A trip of this style and duration is full of surprises. ‘Normal’ life isn’t predictable either, but due to an decreased familiarity with places, people and events, life ‘on the road’ takes ‘surprise’ to a different level.The last 24 hrs had it all: from Nepal to (surprise!) Malaysia, saying goodbye to people you love and situations that are to unlikely to be true if you would read them in a book or see them in a film. Typically Tom Yorke gets it right, but longing for ‘no surprises’ is longing for the end of your trip. Don’t get me wrong: to much surprise at once can be overwhelming. But when that happens, just turn the dial: meet fewer new people, stay longer in the same place and stop looking for ‘trouble’. Once you’re a master of your ‘surprise universe’, you can extend your trip as long as your finances allow you.
If this is the last you ever hear from me, I’m probably rotting away in a prison somewhere in the ‘picturesque’ outskirts of Delhi.Why?
Because I want to go to Nepal. Why would you end up in a prison in Delhi?
Because I change airlines there. Surely that’s no reason to throw you in prison. Explain?
I fly from Bangkok to Delhi and a couple of hours later I fly from Delhi to Kathmandu. As I change carriers and they don’t have a luggage transfer agreement, I need to go through immigration to pick up my luggage. And I don’t have an Indian visa. Oops. That doesn’t look good. Why can’t you pickup your luggage at the airplane? Or a transferdesk?
The ways of AirAsia are not to be understood by mere mortals. Why didn’t you gena visa?
It takes 3 days and I only discovered this after I bought the tickets. What’s the plan?
I’ll try to make it to Delhi (AirAsia might refuse to take me on board if they notice that I don’t have the visa, but fortunately I already have a boarding pass). Once I’m in Delhi I’ll try to get access to my luggage. Try to send me a card for my birthday, I’d love to get mail in prison. This is what I thought when waiting at the airport. Despite the help of a friendly Swiss guy, I made the wrong choice. AirAsia spotted the absence of a valid visa and no amount of trying could convince them to let me on board. The drama continued: the only airline that had a reasonable price didn’t do ticketing at the airport and their website didn’t allow for booking tickets at such short notice. However, AirIndia came to the rescue. They had an early morning flight to Delhi and allowed me to change my Delhi-Kathmandu to later that day to allow for sufficient connection time. A hotel was quickly found. Cancellation of the original flight from Delhi-India too. With a flight between my least favorite cities (a stopover in Hannover would have made it perfect), this was bound to happen. Let’s hope for an uneventful flight tomorrow.
Let’s see how I got to this knowledge. Towards the end of my longest one-day motorbike trip trip ever (268 km) a big thunderstorm developed above my head. It looked really nasty and I just wanted to get ‘home’ to Luang Prabang. It all started then: kids coming out of nowhere and throwing full buckets of water at me. The last thing I needed, as I was racing my motorbike desperately trying to remain ahead of the lightening strikes. Despite having put on my rain gear I avoided those kids like the plague, as I wasn’t really looking forward to the additional shower.
Over the next couple of days I understood how wrong I had been. For Laotians take great pride in showering you as it washes last years sins away and there are many things you can do when somebody runs at you with a bucket with ice-cube-filled water, but escaping it altogether isn’t one of them.
One of the most amazing things is the police in Laos. You have to know that their uniforms rival the Italians for trying to impress. And this still is Laos: a communist country with very limited freedom nad policemen command respect from tourists and locals alike. Needless to say: the Laos policemen were soaked first,
My stay in Laos is nearing it's end, so I had been thinking about selling my beloved motorbike for some time already. I had no clue about the price, though. I had bought it for 360 euro and treated it very badly for weeks (typical spoiled western behavior). The front of the bike had been damaged significantly by getting on and off buses and boats, in addition my 2000+ km motorcross-like drives through mud, rivers and over mountains hadn't really helped for the state of the bike either.I decided to ask a local for an offer to get an price indication what I could ask a couple of days later. He requested an asking price and I decided for 320 euro. Ridiculously high in my opinion. He countered with an offer of 250, which gave me a 'floor' price for later on. I refused and thanked him for the offer. He then countered with higher prices: 280, 300 and then 320 euro: my asking price. I hesitated, but despite that he didn't speak a word of English and my Laos is non-existent, he made it clear that he expected ownership of the bike…. Sure, I had cursed that bike to death. Especially that day when I visited 4 garages, or the other day where missed the boat due to a repair that took ages. to A really nice part of the motorbike trip lay ahead: the return to Luang Prabang. The longest day trip ever on a motorbike (268 km) and I had been really looking forward to it. In short: I wasn't mentally ready to say goodbye to my "travel companion". In the end I payed the guy for not buying my bike. The concept of receiving money for not obtaining something seemed completely alien to him. So he was delighted (or maybe it was because he got two days' worth of salary?). A wise lesson for me to wait with selling something until I really want to sell it.
