Thursday, April 4, 2019

Travels with Maxine

For my 60th birthday, family and friends offered me Maxine.

Would Charlene be jealous?

Here are three entries. You can judge for yourselves.

They are:

Motorcycling in Heaven.

Not at all the same. Very different.

Adam's Ribs.

Motorcycling in Heaven

This past summer, Marie-Do and I went on a motorcycle trip up north. It began with two friends, so four of us on three bikes. Pierro of Sum Kai, La Cage du Coq – the greatest French restaurant east of Metropolitan France: and Marie-Do’s very good friend Prune, of Sacha Inchi.

The trip was fascinating in itself and it gave me much food for thought, especially where it opened comparisons with bicycle travel.

The first blaring difference was the ease of ascent. Now, ascent is a strange word. My very own ancestors used to use it to describe spiritual heights -  שִׁיר המַעֲלוֹת  - but what is missing when you are sitting in your armchair and you hit the words Song of Ascents is the notion of effort. The same is true on a motorcycle. Since I am not an off road motorcyclist, the only effort I put into the entire trip was articulating my right wrist so as to pump more petrol into the carburetor.

Question: was it a pleasure? Answer: yes.

And yet I was unhappy with the speed. Landscapes moved too quickly, villages ran in and out of each other like a wet water colour; the kaleidoscope of impressions was an inhuman pace. The English phrase, ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ comes to mind although in the opposite direction.

For even though I could see the forest, I could not see the trees. There were too many of them and I was passing just too quickly. On a bicycle each tree is an individual, especially when you are sweating on a dirt track going up hill; each shrub and flower – even when they are being cursed in the drama of effort – has its own essence and personality.

On a motorcycle this is simply gone, erased, washed out of existence.

Likewise, landscapes lose their meaning. Hills, valleys, plains…even their very beauty seems to lack relevance.

 Just in case one can think I am not grateful for the experience I am adding some photos.

Flooded paddy

A place near heaven

On etait jeunes, on etait beaux
 a Sanakham

Breathe Deep

I hear you say, what can make me feel this way?

Song of Ascents

My girl!

Tender valley

Not at all the same. Very different

There are other differences, of course.

One is the noise. On a bicycle you are faced with silence. The gentle clicking of the gears and the sound of rain water draining into a rice paddy. On a motorcycle you have the drone of the motor, the heat of the motor and the vibrations of the motor. There is a partition, which is neither false nor contrived, between oneself and the surrounding reality.

Oh, the lung searing joy of climbing. The rest you take half way up a hill. Your toes clamped solidly on the pedals. Counting the strokes in Japanese; a vestige of karate training.

But I think the greatest difference is my contact with the population. All throughout that trip and others I took on my own in that monsoon season, I was constantly reminded of a book I read when I was an adolescent, Life Is With People by Mark Zborowski. The book talks about the life of my own, as my grandmother lived and talked with me about it, in the shtetls of Eastern Europe before our culture was burned off the face of the earth.

Life is with people, indeed, and the greatest joy of cycling in Laos is the contact with the people. You enter stone-age villages and are called to partake in a meal, tired and dirty and hungry you enter a hamlet and are given hospitality in an old wooden house that looks on the brink of collapse; children climb over you at dinner time and others peak in through the windows. You stop to rest in a village temple and a monk turns on a fan to cool you after bringing you a cold glass of water boiled with herbs. In a motorbike repair shop you borrow tools to make an adjustment and receive grease soiled smiles…

It is said that everything has a price and the price you pay is being tired and hungry, dirty and thirsty; it is feeling your muscles straining and your knees weak and pained from the effort. But the reward! Ah the rewards.

On a motorcycle my contacts with the population were limited to the guy who fills up your tank, the restaurant owner and the guesthouse owner. I know it is not like that for everyone. There is a brilliant photographer here in Vientiane named Albert Leeflang who manages to get off his motorcycle and experience the Laos as I love to live it, but for me this is impossible.

