Friday, October 11, 2013

You Must Be Meshuga

This post is the first in a series of seven about a cycling trip in Northern Laos.

The others are:

Knockin' On Heaven's Door
Slipping. Sliding. Away.
Your Cheatin' Heart.
There Are Places I Remember.
Heroic Charlene, and
The Icing On The Latte.

It is the end of September.

For those of you who do not know, the dry season here ends toward the end of October and until that time, the dirt roads in this country are not ki foune (dust), but rather ki tombe (mud).

I was duly warned by Laoists great and small, the greatest of whom is Olivier – Renaissance man, cheese maker, house designer and overall genius. His words, translated freely from the French, were, "You must be meshuga!"

And it was this simple sentence that accompanied me all throughout this great trek on dirt roads, 150 km from Sanakham, on the Mekong west of Vientiane, to Kasi way way up on Route 13, 60 km north of Vang Vieng.

Because instead of riding on the peaceful dirt roads of backwater Laos, I slipped and slid and fell and cut myself for 150 km.

On the way I passed through countless tiny villages where the kindness of strangers was the common denominator.

Sanakham itself is a tiny town on the Mekong and I was able to find a small guest-house in the old quarter on a street with old houses just a stone's throw away from the river and the local girlie bar so the place wasn't as quiet as I thought it would be. Love was certainly in the air that night!

People have wondered about this photo, which is of the bus conductor and myself after we had arrived in Sanakham. It is true that the swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol that made an unfortunate appearance in Europe in the 20th Century. But anyone with an eye to graphic design will immediately recognize that this kid's swastika is a definite reference to the Nazi symbol. There is no guile in it, however. You often see kids with Nazi symbols stuck on their motorcycles and the fact is that in a country where people don't even know the history of their own country before 1975 it is far too much to ask of them to understand what a Nazi is.

The symbol for them is western. And western for them is as cool as all the stupid Chinese tattoos you see on the streets of Toronto. Ask people what those mysterious Chinese characters mean and they will undoubtedly answer, “Strength” or “Harmony”, but what's probably written is “Ask me about my grandchildren”.

Knockin' On Heaven's Door

I cycled exactly 3:27,20 hours before being grounded by the rain in Ban Senchaleun at the bottom of a hill, 47 km out of Sanakham. At the bottom of this hill a man bade me welcome seeing that the rain was going to turn into a deluge. For a while the power of it was violent and the dust red path leading through the village turned Babylonian red, with streams of muddy water slipping down the hill.

It was only 3:30 PM and the children, drenched, were riding home. Some were holding umbrellas as they do in the mid-day sun, but most just brave the warm rains. One boy, however, was pedalling as hard as he could with a plastic bucket over his head.

The villagers who have taken me in from the storm have told me I can sleep here and eat with them. As far as I can see they do not have electricity and the black interior of their home is brightened only by a hearth fire. The woman pointed to a new wooden house near their own as the place I could sleep.

Ducks and ducklings. Children shooting marbles on the dirt floor. The old lady looks at me like I'm crazy and everybody laughs when I look at her back and say, “falang pee ba!” (crazy foreigner). If there is one thing the Lao cannot understand is why anyone wealthy enough to own or rent a car would go by bicycle.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Lao pastoral. Huts are built where they stand; lean-tos with variable geometry and roofs of flattened bamboo or corrugated metal. The sharpness of them hits you through the eyes during the day at odd unpredictable angles. You take off your sunglasses between villages to let the earthly green enter your heart like a rhapsody only to be suddenly shunted into blindness by these things. Luckily, in the spaces between towns, the little field pavilions for farmers' rest are covered with the gentle grey green of the slowly rotting leaves, giving comfort to the eyes and rest for the heart.

In the paddies the rice grows, tall now, in elegant rows; their stalks as powerful as men, the fruit of them barely perceptible, hidden as they are in huddled bunches and protected in their sheaths. The green-ness of the landscape never ceases to enliven me. It is as though each blade of grass, sheath or rice, leaf, tree and flower were a gift of eternal giving – a long and generous thing, generations long and loving.

Lao pastoral. Pigs as big as Buicks wallow in lakes of mud behind the house in which I have been given shelter. The rain has stopped now and a post-diluvian calm has taken over the village. The vegetation which was previously water laden and wind swept now slowly redresses itself. The occasional drop slips from a roof or or is shaken from a tree. Yellow butterflies.

