Home is where the crazy is.

One month ago I stepped off the plane at SFO, greeted by the blustering rain of a proper winter day in California – the kind of day that feels like a rare blessing in this drought. The damp smell, the chilly wind and the flush of bright green on the hillsides told me I was home. When my old subaru pulled up to the curb with Ian and Pixie inside, my heart welled up with joy. After lots of hugs and wags, a decadent breakfast at Blackberry Bistro and a hike in Redwood Park, I went home, threw my bike in the corner and crawled into my own bed for the first time in nearly four months.

Home.

In the days and weeks that followed, I pinballed through no less than five Christmas dinners (three with Ian’s various family factions, two with my own), one road trip to Seattle, one sick dog ordeal, one plumbing ordeal (we were without sewer for a week!), one moldy closet ordeal, one record-breaking New Years Eve hangover (I’d forgotten that I cannot drink champagne), and a full-time, temporary job that started January 5th – all the while reconnecting with loved ones, my stuff (I have so much stuff!) and the modern consumer economy.

And people think I’m crazy to go riding my bike across Asia? My regular life is the crazy part!

Embracing the crazy with Ian and Pixie in Port Townsend, WA -- four days after I got home.

It’s such a classic human cliche. Throughout my travels I was homesick, lonely and afraid of all the things I didn’t know or understand: Am I on the right road? Will I find a hotel before dark? Why are they looking at me like that?

Now that I’m home, I’m nostalgic for the simplicity of traveling life and afraid of all the things I know too well: my bad habits, my complicated relationships, the sheer impossibility of getting everything done, of not letting anyone down.

All month people have been asking me, “How was your trip?” Neither they nor I are satisfied by my answer. My mind races, trying to come up with the right words, to explain how it was. I start talking, but their eyes have already glazed over, moved on.

Maybe the reason I don't have a good answer is because my trip was just like my life — difficult, thrilling, frustrating, serene, ridiculous, boring. At times, the solitude and cultural isolation felt like a cage I was trapped in, with no easy way out, with only my rattling thoughts for company. If getting home had been any easier, I probably would have given up long ago. In those moments, there were only two options: keep pedaling, or find somewhere to drink tea and read Game of Thrones until the mood passed. Thank you George R.R. Martin, I couldn't have done it without you.

At other times, I was exhilarated by encountering people and landscapes in the open, vulnerable state that only solo travel can bring about. The smallest glimpse of beauty or act of kindness would send shock waves through my heart.

Torii gates, Kyoto

 

My trip was a string of opportunities to encounter myself in all my naked, human imperfection. My impatience, my idealism, my judgementalism, my stereotypes, my fears, my stubbornness, my love and my longing.

And now I am home, where we are all moving so quickly, lurching from chores to deliverables to social engagements. Every day my to-do list grows, faster than I can cross things off. The sense of too-much-ness begins to feel like a cage of a different sort, just like it did before I left.

People in Thailand or China aren’t any different. They’re all preoccupied with their own problems and fantasies, just like I am. There are cultural and political differences that influence how they relate to their lives, but the fundamentals are the same.

Chiang Rai, Thailand

Travel gives us the opportunity to step outside the thrum of our constant activity, to see the world with fresh eyes, fully present, witnessing both the beauty and the suffering around us, beauty and suffering that are so different from ours, but nonetheless resonate somewhere deep within us.

When we return home we bring those fresh eyes with us. We see our lives differently. We witness anew the beauty and suffering that we had previously taken for granted. We recognize patterns and habits that had become unconscious.

When I came home I was flooded with startling revelations. I don’t actually like Downton Abbey. I don’t like myself when I drink coffee. I am surrounded by crazy people whom I adore. There’s a pair of almost-new shoes in my closet which I had written off as ugly, but now I'm wearing them all the time. I have the capacity to appreciate 98% of the people I encounter, but if you’re in that other 2% you’d better watch out. Especially if I’ve been drinking coffee!