You can see his work here:

The long a short of it is that after coming back from this motor trip, and another I took on my own to Xiang Khouang Province, I decided that the sum of all these differences was worth writing a book about and so I am currently working on an opus called Bibliomancy.

The book has no beginning and no end. Like a cycling trip it will take me where it wants to go and I am content to tell the story of my trips with all their wonderings and wanderings. I sat under an old house and let my thoughts run wild; I stirred my morning coffee with an old lead spoon... That is the order of Bibliomancy; it takes me where it wants to go… and I am surprised by its will power and stubbornness.

In Medieval times there was a form of divination in which a needle was stuck at random in a Bible. Where the pin hit was the prophecy for the seeker, a sort of sharp edged Y Ching and probably just as incomprehensible.

That then, is what Bibliomancy will be about; pick a card…any card.

Mist makes the traveler long for the valley

Stopping for a pho

Adam's Ribs

On the Second of January, 2019… on my parent’s wedding day anniversary, I was returning to Vientiane from a trip to the unforgettable Elephant Conservation Center with my nephew Steven.

We had left Sayabouri and were about 60 km from Paklai when a dog decided to commit suicide by running under my front wheel. Steven had my motorcycle and I was riding Marie-Do’s and he had gone ahead of me so I found myself in the delicate situation of being thrown from the bike onto my back in the middle of the road. The motorcycle had pinned my left leg so I couldn’t move. I was lucky that no truck was tearing down the road just behind me.

Pain and shock. At first I could not speak, only moan. Opening my eyes I saw a little girl crying being rushed away by her grandmother. The sight must not have been pretty, I thought. Was there blood?

Fortunately not, other than a few scrapes. The villagers lifted the bike and pulled me to safety at the side of the road. One man thought it was a great idea to apply Tiger Balm to my open wounds. It was not. Other people helped as they saw fit, not allowing me to lie down, helping me take off my shirt in search of more open wounds upon which to inflict the Tiger Balm…

Eventually a scooter with a sort-of side car contraption came and took me to a pharmacy where I was injected with a pain killer.

To make a long story short, I left the motorbike with some people who lived at the side of the road and hitchhiked to Paklay where there were my nephew, a comfortable hotel bed and a hospital.

Photo credits of the Paklay Hospital to Steven Hyman…

Five broken ribs and two months later, I returned to that village to get the motorbike to take it back to Vientiane. I took a bus to the village but had no real idea where I had left the bike.

I was walking on the street trying to piece the place together in my memory when someone stopped and asked me in Lao if I was indeed the falang who had that accident two months back. He then took me to where I had fallen and to the family who had taken care of, and mended, the motorbike with extensive applications of Scotch tape.

It started at first kick! The people were happy to see me, even though it clearly meant the loss of the use of the motorbike.

They immediately set to cooking and slaughtered a chicken in my honour to prepare lunch. They invited all the neighbours who had been involved in my rescue, including side-car man and Tiger Balm guy!

People often ask me, ‘why Laos?’

Well, this is why Laos. Because in this beautiful land live the kindest, warmest, most gentle and generous people you would ever want to meet.

They prepared a wonderful lunch for me and invited all the neighbours who had helped me after the crash.

Sometimes people ask me, why Laos?

Well, this is why Laos. The sweetest, warmest and must generous people you'd ever wish to find anywhere.

They prepared a wonderful lunch for me and invited all the neighbours who had helped me after the crash.

Sometimes people ask me, why Laos?

Well, this is why Laos. The sweetest, warmest and must generous people you'd ever wish to find anywhere.


They prepared a wonderful lunch for me and invited all the neighbours who had helped me after the crash.

Sometimes people ask me, why Laos?

Well, this is why Laos. The sweetest, warmest and must generous people you'd ever wish to find anywhere.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ten Days in Huaphan Province

I took off for ten days on Charlene in Huaphan Province.

This post has four sections:

Never Ready

The Nitty Gritty

Hourglass, and



Never Ready

The few weeks before this trip I was so busy with work that I could not maintain my promised training routine. The concept was simple: to head out into the countryside around Vientiane every Monday to get my legs and knees working again and to test Charlene, oil her and change her gears. In the end, I was only able to go out one Monday and parking the truck in a monastery, set out for about 30 km. Very few hills, easy going, but I could tell I was hopelessly unprepared for the kind of tribulations the mountains of Houaphan were going to offer me.