Lao pastoral. I ask members of the family to write the name of their village in my diary but only their teenage daughter, freshly arrived from school, can perform this. Not the parents and not their 12 year-old son. The girl herself walks around like a ballerina. She has the natural grace that some people have but many do not. She does the family chores with her shoulders squared back and a vivacious sparkle in her eyes.

Other than gigantic, filthy and resentful sows, the family also possesses litters of piglets, squabbles of geese and cackles of chickens. Everybody seems to roam throughout the shared universe in symbiosis, if not in harmony: one group is destined to eat the other and the worms take all, but in the meantime the circle seems to be maintaining itself without too much violence.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Slipping. Sliding. Away.

I was warned, of course.

I was warned that this trip would be unlike any others because the monsoon had not yet finished, but I just didn't care. I thought to myself, if I am caught in the rain I'll just hole up somewhere and have a tea, rap with the folk and wait for it to happen.

And I am glad I did.

There were times when I cursed the fucking mud and it certainly gave me time to reflect upon the Biblical creation of Adam where God breathes life into a blob of dirt and makes a hermaphrodite out of it. I especially thought of that creation myth when I was portaging Charlene over an expanse of thick mud she couldn't ride through.

At one point the mud was so deep my legs sunk into it up to my knees and when I managed to pull them out I discovered that my sandals had remained in the earth, returning to our source. I ran barefoot with the bike until the nearest patch of grass and headed back to rescue my sandals, but in which quickly closing sink hole were they hidden? Frantically I plunged my hand into each and every one, almost expecting to set off a bombie displaced by the last rains.

Imagine the scene, if you will: I was on all fours with the sun setting and no place yet to camp, covered in mud. The primeval Adam could not have been more filthy at birth! My arms covered with goo and the only sounds were the sucking of the earth as I plunged into each and every disappearing indentation on the path. If a truck had come by just then I would have lost all trace and been royally screwed.

But, to use the French expression, "il y a un bon Dieu pour les ivrognes", and I finally plunged my arm in one last time and dug out my sandals. Saved.

And so I had diluvian rains, primordial mud ... all I needed was an attack by Amalek to complete the Biblical picture. Fortunately, this is Laos.

Everywhere there was the sound of wetness. Tiny rivulets of water along rice paddy embankments, small fish and frogs in flooded paddies, the sound of the tires as I splashed through the long flooded holes left in the ooze by trucks. Somewhere in her inner workings Charlene had water rolling around. Every now and then the rain would start; a gentle chatter at first and if the clouds were right and the winds were wrong and the skies could no longer retain themselves then the big rains would come. You could see sheets of it pouring down in the distance. And you could see it coming your way.
I was warned. And upon my return a lot of my friends scolded me for taking risks with my life and the life of my children's father. Their arguments are valid:

What if something happens to me and I am not found by someone competent?

What if I fall and loose consciousness?

What if the last, very last, totally last and forgotten forest tribe rebels attracted to the clickety click of Charlene's gears in the silence of the jungle decide to continue the fight?

I am grateful to my wife for being one of the few who understand my need for solitude, who understand this taste for risk. One day soon, I don't know when, she's going to go on her own vacation and leave me alone with the kids. But till then, baby I was born to run!


Your Cheatin' Heart

Crazy, very possibly.

But not necessarily a glutton for punishment.

For one thing, I do not pedal in the rain for I see no pleasure in it and I can only sit in a rice pavillon for so long before going batty.

Trafic on these roads is far and few between so you've got to grab what you can. The most common conveyance is called a lut tai, which is a three-wheeled tractor pulling a wooden cart.

Sometimes you've got to get out and push the thing up the hill, and all the time the bumps on the road – of which there are plenty – shake you to your soul.

Other times a truck will do the job.


There Are Places I Remember

It is lovely coming back. The kids stayed up a little extra late to see me before they went to bed. Everyone had something to show me, everyone wanted my time and attention. It was beautiful. It was homecoming.

I will, however, always remain haunted by the images of the countryside.

The majestic mountains, old, wise and worn. The billiard flat rice paddies as green as air riddled with low mud walls and salas.

The tiny villages of wood and bamboo where people sit dreaming the days and weeks away.

Laughing children, calling "Falang! Falang!”

The hills have dark stone walls. The rice paddies are flooded. The roads, when dry, crunch invitingly under wheel.

Clouds pass, flutter, give shade and threaten.

Light is direct and painful, filtered, sparkling blue or grey.

And all this reality is ours to enjoy: all of it is here and profound. All we need to do is open like a sponge to take it in; open our pores, our eyes and ears. Open our being. All the world is filled with glory.