How long will these fresh eyes last? Another month, six months, a year? Already I can feel them fading away. When I set out on this journey, I had big – often unconscious – expectations about how this trip would transform my life. I would return refreshed, wiser, more patient, more perfect. I haven’t become any of those things, of course, though I do feel that I have tested my endurance and accomplished something meaningful, a feeling akin to passing organic chemistry with a hard-won C+, or enduring a painful phase in a relationship. There’s a deep-rooted confidence that comes from sticking it out through the hard stuff, in order to win some understanding or experience of beauty.

Vientiane, Laos

 

This the part where I could rant about how our society doesn’t value and appreciate these types of experiences anymore, that we’re all addicted to our instant-gratification devices and status-seeking behaviors. But I don’t believe we’re actually any better or worse than we humans have ever been. Sure, we have more novel ways to delude and distract ourselves than your average Chinese peasant, but we have always found ways to delude and distract ourselves. And there has always been a part of us that transcends this weak-spiritedness, that calls us to be our highest selves, to see what we are capable of.

Wherever I went, I met enthusiastic people who appreciated and understood what I was doing. Some of these people had difficult lives, others were obviously quite privileged. Many of them said they could never do what I was doing. But there was a spark in their eyes that said otherwise.

 

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Learning to Breathe

For the last six weeks I've taken a break from blogging. What, you may ask, have I been doing all this time? I've been breathing. Not breathing AND bicycling, or breathing AND talking, or breathing AND walking.

Just breathing.

My respiratory adventures began in eastern Thailand, where I spent a month at a monastery called Wat Pah Nanachat, which translates to “International Forest Monastery.” International because the monks at this monastery come from all over the world, and English is the common language spoken. Forest, because this monastery belongs to the “forest” school of Theravada Buddhism, which tries to replicate the ascetic lifestyle lived by the historical Buddha. Imagine a bunch of white guys in saffron robes, living an extremely simple life in the forest, and you've got the idea.

 

Arriving at the monastery

The monks out on their morning alms round in the nearby village

 

So what's it like to spend a month at a Buddhist monastery? Imagine being so bored, for so long, that finally your boredom itself becomes interesting. Your boredom, your irritation, your restlessness, your escapism, your fantasies of chocolate milkshakes and hot showers. You'll notice how one mosquito buzzing in your ear can turn you into a raging lunatic. Or how the abbot droning on and on with his sermon, while the only food you'll eat for the next 24 hours is getting cold and gelatinous on the table, will make you become so judgmental, so HANGRY, that you're amazed you haven't actually murdered anyone yet.

When there is no escape from what annoys you, and no way to satisfy your cravings, you will have nothing else to do but watch. And watch. And WATCH. Watch all the feelings and thoughts and fantasies and memories and delusions come and go. You will realize what a a total headcase you actually are.

And just when you think you really ARE going to throttle the abbot, or sneak off to the nearby 7-11 for an iced coffee and a snickers, you will remember to breathe. You will take a few breaths, and then you will realize that you're okay, that actually nothing is wrong, that its all just your mind doing backflips like a bored monkey in a cage. You will let it go.

You will slow down. Your limbs will hang loose, your muscles finally surrendering their death grip on whatever it was they were holding onto.

You will discover that you are actually looking forward to raking leaves at 5:30 am. You will be so awed by the beauty of a treefrog in the sink or a sunrise filtering through the forest canopy that you will scarcely be able to breathe past the lump in your throat. You will cry over the memory of a childhood pet. You will cry over nothing.

You will realize that you can totally manage on one meal a day, and that you don't have to freak out when ants are crawling all over your leg. You will just be still, and they will move on.

And you will never, ever, EVER eat something as delicious as the double-sausage egg mcmuffin that you devour as soon as you leave. (Although you will blame your new friend from the monastery, after all it was HER idea it was to stop at McDonald's, you would never ever do that yourself.) After that you will devour the green curry, the pad thai, and ice cream sundae, and all the different street foods whose names you don't know.

After you have stuffed yourself, and slept in a proper bed, and stuffed yourself some more, and consumed caffeine and alcohol and the internet, and even bought yourself a cute new shirt at the night market, you will feel strangely dissatisfied. You will realize that you're not actually happier or more content than you were at the monastery. You're just moving again.

