Wednesday, January 18, 2017

An Elephant Trek, A Cave Visit, and Visa Renewal in Luang Prabang

One of the last things I did in the Luang Prabang area was to plan an elephant trek near the village of Pak Ou. I wanted to take the trip by bus so I could just relax and let somebody else do the driving.  We took a bus about an hour and a half north of town to the village of Pak Ou, and when we arrived, there were several elephants there milling around the town.  Apparently the village has sort of a symbiotic relationship with these elephants.  The villagers guard them against poachers, and then use them for a few hours a day to do some moving and hauling chores, and to take visitors on treks.  Then they let them loose to hang out in the jungle around the village.  I hope that the villagers treat them well.

Each of us on the tour bus were assigned elephants to mount. Some elephants carried two or three people, but I was on the elephant I was riding alone, except for when the handler mounted the elephant with me.  We had to get on the porch of the second floor of a two-story building to get on the elephants.  The handler of my elephant tried to get me to ride on the elephant's neck, bareback, but the elephant started taking off and I did not feel comfortable there AT ALL.  I felt like I was just about to tumble off the elephant as it lurched from side to side.  So I had the handler lead the elephant back to the staging area, and I got in the basket on top of the elephant instead of sitting on its neck.  Once all of us were perched atop our assigned elephants, then we went trekking through the jungle.  The elephants went up and down steep hills, and through areas that I never would have thought an elephant could get through.

After trekking through the jungle for about forty-five minutes, we returned to the village.  The handlers then gave us a brief tutorial of the words that they had taught the elephants, and these were the commands that the elephants understood.  Then the handlers told us we were going to bathe the elephants.  I had no idea what that meant, but they told me I had to change into a swimsuit.  I wasn't aware of this beforehand, and hadn't brought a swimsuit with me.  They rustled one up from somebody in town, and I changed into it.  I figured that I had to wear the swimsuit because I might get splashed while bathing the elephant?

Next they had me mount the elephant, but not from a second story like I had before.  They had the elephant kneel down on its front legs, and I had to climb up the elephant from its front legs.  And there was no basket on the elephant to sit in this time.  They had me sitting on the neck of the elephant, which I was just as uncomfortable to do as it had been the last time I tried that, and I was not very secure with that at all.  Just as I got atop the elephant, the elephant started walking into the Mekong River, and I was not feeling very well positioned or secure atop the elephant, sitting on its neck; I was basically just clinging on for dear life.  When the elephant got into the river, it suddenly reared up on its hind legs, dumping me into the Mekong River.  The guides were all laughing their asses off, but I was not terribly amused.  I still had open wounds from my motorcycle accident and was not happy to be dumped into the river without warning.  I figured this was just kind of a joke that the guides pull on the unsuspecting tourists, but I bet they wouldn't do that to their grandmothers.  Later I Googled “Mekong River” and found out that it was loaded with pollution and disease, and I learned about horrible things like liver flukes, lung flukes, and other parasites you can get from the river, and also found out that there are things in the soil around the river that make their way up your body through your feet and do awful things to you.  And I had come out of the river and walked back to the village barefoot.  Great.

After the elephant trek, we all had lunch in the village, and then took a small dugout boat across the Mekong River to Pak Ou Caves.  It turned out that the couple who took the boat with me (they were from a different tour bus) were from my hometown of El Paso, Texas, where I grew up.  Actually, they had grown up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, right across the border (which is where I went to elementary school), and had moved to El Paso, where they were going to UT El Paso.

The caves had been transformed into a Buddhist shrine.  They were filled with sculptures and statues and all kinds of Buddhist icons and offerings.  There was a set of upper and lower caves, and we toured through all the caves.  Then after exploring the caves for a while, we took the little dugout boat back, and returned to Luang Prabang.  We briefly stopped at Whisky Village, where the villagers distill various spirits and make wines, before returning to the town.

When I was on the way back, I started feeling a little bit sick.  Once I returned to my guesthouse, I was really sick.  I thought that something really bad was going on...I had been afraid of infection with my motorcycle accident wounds, and I was afraid that I had a systemic staph infection, or that I had caught something horrible from the river when the elephant dumped me.  But it was probably just coincidental, and I was only sick for about a day, and then I was fine again.

I stayed in Luang Prabang just a couple more days, but on the day before I was to leave Luang Prabang, I found out online that I could renew my Laos visa in Luang Prabang if I wanted to, so I decided to take advantage of that opportunity.  There are two ways to extend your initial Laos visa-on-arrival: one is to leave the country and get a new visa-on-arrival, and the other is to tack on up to an extra month by going to the immigration office in Luang Prabang or Vientiane (and maybe some other cities, I'm not sure), and doing it that way.  I figured that since I still time in Luang Prabang, I could extend my visa.  I had read online that they would do it the same day.  So the next day, I went off in search of the immigration office.  I first Googled it, but it was not at the spot that Google said it was; there was some sort of resort there.  The people at the resort thought I had to do it at the police station, and they gave me directions to a police station.  But I got there and found out that I had to go to a different police station, which I did, and it turned out to be the right place.  Also I found out that they would not renew it the same day; they told me I had to come back the next day.  That altered my plans a little, because I was planning to leave early in the morning as I had a long ride to get to the next town.  But it turned out not to be too bad.  At first they told me that I had to come back at three in the afternoon the next day, but when I told them that I was leaving and needed to travel, they told me that they could have it ready by eleven in the morning and to come then.  So I showed up at eleven the next day, and they had it ready within ten minutes.  I already had my motorcycle packed up and had checked out of the guesthouse, so I just left town right after I got the visa extension.  Strangely enough, they extended my visa to February 29, which doesn't exist in this non-leap year, but I figured I would probably be out of Laos at least a couple of weeks before that anyway.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hey, I Really Dig Your Rack

When I was pulling out of Sam Neua, Laos, several days ago, I had my gear all packed up on the back of my motorbike the way I usually pack it. I would lay down the big pack in the back, and stand up the smaller pack in front of it, using it as a back rest. Everything was going along fine, until about a half an hour out of town, I heard a loud metallic-sounding pop or twang coming from the back of my bike. Of course, being in the middle of desolate country, with no opportunity to repair anything that could have gone wrong, I immediately responded to the issue with denial. Everything has got to be OK. Just keep moving.

