Thursday, November 27, 2008

Yet Anoher Junction





I’m searching for a way to transcend the experience...

When the bus dropped us off at the junction of the two roads there wasn’t much we could do. I had been riding my bike for 1,115 kilometers through the northern stretches of Thailand and Laos. My visa for Vietnam started in two days, I needed to rest while still covering ground; I didn’t know what to expect and was too tired to care. In retrospect, I think the driver had the mid-way drop off planned before we departed.

At 7:30am a mother, her small child, a middle aged man with worn through dress shoes, the Iguana and I loaded the flatbed-turned-bus in the junction town of Vieng Thong. At 7:45am the bus-driver pushed the front seat forward, pulled out a bamboo-bong, walked out to the road, smoked himself some opium, then came back and starred blankly at the front drivers side tire. Five other Laotians trickled over twenty minutes of philophosphorizing followed. Half-hour later the stoned driver was wheeling the tire in a dizzy line down the road; the mother, her child, man with worn-out shoes, the Iguana and I were still sitting in the back. A Songtow showed up shortly thereafter, we reloaded and set out for the hills toward the provincial capital, Xam Nuea.

About one-third of the way to Xam Nuea the road reached another junction village, which is where the driver pulled over, unloaded our belongings and handed me less than half of what I paid to get to Xam Nuea. The village felt like many I’d already ridden through, Saba Dee Screaming children, toothless elderly smiles, skinny dogs and small pigs.

Somehow, using my digital watch and organic to the conversation sign language, the man with worn-out shoes explained that another bus would pass through at 2pm. Despite the language barrier, it was comforting to know they had the same goal in mind.

We’d been waiting a couple of hours when the truck came around the corner. There was yelling, laughing, flags, camouflage, big guns and fake Ray Bans in the back of an army green 1 ton truck like overstuffed cigars in scrofulous heaps.

I felt like a possum about to become road kill in the middle of the night, frozen by shock and disbelief; my mind was sending signals but my feet wouldn’t move. So, I stood numbly trying to figure out which movie this reminded me of, The Last King of Scotland or one of the war scenes from Blood Diamond. Deep in my stomach was an undeniable threat that this was a guerilla group.

My shiny new bike was propped up on display next to my bag, which had all my money and passport, fifty feet away on the other side of the street.
Two options:
Option 1: Run over, grab the bag, mount the Iguana and hammer down the hill past the truck in it’s final struggle to ascend.
Option 2: Continue the possum act and see what happens.
I unwillingly ended up choosing the latter.

The truck whipped off to the side of the road, young soldiers with scarves and trendy sideways baseball hats spilled out, music was turned on loudly, and two big silver bowls with engraved lettering were placed on the hood of the truck. The men scattered into the village and a couple camos stood guard by, what I assumed to be, the loot buckets.

I was starring at my feet, racing through the options of what may happen and how I should react. Without an approaching sound two boots appeared next to my feet. I traced up the boots, past the shiny belt buckle, to a set of eyes I knew immediately could see through any front I tried to put up.

Awkward silence...

What the fuck would I say anyway, “I like your shirt, just a minute let me grab my wallet sir.”

The possum act continued.

“What is your name?”
“Hi, my name is Andrew,” regretting how friendly I sounded as I spoke.
“Hmph,” he said.
I looked back down with the williwaws.
“And were is it you come from And-drew?”
“Oh, just 50k west” proud of my smart-ass intellect.
“No, what country do you come from?”
“From the states,” I said without hesitation.
I looked back up to see 30 young soldiers semi-circling the conversation. My back was to the Iguana now but I could hear the men shift her gears, ringing her bell, picking her up to feel her agile light frame; emotions stirred. I turned to see one guy sitting on her rack, another pushing her odometer and yet a third jamming down on her front shocks. Confidence ensued. I turned back to the filled out—man boobs and all—bruised t-shirt guy, still there; damn.