I ran into a young man and indicated with my fingers to my mouth and while rubbing my belly that I was hungry. He joined me to the my hut and prepared a meal out of some rice and something that looked like a crossing between a carrot and aspargus. Despite the ‘acquired taste’ I wolfed it down.
After we sat down in silence and enjoyed each other’s company I decided to give them some money as a sign of gratitude for feeding me. They looked surprised, but happily accepted the gift.
Afterwards I regretted giving them money for something that they would have given me for free. It felt like I turned their friendship/hospitality into a transaction. Kind of like paying your partner for a kiss. The idea is good: rewarding somebody for appreciated behavior, but everybody feels instinctively that it is ‘wrong’. I wonder what I should have done differently. I thought about contributing to a ‘village fund’ or to the local school, but that wouldn’t have rewarded these specific persons. I didn’t have any objects on me to give to them. Difficult.
I’ve also noticed how much of a difference a small contribution can make. A couple of local language books, for example. This can help a whole generation of kids to master their language better, an essential skill that no child should be deprived off.
I’ve then got difficulties containing my anger when I see the NGO (Non Governmental Organizations) driving around in top end 4 wheel drive cars. The cost of one of these is more than the cost of the books for hundreds of libraries.
I’ve heard all the counterarguments before:
– The accident rate on the roads is very high. We need good quality cars to protect our staff.
And crush the locals because you drive twice as fast?
– We got a great deal with Toyota on these Landcruisers
Only on the 4 liter deluxe version and not on the ‘basic’ 3 liter version?
– I work on a research project. I’m not doing any of the practical stuff like helping children read.
If you’re sitting behind a desk all day, why does each of you need a four wheel drive?
I’ve seen a lot of villages and I specifically look for the poor ones. Where are you non-profit people? Why don’t I see you in the fields observing local work practices and enhancing them? Train people directly or train trainers? If I only think of all the billions a small country like The Netherlands spends and how much of lasting difference a ‘drop in the ocean’ would make for a country like Laos.
It makes me sick.
The Lao village dance dances justifies a detailed description: men form an inner circle facing their female dance partner in the outer circle. There is no physical contact, nor eye contact. Surprisingly, the same song was played over and over and over again. Each time the song came up (1 out of 2 songs) an elderly bacherlorette was pushed towards me by family and friends. Leading to an awkward situation for both her and the guy who can’t dance Lao style (me).
This village has no access to electricity (an oversized lawnmower functioned as generator for the massive sound system), there are no stone houses and hasnt got any roads.
The previous day I had already noticed some of the benefits of being so removed from civilization: no shops mean no plastic waste. All the food waste is quickly eaten by the dogs/pigs/chicken/ducks (whoever arrives first). People collect their food literally from the forest around them, and meat for dinner is a reason for celebration (or the other way round).
Such a tightly nit place comes with other benefits: no shame nor secrets. All kids under the age of 8 walk around naked and village people shower together (men and women separate) at the public shower in center of town. Cautiously, one of the English villagers speaking villagers I had ran into asked whether I didn’t shower. When I explained that I preferred showering in the morning, he nodded understandingly. Only the following day I understood his wonder: the outside temperature when i showered was 20 degrees lower and the water even colder. I should have known.
I had stayed a second night and that morning a villager explained me a different route to Udumxai. This insider’s route got me back in two hours (despite the light rain of that evening) and nearly without effort. Except for the time when my rear wheel fell between two bamboo poles that were part of a ‘bridge’ across a stream.