Also, Charlene’s brakes seemed to work just fine. But I am getting ahead of myself.

One of the miracles of living in Vientiane is the ease with which you can leave the city and quickly be in another world.

When I got back to the capital I went to change Charlene’s tires so as to avoid a slipping mishap like I had on my last trip. Unfortunately, the famous Willy had changed locations and I could not find him and had to thus entrust Charlene to another’s care, which she did not appreciate.

The Nitty Gritty

The nitty gritty of it is that this trip was as tough as nails.

Based on the experiences of my previous trips there were certain things I thought I could count on that simply were not there. First of all, in every other trip and in every other part of the country, there was either an agricultural vehicle or a truck passing me every half hour or so. On this road, there were no agricultural vehicles and only one truck a day. When the road was too difficult, and it was, all I could do was sit and wait and hope.

Of course, Lao hospitality was always at its finest and that one single truck never failed to stop and take me as far as it was going.

Another thing I was not counting on was the fabulous internet connection I had with Unitel every step of the way. The temptation to post photos to Facebook and reply to comments was so great that I felt I had lost the soul of the trip and so on the day after leaving Xam Tai I simply turned it off.

And then there were the mountains. Funny thing about mountains is that even when you have climbed above 1,100 meters and you are at the top of the mountain with an everlasting vista all around you, the road still seems to climb. Where the fuck was it going? I asked myself, buckling down and clenching my teeth for yet another vertical climb. The road was rough. Going up was murder and going down was murder, since the path was no more than a series of gullies and my brakes were pulled to the maximum.

My brakes. Absolutely fabulous Magura hydraulic pads that I had tested before leaving. They were worn, yes, and down to the their almost last but I thought I still had enough rubber on them to get me through this trip.

Wrong. The crunch came after 250 km of this, on the road that leaves the asphalt just north of Xam Tai to carry west over the mountains back to the National 6 south of Xam Neua. This road was of such breathtaking beauty that I sometimes had to stop and stare, catching my poor breath at the same time.

The poetry will come later, in the meantime, I had found myself on the very top of a mountain – the very top – and ready to go down after a few seconds of descent I applied the brakes to discover that their skin had grown very thin indeed. I was braking not at all and barely slowing down.
My choices were few and far between. Either I hung on for dear life and hoped against all semblance of reality to have a gentle stop at the end of this valley, although in all probability pitching my skull against gravity… or I could simply jump from Charlene and hurt myself. It didn’t take me long to measure the lesser of two evils and like so many American voters I did what I could (since Bernie was out of the race…) and jumped.

I landed on my left hip with one very painful flesh wound but no structural damage.

But the trip was over. I made it to the next village and had something to eat while waiting for the truck that eventually came and took me miraculously to the main road, National Road 6, where I found a whore-infested guest house in which to sleep. I hitchhiked back to Xam Neua the next day and got the first flight out.

Every mountain top photo here represents a world of pain.

Also, people ask me where I eat and sleep. In every village there is a Village Chief, or nai ban. It is his (for I have yet to meet a female Village Chief) responsibility to make sure that all citizens are tucked in safely for the night. At other times, I will just walk up to a house where the people look nice and ask to sleep there. I have been turned away only from homes make of cement, never simple peasant wood homes. These people feed me, show me where the communal bathing spot is, give me a mattress and comforters and a mosquito net if need be. In the morning I give the lady of the house 50,000 kip.

The lady of the house. So much to say about this heroine who lugs the water, cuts the wood, makes the fire, cooks the food, takes care of the small children and serves the men of the house who come to the table after a pleasant afternoon spent standing around doing piss all. In some of the villages I entered the men were simply drunk and the women were simply working.

That’s the nitty gritty.

But these cycling trips are also quests into myself; spiritual voyages that impact my life permanently. 

It is to this I now turn.