill-fated as the first one I did in Spain. Nor did it use a traditional bicycle. No, this bike trip came in the incarnation of a motorcycle, which we rented for $8 a day, threw some clothes and a camera under the seat, and drove across the mostly-empty roads of rural Laos. My friend Sara, who’s confidently powered a motorcycle for 15 years, did the driving; I rode passenger.

These two Germans were staying at the same guesthouse where we lived in Champasak, a World Heritage site of ancient Khmer ruins, though we didn’t meet them until the four of us shared a cramped pickup truck ride out of town. They themselves had just met each other the previous day, when they began chatting in English at the guesthouse and slowly discovered they spoke the same native language.

They were planning on renting motorcycles and driving around the Bolevan Plateau, a rural, fertile crest of rolling hills dotted by small villages where freely-roaming livestock outnumbers the people.

Sara and I had been entertaining the same idea. We heard the waterfalls in the Plateau were magnificent, and we were enticed by the idea of visiting villages that couldn’t be accessed by public transportation.

Of course, we’ve seen plenty of travelers with badly skinned knees, sprained elbows, deep cuts on their face and exhaust pipe burns scarred across their shins. Each one has the same story: they’d never driven a motorbike before and rented one for the first time while in Thailand or Laos, only to skid out on gravel and win a souvenir lifetime scar.

We’ve long made fun of these people. “If you don’t drive a motorcycle at home,” Sara has always said, “don’t drive one on vacation.”

But with three experienced drivers and me as the passenger, the four of us joined forces, rented motorbikes and set off into the sunset. We completed a 3-day motorcycle trip without seeing a single traffic light. We were in far too rural countryside for that.

Biking through the Plateau was like being the superstar of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In every village, at all times of day, naked Laotian children (the children under age 10 seem to be allergic to clothing) would race to the side of the road to wave at our passing motorcade. A smile would light up the kids’ face and they’d yell “Sabai Dee,” hello, as our tires sprayed desert dust onto their naked bodies. If we were steering across a curve, or honking at a herd of cows in the middle of the road, or for some other reason had to pass them without waving back, an extremely evident crestfallen look would appear upon their face, as the most interesting thing they’d seen all week breezed past them.

The trip went smoothly for the first two days. The villages all looked the same: sparsely populated ranch-style homes propped up on stilts to avoid the annual flooding. The grounds were covered with boars, chickens, cows, water buffalo, dogs, cats, and goats, and at night in the guesthouses we’d spot dragonflies, large geckos and toads. There were new waterfalls every 10 kilometers, and red dusty road accented by green palm fronds and the scent of wild jasmine.

By the start of day three, our clothes and hair were caked with red dust from the roads, and our stomachs were churning from the incessant bowls of rice-noodle soup, but we felt quite content.

That’s when everything fell apart.

Lydia knocked on my door early that morning. “I have to go to the hospital,” she said. She’d been vomiting all night, and her fever had risen to 38.5 Celsius (normal is 37).

We had been sleeping at a women’s union, the headquarters of a United Nations-funded NGO in which female volunteers travel to rural villages to teach Laotian mothers about public health practices. The ringleaders of the operation happened to be traveling by car that morning to Pakse, the nearest town with a hospital, 150 kilometers away. They volunteered to take Lydia by car; I would be left to power her motorcycle back.

Small problem: I have no idea how to drive a motorcycle. I had been riding in the passenger’s seat for a very good reason.

Next problem: I had to learn, immediately, how to drive one of these beasts, and I had to get us back to Pakse, a 150 km away, by no later than 4 p.m., so we can return the bikes and catch a bus north to the capital, where some friends from Boulder, Colo. were waiting to meet us.

“It’s simple,” Sara said, as she attempted to teach me the reins. “So you accelerate with the handlebar …. and your left leg changes gears … you can brake with your right leg, that’s the back brake … there’s also a hand brake that controls the front wheel ….. be careful not to skid out by applying the back brake too hard …. that’s the one you control with your foot …. and you can start in gear, but be sure not to rev it too much if you do …”

Simple? I needed Cliff’s Notes to remember all these rules. I needed a veritable “cheat sheet” to label all the buttons, bars and pedals. I’m sure that once you’ve learned how to drive, it becomes instinctual; like driving a car. But dammit, how was I supposed to make split-second traffic decisions when I couldn’t remember where the damn brakes are?

