Apr 2, 2015

Halfway Through

My apologies for not posting every week as per usual. To be honest, ever since I returned to Japan it hasn't felt like I'm really "traveling." This world is so familiar to me it feels like home.

Every day I've met up with friends, former students, fellow teachers; and I haven't written. Not really. My journal is noticeably blank throughout the month of March. Why? Coming back to Japan has awoken in me a mix of strong, sometimes opposing, emotions. I felt I couldn't clear my mind to focus and write about any one of them. At the same time, I've been lulled into a comfortable routine of living where everything is familiar.

Well, maybe not everything... Ishikawa has changed quite a bit since I left eight months ago. For one thing, the shinkansen line that connects Kanazawa to Tokyo is now complete! You can reach the capital directly in two and a half hours (the same amount of time it takes to reach Oku-Noto at a fraction of the distance). In anticipation of the tourism boom that will (hopefully) result from this new train line, the Noto has also been building new highway roads and rest stops.

Balloon Shinkansen in Nakanoto

Speaking of roads, Olivia and I went on an incredible road trip through the Oku-Noto. We had homemade lunch at a "magical" park complete with dark passageways and hidden tunnels. The park also had a long slide too, but unfortunately the rollers were stuck. We went to several famous places around the Noto I'd never been before, including "Battleship Rock" and Sojiji Temple.

For dinner in Noto-cho we were served by the same cook who made food for the Emperor when he stayed at Kagaya Onsen! He gave us a dish of crab legs, on the house, which were perfectly split in half so you didn't have to struggle to scoop the meat out. We did so much more that weekend, all thanks to Olivia being such a wonderful hostess. Thank you!!


Last Monday I went to Asahi for the retiring/transferring teachers' farewell ceremony. I joked with the math teacher, helped carry one English teacher's three large bouquets to her car, and caused my usual mischief with the students (i.e. switching the shoes in the student genkan).

And then... I said goodbye for the last time, to all of them. For some reason when I left this job in August it didn't hit me as hard as this time around; I know I won't be back. In a few years, Asahi Junior High won't even exist, since many schools are being consolidated due to the drastic population drop.

Later that week, another former English teacher and I went down to Kanazawa together. We visited the art museum to view a coworker's award-winning sculpture of his daughter titled, "Shell." It's message was to encourage people, especially those who are junior high school age, to break out of their "shell" and not be afraid to express themselves. Exactly the kind of positive message these kids need, I think!

Afterwards, we headed to Kenrokuen to view the budding cherry blossoms. Has it truly been two years since I first saw them? なつかし〜

Time is passing as quickly as ever – I am exactly halfway through this year of traveling around the world. Can it be? It feels like I've just begun, and yet adventures like SCUBA diving in Fiji seem so far away it couldn't have been the same trip... yet it was!

I have one week left in Japan, then I'm back on the traveler's trail of Southeast Asia. I feel like I don't have to try and soak up all these moments in Ishikawa because they're already a part of me. In that respect, when the time comes, I won't have to say goodbye. Rather, またね!

Sunset over Kanazawa (no filter)

– – –

Mar 22, 2015

A Warm Welcome Home

SURPRISE!! I made it back to Japan for my students' graduation!

My heart's been bursting at the seams ever since Japan came into view from the airplane window. I kept thinking, "I'm home, I'm home, I'm home!"

When I reached Ishikawa, everything felt so familiar and welcoming it was as if I'd never left. Of course, it's been so emotional. My mind has been playing the "Did you make the right choice when you left?" guilt game, and I have to gently admonish the thoughts with, I made the right choice; I'm happy pursuing my new dream now.

After reuniting with my friends, I met the wonderful young woman who works at my former schools. I was relieved to see how much she loved the students, too. We went to graduation together –– me hidden under a disguise –– and I surprised the teachers when I walked into the staffroom for the big reveal! They rose to their feet and started clapping. I felt so happy to see everyone again.

At the graduation ceremony, as the names of the graduates were read, tears came to my eyes because I know them; I am one of the few people in the entire world who know these kids and became a part of their lives. I was a witness to their everyday lives.
"We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the planet. I mean, what does any one life really mean? But... you're promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things; all of it, all the time, every day. You're saying 'Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.'"  
-- Shall We Dance, 2004
Junior High Graduation Ceremony

The graduating third years singing goodbye to their younger classmates. All the feels!

