The Mekong river flows sluggish and brown beside the boardwalk plaza where Ceci & I are dancing. We are celebrating. Our 46hr trip from Mexico City to Vientiane has been costly and stressful, yet somehow both we and our bikes have made it all the way through on time and mostly undamaged. It was my idea to come here, although I had never agreed to any dancing. As of 2 minutes ago, we were in an Aerobics class: air kicks, punches, the works. The change has been subtle but I can tell. We’re dancing. Irreversibly.
Ceci & I have planned this trip with a little bit of an athletic twist on the more traditional heavy-loaded Cycle-Touring Style. Our bikes are on the lighter, road-style side of the spectrum and as for our gear, we have decided to travel through South-East Asia carrying only the strict minimum. A choice that has already shown its merit in the many mountain ranges of Laos, allowing us to travel our 100k (daily average) before the broiling hours of the day, and have time at our disposal to visit the village before nightfall.
What about the Papaya Salad?
Ceci’s navigating the menu like a hungry mouse in a maze. Her choices: Edible Food or Edible Food bathed in Lao-style Fermented Fish Sauce. The menu before her is full of mouth-watering google images of exotic plates & platters which may or may not only be there for decoration purposes. One thing is clear, there’s no telling what you’ll get. If the maze is rigged, she thinks, I might as well order something unexpected, you know, to trick the cook into forgetting the evil-condiment-which-shall-not-be-named. She’s been making wilder decisions by the meal out of desperation.
We’ve just cycled 140km with nearly 5,000m of cumulative uphill. Our hunger is fierce.
When her plate arrives Ceci’s eyes begin to water and I sincerely can’t tell if it’s from despair or from the sheer potency of the fermented fish smell. She pushes the plate aside with a sigh.
And, ladies & gentlemen, yet another sweeping victory in our ongoing challenge of Mexican Stomach Vs Canadian Stomach. Unless anything drastically changes, I’m on track to win the Basurero award by a landslide!
There are three destinations of touristic significance in Laos: Vientiane, Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang. And in between, there are the many small villages lost in the jungle which we called home for a night, where the villagers welcomed us like family: Hin Heup, Xiang Ngeun, Kasi Hot Springs, Vieng Phou Ka. Lastly, there are the overnight stops, generally at unaesthetic cross-roads, merely places to eat and sleep after tough days on the bikes: Pak Mong, Luang Namtha, Huay Xai, Oudoumxay.
Time takes its own value on the bikes. It is as if distance & time traveled lose their distinctive value and become one. Like a landscape during a downhill, the days have drifted by swiftly and have begun to blur. Yet, as we contemplate just how far we’ve come in every way, the days also seem to stretch on and on like winding mountain climbs, where every feeling, be it suffering or joy, is crisp and vivid and timeless. As a whole, our journey through Laos has found its state of equilibrium.
Ceci & I have been striving to find for ourselves a such state of equilibrium. Tourist-ridden Luang Prabang and Hin Heup lost in its own woods, are worlds apart, and at times so are we. My tendency towards over-visualization & risk minimization, contrasts so heavily with Ceci’s need for overall spontaneity & risk-taking, that we at times lose sight of the sun which keeps us in the same solar system. The heat, the hunger, the dehydration, the exhaustion, the anxieties, the injuries, the bike troubles… makes it difficult to support our own selves at times, let alone each other! Yet despite all this, despite the size of the challenges we face, the strength of the gravity which unites us, which draws us together, never falters. And never has it been so clear that our differences are precisely what makes us such a strong team. Every day finds us more grateful to be experiencing together such an unbelievable journey full of wonders & discoveries. And as we test our individual & joint boundaries, we discover a new elasticity which enables us to change, to better, to learn and to grow, assuring that our forward motion is more than solely geographical!
Schools out. Children are spilling out into the streets. From a distance, they catch sight of us and suddenly the steep hill we have been struggling to climb for the last half-hour becomes the last leg of the Tour de France. Ceci & I have broken away from the main peloton and are fighting to conserve our lead. Our individual bubbles of hurt burst momentarily as we realize that we might just be able to pull it off. The roaring crowd of kids closes in on us to give us high-fives and cheers. They are squeezing in so close that we are afraid to knock them off their little feet with our panniers. As we finally reach the top of the hill, a small boy runs up to us from his banana leaf house and in a moment of sheer improvisation, looks me in the eye, changes his fingers into a ‘Surf’s-Up’ sign and says: ‘Love you’!
And today I ask you, what troubles in the world would survive that? We cycle over the crest of the mountain and back into the quiet jungle beyond, alone and suffering no longer.
This is our last riding day in Laos. These last 120km we ride in this beautiful welcoming country have been a perfect conclusion to our 1000km journey. We’ve powered through some of the most unrelenting uphills so as to make us yearn for the flatter destinations on our trip. We’ve cycled by so many villages on the way to the Thai-Lao border that at times it felt as though the whole of Laos had come to see us on our way, and the uninterrupted stream of ‘Bye-Bye’s that were thrown our way from all directions felt wholly like the last farewell to Laos that it truly was.
As I sit here writing this story, Ceci is 1000kms away. Two days ago, we cycled to the Lao-Thai border, and officially left Laos, only to get denied entry into Thailand. In the daunting task of planning such a trip, it would seem that we had overlooked the fact that Mexican Nationals do require a Visa to enter Thailand, yet are not eligible for a Visa on arrival. The blow was a strong one and it took a while for it to settle in. It was as though we had cycled full speed into a wall. And it broke us. Suddenly a great weariness washed over us both. We sat down, while bus-loads after bus-loads of tourists were unloaded successfully into Thailand. It took a solid while before we were able to brainstorm our possibilities. We needed to reach the Thai Embassy in Vientiane. Ceci was insisting I go ahead with the trip while she found a way to solve the problem and catch up to me later on. The thought of a 1000km journey by bus was so contrary to the nature of our trip that it led me to contemplate the thought of biking back to Vientiane. Then there was the idea of changing our course and avoiding Thailand until a later date. And, of course, overshadowing it all was the fact that we would need brand new visas to enter back into Laos. A real mess and all for a silly 30$ oversight.
A few hours later we were back at our hotel in Huay Xai, Laos. We had ridden 30k since the morning, had spent 80$, and had achieved nothing at all. It was time to come up with some solutions! So we did what our team does best: we went for second breakfast. We brought with us all our electronics, and a new resolve to take it all, as we always do, one pedal stroke at a time. We contacted the embassy, searched transport options, found a local airport, biked to it, booked a ticket, reserved hostels and came back for a nap!
There are many little details that we will greatly miss from our visit through Laos. Most notably: the creamy smell of whole bananas roasting over fire, witnessing the manual harvest of the endless rice plantations, the sharp tooth-like mountains sprouting out of the jungle, the sheer amount of unexplored nature and the laid-back cheerfulness of the locals. There are certainly many big details that we will carry along with ourselves as a reminder of the state of the world. Most notably: China’s destructive and seemingly unrestricted exploitation of Laos’ resources (think dams & cement plants), tourism vehicles speeding through the small road-side villages leaving us and the locals in a cloud of black smoke, the destructive effects of irresponsible tourism, especially in Vang Vieng and, of course, not to be forgotten: the sheer potency of Laos-Style Fermented Fish Sauce!