But everything was not quite OK. To be fair, nor was it catastrophic. After another half hour down the road, I decided to stop for a bit and see if there was a problem at the back of my bike. What had happened was that one of the front welds on my rack had broken loose. Of course, I wasn't terribly thrilled about this, as the rack was carrying all of my gear, but at least I had the other front weld and the back welds to hold my rack and my gear in place, and I could just continue hoping that they would hold, despite the laws of physics, which gave me a nagging suspicion that at least the other front weld would not last very long.

Everything was fine for a while, then I heard another pop, and this one was more muffled than the first one. Of course, I knew what had happened. The other front weld had given way. Now the rack was only held on with the back welds and bungee cords, with my gear weighing it all down in a bad way. Once again, denial was the solution I chose.

I went on for maybe another hour or so, and I finally summoned up the courage to look at the back of my bike and see how bad it was. It was not so good. The rack was listing about 45 degrees downward, rather than being perpendicular to the ground. This was not a sustainable situation. Fortunately, I responded with more denial, but this time, I knew that I had to hope that it would last at least until the next town where I could find a motorcycle shop where it could be fixed.

So I kept plundering forward into the back roads of Laos, with my nervous denial of the whole situation at hand at the forefront of my mind. I guess it's hard to call it denial if it is preoccupying your whole consciousness. But then again, if you're not doing anything about it...

Then, a little while later, I had a brainstorm; a revelation. Why don't I stop and re-pack my gear so it is almost completely on the seat rather than on the rack? Of course, this means that I will hardly have any seat left, and I'll be sitting way forward on the bike, almost on the gas tank. But that was worth a shot, and it was a step up from denial and inactivity, which surely would not have led to anything good.

So I stopped along the road, completely unpacked my gear, and then re-packed it much farther forward on the bike. I also packed the smaller pack on top of the bigger pack, instead of having one in front of the other. And that actually worked, and took the weight off the broken rack. The downside was that I was sitting way forward, and my long legs were terribly cramped riding like that. Also, since the whole gear package was now higher, and gave my bike a higher center of gravity, I had to be much more careful about tipping over on the side, especially when I was stopped, and especially in the case where my feet were on loose gravel supporting my bike while stopped. Also I had to pack it all just right to avoid the package moving to one side or the other, and getting everything off balance. But it was a sustainable solution, as long as I was careful about the things I needed to be careful about, and it took some pressure off as far as needing to find an immediate solution to the problem I was having.

In fact, it was such a usable solution, that despite the fact that I was sitting way forward and fairly uncomfortable, I didn't get it fixed for several days. I visited Phonsavan, knowing that I needed to get it fixed, but not really finding a place to do it, and being fairly rushed while I was there. Since I spent a week in Viang Xai to recover from my injuries from my motorcycle wreck, I was fairly behind in my itinerary (not that I had specified plans, but I knew covering Laos would be much more compressed in the month that I have for a visa here), and needed to make up the lost time. So I didn't get it fixed in Phonsavan.

Next, I stopped in Phou Khoun, which was a very tiny picturesque village (well, actually, it probably would have been picturesque, had it not been besotten with very thick fog the whole time I was there). I was only there for one night, and was completely soaked to the bone when I got there, because I had been riding in torrential rain the whole way there. So I mostly had to deal with the carnage to my stuff once I got there. Everything in my fanny pack was completely soaked, which was all my most important stuff. My passport was drenched. Everything in my wallet, and everything else in the pack was soaked as well. The fanny pack has really outlived its useful life; it is full of holes and the water resistant inner liner is almost completely deteriorated. If I were in the US or Europe, I would simply get another one of the same model, the Everest Extra Large, which is the most awesome waist pack that holds all my most necessary stuff, even though I always have to bolster the straps by sewing them up better, and sew up a couple corners that are always going to fail. But I know these restrictions, and I can prepare for them; in fact, I have on every one I have had. Any waist pack that I buy here will not be nearly big enough. In fact, I bought one in Thailand, and there was no way it would carry even half the stuff the one I have now does. So I'm just letting this one limp along much longer than I normally would have, relying on my old friend, denial. All of my other gear was OK; the repairs that I made to my raincovers for both packs held up pretty well. But clearly I need a better strategy to keep the contents of my fanny pack dry. Right now my interim solution is to put everything in a big ziplock bag inside the fanny pack.

Also, the place I stayed in Phou Khoun had a layer of awful slime on the floor. It felt like absolute, sickening, raw disease when I walked on it with my bare feet. So I tried not to walk on it without covering my feet with my sandals, but there were some times when it was unavoidable. I had stopped at one place first, in the pouring rain, shivering with discomfort and dying to stop and change out of my wet clothes. But the boy I dealt with couldn't find his mom to get me situated, and so finally he just told me to leave. I was not terribly happy with that, and groaned as I got back on my bike in the pouring rain to find another shelter. As soon as I found the place where I ended up staying, I was just happy to be able to change clothes and assess the water damage to my gear. The strange thing was that at this place, all my dealings were with a boy who looked about ten years old. I never saw an adult at all. He showed me the room, gave me the key, and collected my money the next day. I think I was the only one staying at that place. There was no wifi, but that was the least of my worries. If I had gone down the road about a hundred more meters, there were some much better looking places where it seemed that all the expats stopping through town were staying. But this place was cheap, it was decent enough, and I was dying to be situated. The bathroom only had a raised squat toilet on a platform, and you couldn't even put your feet in the footholds for it, because they were covered with the same awful slime the floor was covered with, and you would just slip right off and fall. But it was good enough, dammit. And I would only be there one night.