After the formal graduation ceremony, the students and I had opportunities to take photos, share lots of hugs despite it not being a cultural norm, and play table tennis together. That night I was invited along with the Asahi staff to their graduation/retirement enkai (work party) at a famous onsen ryokan (special hot springs Japanese-style hotel) in Wakura.

It felt like I was living a dream – as if I had died and was getting "one last day" surrounded by so many people I love before having to say goodbye forever.

The two retirees cut their cake together.

The view from Ae no Kaze Ryokan.

The next morning, I went to the Salad Bowl International Group in Nanao to make gyoza (potstickers). I was reunited with Olivia, befriended a fellow Michigander living in the Oku-Noto, and met a young Japanese woman who'd studied abroad in Buffalo, NY. After eating copious amounts of gyoza, we all went out for sweet potato ice cream parfaits.


Singing Maps by Maroon 5

On a rare club activities rest day, a former student and I hung out around Nanao. We went to karaoke where she impressed me by singing all English songs! Her English conversation level is very high, and she's only going into the equivalent of 11th grade this year.

I'm so proud of her, and feel incredibly lucky to be a part of her and other students' lives, no matter how small that part may be. She insists I've made a real difference from my contribution to her and other students' lives, and that's inexpressibly priceless.

Elementary Graduation Ceremony

When graduation day came for my favorite elementary school, there was only one sixth grader who walked across the stage. The rest of the students – who were mysteriously replaced while I've been gone with taller, older versions of themselves – sang songs telling her to "do her best" and how much they care about her. In a few weeks she'll be starting junior high and, for the first time, be in a class of 60 kids her own age.


Every month I send a postcard to my junior high and elementary schools, telling them the country I'm in, a word or two in the native language, and what skill I'm currently studying. The principal assured me he's been practicing the words of the foreign languages with the kids, and in his weekly newsletter he's reprinted my postcard for the kid's parents and surrounding community to learn from. I was deeply touched; it was everything I had hoped for when I first thought of sending them messages from abroad.

When I saw this corner of the staircase with all the postcards hanging up, my heart sang. I'm so glad I ultimately made the decision to come back here for these moments. ♥


Mar 3, 2015

Tots, Tutoring, and Tying the Knot

Thank you, thank you, thank you for all the messages, heartfelt support, and long conversations after my trip through hell. Since returning to Nong Khai, Thailand, my spirits have been nourished and lifted considerably.

I spent the first week back Skype-ing family and friends everyday, chowing down at the fantastic vegetarian restaurant in town, and riding my bicycle to the neighborhood massage parlor more than a few times. A friend at Mut Mee Guesthouse invited me along to the town orphanage where she spends her mornings volunteering and I jumped at the chance to play with adorable babies for a few hours.

At the orphanage with baby buddha.

I thought this would be how my entire time in Nong Khai progressed until...

At aforementioned vegetarian restaurant, I met an older gentleman who invited me to sit with him at lunch by asking, "Would you give me the pleasure of sharing lunch together with me today?" With such proper, old-fashioned English coming from a Thai man, how could I refuse? Mr. Jeyasak, I soon learned, was a native of Nong Khai who had become an engineer, and he traveled the world through his work. He emphasized his desire to understand and communicate with other people, thus why he can speak a bit of each language of every country he's visited.

We spoke about the Dhamma (Way/Law) in Buddhism and I was really touched by his compassionate nature. Mr. Jeyasak had started a KUMON center several years ago that his daughter now runs, right here in Nong Khai. He encouraged me to visit her there when I had a chance. A few days later, I did just that.

Ms. Porcupine Head checks the kids' comprehension skills.
Ever since meeting his daughter, Teacher Jiab, I've been taken under wing by this "mother" of the KUMON family. She is an embodiment of wisdom, sincere effort, and generosity. She also speaks English fluently at a very high level, and is eager to absorb more. She has dedicated her life to doing the best for her students and putting sincere practice into Buddhist meditation. On the third floor of the tutoring center she has her own mediation room which she openly invited me to use anytime.

Wow, universe. Just wow. How you provide!

