Born to be Wild

Get your motor runnin’… Head out on the highway… Lookin’ for adventure and whatever comes our way!…Yeah darlin’ go make it happen, take the world in a love embrace…Fire all of your guns…

By gun I mean the one I had loaded and cocked against my temple while horrible Cambodian karaoke music played at over a 100 decibels from a speaker just above my head.  By adventure I mean any moving vehicle you are in, driven by a sadist in South East Asia. By highway I mean a semi-paved dirt road with tailing pond sized pot holes and absolutely no rules.  By love embrace I mean the absolute insanity of handing over your life to the driver of an overnight bus who is chugging red bulls to stay awake on the worst road ever in Northern Laos. By motor I mean…

THE BUS.

I love the bus.  I really do.  You hear all sorts of travellers talking about the “real” Cambodia and the “real” Thailand or the opposite of that, where is the “real” Laos or the “real” Vietnam?  I for one will tell you that the “real” everything can be found and seen on the bus.  There is no better place to get a good sense of a country than taking a bus that locals can afford to be on.  I love looking out the window at the always amazing scenery and people watching as the bus passes by.  Small makeshift huts, shacks, stilted houses, 3 story mansions and bamboo food stalls riddle the roads of this part of the world.  Kids playing, women tending their crops, men heading into town with a truckload of cabbage, cows mingling by the busy roadways and as many motorbikes as you can count weaving in and out of traffic without any fear.  Most bus companies in this part of the world think you want to hear music.  More specifically karaoke style love ballads and really bad local pop.  Now I have nothing against local music, but some of this stuff is pretty bad, and when it’s played for hours on end in an uncomfortable bus at thunderously loud levels, well let’s just say that gun almost saved my life.  We were lucky a few times on the night bus to have along with the music,  disco style lights clicking on and off to the beat.  To top things off, after several hours of music, they would switch it and play local comedy shows just as loud.  Not many of the locals were laughing, I certainly wasn’t.  If we were really lucky the air conditioning wouldn’t be working. That always makes for a wonderful trip as the sun beats down on the giant metal frame, heating up the vessel into a stinky sweat box of smells that you don’t want to know.  Or the night bus that doesn’t turn down the air con and everybody on board turns into frozen sardines.  But hey at least it gets you from A to B right?  Sitting in the back of a mini bus (glorified minivan) 12 people on board, along with a roof top full of gear makes for a suspension that feels like a punch to your kidneys every time you hit a pot hole.  The ac was blowing cool air that never made it to the hot back seat where a tiny local woman with a newborn, F. and I were sitting.  The road was a sidewinder through the glorious mountain range leading into Northern Laos.  F. was standing strong trying not to let the roller coaster ride get to her somewhat tired stomach.  We thought the locals would be comfortable with the road conditions, but about 30 minutes into the trip the young local women awoke from her sleep and started throwing up all over the inside of the van next to the window.  She did manage to find a plastic bag and finished off her heaving without making too much of a mess.  Her husband sitting in front of us turned to see what was going on, than quickly fell back asleep offering no help or sympathy.  A guy from South Africa hollered at the driver to stop so we could let the young lady out to catch her breath.  Her husband stood in shock wondering why we were doing this; I also sat wondering how long he would have been willing to sit in the van with a stinking bag of puke in it.  We did finally get her out with some directing by the South African.  The locals were seemingly bewildered as to why we wanted to help.  It happened one more time about an hour later, I’m just glad that F. didn’t return the favour!  One thing that is a common theme to all of the countries in South East Asia is the lack of communication with the foreigners who do not know the bus routes.  Busses have started driving off with our bags still in them, me jumping fearlessly back into a moving bus yelling at the driver to stop so that I could get our last bag off.  We left two brand new fleeces in Indonesia because the bus all of the sudden stopped and said we needed to get out to catch another bus that was already leaving.  In our confusion at what was going on (no one told us we were going to be switching busses) we forgot $150 of fleece in the upper shelf.  A very nice present for some lucky SOB!  We have seen people fall down and almost get run over by the bus as they were getting out because time is money and the bus never comes to a complete stop to let anyone on or off.  You literally have to jump out of a moving bus.  Locals getting on the bus with instruments, usually guitars, playing a few self-written ditties then demand that you give them money.  I just wanted mostly to tell them to stop.  Tiny seats made for local bottoms not four European blooded cheeks.  Most of the bus trips have been uncomfortable, long, tiring, some with no bathroom breaks, some with way too many.  It of course wasn’t all bad, many people helped us get off at the right stop, and many more told us not to get off at the wrong one.  We were in China and nobody spoke any English, we knew the bus trip was around 4 to 5 hours.  I think we were over 5 hours in and we hadn’t stopped for quite some time.  We pulled into a huge empty gravel parking lot just off the road we had been driving on.  The locals got out of the bus to stretch their legs or have a smoke.  Was it our stop?  We were the only foreigners on board.  I got out and showed our ticket to the driver.  He grunted and turned his head.  I showed him again, and he slightly nodded and walked off.  Was it our stop?  I asked one of the taxi drivers if it was in fact our destination, he looked at me blindly and shook his head, “yes”.  Was it our stop?  We managed to get all of our stuff off the bus before it left, I was still unsure if we were even in the right place.  Then our knight in shining armor appeared out of nowhere, a taxi driver that could speak a few words of English.  I asked him about five times if it was the right city before I finally believed him.  The language barrier is a scary and beautiful thing, and being dropped off on the side of the road in nowhere China is one of the most amazing and scary things I have ever done.  The bus, it can’t get any more “real” than that.

