Thursday, 2 September 2010

Scootering through Laos

I arrive in Laos after spending 3 days visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia. After a few days on the travellers island of Don Det, in an area called 4000 islands, I get an overnight sleeper bus to Vientiane. Now this in itself is an experience. A bus full of bunk beds, which due to their narrowness I assume the top bunk is just for me. Think again, I am just settling down and trying to stretch my legs in a diagonal manner, when a Chinese, middle aged man gets on with me and reduces my sleeping space considerably more than is remotely comfortable. I've been having weird dreams over the past few weeks, actually lucid dreams, which are way cool by the way. I am convinced these are brought on by the malaria pills that I have been taking. In one of the dreams I actually thought that I had got off the bus, walked to department store, eaten an ice cream, then got back on another bus, only to wake up and realise that none of this as actually happened. So, here I am on the narrowest of bunk beds, having lucid dreams with a middle aged, Chinese man next to me. I wake in the middle of the night to find that we are spooning.

Exiting the bus the following morning at 8am in Vientiane, I quickly grab breakfast in a very French looking cafe before hurriedly reducing my 2 bags to one bag, with the notion of hiring a scooter and driving a few hundred km up to Vang Vieng. Eventually I find a hotel that will store my bags and go in search of a scooter shop. No problems there, except that they are not keen on me leaving the area. A few white lies later and I am on my way through the Laotian mountains, donned only in a pair of shorts and loving life. My favourite days in life are when I am in a hot country, on a motorcycle, Ipod playing my favourite tunes and no cares in the world. Laos, it turns out is a perfect country to do this. Loads of roadside entertainment, lots of happy smiling faces and once out of Vientiane, not much traffic to contend with. In fact once I have gone around 30 km , the only vehicles that I encounter are weird looking tractors that are ubiquitous, throughout Laos and one old white vehicle full of happy smiling faces and a large camera. The camera periodically pokes out of the back window and snaps photo's of me, accompanied by pure smiles and waving hands. This continues for around 100 km when we keep bumping into each other on the road to Vang Vieng. In fact, once I have arrived in Vang Vieng I spot them again and this well rehearsed ritual continues.

I spend, longer than anticipated in Vang Vieng drawn in by it's charms and "Special menu's". I leave on the Saturday, late morning for the 250 km ride back to Vientiane, excited at the prospect of my journey. Once again, I am taken in by the Laotian rural charms and the freedom of riding my scooter. My Ipod is filling my soul with the pleasure that only music can and life is turned up to max. Life is beautiful and I feel invincible, a man in motion, an eagle soaring through the mountains, a dolphin gliding through the water. Nothing can stop me now is my mantra, so when I hear my chain sliding around on the back cog as I change gear, I turn up my Ipod and pretend that all is good. When my bike no longer reacts to my throttle, I accept that I have a problem and draw to a halt.

I am not a person to get stressed by such an incident, especially when travelling. I see it as life's big adventure and am totally convinced that I can get the problem sorted within a short period of time and with minimum stress. My optimism on this occasion is fueled by the fact that the type of chicken chaser bike that I am riding are ubiquitous throughout South East Asia, out numbering cars by a large margin. Therefore shops that fix these bikes are equally as widespread and cost very little. As far as I am concerned fortune has favoured me, in as far as the chain has not rapped itself around the back wheel and therefore I am able to push my scooter to the next village. In actual fact, in some perverse sense I am happy when this kind of thing occurs because A, I see it as a test of character and B, it makes life more interesting.

I push the bike for around 15 minutes before I come across a village. Haha, I think, a simple matter of finding the first shop and I will be back on the road. So, by the time I have approached the third bike repair shop and been knocked back, my optimism is beginning to diminish slightly. The problem arises because although it is only 3 o'clock on Saturday afternoon, the whole male population of the village are well and truly drunk. The routine goes as follows, I push the bike to the shop and the woman of the business comes to investigate what this foreigner is looking for. Communication via a common tongue is not an option here, so my English teaching skills and particularly my miming skills come in very useful. I point at the bike and gesticulate that there is a major malfunction. The lady in question, cranes her head over the counter and homes in on my back wheel. She then pulls her face in a manner that breaks my optimism before gesticulating back at me that her husband is inebriated and has in fact got no interest in fixing my scooter. Now, the Laotian lack of enthusiasm for earning money has until this point sparked my admiration for them, but right now I am beginning to wish that they were a little more interested in my American dollar.