* * *

After leaving the monastery, I didn't really know what to do with myself. Luckily, I didn't have a choice. I was going to Ko Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand that is thick with partying backpackers, snorkeling honeymooners, and sunburned snowbirds from Sweden and Germany and Minnesota.

One of the more lovely sides of Ko Tao

I had booked a bungalow on Ko Tao months in advance, as a splurge for the final weeks of my trip. While I was a bit skeptical about what it would be like to suddenly join the throngs of heat-seeking tourists, the bungalow was already paid for. So I packed up the bike and, after a brief stopover in Bangkok, made my way south.

Perusing my Lonely Planet guidebook, I learned that Ko Tao is home to a lot of bars and scuba schools, often co-located and catering to the same crowds. Eesh. But Ko Tao also has several schools which teach free diving, which is, as Lonely Planet puts it, “exploring the sea using breath-holding techniques rather than scuba gear.”

Scuba has never appealed to me for the very reason that it seems so artificial and stuff-intensive. But using the breath to explore hidden depths? I'd never heard of such a thing, but it sounded like a metaphor for my time at the monastery. And it also seemed like a good way to escape the crowds while discovering what had made Ko Tao so popular in the first place.

Thus began the next phase of my lessons in breathing. After arriving on Ko Tao I signed up for a two-day course at a school called Apnea Total, where I learned breathing techniques to oxygenate the blood, loosen the diaphragm and calm the mind for diving.

When it finally came time to try some deep dives in the ocean, I was surprised by how not scary it was. I expected to find myself a panicky mess when I dove under, but instead I encountered a rare serenity there in the deep blue. In my fins, wetsuit and mask, I glided easily through the clear blue depth, listening to the gentle hum of the ocean. By the end of the class I was diving 40 feet below the surface, and feeling more comfortable in the ocean than I ever had before.

I wanted more, but the next day a storm blew in and brought a halt to all nautical pursuits for the next three days — and then it was time to get off the island, to begin the long journey toward home.

 

 

 

 

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Laos: Psychedelic FAIL

I’ve been traveling for seven weeks now, and I thought I had this whole solo bike touring thing dialed. Laos has taught me otherwise.

My time here started out easy enough, with a languid two-day boat ride down the Mekong River. After hearing horror stories about the overcrowded, beer-soaked public boats that ply the river between the Thai border and Luang Prabang, I decided to splurge on the “posh boat.” For two lovely days I cruised slowly down the river, sprawled on a comfortable cushion, drinking tea and watching the countryside drift past.

Mekong riverboat

 

This is what I'm talking about.

 

 

Sunset over the Mekong. Consider the pink dots a not-so-subtle foreshadowing.

 
Luang Prabang: the dreaminess continues

Our boat arrived in Luang Prabang at dusk, and I was immediately struck by the seductive beauty of the city, a classy blend of French colonial and traditional Lao/Lanna influences. The Laos I’d seen from the river was rural, poor and not in a hurry. Luang Prabang shared that laid-back attitude, but was undeniably sophisticated in a way I’d not encountered anywhere else in SE Asia. It managed to be at once dynamic and peaceful, dreamy and authentic, touristy but on its own terms.

I spent the next few days wandering happily around Luang Prabang’s street markets and shady lanes, indulging in baguettes and red wine, and learning about traditional weaving and the women who sustain this rich cultural heritage.

Night market and temple

 

Sunrise over Luang Prabang

 

Breakfast at the morning market

 

Traditional weavers ply their trade at Ock Pop Tok Weaving Center

 

Really, you should just go to Luang Prabang.

 

But I had a bike trip to get on with, so after three days I somewhat grudgingly packed up my stuff and prepared to get on my bicycle once again. Also somewhat grudgingly, I started taking malaria pills (malarone), which my doctor had insisted on for Laos, saying that bike travel made me more likely to contract the disease than regular travelers.

