The bare bones of the day were that I woke up early in Sanakham and had my breakfast, an omelette mixed with green herbs and served on a small mountain of steamed rice with a bowl of soup. I always find the people in this part of the counry so amicable! It is the same in France where people from the West, locked to the sunset, are nicer than anywhere else.
So, the bare bones of the day were that I covered 65.25 km and cycled for a total of 6 hours, 2 minutes and 33 seconds.
As soon as I left the Mekong to hug the Thai border on the Nam Heung River the road became very difficult. Before that, though, I had to cross the Mekong by river craft; two canoes planked together and an out-board motor. I loved the crossing and standing there on the plywood plank that was the deck, I felt all at once the exhilirating beauty contained in the possibility that one can decide to change one's life from one moment to the next. How simple and how horribly complex are homo sapiens! Standing there, jostling for balance amid the tame Mekong waves, I looked to the left and the right. It was an overcast day, one of those days when a mist of delicate white hugs the earth until the tree-tops, leaving the entire spectacle of mountains and fields in a lightish blue haze. Distances were cut off from my view by this haze which had settled deeply on the Mekong herself. Mountains rose, large hills rather, as round and full as pregnancy and there I stood playing with the changing perspectives of the Great River east and west.
Yes! Surely the was a good day to change a life! Certainly these two changing perspectives were the ones telling me to get out of the haze of illusion and see desperately flitting reality for what it was; the time had come to cancel the debt on the past and embrace truth.
As easy as that sounds, the river crossing was the beginning of the second half of the journey. The roads, less used, were in hideous disrepair and crevices had been allowed to form, crevices the size of minor valley systems. The road on the Thai side was paved, and a marvel of modern surveying techniques: where I had to climb ungrateful hills and clumber down unstable descents the road on the other side rose and fell gently, coaxed as it were by soft asphalt. Still, I would have it no other way.
Leaving Sanakham I was delighted to smell the air. After living in Vientiane, the air around the fields, with the river just off to my left, smelt like honey.
Like honey, which is to say that it was rich and deep, of a cleanliness perfumed by orchards and fields. The early morning fires had died down and the brisk ash lingering in the air gave all of space the delicious humect of fresh tea.
It was not always so. In the land by the river, between where the Mekong drops off like a muscle deep into Lao territory and the Nam Heung, sits an expanse of land where bananas are grown in groves along with man ton.
The whole place, this entire arm of the country, is a large thick band of fertility. The soil is dark and the river runs red like the Mississippi, although surrounded by hills on either side. Unlike other places in Laos, there are no steps down to this river. It is not wide and it is a border. From the Lao side, at least, no life emerges from it. No steps, no paths, just great forbidding jungle; no vegetable gardens flatter her banks.
The agriculture in ths place is also very thick and intensive. Many of the surrounding hills have been burnt bare by the peasants with man ton planted row by row like Flanders Field. All throughout the fields of them men and women were hard at work clearing. Their features were covered against the dust and soot by knitted face masks and they wore heavy clothing despite the heat. Machetes, axes and hoes went up and down battering the soil and remaining tree trunks as though the earth were something to be punished. When I cycle by, the workers stop and shout, cheering. In fields where this work had already been completed, I could see a solitary worker – also heavily dressed – and carrying a yellow tank on this back, spraying. All over this pastoral setting seeped the unpleasant chemical smell of diffused poison.
At one point I had to clear over an expanse of road under construction made muddy by watering. The mud of it got into every pore of Charlene and ripped the lubrication off her chain and gears. I stopped at a halted lut tai (http://mair-hyman.blogspot.com/2013/10/your-cheatin-heart.html) that had a bottle of motor oil in the carriage and waited for the owner to descend from the hill to ask him if I coul take some oil for my gears. "Is this motor oil (nam man)?" I asked.
"No", he answered and used a word I did not know. So I took up the bottle to look inside and there I saw the milky liquid and could smell all the horrifying ramifications.
Inside was the sticky white water, the poison male gift unforgivingly given to a forgiving Earth. Deep in the horrifying bowels of a factory somewhere, a human masticating machine with tubes and pipes and clock-ins, in a place designed to pervert the dreams and lives of its workers, deep in such a place this deadly sperm was being enacted. Man had found another way to rape the land; it was no longer enough, no longer economically satisfying, to abuse nature on a small scale. Now an entire system had to be implemented so that some people could have their daily orgasm, their exploiting discharge as money clattered into the bank.
I never thought cycling would turn me into a feminist.
To make a long story short, the air stank with it.
The rest of the way to Kenthao was rough, especially when I passed kilometre 50 on the speedometer. I had calculated with Google Earth that this was a distance I would do that day but of course I cannot take every gully and tire distraction into account. The bottom line is that km. 50 is some sort of psychological barrier for me.
There were no places to eat along the way, either, so I had to make do with industrial noodle soup in a shop. All this meant that I was weak and stretched. Every inch forward was like climbing the Everest. I was losing control of my body.
In mid-afternoon the blanket haze had given way to a dull warm sunshine, but as I climbed the last painful crest to Kenthao thunder clouds began to gather and threaten over Thailand. The river below rushed red and furious in its shortened banks and tiny rain drops began to hit the fine yellow sand of the road, creating miniscle moon craters on its surface. The rain at that point was not heavy enough to turn the track to mud and just light enough to flatter the air with freshness.
When I entered the town and the road became asphalt the rain began in earnest and drenched me.
It was all delight, a joyeous undertaking, a limpid exhilaration: I was wiped of the day's dust by that one act of grace.