So I had more important stuff to deal with rather than fixing the rack, and putting my gear on the seat worked, though it was not terribly comfortable. I left out all my wet stuff to dry the best it could. I ended up packing up the wetter clothes in a bag, and wearing the rest. I probably could have worn them all, and they would have dried on the way, because the weather was great the next day, even though the roads were not. I left Phou Khoun the next morning on the long, winding trek through crappy mountainous roads to Luang Prabang, a journey that was little over 100 kilometers, but took all day due to the terrible quality of the roads, and the amount of winding that I had to do on hairpin turns through the mountains. It always seems like right when I get to the hairiest turns on the mountains, that is when the roads get the worst, with mud and/or gravel, and huge potholes or washouts right around the corner. But I guess that is the nature of the hairpin turn. It is always going to be in the place where the water washes down off of the mountain, and causes the maximum amount of erosion, so the road there will by nature be of the worst quality.

Then I got to Luang Prabang. I was rattled from the long, bouncy, unsettling trip all day through terrible roads perched on cliffs that would be unsurvivable, would one happen to fall off of them. There is a thing that happens to your brain bouncing around all day from the vibrations of driving over bouncy roads; it is probably comparable to a mild concussion. It's like when you're swimming in the ocean all day, and when you get out, you can still feel the waves as though they are still pounding you. Well, I could still feel my cerebral matter being battered against the side of my head for quite a while after I stopped riding. Also, I was loaded up with clothing to keep my warm in the high, cold, windy mountains, but now I had descended into a valley for the first time in a long time, and I was really hot. I needed to find a place to stay where I could peel off my sweaty clothes and get comfortable, and I was definitely not comfortable at that point.

There were so many options for places to stay, but I didn't know what the prices would be like, and what the amenities would be. So for the first time since Hanoi, I decided to book a place online. I booked a guesthouse that I figured would be decent. But the problem was, it had no address online, and I couldn't find the damned place at all. A restaurant owner saw me stopped, muddling over Google Maps trying to figure out where the place was, right after Google Maps had taken me to a place that was definitely not where the guesthouse was, and it didn't seem to have the guesthouse on the map at all. He invited me in and offered to call the place, so I looked for the phone number, found it, and gave it to him. He called, and whoever he talked to was no help at all, was apparently a complete jerk to him, and hung up on him. He showed me on the map where he thought it was, so I headed off in that direction. I poked aimlessly around that area, but could not find the place anywhere. I was really frustrated, because I had paid for a non-refundable reservation online that I had no way of finding out the location of. So I sent a message to Booking.com, the outfit I had booked it though, begging for help in finding the place. I still have yet to hear from them. Go fuck yourself, Booking.com.

Anyway, first stopped at the spot the guy from the restaurant thought was where it was at on my map. There was a guesthouse there, but nobody spoke English. I tried to tell them I had a reservation at the Souksavong Guesthouse, and tried to ask if this was the place? Everything was written in Lao script, so I couldn't tell. They very enthusiastically tried to get me to take a room, but I couldn't confirm that this was the place I had the reservation, and I had a funny feeling it wasn't. So I milled around a while, but it just didn't feel right. I would have maybe stayed there, but I had paid a lot of money (Luang Prabang is pretty expensive compared to the other places I have been in Laos), and I didn't want to double-pay. So, out of frustration, and with no other option at that point, I just methodically went up and down every street in the area. I stopped at a tourist assistance place, but nobody there spoke English, and that added to my utter despair. Finally I stopped at a guesthouse that had a similar name to the one I had booked; the person at the counter spoke English, and knew where my guesthouse was! I was about to jump for joy. I went down the street a ways, and it was right where they told me it was. I was so fucking happy.

I was glad to have a room, but even though the whiteboard by the front desk indicated there were only two people other than myself staying in the whole place, they put me in a back building with no wifi, in an upstairs area with very steep stairs with no lights leading to the second floor. I don't know why they did that when there seemed to be downstairs rooms right next to the wifi router in the front building. But nobody spoke English, and I was just happy to have a room. And I can always go to the front building to use the wifi.

Well, I've gotten way off track. This post is about my rack, and how it needed fixing. I spent the better part of one day trying to find a mechanic who could fix my rack. First I went to one mechanic, but he indicated he didn't do welding. I tried to see if he could just put on a new rack, but he just cut me off and kept saying no to everything, probably because of our inability to communicate in the same language. But he seemed to indicate there was someone down the road who did welding. He pointed straight down the road and then to the right. Great. So there was someone some indeterminate distance down the road, on some road that went to the right at some point, who might be able to fix it. Luckily I actually found the place he was talking about, down the road that first veered off to the right. But I pulled up to the place, tried to explain my problem, but the guy who seemed to be running things just waved me off as if to tell me to go away. Hell no. I was persistent. Finally one guy who spoke a little English told me to come back at two o'clock. Okay, that was progress, hopefully. I went back to the guesthouse and laid on the bed to relax for a while. Then I set off about a quarter to two back to the place. Guy who at first waved me off was working with a welding rig when I got there; that was a good sign. He finished a job for somebody else, and motioned me to bring my bike up. There is a bigger rack tied to the rack attached to my bike with a bungee cord; that was set up by the people who sold me my bike in Hanoi. It sounds iffy, but it is actually very solid. He motioned that I would have to remove the bungee cord and the other rack so he could work on it. That was fine, but it was tied really tightly and I had trouble getting it off my hand. I struggled with it for quite a while, and tried to ask him through pantomime if he had any pliers. He handed me a machete. Well, no, dude, I can't cut it off, because I still need the cord to tie it back on once I get it off, and no telling if I'll be able to find another one in Laos. But I would have done it as a last resort. He just walked away. So I kept struggling with it by hand to not much avail. I tried to cut it with the machete, but that didn't seem to work too well. So I poked around his shop looking for any tool that could help me, hopefully a pair of pliers. But I didn't see anything. Finally, I found a nail, and I was able to pry the knots in the bungee cord loose with the nail. Success! I removed the top rack, and he came back a few minutes later, and got to work on it with the welding rig. He was able to re-weld the two broken welds pretty quickly, and my rack was fixed! Yay!

