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.