“Where’re you from?” I asked, eyes stuck on the man boobs.
“We come from a competition, these are our trophies,” he motions to the hood of the truck.
“What kind.” I’m confused now.
“A shooting competition in Phonsovan.” Phonsovan is a touristy area known for mysterious jars 9 feet in diameter.

****

He called himself Lu and neither he nor any of his men were part of any guerrilla activity. Lu told me about his beautiful wife, young daughter, and that he limits himself to two Beer Lao per day so he doesn’t get fat. I told Lu I’m scared of marriage but look forward to it and am enjoying the pace of human powered travel through his beautiful country.

***

A majority of the roads in Laos are good quality chip-seal, tiptoeing high up on ridges or pasted to the lower valley with jungle wall on one side and a meandering river on the other. I won’t soon forget the children in the villages or the behemoth 26km climbs.

Tomorrow I will start a 10 day bike approach over the Tokanise Alps of Vietnam to reach Sappa and the base of Mt. Fansipan which I hope to reach the summit of without the use of any engine other than my own.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Partly Cloudy Chance of Rain



“The first of November is the end of the rainy season and the beginning of clear skies and cool nights,” Markus said in a promising tone. It had been precipitating in Mae Sot for three unrelenting days. My usual ten minute bike ride to work in the mornings with an occasional rain peppering had turned into something of a ride of doom which inevitably left me showing up to work sopping. For three days it was the same; get soaked in the morning; show up to work pruned and damp; sit a puddle behind my computer underneath water weighted clothes until the end of the day. One of the downsides to traveling with nothing more than a daypack is dampness. Seeing in how it was Halloween night and Markus had completed building yet another playground for migrant schools in Mae Sot, spirits were high and the wet week was becoming a distant memory.

Halloween night felt a lot like Washington; dark and moist. It ended up raining so hard that night the golf-ball sized drops sounded like they might work through the tin roof of my guest house and start pelting me in the head.

***

I woke the next morning with two feet of standing water moating in the guest house. Naturally I thought there must be a drain clogged; no worries. Being landlocked for the past couple months without a pool or Puget Sound, I found myself aimlessly sloshing around in the front yard fascinated by the weight and density of the knee deep water. Somewhere in my early morning stupor I found myself near the entrance road leading out to Main Street. The block and a half road, cement fences on either side, was now a tributary to Main Street River that had taken over the town. From my knee deep vantage I was looking strait into the cross-section of a class II rapid where Main Street should have been. “Wow…Shit!” slipped out in a pre-pubescent quip. I began a zombie march of curiosity towards the flow.

Before reaching Main Street River Chi Chi, a Karen guy I play soccer with went floating by on a small piece of bath-tub shaped styro-foam. He glanced at me wearing the same smile that was smeared all over my face. The next 48-hours recreated those sensations from childhood when the power would go out and we’d play ‘hide and go seek’ and ‘flashlight tag’. The streets were boiling with people all giddy as kids at a fun fair.

***

The second of November I woke to blue-bird skies and a nice cool breeze, Markus was spot-on just a day late. It was a good thing the roads cleared because I’d been asked to sit in at a donor meeting. The meeting proved to be very insightful with expert reporting on the current situation in Burma and where funds are most needed. There were around sixty people at the meeting; I think I was one of two Americans.

As a side note:
I’m not sure if you heard the news, as the reporters have been neglecting to spin the campaign trail, but apparently the United States of America has a new President. His name is Barack.

On November 5th, the day the results reached Mae Sot the other American from the meeting went to Dave’s, a local hangout, to watch the returns. Around 10:39am during the umpteenth PowerPoint presentation I was doing my best to fight the gravity raising hell on my eye lids when all of a sudden the gal next to me from Australia got a text message from the other American. She jabbed me in the ribs and said, “looks like Obamas’ done it.”