Teacher Jiab took me through the course material, and I was so impressed. KUMON is a private company that began in Japan, and you can find their tutoring centers all over the world (including Southeast Michigan). What I found shocking was the lesson plans are...effective; the stories and dialogue practice are interesting and practical, and students have regular speaking practice beginning at the kindergarten level. This is an utter disconnect from my experience teaching English in the Japanese public school system.

If a student completes the entire KUMON program, they will have read O. Henry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charles Dickens. Dickens for goodness sake!! This really squeezed at my heart, knowing that my own students in Japan struggle so much. It's a completely different atmosphere and culture, and it's not fair to compare of course, but I wish I could make it easier for my Japanese kids all the same.

Nowadays, after correcting homework and tutoring the kids in the afternoons, the other teachers and I go out to dinner at a local restaurant. Over several savory dishes of tom yum, green curry, and sticky rice, Teacher Jiab tells me about the mythic history of Nong Khai, the living Arhat (a revered enlightened monk) who resides in Udon Thai, and the local parks and temples she wants to show me around town. After the feast, Teacher Jiab always insists she cover the cost herself. I am overwhelmed by her generosity.

Literally sitting in the street, passing out party favors.

One evening I left the center early so I could go to a wedding reception at Tim's (the coconut soup lady). It reminded me a lot of Kaori's wedding reception in Japan––the couple's main job for the night was standing in front of their guests, smiling for photo ops. Only this time around, in Thailand, it all took place at Tim's restaurant, with guests spilling out onto the sidewalk and streets. The gathering had an "aliveness" to it; celebrating alongside the busy street, dressed up among the grit, eating dish after dish of spicy pork and fried noodles in the open air under the stars.

I ended up working the "reception" (AKA the fahlang "foreigner" table) collecting money envelopes and offering out party favors to the guests. Two young girls took the karaoke stage and sang traditional regional songs (much like enka in Japan) with a subtle political undertone* to them.

[ *It is illegal for me to comment on their political message, because anything directly or indirectly spoken about the King could get me (or anyone else in Thailand) sent to jail. If you're interested, you can read about the imminent political change here. ]

These past two weeks have been exactly what I needed to lift my spirits. I think Thailand, especially Nong Khai, is one of "my places" –– somewhere I naturally fit in and get a special energy from being around; everything seems to fall into place with ease and satisfaction here.

Failing in my attempt to cycle through Laos to Vietnam forced me to turn around and go back to Thailand. A death in the family propelled Mr. Jeyasak to visit Nong Khai at the precise same time. From these sorrows, new joy was born that couldn't have taken place without them. From every death, there's potential for new life. How true Rumi's words are in his poem, The Guest House:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival. 
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor. 
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight. 
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in. 
Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


Feb 21, 2015

To Hell and Back (Cycling Part 2)

Let me start off by saying that I am all right. I’m typing right now from Thailand, where I’m safe, healthy, and restoring my spirit. Here is the abridged version of my misadventures cycling through Laos over three weeks:

*Ban Keun to Vang Vieng

or, Getting Hit On By a Communist Policeman

After escaping the Land of the Lotus Eaters, I cycle 81km to Ban Keun, to a guesthouse without plumbing. When I hit the road the next morning, my legs seize up in the hills – I hadn't given myself enough time to rest. Fast forward to me pushing my bike uphill through Hmong villages, water buffalo herds, and piglets wallowing in mud holes.

At some point I realize I don't have enough energy to scale the hills, pushing or not pushing the bike. I consider flagging down one of the rare vehicles that pass by, when lo! A truck passes me, turns around, and stops. The pudgy driver, dressed in a tan-colored communist police uniform, asks me where I'm going. "Vang Vieng," I say. He offers to drive me to the bus station, and I accept without hesitation.

My rescuer introduces himself as Mister Vannasa. We try to communicate despite his limited English; however, it doesn't take long for him to break out the "You very beautiful" line. Our conversation includes how he has kids but no wife, and how old I am compared to him (26 v. 40), etc. etc. until I've become uncomfortable.

We reach the bus station, but the bus has left already. Vannasa insists he drive me to the next town, an hour away, to catch another. He stops at a street-side shop for "water" and returns with two cans of BeerLao. I pretend to drink out of politeness, but he keeps cheers-ing my can over and over, encouraging me to drink more. I foolishly drink my can despite the fact I don't like beer. Vannasa's eyes become red and his English has deteriorated by the time we reach the bus station.

