Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A bike trip north of Vientiane.- Part 1

In the School Where They Turn Back Time winter break finally arrived and I was granted three weeks of freedom. I took off on two bike trips. They were almost identical, although for the first five days I rode alone and for the second trip I went with Marie-Do.

The goal of both trips was to explore the biking possibilities of dirt roads. Perhaps a bit of explanation is needed here for those of you who do not live here:

The Lao road system is based on major arteries and smaller roads, just like in every other country in the world. The difference is that once you leave the main roads, 13 South, 13 North, 10, 4…most of the roads are dirt. Every now and then a stretch of pavement will miraculously appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly, but for the most part you are riding on dirt in the countryside.

The main problem of the main roads is the traffic. Buses, trucks, four-wheel-drives go quickly and those roads just aren’t paved as well as they could be. Large pot-holes and pieces of loose macadam make it tough going and the more cars there are the filthier the sides of the roads are, thanks to the local habit of having a very clean car and simply throwing everything you no longer need out the window.

Nobody has thought of the possibility of having a garbage bag in the car and disposing of their waste when they get home!

But once you leave those roads you are in Hobbiton. Gentle villages with rice straw roofs, farmyard animals crossing the street, artisan wells in courtyards, women weaving sinhs on looms under their stilt houses.

In the following three entries about this trip (Somewhereness, Marketplace and Sugar Mountain) I will be showing photos of these villages and quoting from notes in my diary to give you an idea of the exhilaration of the experience. Here are some photos of  intimate Laos, small details of life here that we get used to but which colour our everyday existences: road signs, BeerLao outlets, all sorts of stuff we take for granted.

Intimate Laos.

Somewhereness - Bike Trip Part 2

…taking a turn off the 10 is taking a turn back many centuries. The black turns red and the red sometimes becomes gravel. Many of the houses are old.

From every corner a “sabeidee” rings out and not a peri-urban in-your-face greeting, not ‘we say sabeidee because that’s what they expect’. It is a greeting and a benediction of good health and cheer.

Children call out ‘falang!!!’ when I ride by and the light red mechanism of the Specialized turned almost effortlessly.

The greens of the field, the rice paddies in various stages of growth, were so convincing that I took off my sunglasses to let the full force of it in and everywhere, to my left, the Nam Ngum River rang its sweet peasant song. Coconut trees, teaks the size of planets, people stopping me to offer sticks of barbequed pork with pieces of hardened cartilage hidden in the meat so you chew and force down on this, the marrow of the countryside, until it yields to your persistence and surrenders its juice and softness to your teeth.

The morning is cool and has a Canadian summer cottage smell, the water smell, the Nam Ngum smell and now I sit on the dining terrace of the Vansanah Resort (in Ban Keun) and look down on the river running into the pale sunrise; it runs flat and rippled between banks of garden, the greens a pin-point of precision hand-farming, the browns showing where the earth has been turned. On occasional horizons a line of palm trees will rush and hide itself within a larger expanse of trees.

Boats cross the river and leave in the air the winsome and nostalgic smell of the out-board motor. The boats carry trucks and cars from bank to bank.

The amazing thing is that just one hour by car out of an increasingly busy capital city, straight dusty roads lead through temple-less villages of simplicity and charm.

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…and they have lived their lives thus, in redolent non-movement, for generations above the slow flowing river, their crops fed gently by the deluvian soil.

old women walk to the temple, offerings in arm; bent like broken match sticks.

and so it goes on: bamboo scaffolding to lime the walls white, the row of coconut palms in the courtyards holding their fruit.

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If I had wanted to breathe in le terroir of the land then I am doing it literally by breathing in all the dust thrown up by the trucks and cars.

With apologies to David Farnell, great Torontonian oenologist devant l’Eternel, I am breathing in the Somewhereness of the land.