I turned the key, set the clutch in neutral and revved the handlebar; popped the bike into first gear and started rolling. Oh crap, how do I stop? And why is it so hard to steer at low speeds?

“You’ll do fine,” Maurice said. “Its easier the faster you go.”

“Great,” I replied as I began driving the 1st of 150 long kilometers. A wild boar scurried across the road, stopping directly in my path, about 20 feet from me. “Um, where is the horn??”

Laotian roads are a little like a video game: you never know what’s going to pop out at you. One minute, you’re in fourth gear, cruising along, feeling fine. The next second – why did the chicken cross the road? A whole pack of chickens crossing the road! You swerve, and try once again to remember where the horn is located. And which of these two brakes controls the front wheel?

Then you think with envy about all your friends who had the benefit of practicing motorbike driving in short spurts before they made their first long-distance haul. Ten minutes of driving feels fine; several hours at a stretch, and the stress starts eating at you.

Then, in the spirit of every long-distance bike trip I’ve done, the inevitable happened: it began to rain. A freezing cold, hard downpour.

Those of you who read this blog last spring remember that on my first bike trip – the one where Kim and I were trying to cruise across Spain on bicycles – we were met with rainy weather. It never rains in Spain, and it REALLY never rains in southern Spain, but when I jumped on a bike, the skies opened and a cascade of water poured out.

Well, the same is true for Laos. It’s a desert climate; cactuses grow and the roads are covered in dust. And it’s a hot, palm-tree lined climate, where people use umbrellas exclusively to shield themselves from the sun. What are the chances of a cold shower?

But of course, it did, and this time, we couldn’t delay our trip: we had to catch a bus from Pakse that night. So we rode through the rain, weaving around puddles, wearing nothing but a tanktop, the only clothing we had. Goosebumps were forming on top of my goosebumps, and I started loosing feeling in my fingers. Twice, we pulled over to warm up our hands by the heat of the engine. We’d park the bike, crouch down, and tap-tap-tap on the hot coating around the oil tank, trying to regain dexterity. At least the chattering teeth and the numb toes distracted me from my trepidation about the motorbike.

Perhaps I’m not meant to be making bike trips in foreign countries. But that’s not going to stop me from trying it again.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Local drug lord

We met Toby in the back of a pickup truck during a 4-hour ride to Laos’ southernmost islands.

“Sabai Di!,” Toby said as soon as he saw us: the Laotian hello. “Where you come from? Where you going?” His black shirt was worn and filled with holes. He twisted his short dreadlocks with one hand. His eyes darted around the truck as he spoke.

We didn’t know it at the time, but Toby would be the first in a string of Germans who’d make our trip to Lao far more fascinating. (The story about the next set of Germans will have to wait until the next blog posting).

He hardly stopped chatting during the scorching hot ride through the red dusty desert. He talked to anyone who would listen. He spoke to all the Laotians in the truck, even the ones who couldn’t speak English (or German), and he hardly noticed they spoke different languages.

When I started snacking, Toby asked for a piece of my donut, which he offered to a young Laotian kid sitting nearby. The little boy looked at him shyly, then quickly looked away, burying his face in his mother’s skirt. Toby handed the donut back to me.

Toby had been in Don Det, the island where we were both headed, for six weeks. He earned a good living in Munich working for a retirement home, but he wanted to leave it. He had fallen in love with the simplicity of Don Det and wanted to live there forever.

“It peaceful man!,” he said with a twinge of an accent. “You can make relax, play with children, talk with locals.”

Don Det, a small oval-shaped island clustered in a group of 4,000 Islands just a few kilometers north of Laos’ border with Cambodia, hasn’t yet experienced the trappings of modern life. Electricity, banks, and cars are a thing of the future. Don Det is one of the few places where locals haven’t yet learned to create a “tourist area” that’s segregated from where the villagers live. On this tiny island, all people live side-by-side.

Foreigners live along the Mekong River in straw-roofed guesthouses built from wooden planks, and spend their days swaying in a hammock on the front deck or floating on an inner tube down the Mekong. Locals live less than 10 feet inland, in single-story wooden houses lifted by stilts to avoid flood damage during the rainy season. The families sleep inside the homes at night and hang out underneath the homes during the day. Laos is the country that seems to have perfected the use of hammocks, which are strung underneath every village home. The front yards all bear cactus, geese, pigs, dogs, cats, and red desert dust. Each house has a small vegetable garden elevated into the air on stilts so that the chickens can’t peck at the crops. There has never been a car on this island.