Despite my doctor’s advice I had been reluctant to take the pills, having read and heard about all the nasty side effects. But then a fellow traveler I’d met in Thailand emailed me, telling me he’d fallen ill with either dengue or malaria. He was in remote northern Laos, very sick, and he was preparing to take a miserable 12-hour bus ride back to Thailand to seek proper medical care (which is basically nonexistent in Laos).

His story scared me, and so I swallowed the first pill. And the second. Afterward I felt fine as I wandered around Luang Prabang. Alright! I thought, I’m one of the lucky ones, no side effects for me. Time to get riding.

I packed up my stuff, set my alarm for 5 am, and went to sleep thinking about the ride ahead. It was somewhat famous among SE Asia bike tourists, an epic five-day tour through the mountains from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. It promised beautiful scenery, remote Hmong villages, and a series of high-mountain guesthouses where no tour buses ever stop. Having seen a sum total of ZERO other bike tourists on the road so far, I was excited about the likelihood of having other bicyclists to ride with. From blogs I’d read, I knew the first day and a half involved some steep climbing, and the trip overall was not for the fainthearted. But hey, I survived rural China, what’s the worst that could happen?

The craziness begins

The next morning I woke up in a panic, confused, tangled in my sheets. It was dark, there were voices. I lay stone still, listening, until I remembered. My guesthouse was next door to a Buddhist temple, and the monks’ quarters were just on the other side of the wall from my room. Every morning they woke up at 4 am and I woke with them, listening as they rung the bells, washed up, and shuffled off to their morning prayers. I had realized this my first night in the guesthouse. While it always woke me up, I had never felt afraid or confused by it — actually I kinda liked it — and usually I went right back to sleep.

But not today. I lay in bed, trying to go back to sleep, but my heart jumped at every sound and my thoughts were as tangled as my sheets, my body limp and achy. I finally got out of bed at 6, an hour later than planned, and that’s when I realized that I was already half-dressed. Apparently I had gotten up in the middle of the night and started getting dressed, and then went back to bed. It was weird, but as a child I used to sleepwalk and I often dream vividly, so I was sure it was no big deal. Really.

A few minutes later I was on my bike, rolling out of town and into the countryside. For the first two hours I biked through villages, low hills and fields. I felt sluggish, but I blamed it on the fact that I’d been off my bike for almost a week.

By the time I started up the first big climb, I was in my groove. The sun was out and it was getting hot, but it was still early in the day. If I could sustain a slow steady pace through this climb and the following one, I’d arrive at the next town an hour before dark. Between here and there was only jungle, a smattering of small villages, and this steep, winding road.

The hallucinations started about an hour later.

To pass the time, I’d started counting butterflies and dragonflies. I was up to 23 butterflies and 9 dragonflies. Suddenly a faint halo appeared in the center of my field of vision, accompanied by a little “pop,” either felt or heard inside my head, I’m not sure which. The halo was a translucent thread, rainbow-colored, and it moved wherever my eyes went.

It was odd, but otherwise I felt fine. So I kept going. But soon the halo grew wider, and then it started moving across my field of vision. It became a thick, swirling ribbon of rippling colors and geometric patterns. As my eyes moved, the ribbon picked up colors and patterns from the landscape and echoed them. A red and white road sign became a swirling candy cane. Sun-dappled leaves slithered across the pavement. It was getting harder to make out the faces of passing motorcylists.

I still felt fine and I knew the hallucinations were just that, hallucinations, but I was started to get concerned. I pulled over in a shady spot, drank some water and waited to see if the hallucinations would subside. But that didn’t seem to be happening. I knew it must be the malaria pills, but I didn’t know how bad it could get. And what if it was actually malaria, or dengue, or heat stroke? As my vision continued to get worse, I really started to get freaked out.

I considered my options. The next ‘town’ was 40 km away and 1500 meters above me, and it was basically a truck stop. It would take me six hours of hard riding with a fully-loaded trailer to get there. The next real town was another two days beyond that. I could maybe flag down a bus, if it wasn’t full, and if the bus driver was willing to deal with my bike and trailer.