All in all, an experience I won’t easily forget…
By now I consider myself a tough south east Asia motorbiker:
– drive in ice rain with fog on a deserted mountain pass: done it
– big city racing between 6 other motorbikes a massive truck and 2 tuktuk’s on a 3 lane way: been there
– drive for an hour to arrive at a dead end: so passé
However, I wasn’t prepared for this drive. Quickly after I left the village of Udumxai I felt the fever of the previous night return, with a vengeance. Stomach problems (for the first time since India) and dehydration at a temperature of 33 degrees without drinking water nearly completed the picture of a miserable physical state.
Not only had the road a total absence of traffic (=help in case of trouble) and villages an hour apart, the road was the most extreme until now. I will never forget the feeling of sitting on a nearly overheated motorbike, fully loaded with my backpack tied at the back and a daypack in the shopping basket on the front, driving in first gear up hill, losing traction and starting to slide backwards down the long muddy mountain flanked by cliffs.
Upon arrival at Chom Ong I had covered 40 km in 4 hours. I felt/was more dead than alive. I couldn’t find anybody at the who spoke more than 2 words of English (literally). The amount of effort for conveying the words ‘sleep’ and ‘food’ made clear that the locals aren’t used to visitors and/or that I apparently suck at even the simplest of charades.
The question arises why I go through all this trouble. That became clear the following morning as I left at 60% strenght for Chom Ong cave. After an hour’s uphill hike we arrived at the entrance of the cave, which has only been surveyed in 2009, came equipped with a solar powered lighting system. What I saw inside was the most amazing sight of this trip: a perfectly lit cave of 15 meters high and around 40 meters high. I leave it up to the interested spectator to Google ‘Chom Ong cave’ to learn and see more. I can only say that the combination of the size, the silence, the illumination (and the darkness when you turn it off) is truly amazing. We (obviously) went beyond the fixed lighting and explored a substantial part of this 13km cave with my $1 torch and the flash-function of my iPhone (my guide didn’t have a flashlight).
Until now I haven’t seen many horrible things during this trip. Sure, I’ve seen inhuman poverty, terribly mutilated people, but that changed just now.
For my first excursion in months, I joined up with a young French couple. After a tiring walk in sometimes bitter cold weather (despite 4 layers of clothing) we arrived at a hill tribe village. It was deep in the forest, over 40 km away from the nearest ‘city’ of 8.000 inhabitants.
We decided to spend the night there, left our daypacks and continued to another one to ‘sample the atmosphere’. Once we arrived we noticed that this village was even poorer than the first one, the children more shy of strangers and the men and women still wore traditional clothes.
As it started raining (again) our guide took us to the central hut in the village where we were offered a cup of tea by the village chief. As we sat there drinking our tea, the chief asked the guide a question, who translated to me something like: ‘have medication, baby water?’. I had only taken plaster spray against blisters, so I responded negatively. I asked what the issue was, maybe I could help? I was then directed towards a room at the other side of the big hut and witnessed an imagine I will never forget.
In a smoke filled room a woman was cooking and a kid of a couple of years old lay on a couple blankets. Half his chest, his neck and part of his arms were covered in fresh 2nd or 3rd degree wounds, obviously caused by burning.
I asked again what happened. Apparently, the kid had been left alone and wanted some water… I stood there helpless. I asked the French trip mates, whether they had anything. Fortunately, they were better equipped than I was and had some materials for cleaning wounds and bandages. However, it was clear that the kid needed professional help.
We asked if they had been to the hospital. They confirmed, but said that they didn’t like the treatment he received, as he had been in a lot of pain. We suggested several times that he should return for additional treatment. They ignored. After Claire, the French girl, had cleaned the wound and we had stood there watching the boy suffer, we left for the village where we would spend the night. Upon our departure we re-explained the necessity of keeping the wounds clean and left some money for hospital treatment if they’d change their minds.
Saddened, by our incapacity to make a more significant change in the life of the boy we walked ‘home’ in silence.
After a terrible massage and an even worse night sleep, our horrific adventure wasn’t over. We were packed up, ready to leave for our second day of trekking and doubting whether we should return to the kid when an even younger child was presented to us. This time the burning wound was much smaller (hand until elbow), but in addition to the blisters it was ‘decorated’ with a horrible yellow and green infection. I’m no doctor, but even I could see that it wasn’t looking good. The input was the same: keep the wounds clean, go to the hospital, the result as well: a combination of refusal and ignoring.
His mother was delighted with the money we put in his not-burned hand.