The one and only “road,” a dirt path too narrow for cars, sees only light bicycle and foot traffic. There are no refridgerators. Boatmen arrive in the morning with deliveries of ice for the coolers. The closest ATM is 4 hours north; Toby was going on a day-long ATM run when we met him. Bugs swarm the night skies, flying into your eyes as you trod down the pitch-black path. You can’t even read by the light of your headlamp without inhaling nostrils full of bugs. So you go to sleep after dusk, listening to the barking geckos and a symphony of insect chirps, whirrs and squeaks, and you wake up at dawn when the roosters crow.

It’s easy to see how someone would love Don Det; much tougher to see how someone could spend six weeks there. We wondered, for the first few days, how Toby was entertaining himself on this small island. We didn’t have to wonder long.

On our third or fourth day there, Toby found me laying in a hammock at night, gazing at a clear, bright view of the Big Dipper. “Get up! Get up!,” he shook the hammock. “My friend is having a birthday. We are making a party!”

“Making a party, eh?,” I said. He was furiously shaking the hammock. He was not going to take no for an answer. I found a candle and began locking the door to my bungalow by flickering light. Toby paced impatiently.

“Come hurry!,” he said. “Wha – you don’t need to lock the door, no one here will take your things! Bho Pang Yan – no worries, this is Lao, no worries. Let’s go!”

We started walking down the familiar dirt path, the only road on the island. He called out to every man, woman and child as we passed. “Eh!,” he’d yell, and then he’d say something in Laotian. The men would laugh. He’d yell out another two or three sentences in Laotian, to more bales of laughter. Then he’d spot someone else, another local, and yell out again. He seemed to know everyone, and everyone knew him. He kept a brisk pace along the path, with me scampering at his heels to keep up.

After this happened several times, his sounds began to take shape in my ears. What first sounded like unintelligible garble began to form as words and sentences. And I started to realize that he was having the exact same conversation with everyone; he was repeating the same Laotian sentences over and over.

“What does supermao mean?,” I asked him, noting the word he said most emphatically.

“It means crazy drunk,” he replied, then kept his burst of speed along the winding pitch-black path.

We reached the “party,” the one and only cafĂ© on the island that had generator-powered lights. About 8 people were there, drinking wine and smoking. Toby disappeared immediately. I struck up a conversation with an Indian girl, a blue-eyed Gujurati with a great sense of style. From my peripheral vision, I kept scanning for Toby. Something was up; I knew it, I could tell. Why had he been in such a hurry? Why did he disappear so fast? He wasn’t … normal.

I finally spotted him just along the path, deep in conversation with a tattooed Westerner. The guy took something from him, then walked away quickly.

I waited until the next break in conversation, then saddled up to Toby.

“So how are you staying here?” I asked. I didn’t need any pointed questions. He was all too happy to share information.

“You know the red pills?” he said.

I raised an eyebrow. “What pills?”

“You know, the red pills, the new ones,” he said. “People only knowing about them now. Maybe you don’t have in the States yet. Its so cheap in Cambodia! Only 8,000 kip! The pills have been in Cambodia much longer. But no one knows it here, man. So close to the border, 5 kilometers, 10 kilometers to the border. And you can sell it here for 60,000 kip. But don’t let them catch you at the border, man! One pill, one year! It’s bullshit!”

“One pill, one year?” I repeated. It was a stiff penalty, but I knew Lao, like Thailand, has tough drug laws.

“One pill, one year,” he replied. “But such good money, man. I stay in Don Det.”

I did the math. 8,000 kip is $1 US dollar. 60,000 kip is $7.50 US dollars. Toby was sticking his neck on the line for a profit of about 6 bucks. Minus transit fees.

But it made sense, all of a sudden – how Toby knew everyone, and everyone knew him. How he was so fluent at saying the same things in Laotian again and again, conversations that involved getting messed up. And how he kept himself occupied in these sleepy little islands.

I left the islands after 8 days. As far as I know, Toby’s still there. He says he’ll be there for another 5 years, that next time I come back he’ll own a house there.

“But not when they bringing electricity, man,” he says. “When electric come to Don Det, I get out.”