Elevation profile of the ride I was attempting that day. I turned around at about the 37 km mark.

 

Back the other way, it was 35 km of mostly flat and downhill road to Luang Prabang, which has the closest thing to a hospital for hundreds of miles in any direction. There was also guesthouse right at the foot of this mountain. I’d passed it on my way up, and if I turned around I would speed down the hill and be there in 15 minutes. I had spent an hour climbing this hill, so the last thing I wanted to do was lose all that elevation I’d worked so hard to gain. But given the circumstances, it was the only reasonable choice.

It was only 11:30 am when I checked into the guesthouse, so I spent the rest of the day resting, reading, and hydrating. I skipped my scheduled dose of malaria pills. The hallucinations subsided, and I went to bed early, thinking I’d wake up and tackle the mountain straight off. But I woke again at 4 am with a splitting headache and nausea, terribly confused and scared again. All I could think was – I want to go home! I wondered if I could get on a plane that day. At first light, I rode for Luang Prabang.

That was three days ago. I’m still in Luang Prabang, and feeling like myself again. The fear and confusion and headaches are gone, along with my imaginary rainbow. But I don’t think I’ll be trying my luck with that mountain again. While there was a perfectly logical explanation for what happened out there, it was a stark reminder of how quickly things can descend into a really scary situation. I’ve had enough.

As if to seal the deal, my bike had an episode of its own. It was my first night back in town, and I was eating at the night market. I parked Totoro in a cramped row of motorcycles, and I think somebody must’ve accidentally smashed their motorcycle into my derailleur. It’s now bent, just a little, but enough that the chain falls into the spokes whenever I put it into the lowest gear. If I needed another sign that its time to stop climbing mountains, that was it.

So, tomorrow I’m folding up the bike and getting on a bus. I’ll be heading over those mountains again, in an air-conditioned coach, and making my way down to Vientiane and crossing back into Eastern Thailand.

While I’m disappointed that this leg of the bike tour ended so pathetically, I’ve really enjoyed having a few extra days in Luang Prabang. I spent several evenings hanging out with Mone, a young woman who is a weaver at Ock Pop Tok. Mone is smart, funny and fearless – here she is riding my bike, which is just a tad large for her!

Note where the seat is relatively to Mone. This didn't stop her from riding at breakneck speed through the night market.

I also ran into Rakhal, a friend from the UC Davis Wildlife Biology program who I haven’t seen in years. Rakhal and his girlfriend Annabelle are traveling around Thailand and Laos for 10 months. According to Mone, Rakhal resembles a Southeast Asian pop star named David who is European but sings in Thai. Here is Rahkal tossing his hair in classic pop star fashion, while Mone looks on approvingly.

Honestly, I could spend the rest of my trip in Luang Prabang and be happy. But the road goes on, whether on bike or bus or water buffalo, I want to see what’s around the next corner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Biking Northern Thailand

After my crash landing in Nanning, it was time to figure out my next step. I had a vague plan to continue biking into Vietnam, then across Laos to northern Thailand. But after grinding my way across Guanxi province for a solid week, I realized that would take much more time than I had imagined.

When I found a cheap flight from Nanning to Chiang Mai, I went for it. Three days later I was on a plane, and breathing a sigh of relief.

After the chaos of China, Chiang Mai was a slice of backpacker heaven. Smoothies and cappucinos, yoga studios and massage. Beautiful buddhist temples on every corner. And all of it dirt cheap thanks to the ridiculous exchange rate that keeps the tourist dollars flowing. Six lazy days went by in the blink of an eye, and I'd done little but eat, sleep, read and visit temples.

 

 

Finally I started to feel guilty about all this indulgence, so I packed up and got back onto my bike, heading north and east toward the Golden Triangle and Laos.

My first day out, I was on the bike at 6 am and passed monks out in the morning streets with their begging bowls.

Monk in the bike lane

 

I realized with delight that this was a ubiquitous phenomenon all across Thailand. If you are out and about early in the morning, you will encounter monks. If you offer them food, they will accept it and chant a blessing for you. This quickly became part of my morning ritual. What better way to start a bike ride than with a monastic blessing?

