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.







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