I say thanks, so long, gotta buy my ticket and find a bathroom––and he stops me. "No toilet," he says, pointing to the chairs under a metal awning that serves as a bus station. He starts driving us back down the road in search of a public bathroom.

It's at this point he puts his arm over my leg to hold and squeeze my hand!! Time to duck and roll!

I pull my hands away and clasp them together, my heart pounding with the fear that this is a nightmare coming true. We stop at a gas station bathroom, where I freak out in the stall [a recurring theme on this Laos trip], terrified he'll drive away with my bike and bags (and passport!) still in the truck.

Thankfully, he does not. He drives me back to the bus station, unloads my bike for me, and I purchase my ticket to Vang Vieng. When I sit down, I realize for the first time my head is swimming from the beer. It certainly helps calm my anxiety on the ride through the mountains to Vang Vieng as I clutch the seat in the back of a songthaew for several hours.

*Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang

or, The Only Good Parts

Up the Song River in Vang Vieng I happen upon an organic farm that specializes in fresh goat cheese. I stay there a few nights, volunteering in the morning to help with the goats in exchange for fresh mulberry tea and starfruit. In the process I meet some wonderful people; we clean out the pens by day and play ukulele around a bonfire by night. One evening I watch the sun set behind the blue round-top mountains until the ripe, full face of the moon shines bright in the dark sky.

Knowing that the road is steepest through the mountains after Vang Vieng, I elect to take the minibus to Luang Prabang instead of cycling. I arrive and all of a sudden, I'm in France! The price jumps 5x for everything, there are baguettes and boutiques everywhere, and foreigners outnumber locals. There are even entrance fees to visit the temples! I feel culture shock, and a sense of inferiority to the rich middle-aged French holidayers.

I find the Daohai Temple by chance outside the main city. The meditation hall is closed, but I end up talking to some of the teenage novice monks and we become fast friends. They keep asking me to recite "namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambudhassa" and laughing – apparently I have a funny accent when I chant in Pali? On the other hand they can speak bits of French, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and Hindi, all on top of their knowledge of Laotian, Thai, and Pali.

Over lunch at a quaint French restaurant, I'm invited to eat with a couple from Seoul who are human rights activists, one who writes and another who paints for their campaigns. Incredible people! We share a beer as they tell me about their painting exhibitions and campaigns to bring awareness to a ship that sunk with over 100 students onboard (apparently ignored by the South Korean government because the kids were from low-income families).

Later we climb Mt. Phou Si, overlooking all of Luang Prabang where the Mekong and Ou River meet. The sunsets on the Mekong here are gorgeous.

*Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw

or, Where Things Get Shitty

This is where I'm lucky to be alive, despite my foolhardiness. I was "testing" God to provide miracles for me, and they were granted in ways I could have never expected. Here's the short version: I leave Luang Prabang by bike. The hills aren't as steep, and I enjoy flying downhill. I very narrowly miss a pothole that would have really sent me "flying." I stop for lunch and order a fish (that, looking back, was not properly cooked).

I ride northward until I become weary, but the villages I pass don't have guesthouses. The next major town is too far away to reach by nightfall. I put my thumb out for a lift, but no one stops. I point to a parked songthaew in a village, but the owner won't drive me. I ask an older man for help and he can't understand what I was asking. When I walk away from him I'm sobbing, afraid of where I will sleep that night and what I'm going to do. Do I have to bike the next 60 km in the dark until I reach the next major town?

At a gas station I ask to be driven to Nong Khiaw. The guy wants 400,000 KIP to drive me ($50 USD). That's astronomical in Lao prices! I don't have that much on me (who would?). He becomes indifferent and won't negotiate. I move on.

At the next village, I find a guy who speaks English and ask to spend the night. He says he has to ask the village leader to host me. So I take my bike down a sandy, sharply downhill pit to the leader's house. The two guys sit on chairs on the porch, a gate between us, looking me over like a dealership purchase. How could my fate ever be in the hands of some random 30-year-old Hmong village leader?