On the way to the welding shop the first time, I had seen a place where someone was washing a motorbike. I wouldn't have even known that service was available there if I hadn't seen someone doing it. So I made a mental note to stop there after I went to the welding place later in the afternoon. And I did stop by there. They were willing to wash my bike. But, let me tell you, at every place I stopped at today, the first mechanic shop, the welding shop, and the bike washing place, there was a lot of rapid-fire talk in Lao between people there, in which I heard them say “farang” a lot; that was the only word I could pick out, and I heard it a lot. “Farang” is a derisive term for foreigner, especially one of European descent. So at all these places I stopped at, they were discussing among themselves about how this (bleep) foreigner was all up in their grill. Oh well.


The bike washing place was also a restaurant of sorts, and they invited me to come in and sit down while the guy washed my bike. I watched all sorts of fascinating transactions at the restaurant while the guy was washing my motorcycle. My bike was thoroughly caked in mud from the rides through dusty roads in the mountains, so it took a while to wash. In the meantime, I watched one customer come up to get some stuff that the woman behind the counter prepared by grating or peeling some stuff off of something that vaguely looked like okra, but was filled with fibrous material. Then she mixed it with some peppers and other stuff, and gave it to the customer in a bag. Another customer came up, and she cut some flesh off of what looked like a squash or melon (it might have been the fleshy part of a coconut), ground it up in a huge mortar and pestle, mixed it with some other stuff, and then gave the customer a taste to make sure it was satisfactory, and then sent it off in a bag with the customer. Many people came to order rice dishes, or some thing they prepared in a wok over a fire with some sort of egg crepe-like thing. They would crack an egg, mix it with some kind of batter, and then coat most of the hot wok with it so it was very thinly spread. Then they would add various vegetables to it, and a bit of some kind of meat that they had wrapped in several packages of banana leaves hanging from the wall. They would take one of these packages and add it to the mix, then wrap the whole thing in the egg crepe-y thing, and serve it. Some people took these in to-go containers rather than eating it there. The guy finished washing my bike, and did a great job, it was absolutely sparkling. So now my rack is fixed, my bike is clean, and at some point before I leave for the next town, I'll re-attach the bigger rack with the bungee cord.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Come Drink With Us!

Last night I was sitting in the little spot in front of the hotel in Vieng Xai that gets wi-fi, when one of the members of the hotel staff invited me to come drink with them. I accepted, and followed him to the room where they all hang out. On the side of the hotel, there are a bunch of big rooms that have garage-style huge metal doors that roll down from the top, and concrete floors, and they were all hanging out in one of those rooms. They were all men, sitting in a circle on the floor around a rug, with a lot of food on the rug, and some clear spirits in a big water bottle. I don't know what the booze was. I asked them what it was, and they told me the name, but I don't remember it, and I have no idea what it was made from. The staff and their friends hanging out were all Vietnamese living in Laos. They offered me some food, but I motioned that I was full because I had just come from a restaurant and was truly stuffed. But they insisted that I try a few bites so I did.

They were sitting around, laughing and joking, cross-legged around the rug. I have always been uncomfortable sitting cross-legged, even when I was a kid, and with the wounds on my knee, it was even more difficult, but I persisted and sat with them for an hour or so, or maybe longer; I wasn't really paying attention to the time. One guy was smoking tobacco out of a bamboo bong, and others were smoking cigarettes; they offered me cigarettes, but I'm not a tobacco smoker, so I declined. I could not understand most of what they were saying, but they seemed to be having a great time, and it was cool to hang out with them. They were constantly pouring the booze into shot glasses and making toasts. Sometimes the toasts would be for everybody to join in on, and sometimes the toasts would be just between two members of the group. The first time one of the toasts between two people happened, I started to raise my glass, but then the guy next to me put his hand on my arm and made a “no” motion, so I realized that the whole group was not included. But most of the toasts were for the whole group. A couple of the guys in the group wanted to do individual toasts with me, so I obliged. And then there were a few more serious individual toasts, where the toasters shook hands in a way where they grasped up to the elbow; one guy did one of those with me. After each toast, they would pass the water bottle around and fill everybody's glass again for the next round. I wasn't really in on what the customs were, but I just tried to be jovial and a good sport, and hope that I didn't do anything seriously wrong, but I doubt I did.

As the night went on, it seemed like we were communicating better. I was getting a lot of information across in Vietnamese, and understanding things they said when they said it slowly and with gestures and emphasis, to my surprise. I picked up on a lot of words I barely knew, but had had some exposure to. Only a couple of them spoke any English at all, and then only a few words. There is a guy at the hotel who speaks more English, not a whole lot, but more than the rest of the people who work here, but he was not there that night. One guy told me about the town he was from in Vietnam, and I found it on my phone on Google Maps, then he told me about a couple caves around there, which I also bookmarked on my phone. He told me to call him if I pass through his town, and gave me his Vietnamese phone number, because he would hook me up with friends in the area. So if I pass through there when I go back to Vietnam, I'll give him a call. My Vietnamese SIM card has a phone number and minutes, but my Laos SIM card is only data.

After sitting with them for a while, I begged off to go back to my room. I'm kind of a lightweight on drinking, so I had reached my limit fairly quickly, plus I was uncomfortable from sitting on the floor for so long. I bid them all goodbye and thanked them for inviting me to sit with them.