At exactly 11:00am cell phones began to erupt in concert, the results were in. The meeting actually stopped and turned into a comment circle to share enthusiasm/pessimism/hope. It felt very different in that room as a stranger in a foreign land than it did when I was in New Zealand and the US’s involvement in Iraq was dominating headlines.

***
After the meeting I needed to go to Chiang Mai (6hrs North) to share notes with a Hussman representative. Also on the agenda was to outfit my new bike, the Iguana, with touring gear. Since then I have traveled 541 Kilometers by bike to make a half circle through the mountains of North-western Thailand, ending up back in Mae Sot. My work in Mae Sot is coming to a close with an invaluable experience weighing heavy on how I see my surroundings, both abroad and at home.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Meat Head



I had just reached the five mile mark of my runners high. With ear-buds blaring I was shouting the chorus of a choice Citizen Cope song (in my head), probably looking like people I usually laugh at—oblivious to their surroundings—and loving every breathless track. The gravel road turned back to chuck-holed cement, my indicator to pick-it up, I was less than 10 minutes from a refreshing cold shower. The milliseconds between shuffling songs provided just long enough pause to realize something didn’t feel right; I was being watched.

***

Because of the time of day I run the only onlookers are those awake to give the local monks food on their daily alms rounds. I’ve grown quite accustomed to the farang (Westerner) sighting stares and sheepish glances from the children; this unsettled feeling was different. Like starring down the imaginary monster in my closet while waiting for sleep, I could not rest without a feeling of resolve. Last resort; I paused the last song of my ‘Morning Run Mix,’ Rage Against the Machine’s Renegades of Funk.

A hauntingly close sound of commanding presence drowned out Rage’s political angst before I had a chance to turn it off. Tired as I was, the need for immediate action and response quickly became beyond apparent. The last sound I remember was the loud scream of a diseased killing machine. The next sequence of frames came to pass quickly; before I had a chance to pause I was left bleeding.

The self-proclaimed stallions of stray dogs are always easy to spot but it doesn’t make them any more predictable. They don’t skip and scamper like the other strays, they strut and saunter. Direct eye contact is an open invitation for nothing less than an up close and personal, jaw-snapping, bark or three. These dogs share traits with the alpha males at every local pub, constant reassurance of their dominance being a requirement of their daily self-fulfillment.

A few nights ago a friend and I were walking home from dinner when we heard a stray bark from a fair distance, thinking nothing of it we carried on. A hundred steps later the same dog, teeth showing, was chasing our heels; we heard nothing until the dog was within biting distance. I turned, flailing appendages at anything that moved and yelling obscenities at the top of my lungs.

“Why don’t you like dogs?” my friend asked moments later. “Oh I love dogs, I have a Golden Retriever at home,” I replied still out of breath. “I just don’t like rabies,” I added.

***
Quickly glancing over my left shoulder I got a memorable snapshot of fang and fur. Doing my very best in the tired state I was, pivoting on my left foot, I laid out my right leg into the strongest side volley I could muster. I spun, right leg still flying through the air, arms extended like a Bruce Lee wannabe, left leg holding the weight of the entire frantic movement. Loose bits of gravel on the transitioning surface below my feet sent my left leg whipping into the air to meet the right, neither making contact with anything but the oppressing humid morning air. The following seconds were flooded with shock.

Perhaps most pressing of all the questions running through my head: what was this wiener dog doing panting in my lap? Did you know the standard size of Dackel was developed to scent, chase, and flush badgers and other burrow-dwelling animals, while the miniature was developed to hunt rabbits? Needless to say, I’d been taken down by a wiener dog. Elbow and ankle bleeding and feeling like a dog hating chump, I began the limp of shame back to my guest house. Twenty or so hobbles down the road I began to hear something over my left shoulder, I turned. The owner of the dog, probably having seen the entire fiasco, was laughing hysterically from behind her half opened gate.

***

I haven’t yet decided which is more humiliating, being taken down by one of the only domesticated dogs in Mae Sot, which happens to be a wiener dog, or the fact that the owner saw the entire thing.