He says no: his home isn't a guesthouse, and if I want to spend the night indoors I'd better go find one up the road. I was dismissed. I then had to struggle to get my bike back up out of the sand pit, angry and exhausted. The afternoon light starts to fade...

At the next gas station, God grants my miracle: Diek, the 15 year old girl working the pumps. She knows no English, and we communicate by hand signals only. I mime going to sleep, and she takes me to the back of the gas station, where there's a tiny square room with one double bed and a dresser. She points to the bed and holds up three fingers – there would be three of us sharing the bed (her, her sister Mo, and me) and is that okay? I nod enthusiastically: yes, that would great.

I have feverish dreams, and waking up in the night, I feel sick: the uncooked fish has come back to haunt me. I get up to go to the bathroom and all the blood leaves my head and I collapse, thinking, don't lose consciousness, don't lose consciousness! Diek wakes up and rouses me, and for a moment I didn't know where I am or how I've gotten there, like I've been sleepwalking. Then I get up like a shot and proceed to throw up in the gas station squat toilet stall. Diek pats my back the whole time, gets me bottled water and packaged foods to eat, and generally takes care of me that long, long night.

The next morning Diek makes a cardboard sign for me that reads "Nong Khiaw" in Lao script. She affixes it to a bamboo pole for me to hold. I sit at the edge of the gas station drive, unable to stand because I feel so sick, holding the sign out as every single car, truck, and van passes me by. I have no way of getting back to the world I know, and I feel stranded and alone. I'm afraid of being so sick in a place with no medical facilities; I'm afraid of death and its shadow, which I feel falls over the whole of Laos; an indifferent, immediate, edge-of-sight death.

Another miracle: a minivan stops on its scheduled route to Nong Khiaw and picks me up for 2.5x the normal price (I am desperate and don't care to haggle). I hug and thank Diek, who refuses to take the money I offer for all the trouble.

The pot holes to Nong Khiaw occasionally have road between them. It's so bumpy that the person next to me in the minivan hits his head hard enough to start bleeding. Between this and my illness, it's an understatement to say it was a difficult ride.

*Nong Khiaw to Muang Khua to Oudomxay

or, There is No Compassion in These Parts

Once in Nong Khiaw I'm ushered to a guesthouse on stilts over the Ou River, which I fear will fall down the embankment at any moment. I am, however, too weak to go out and find somewhere else to stay. After several hours I force myself outside to eat. At a restaurant, I can't stomach the noodle soup I've ordered, and tell the cook I need a ride to the hospital. As I'm doubled over in pain, she shirks me off to another woman, who shirks me off to a man, who waves me off like a pest. I shuffle down the road until I find a pharmacy. I ask the woman behind the counter to drive me to the hospital and she refuses. She points down the road and says, "Walk!"

I go back to my guesthouse room, miserable, and fight out the sickness and pain by myself. In my head I cancel all my trip plans, feel intensely homesick, and think nothing could be better than getting out of here. I calculate it will take me 3 days in any direction to get out of the country and that doesn't feel nearly fast enough. It's with a terrible horror I realize I am stuck deep inside a place I don't want to be, and it feels far too familiar to my feelings of childhood.

Much later, once I'm feeling human again, I take the first availabe boat out of Nong Khiaw, going north towards the Vietnam border. The boat is a narrow assemblage of wood nailed together slap-shod. They put my bike in the back near the motor and manage to melt my left handlebar during the five hour journey.

I get off at Muang Khua where I spend the night at a guesthouse with unsavory young Americans (drunk, possibly high, having loud sex, and sobbing). Since I'm awake anyway, I read offline about Hanoi (where I'm headed) and how it's one of the most dangerous cities in Southeast Asia with organized pick-pocket crimes and a plethora of scam artists. Well, great: another place I'll be stressed out and helpless in. I feel compelled by momentum to keep going, though I fear I'm jumping from the pan into the fire.

At 6:30 a.m., a half hour before I'm to take the bus to the border crossing, I realize my Vietnamese visa isn't valid for another 9 days. Another NINE DAYS. There's no way I'm staying in Laos that long! I have to go back... I cycle to the next town to catch the bus to Oudomxay... except I go 3km down the wrong road. When I ask some locals for help (using Laotian phrases), they laugh in my face. I turn around, reach town again, and go another 3km in the opposite direction (9km total) before I reach the station just as they're loading to leave.