This morning, I woke up and went to the Indian restaurant down the street, and had breakfast and coffee there. Today I have to pack up to get ready to leave tomorrow. My stuff is strewn around the hotel room big time, so I'll have to gather it all up to pack. I was hoping my wounds would not be seeping any more by now, but they still are somewhat. But hopefully I have healed up enough to be on the move again. I think healing will take quite a while, and I'll have to take it easy for a while.

Getting Ready To Move On In Laos

Today was just another day devoted to wound care and gear repair. I think that I have repaired the last of my gear, or at least gotten as far as I'm going to get with that. My windbreaker/rain jacket had some tears in in from the wreck, and the clear tape that I have stuck to it pretty well to cover the holes. I'll get rid of it, though, as soon as I find an adequate replacement. The clear tape also stuck well to my small rain cover, which was fairly tattered, but now all the holes are covered. It'll probably be a while before I can replace that, but if I go back to Hanoi at some point, I can get one there because that is where I got it. My other rain cover for my big backpack was relatively unscathed, surprisingly.

The hotel does people's laundry...they did mine for free since I stayed a whole week here. Normally they charge 20,000 kip, which is about $2.50, a kilo. I got my clothes back today and, miraculously, they got all the blood out of my pants. I don't know what they did, but there is a slight faded spot where the blood was. But that's fine with me. There are some tears around the knee, but they are still wearable without looking gruesome. My great L. L. Bean shirt jacket that I was wearing when I wrecked had no outward signs at all of the bloody elbow underneath, but there was some blood on the inside. I haven't looked inside to see if it is still there, and I don't much care. My fanny pack had a few tears in it; it was definitely on its last legs anyway, but I'm still using it since I haven't found a decent alternative. It is an Everest extra large, and I haven't found anything near the size of it anywhere I've been in the last few months, so I'm hoping I can keep it limping along until I get to a place where Amazon or Ebay or some mail order place will mail to. It will probably be several months. The clear tape doesn't stick well to it, but I covered the holes anyway. When the clear tape fails (probably within days), I'll try first aid tape and see if that sticks better. If only there was duct tape here...

I bought a huge bag to put under my backpack when it is on the rack of my bike, because mud splashes up from below. I was hoping to get one big enough to put the bag in, but I don't think this one is quite big enough. Lots of Laotians pack tons of stuff into these bags and carry them on the back of their motorbikes. This one was about twelve cents at a store down the street from my hotel.


So I'll spend one more day after tonight at this hotel just healing up, then one more night, then I will take off in the morning. I have kept my wounds open for a couple of days so they will scab up, but I'll probably cover them with gauze again when I take off on my bike...I'm hoping that they will be hard enough so I don't have to peel gauze off again, but probably no such luck; they will probably liquefy a little under the bandages. Better that they stick to the bandages, though, than to my clothing. The bike is doing OK, I think, but one of the footpegs is still a little bent. Maybe I'll try to get that fixed in one of the next towns, but it is rideable.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Mundane Extraordinary Day In Viang Xai

Today I haven't really done a lot. The big attraction in Viang Xai is the caves, and I've already seem them. But there is some cool stuff to see from wandering around the town, so I wandered some, and checked out the town. There are a lot of dirt roads, and some of them are almost as narrow as paths. I just kind of meandered for a while.

Then I went to the Indian restaurant in town to eat some great food. That is becoming my go-to place in Viang Xai. I have eaten almost all the meals I have eaten in Viang Xai there. My next stop was the pharmacy, where I replenished my supply of hydrogen peroxide. I also turned my laundry over to the hotel's laundry service to be done. This will be the first time in quite a while that my laundry has been done in a washing machine. Even when I was in my apartment in Hanoi, I didn't use the washing machine much, because I had so little laundry, I just washed it in the sink as I usually do when travelling. Before I could wash stuff, I needed to first take off my bandages, so I could take a shower, so I could put my dirty clothes that I have worn for several days in the wash. And I did that yesterday, and changed clothes after the shower, so I was ready for laundry.

I also extended my hotel stay to a total of a week, so I can sit here and recover for a bit. Unfortunately I only have a month visa in Laos, so that cuts out some time, but I think I might be able to extend it for one more month if I need to.

I also did some preliminary cleaning of my mud-caked gear today. I took it outside and scraped as much dry mud as I could off of everything that was muddy, next I need to wash it. But with all the gauze on my hands, that is going to be difficult. So I changed the gauze on my hands again and will let the wounds air out for the rest of the day.

Then I got back to the hotel and was sitting on a bench outside my room (where wi-fi is available), checking some stuff online. Then I sat there studying Vietnamese from my flash cards. A Vietnamese guy staying at the hotel saw what I was doing, and saw me struggling with the pronunciations of the words and phrases, so he sat down next to me to help me with correct pronunciation. That was a great interaction with somebody that I could barely communicate with; he spoke no English, and I speak only a minimal amount of Vietnamese.


You might say it was a pretty mundane day. But it is extraordinary because I'm in fucking Laos.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Caves and Wound Care

Today I went in the late morning walking around the town of Viang Xai, and I stopped at an Indian restaurant in the center of town to grab a bite to eat. There I met a French guy named Quentin and a German woman named Lotta, and they told me they were going to the Viang Xai caves in the afternoon. I was talking to Quentin about my accident. He had been in a motorcycle accident just a couple of weeks before himself, only he had his girlfriend on the bike with him. His scabs were much more healed up than mine were. It turned out that Quentin and I were staying at the same hotel. He was supposed to check out, but needed to defer so he could see the caves. I told him he could keep his stuff in my room if he wanted, but the guy who ran the hotel was OK with him just staying in the room a little longer, so he didn't need to.

