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, 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,

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.


  1. I love this detailed description of the difficulties of traveling by motorbike in a land where you don't speak the language and can't even puzzle out the simplest writing on signs. You are legend.

  2. Ah Stuart. So much here to wonder at. Your travels are definitely not boring or uneventful. And not tame. The good news is a shiny clean bike, your racks repaired, and your undaunted spirit.