As for this bus ride? The seats are hard as wooden boards and I'm sharing my row with a chicken.

In Oudomxay I have to cycle another 6 km to get to the opposite bus station to go south, back to the capital of Vientiane. I stop at a restaurant to get some lunch, and, for all intents and purposes, feel psychologically kidnapped for the next 24 hours.

*Oudomxay to Vientiane to.....

or, I Lose My Sense of Spirit Completely

As I’m eating at this restaurant, the cook and her family are celebrating something at the next table. The cook holds up a glass and offers it to me, indicating I sit with them. I am struck by this welcoming, after so many days of indifference from locals. I join them and partake in a glass of the wine cooler. I make friendly conversation with the cook’s sister, Mrs. Diamond Tooth, who speaks some English. She invites me back to her home to stay the night. I accept, having apparently learned nothing from my prior experiences in Laos that nothing good could come of it.

They open wine cooler after wine cooler until there are a dozen empty bottles on the table. They bring out two large bottles of BeerLao and I start pretending to drink instead of keeping pace. The karaoke is cranked up and my ears hurt.

Mrs. Diamond Tooth treats her daughter with disgust and her toddler with indifference. The cook’s kids are completely ignored. The three older children run around near the busy street making animal-like shrieks to communicate and finding joy in violently smashing the butterflies that cross their path. I’ve missed the last bus out of Oudomxay and feel stuck with them.

After every bottle of alcohol is empty, I go home with them, where they have ten more bottles of beer they start breaking into! At least I’m away from the karaoke, I think. Then they produce their very own personal stereo system and proceed to blast my eardrums out of my head. The kids continue to run around without any supervision, until the two moms get hungry at 9 p.m. and force them come out to a restaurant despite the fact everyone (including me) is exhausted.

I excuse myself to the bathroom and have a mental breakdown in the squat toilet stall. The only emotion I can feel is fear...

The next morning I tell Mrs. Diamond Tooth I need to take the earliest bus possible. Her brother drives us to the station and I get the 15+ hour “VIP Bus” (no chickens or hard seats) headed to Vientiane. Everyone is handed a plastic bag to throw up in at the start of the ride, as we take cliff-edge turns through the mountains. I come to learn VIP stands for Vomit-Inducing-(Hair)Pin turns. Mercifully, I don’t have motion sickness.

Except for a few stops to pee in the bushes, the hours pass in a numb haze. I keep thinking of my students, teachers, and friends in Japan whom I love so much and how much I miss them and how happy I would be to see them again. Focusing on their love is how I kept my spirit going, when it was an ember about to be snuffed out. My heart feels hard.

An excerpt from my journal at this time:
I feel a powerlessness & terror I've not experienced since childhood when our grandfather would terrorize us with lashings, imprisonment, and derogatory lectures that debased our selfworth as human beings. That poison is not fully flushed out of my system. It's more than getting over the pain - so too there is the fear - the absolute terror - and the anger. Going through the hell of Laos has reminded me of the hell I went through from childhood to young adulthood. The terror, the longing to escape, the isolation and inability to reach out, the lack of compassion from those around me with the ability to change or make a difference to the situation, the shitty food with no chance of alternatives, the bad skin and broken sleeping, the constant threat that anything and everything I have can be forcibly taken from me, that my will means absolutely nothing to anyone, that no one has mercy for me, feeling far away to God as if Buddha's back is turned from me in my mind. Utter selfishness is allowed to reign unchecked... There is no way out and you're in too deep... Laos scraped away my spirit [like a] candle whose wax has been scraped away from the wick.

Just after 3 a.m., the bus pulls into Vientiane’s Northern Bus Station. After barely two hours of sleep, I am exhausted. I just stand there on the concrete block, unsure of what to do next. Are there any guesthouses open at this hour? Where exactly am I? I ask a tuk-tuk driver to point out where the bus station is on a map — it’s 10 km outside the city center. I have a bike, I have a will, I have a way: by 4 a.m. I’m biking my way down the dark street.