I had wanted to see the caves, which were where the Laotian government stayed underground while the US was bombing the crap out of Laos. But I was planning to spend most of the day on wound care for the injuries that I sustained in my motorcycle accident. I decided to defer that to the late afternoon and evening, and went along with them to the caves.

We met a little before one in the afternoon to go to the visitor center for the caves. There are only tours for the caves at 9 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon, and we took the one o'clock tour. You can only go into the caves with a tour guide, but if you are not around for one of the tour times, you can get a private guide during the day for a little more. The tour was 60,000 kip for foreigners; Laotians get a cheaper price. The caves were far apart so the tour offered people bicycles for rent, but the tour guide had a motorbike, so Quentin and I asked if we could go back to our hotel and just get our motorbikes. The guide said that would be no problem. Quentin offered to take Lotta on his motorbike; I would have offered, but I could barely grip the handlebars with my had injuries. Lotta was a little reticent to ride with two guys who had just wrecked their bikes, but she finally agreed to do that rather than rent a bicycle.

The caves were amazing. They were natural caves that had been expanded with blasting, and there were all kinds of structures constructed in them for the government to operate. The tour was three hours long, and we went through many different cave systems.

Quentin was a chiropractor in France, and wanted to travel around the world for a while before going back to work. He said he could work almost anywhere if he wanted. He told me that the wounds in my palms would heal better and faster if I dug the gravel out of my palms. He had had to do that himself when he wrecked his bike. That did not sound like fun at all.

Lotta headed back to her hostel after the tour, and Quentin was taking off for Sam Nuea, which is maybe an hour or so away. I headed back to the hotel to do the wound care that I had put off until the end of the day. It was excrutiating getting the blood-soaked gauze off of each wound slowly. I soaked the wounds in saline solution that I made from taking about a teaspoon of salt from the Indian restaurant, and the gauze was coming off about a half a millimeter at a time. It took quite a long time to get it off. I also was able to take the first shower I had taken since the wreck (but there was no hot water so it moderately sucked...I only washed from the shoulders down) after I got the bandages off, so I was able to change clothes also, and get ready to hopefully do some laundry tomorrow.


Then I wanted to let the wounds air out for a while before I put new gauze on them. I put some peroxide on them, and then let them air out for a while. I also got out my pocketknife and started digging some of the gravel out of my palms. Nope, that was no fun at all. Then I put new bandages on after a couple of hours of letting the wounds air out. It was a successful mission in wound care, though I might still have some gravel I need to work on still in my hands.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Suffering

I was thinking about suffering the other day, while I was sitting in a cafe in Quan Son the other night, just after it became dark, watching small children, some as young as toddlers, playing and frolicking in the middle of the main highway which runs right through the center of the town, in the dark. They seemed quite unconcerned about playing on the highway, and never even seemed to think about moving as any vehicles approached, unless they were totally blocking the vehicles' passage, in which case they moved their play just a little bit out of the way so the vehicle would have enough room to pass. Even the smallest children adhered to this protocol, as if it were innate. And they were also quite unsupervised and unmolested by any of the adults, who might have been in the general vicinity, but didn't involve themselves in the childrens' activity at all, other than an occasional communication or a call to dinner. There were also animals such as cows, goats, ducks and dogs milling around on the same highway. Any vehicles that approached just behaved like this was to be expected, and just altered their speed and their path to avoid the children and animals.

It is one of the main tenets of Buddhism that suffering is an inexorable part of the human condition. Humans will simply suffer, that is just a given. Yet not a single child playing on the highway seemed to be suffering in the slightest; their activity seemed like it was the opposite of suffering, or at least relieving their suffering. In the United States, if a toddler was playing on the highway, unsupervised, everybody involved in such activity or even tangential to it would have a probability of being put through some deep suffering. The driver would not expect the child and might hit her. The child could be grievously injured. The child's parents would possibly hear from the authorities and might even face jail time. Bystanders would be agitated by the sight of the child playing unconcerned on the highway, and even more agitated if the child was injured. No parent in the US would tell their child to go play on the highway unless it were tinged with sarcasm, and every child would understand that any such advice was in jest.

Yet here I was in the only night I spent in Quan Son, watching children happily play on the highway that was the lifeline of transportation for this town. Thinking about how sometimes things can be upside down from an outsider's perspective. Thinking that things are often not what they seem. Wondering if some of the things people do to try to relieve their suffering actually increases their suffering, and that maybe it is best to just accept your suffering, and flow with it, and make it work for you, rather than trying to devise strategies to fight against it. Because how can you fight against something that is an unchangeable part of your condition?

I slept at the hotel I was staying at in Quan Son, and then took off the next day for Laos. There was a lot of uncertainty for me as I headed down the road, Highway QL217. But I guess one of the ways to get to certainty is to follow uncertainty and see how it resolves itself. But in facing my uncertainty I made some mistakes that led me to a certainty that was a bad result, though I did reach some certainties that were good results. And it was raining, and it ended up raining for most of my journey, which was exactly the condition I didn't want to face when roads could be washed out or otherwise made more dangerous by the rain.

Mistake #1 was not leaving early enough. I had no idea if the crossing was open on New Year's Day, or even if the road would succesfully lead me there (as I explained in my last blog post). But I did know from information I found online that the crossing was closed from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm, so I didn't want to arrive during those times. I figured that rather than barely arriving during the end of the morning open time, it would be better to arrive right after the crossing was reopened in the afternoon.

Mistake #2 was vastly underestimating the time it would take me to get there. And I really should have known better about that. I already knew that I was facing an unfamiliar road, so I should have estimated that it would take me longer. And it did take me longer, probably an hour and a half longer than I thought it would.

The road on the Vietnam side was surprisingly not so bad. Sure, it had a few stretches of some pretty dodgy conditions, but on the whole, it was not terrible. But it was definitely slow to move through, because there were a lot of switchbacks, and lot of climbing and descending, and other conditions that made it so speed was not a smart idea.