B.

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Mo Phở !

Vietnam came and went without a hitch. It was the place I was waiting for or dreaming about this entire trip and when the plane landed in Hanoi from Beijing it just felt right. Like we belonged. Finally. Maybe belonged isn’t the right word here, after Indonesia and battling the language barrier through China, I was just happy to be in a place where I could breathe and relax without too much hassle or trouble. Vietnam ended up being the break that we needed.

Hanoi is bursting with life. Locals out in full force enjoying the few degree temperature drop of the cooler winter months. We stayed in the old quarter and the sunflower seed eating masses were out every night. It seemed to be the twenty something crowd’s social crutch. Sunflower seeds and conversation.

Watching an overgrown ape such as myself sit in a child size plastic chair at a street side food stall, must have been a hilarious experience for the tiny locals. My knees spread apart as far as they could go; still creeping higher than the edge of the table. Uncomfortably hoping they would come to take our order before my hips started aching and the hunch in my back deformed me forever. BUT…sitting down in a child size plastic chair, at a street side food stall with a million motorbikes zooming by, slurping the best phở you ever had from the innards of a dirty bowl is simply, positively, undeniably, glorious! Squeezing lime and adding all of the essential fresh picked herbs to your own taste is absolutely worth the price of the plane ticket. A holy experience really. The smell of the star anise, cinnamon, and all the other goodness in that wonderful beef broth steaming up into your face is magic.  Mixed with the honks, exhaust, the sound of a language I don’t understand and a constant stream of people of all colours walking by, you know you’re alive and it’s the reason why travelling can become addictive. It wasn’t just about the food, it was about the whole experience and with F. by my side this is one that I won’t soon forget.

B.

Finally Learning

The first scene my eyes registered when we arrived in Vietnam was over flowing with vibrant life and energy.  Our van drove by a large park and I couldn’t stop starring at the locals dancing, exercising and at play.  It was a regular Sunday afternoon but the positive energy and happiness that radiated from the outdoor space seemed to make the day quite special.  “Now these people know how to live!”  I thought as I made a promise to myself that I would try to absorb as much of whatever all of this was, while we were there.  Vietnam warmed the cockles of my heart.  It did come in a colorful package comprised of all of the elements we expected.  Risking life and limb every time you crossed the street, then feeling a strong sense of accomplishment about starring death in the face and saying, “See ya later!”  The conical hats, the street food vendors, country and riverside images that could turn anyone into an artist.  This neat little parcel also had a few pleasant surprises in store for us.  Images my heart and mind don’t ever want to forget.  Constant friendly smiles that were part of everyday and came from everywhere.  When I visit places where the people as a whole seem to care not only for their own animals but also for those who don’t have homes, they win me over forever.  People were constantly giving away food, sometimes even their whole meal to hungry street animals.  Does this come from the Buddhist ideal to give to those who have less than you do?  Whatever it was it filled me with an abundance of love, love, love!  Quickly plunging back into plus 30 degree weather after being in Beijing’s chilly 5 degree atmosphere was a little more than my body could handle.  Exhaustion from travelling, dehydration and drastic climate change got the best of me one of the first days we were there.  More than once I had to take a necessary break from exploring because I was feeling light headed and faint.  As I sat on the sidewalk my breath shallow, sweat droplets furiously dripping down and my head between my legs, unexpected helping hands appeared all around me.  One business owner offered a seat in his air conditioned salon.  Two more graciously brought stools out from their stores so I would not have to sit on the sidewalk.  I was deeply touched by this generous display of care for a foreign stranger.

One of the most amazing sights I’ve had the pleasure to experience was Halong Bay.  Yes our world is magnificent; yes nature can blow you away in its non-man made majestic simplicity.  The limestone karsts of all different shapes and sizes are the perfect setting for any fairy-tale. I felt like Snow White for the night, enveloped by their surreal quality.  What do the locals who live in the floating villages think of it?   Could this scenery ever become mundane no matter how many times you would see it?  Oh Halong Bay, I hope our human ignorance never does anything to hinder your greatness.

Every moment in life is inconsistent, impermanent and ever-changing. Precious times as well as difficult ones are fleeting, they disappear. I want to treat the present like the gift that it is, uncluttering my mind of anything that isn’t NOW. Decontaminating my heart and soul from the problematic formulations my brain won’t stop trying to figure out. For the very first time I’m allowing myself to accomplish the simplest task that is undeniably also the most difficult. I’m taking the time to just STOP.

F.