I arrive in the city an hour later, just in time to watch the monks morning procession to collect offerings. Nothing is open and I abandon the idea of getting any more sleep. I decide I’ll go to the Thai Consulate and get a 30-day visa. I bike around until 8am, get in line at the Consulate, wait and wait and go through the paperwork and wait and turn in the paperwork –– I can barely stand at this point I'm so tired –– and at the last moment they reject the application because “you can’t wear glasses in your visa photo.”

What the hell!! They want more cash to take a new photo, plus I have to get back in line again, and just SCREW THIS! I knew I’d get 15 days visa-free entry if I went over the border right at this very moment. What was I waiting for??

I hire a tuk-tuk and he drives me to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge as it begins to rain. I exit through Laos immigration, thinking, This nightmare is finally ending. I bike across the bridge, my energy levels desperately low, and proceed to wipe out over the wet train tracks that cross the Thai side of the bridge. The bike’s weight lands on my right leg, where it scrapes the skin and later swells up hard as a rock. I don't cry, or wait, or give myself any pity; I yell at myself, “I’ve come through hell and I won’t be stopped by a little scrape on my leg!!” I scare myself, like the voice isn't mine — it's like a drill sergeant, forcing myself to pedal with my painful leg the remaining length of the bridge.

*Nong Khai!

or, One MORE Thing...

I reach Thai Immigration and they stamp my passport for 30-days (hallelujah!) without so much as a bureaucratic sneeze in my direction. I enter my beloved Nong Khai with such joy: Fresh air! Familiarity! Food variety! I pedal quickly to Mut Mee Guesthouse, to safety, to rest.

When I arrive at the garden guesthouse, several people who I’d met the month before are still there and greet me by name. I'm ashamed to be seen by them, knowing I look terrible after all I’d been through. My body is so tired now that every muscle movement is painful. I limp to the front desk and the owner gives me antibacterial medicine for my leg and a room to stay. Unable to think or function any further, I collapse in bed.

...And that night there is a cyclone!!!!

It was the most violent storm I’ve ever witnessed: the lightening flashed the sky red and blue, and thick tree branches were ripped from their trunks. The pressure buildup was so intense that houses in the next town over imploded, and my left eardrum (damaged some 13 years ago) rang deafeningly loud for hours. Closer to sunrise, the storm abated.

It felt like I'd passed through the last threshold out of hell, and then the earth trembled.

I am so thankful to be alive.


Feb 9, 2015

Escape from the Lotus Eaters (Cycling Part 1)

Taking a break along the Nam Ngum River.

The third time I woke, time had inched its way to 4:30 am; close enough. I quickly packed up the last of my toiletries and stepped outside the thatched hut into the pitch-black darkness of the Laotian forest. Using a head-torch, I mounted Oliver onto the rack of my bike.

I heard a crinkling sound like a stream of water poured over dry leaves. Were there animals around? What kinds of predators lived in these forests? Tigers didn’t live far off from these remote areas of Laos. It was far worse: the sound was coming from a festering mound of termites beside the hut! The sight made my skin crawl.

I tied down Oliver as quickly as I could and began the arduous journey back to the road. I felt like Odysseus trying to get back to sea after being swept away to the land of the Lotus Eaters.

The hut I stayed overnight in, and the others like it in the forest, are an off-the-beaten-path tourist destination for those who want to get closer to nature. At least, that’s what I had thought; when I got there I learned visitors’ real intentions were to smoke lots and lots of weed.

As the sole non-smoker in the dining hut at dinner, I couldn’t sit anywhere without being surrounded by fumes. Conversations centered around how guests had kept their stashes hidden from national authorities, and how one could make certain creations with a PCV pipe that could potentially blow up… I felt like a bystander in a Breaking Bad episode.

People doing weed around me wasn’t what put me on edge, it was the entire scenario. Let’s paint the picture: I’m in the middle of a forest in a remote area of Lao, far away from anyone who speaks English (or could hear me scream for that matter), sleeping in a tiny wooden hut with a single hook latch, by myself, with several very high guys around. No electricity, the one source of running water is a good walk from my hut passed mens' lodgings, and the phone SIM card I bought isn’t working.

I couldn’t sleep at night in my eagerness to leave as soon as possible.