There was not a lot between Quan Son and Na Meo, which was the last town in Vietnam before the border. There were some smatterings of huts, and a few small villages, but on the whole the stretch was fairly desolate. I arrived at the border station between Vietnam and Laos, which actually is several kilometers inside the Laos border according to my map, at around 2:30.

Mistake #3, and this was probably my biggest mistake, was not planning out what I would do after I passed through the border. I had been so consumed with whether or not the road in Vietnam would pan out that I failed to consider what I would do or where I would go once I got to Laos. So I tried to plan out a route through Laos on Google Maps when I got to Na Meo, as I still had my Vietnamese cell signal there. But that was when I found out that Laos is one of those countries that Google Maps does not fully work in. I should have considered that possibility too. Google Maps does not fully work in South Korea, either, and maybe one or two other countries I've been in. Sure, it will show you the roads, but it won't guide you through your route the whole way like it does in many countries, and tell you how far you have to go to the next direction, and so on.

But I did determine that I could make it to Viang Xai once I was in Laos, and I recognized that name from previous research that I had done on Laos. So Viang Xai it was. It looked like it was stretching it to get there during daylight. But there were a number of villages on the map before Viang Xai, and surely one of them would have a guesthouse to stay at if I could not get as far and Viang Xai. Or at least that was my reasoning at the time.

When I arrived at the Vietnam side of the border, the process was fairly straightforward. They had to process me for exiting the country, so I had to go through passport control. For some reason, the process was longer for me than it was for many Vietnamese and Laotians who passed through. They got a basic wave-through, but my processing took more time. But it was still faster than most borders I have passed through. Then I had to get a customs declaration form for my motorbike, which I had to pay 200,000 dong for. And the official asked me what currency I wanted to pay in before quoting me that price. Once again, that was pretty straightforward, and they waved me through to the Laos side of the border after one more official checking to see that all the papers I had gotten were in order.

When I arrived at the Laos side, it took a little bit longer, but not much longer. I first had to go to the visa on arrival window, because I hadn't procured a visa in advance, but I had heard that the visa on arrival was easy to get at the border (it's not so going the other way, you absolutely have to have procured your visa beforehand when going over land from Laos to Vietnam). They had me fill out a couple of forms, and then they motioned me to the next office, where they checked out the customs declaration form that I had just gotten from the Vietnam side, and the rest of my documents, to make sure they were in order. Then they sent me back to the visa on arrival window, and had me wait a while while a guy in a leather jacket came to ask me some questions. The questioning was very informal and cordial, and seemed mostly aimed at determining that I was actually going to leave Laos before my visa ran out. Then the guy told me it was 45 dollars in US currency for the visa on arrival, and to go to the window to pay it. I was ready for that and had forty-five bucks in two crisp twenties and a five. Well, they inspected that money closely. Two officials felt each bill individually several different ways, they shook the bills in the air to see how they behaved when they shook them, and they held them up to the light. When they had performed all the rituals with the money to their satisfaction, they placed the visa sticker in my passport and told me I was ready to go.

So I was in Laos! I was elated to be in the next country on my journey. The mountains on the Laos side were even taller than the ones in Vietnam. I was welcomed by a committee of cows on the road shortly after leaving the border station. It seemed that, in general, there were even more animals wandering the road than in Vietnam. But the roads were really bad. Not as bad as the one road that I took for a short time in Vietnam the day before and abandoned, but bad for long stretches of desolate road, and so I really had to take my time on those roads.

As I said, Google Maps didn't fully work in Laos, so I was mostly on my own for route planning and paying attention to where the turns were. Luckily it was mostly one road the whole way. But the weather was bad, and the roads were bad, so it was some pretty slow moving. Lots of mud and ruts and washouts and potholes and bumps and the like, and almost all the time, it was raining. Since it was raining, I had my phone with the GPS from Google Maps in a baggie on the mount on by handlebars. The mount on my handlebars was sort of like a hairclip that I clipped my phone into, and it was bolstered by some rubber bands for strength. But the rubber bands had been wearing out, and with all the jolts on the Laotian roads, each one, one by one, snapped and eventually my phone was only being held by the clip. That seemed to mostly be enough, but I did notice my phone slowly sliding out of the clip, and I recentered it several times, so there really wasn't enough holding power in it for these rough roads.

As I passed through through village after village, it didn't seem that any of them had any hotels or guesthouses, so I was starting to worry that I might not be able to find a place to stay. I didn't even know if I could recognize a hotel, because everything was in Laotian script. I had already driven more than I felt comfortable with in a day, and was ready to stop, but just could not find a place to stop. Plus it didn't seem like my GPS was moving. I looked at the map quite a while after I had looked at it the last time, and it seemed like I was still in the same place. And I really didn't know how far it still was to Viang Xai. I would try to eyeball it using the distance marker on the legend, but then the next time, it seemed to be farther than it was the last time, and this was freaking me out a little bit. It was approaching darkness, and I really did not want to be driving in the pitch black countryside on a crappy road that had animals on it everywhere with very poor headlights on my Vietnamese bike. So I kept trying to keep an eye out for the left turn I was supposed to make, but never found it. The next time I looked at the map, I had passed it by quite a ways, apparently, but saw there was another way to get to Viang Xai via the next left turn. I was really freaking out at this point. It was starting to get dark, I didn't know for sure how far I was from the town, and I didn't want to get caught in the darkness. So I started stepping it up a little, hopefully still being safe, but definitely going faster.

I started noticing that there were kilometer markers on the side of the road marking the distance to Viang Xai about thirty kilometers away. It made me feel a little more at ease to know where I was, but it was still uncertain how long it would take me, because I had no idea what kind of road conditions I would have. When I saw that I was only fifteen kilometers away, darkness was definitely falling and I had a heavy sense of urgency.