I approach the 4th shop with a visibly more pessimistic outlook. This time the routine varies slightly. A bunch of scruffy, semi-clad kids are mooching around in front of the shop and come to investigate before the female proprietor's wife can do her face pulling routine. One of the kids, has got down on his hands and knees and given the entangled chain a proper look at before what I assume is his mother can get to me. The lady arrives, as I have become accustomed and the usual routine ensues, I point, she looks, I wait, she pulls her face and points in the back to her very drunken husband. However, this time as I am about to leave, the kid walks off and grabs a paper and pen, hastily scribbles something down and passes me the paper. I look at the paper and realise that he has written me a quotation to fix the bike. The estimate is given in Laos kip but my rapid calculations work out that he wants around $26. I am in no position to argue, no matter how much the kid wants and cannot get my money out of my wallet fast enough. I am still pondering over the idea of who is actually going to fix the bike when the I look down and see that the kid has already got the back wheel off. As if by magic the drunken father arrives on the scene from the back of the shop and grabs me by the arm. The father is not only crippled by alcohol consumption but also by a withered left leg. We do some kind of drunken, crippled waltz across the shop to where is equally drunken friends are wistfully awaiting his return.

Funny how life can change in the bat of an eyelid, one minute I am pushing my crippled scooter around a village in what I assume is an act of futility and the next I am drinking myself futile with a cripple. Drinking whiskey I urge to inform, was not high on the list of my Saturday afternoon activities, prior to my act of misfortune but now it appears I have no choice. Much to my resistance, the father has poured me a large tumbler of imitation Johnnie Walker and his chums are watching me with eager eyes, their clapping hands, prompting me to down it in one. I soon work out that I am not going to talk my way out of this, despite my best miming act, that I have got to fly back to Korea the day after. Reluctantly I give in and slam the tumbler in one. The men cheer, I have become one of them. I look into their eyes and can estimate from their degree of bloodshot that they have been drinking for at least 2 days. If I had any illusions that I was going to get away with one glass of whiskey, they were soon to be shattered. The guys have done one loop of the table and I found myself with another full glass before the burning sensation in my stomach has had chance to even think about extinguishing itself from the first shot. The drunks begin their clapping and I increase their happiness with one swift flick of the wrist.

At least an hour has passed and I am as mentally crippled as the cripple is physically malfunctioning. I estimate that I have gone 10 rounds and only the sheer exhilaration of the whole event is keeping me upright. By now, the kid has completed my bike and the wife has brought me 3 lots of food, curiously lettuce and noodles. After the 3rd whiskey, I became as eager to drink it as they were to force feed me it. Nobody seems to acknowledge the fact my bike is once again roadworthy and that includes me. I am enjoying their hospitality and the randomness of the whole event as much as they are enjoying my company. This to me is what travelling is about. Just imagine for one minute that the chain had not fallen off my bike. Granted, I would still have been having a pleasant ride back to Vientiane and an adventure more than most holiday makers ever encounter but I would have missed out on all this, hallelujah to mishaps, that's all I can say.

It takes a great deal of mental dexterity to drag myself away from the whole debacle but pragmatism eventually regains control of me. With great reluctance, I bid farewell to my whiskey swilling partners, thank the lady for the food and give an extra big goodbye to my saviour the kid. We have a brief, conversation of mime, during which time, I think that I establish that the kid is 8 years of age. This discussion is greatly aided by my drunken state, a mental state which I find enables communication when conversation is not an option. With wobbly legs I mount my scooter, wave a hazy goodbye to my new friends and drive off into the late afternoon sun.

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