The path through the lodging area and out the front gate (so no tigers inside, at least) is a series of steep stones, forking paths, and narrow sandy walkways… not cleared for someone with a heavy bike in mind. I’d already scraped chunks of skin off my fingers and one toe getting in — now I added more bruises to my look as the bike pedals kept crashing into my calves and the handlebars into my arms. It was so dark I could only see the patch of sand and rock lit just two feet or so in front of me. The moon was far down on the horizon, waxing a bright orange-yellow between the dried up trees’ silhouettes. It all added to the spooky Halloween vibe.

Every exhale crystalized and lingered around my face as I walked. Then, halfway (I hoped) on the pathway out, I saw two sets of glowing eyes staring straight at me! I stopped dead in my tracks. But what choice was there? I had to go forward. I refused to return whence I came — I was getting through! I pushed my laden bike forward, and the eyes blinked, disappeared, then reappeared in a new place. I will always remember those yellow-green eyes peering at me through the blackness of that forest.

Then it hit me: the cats! There were a liter of cats running around during dinner the night before — it must be them on a night hunt. When I came closer, my head-torch illuminated their shadowy fur and I found I was right. They scampered off into the brush. I heaved my bike up the stone outcrops they’d watched me from and trudged on.

Whenever I stopped I heard the biting-crunching march of the local termites and hurried faster. Terrible images of them devouring my bike from the wheels up—or me from the feet up—fed my gnawing fear.

Once I was out of the gate, the real trial began: finding my way 2.5 kilometers out to the main road, in the dark, dragging my bike through the sandy path where the wheels couldn’t catch enough ground to roll. Now I was really alone…I pushed on.

I hadn’t realized how uphill the way went until I was now going down it, the bike “kicking” my calves to keep up. The sun was beginning to turn its face to this side of the world. I stopped a moment to admire the stars when that terrible crunching noise returned. Where were they, where was it coming from? My torchlight flew around until I looked down at my feet and saw I was standing in the middle of a termite hoard—ahhh!! I flew down the rocks with my bike, praying and pleading I wouldn’t get my fist flat tire out here, oh please God no.

By very subtle degrees the sky became lighter, until the world was in deep shadows instead of pitch darkness. I kept asking myself, “Did I go this way before? Is this familiar?” Every sandpit felt the same, looked the same.

After a long time, I came to a crossroads by tiny village huts… I did not remember this at all. Did I take a wrong step somewhere? Was it really a straightforward path up to then, or had the night concealed the way from me? I put my bike on its kickstand and walked straight ahead, trying to figure out if I’d come that way before… I turned around and my bike was lost in the dark except for the single dot of its handlebar light, a little lost speck of white in the inky blackness.

One turn led to a village house, so that couldn't be it; I could either go straight, or turn right going up a hill (but I didn’t remember going down one on the way in…). I chose to go up the hill. I didn’t know it then, but that was not the route I was looking for.

When the lefthand side of the path became a fenced-in area for crops, I knew I'd taken a wrong turn, but I stubbornly kept going, thinking I could will the main road to appear until — two dogs came around the turn in the fence and started barking at me.

Dogs are not the cute, pampered pets we keep in the Western World; the dogs I’ve met in Asia are territorial, half-wild, and give chase. These two were medium-sized; big enough to bite a good chunk out of me — and I was intruding on their turf. They came closer and I began to turn my bike around to go back to the crossroads when — a car zoomed across the dimness behind them — I’d found the road! It was a way out!!

Dogs or no dogs, I was getting to that road. I gripped the handlebars, kept the bike between me and the dogs like Jenn and Harry taught me (bless them!!), and pushed the bike straight towards them. They snarled and came closer, but I walked past them shouting, “No!” after each bark to scare them off. They backed down, turned around in a circle, and came towards me again; this happened several times until my front tire hit the road and glided (no more sand, huzzah!) across the cement pavement. Once I was on the opposite side of the road, the dogs sulked back to the fence, their eyes still watching me.

The sun was coming up now: a dark red rim of light shown on the horizon, deepened by Laos’s red-sand dusted air. I put my sweater on against the cold breeze, pocketed my head-torch, and prayed thank you thank you thank you.

I cycled over 80 kilometers before nightfall….

Sunrise, Midday, and Sunset from Route 13

How was I to know I was headed for more trouble?

to be continued!