Right after that fifteen kilometer mark was when all hell suddenly broke loose. I hit a rut, and my phone went flying out of the clip holding it. I braked and tried to catch it, right as I hit a mudslide and my bike went out of control. I crashed the bike, and I hit the ground. I got myself up pretty quickly and did an inventory to assess my injuries. There was a lot of blood, and I was covered in mud. Both of my hands were completely covered in blood. I could see blood seeping through my pants at the right knee. I tested my right leg, and I could walk on it OK, and move it OK. I felt pain in my right elbow, but it was moving OK, though I didn't see any blood there. I saw my phone in the road and went to retrieve it. It was OK, just a little dent in a corner and maybe a small blemish on the screen.

A crowd of villagers from the village I was passing through had now gathered in a circle around me. I wanted to ask for help, but neither they nor I could communicate. I just looked at my hands covered in blood as the blood dripped down, and I couldn't even tell where it was coming from, though my palms and my hands hurt.

Finally a man motioned to me to come inside his hut. I tried to pick up my bike, but couldn't. A couple of bystanders helped me lift it, and he motioned to me to bring it up toward his house, but there was too much mud in his driveway, and I couldn't move it past it. I was starting to shiver from shock and he motioned to me to just leave it where it was. A woman brought out some leaves and showed them to me; I guess they were some local herbal cure. An old woman in the hut heated some water on a fire, and then the man took it off the fire and mixed it with some colder water to give me some warm water to wash my hands with. I washed my hands, and saw that they were covered with abrasions, and there were some deep ones at the base of both of my palms.

I sat there for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do. It wasn't getting any lighter, and it was pretty dark. Finally, I told them, “I go”, and made a motion with my hands that I was going to leave and got up. The man seemed concerned, but he nodded his head. I really needed more care than I could get in the hut, though they were terribly kind and did their best. But I didn't know if my bike would start or move. I went to the bike, and it started up, though the handlebars were tilted on their axis quite a bit, and were off-kilter, so now the light was pointing at about one o'clock instead of straight ahead. I tentatively took off on my bike as a bunch of mud kicked out from between the wheels and the fenders that had apparently gotten lodged there in the wreck. The bike seemed like it was running OK, though it was now dark, and the light was not pointing forward, so I couldn't see hardly at all. I just kept driving slowly, just emotionally numb, following the kilometer markers and hoping I would make it OK to the town. I couldn't grip the handlebars with my whole hands because of the injuries, so I was holding them with my fingers, which also had some abrasions on them.

Finally, I don't know how much time had passed, but I saw a big sign pointing to the left turn to Viang Xai, saying the town was a kilometer away. I turned down the street and saw lights. One of the first places I saw was a big building; I was hoping it was a hotel so I slowed down to inspect it closer, and I saw a sign that said, “Hospital” in English. I breathed a sigh of relief and turned into the parking lot.

There were a couple of nurses who looked like they were on break, and there didn't seem to be any other patients there. I walked up to them and said, “Please help me,” and showed them my bloody palms, and I pointed to my blood-soaked pants. They led me into the hospital, and motioned to me to get on a table. I wanted to take my clothes off so I could see what the injuries were to my knee and elbow, because I still had not seen them. A doctor came in, and I motioned to take off my pants, and he nodded. So I took off my pants, then my jacket, then my shirt jacket and my t-shirt. They started working on me right away, cleaning up blood and, to my chagrin, snipping away tissue. I was shaking and my teeth were shattering from shock. They cleaned and disinfected, and dressed my wounds. I had a big abrasion on my knee, one on my elbow, and the injuries on my hands, and various small cuts in other places. At least one limb, my left leg, was completely unaffected. They had me shake everything and bear weight on everything to make sure nothing more serious was going on, I did that and gave them the thumbs-up.

The doctor called me over to a desk near the exit, and he gave me three different kinds of pills, with instructions written on them to take them twice a day. One of them had “ampicillin” written on it, but the other two I had to look up online from the markings on the pills to figure out what they were. One was just 500 mgs of Naproxen, and another was some sort of bacterial enzyme that they don't use in the first world that fights inflammation. He handed me an itemized bill written in Laotian, and it came to 90,000 kip, or around eleven dollars. I paid the fee and made repeated bowing motions to everybody with my hands clasped, thank you, thank you, thank you so much.

I then went down the street looking for a hotel. I was worried that covered in mud and blood, it might be difficult to find a place. The first place I stopped at didn't want anything to do with me. They waved me off aggressively, so I left. Then I stopped at a hotel down the street, and the guy was very welcoming. He was Vietnamese, and spoke a little English. Very little, probably about as much as I speak Vietnamese, so between the two of us, we communicated sufficiently. I told him I had just wrecked my bike and he gave me a compassionate look. He led me to the hotel room, it seemed like either I was the only person staying there, or at least the only one with a vehicle.

I had not eaten all day, so I asked him if there was a restaurant. He said “everything closed” (apparently everything in this town is closed by seven or so at night), but he led me to a Vietnamese restaurant owned by some friends of his and he said they would make me pho. I was so happy to see the food and I scarfed it all down, then I went back to the hotel to collapse in exhaustion onto the bed. I tried to find a way to lie down where I would not leave blood on the bed, but I had to cover up, because the room was cold and there was no heater. The next morning, I saw just a few tiny smudges of blood on the bed. But then I remembered I had some hydrogen peroxide that I mix with baking soda to brush my teeth with, and that I had used that before to remove small blood stains. It worked like a charm, probably because the blood stains were not that old.

So now, I'm in my own realm of suffering.  Really, I'm at peace with it, mostly.  I'm OK, or at least I will be, I hope.  Or I won't, but either way I don't have much control.  All I can do is dress my wounds, change my plan in accordance with the new conditions, and keep going.