My first night, I stopped at a farm in the hills north of Chiang Mai, where I rented a bamboo bungalow. At the farm I was adopted by a black dog who reminded me of Pixie. The dog toured me all around the farm, and even came to my bungalow during a rainstorm to check on me.

 

Next stop: elephants! I spent two days visiting a wonderful place called the Elephant Nature Park, which rescues injured and abused elephants and lets them roam freely on their 200-acre preserve. There's no elephant riding, no shows, just quality time with these lovely creatures.

Banana bribery

 
Elephant Nature Park was founded to provide a haven for abused elephants, but also to pioneer a different, more humane type of elephant tourism. The focus here is on direct, voluntary contact with the elephants as individuals — learning their personalities and stories. The elephants can choose how much they want to interact with the visitors, who woo them with bananas and watermelons — and buckets of water in the heat of the day.
Selfies with elephants – known here as “elphies” – are hard to resist.
 
 

This elephant-friendly tourist model seems to be working; getting overnight reservations wasn't easy and the place was packed both days with day-trippers from Chiang Mai.

Some of the elephants have survived horrific situations and still bear the scars of their former lives.

This gal stepped on a land mine while logging in Burma

But there are also some happy stories, such as these two youngsters who were born at the park and have only known the good life.

Gratuitous baby elephant photo

 

After I left the elephant preserve, I cycled deeper into the mountains of northern Thailand, through forests and fields of rice and corn. I visited temples, cycled over mountain passes, explored caves filled with Buddhist imagery, and rolled through small villages and towns.

Most nights, I stayed in musty little hotels where I was the only guest. I wondered what my Thai hosts thought of me as I sat alone in the hotel restaurant, eating green curry and reading Game of Thrones before going to bed at 8 pm. Luckily, I was usually too tired to worry much about it, and Thai people are too polite to ask questions!

Here are some photos from along the way.

Huge old teak trees near Chiang Dao

 

Misty mountain morning near Chai Prakan

 
 
I visited several limestone caves which are considered sacred and contain many buddhist shrines and images.

Exploring a limestone cave with a local guide

 

Buddha images, old and new, in a sacred cave in the mountains near the Burma border

 

In this photo you can see the hand and arm of a giant buddha at the back of the cave. Carved out of solid rock and painted gold, it stood 40 feet tall and has eyes that glitter in the darkness.

 

One long, hot day, it was getting close to lunch time when I stopped at a small village temple for a break. Thai temples are perfect rest stops for bicycling. They welcome all comers, there is always a toilet and sometimes free drinking water. If its a popular temple, there are a few food vendors by the entrance, and you can always find a quiet, shady place to sit, meditate or even nap.

On this particular day, I noticed some activity by the entrance to the temple, but it wasn't until I walked through the gate that I saw dozens of monks and hundreds of people milling about. I had stumbled into some big event.

A little intimidated, but needing to pee, I started edging my way around toward the back of the crowd.

“Hello, are you hungry?” a voice called.

I turned around and saw a table full of people looking at me. An older man was smiling and gesturing for me to come over. The table was covered with a huge assortment of potluck dishes, noodles and bamboo shoots and roast duck and barbequed pork. Minutes later, I was seated at the table and many hands were piling food in front of me.

I ate until I couldn't eat any more, and then someone gave me an impromptu tour around the temple. When I asked what the festival was about, my guide simply said it was “a Buddha day” but that's all his English would allow. He showed me a tall wooden statue of a standing Buddha, and said that it was came from California and was made of a special red tree that only grows in California. I was flabbergasted. I looked closer and, sure enough, this here's a redwood Buddha.

Redwood Buddha in Thai temple - what are the odds?

 
I can't help wondering about the backstory here. But language barriers being what they are, all I could do was enjoy the kindness of the villagers, and appreciate the serendipity of stumbling upon a little bit of home in this most unexpected of places.
I ended this leg of the bike tour in Tha Ton, a pretty little village on the Kok River, near the border with Burma.
 

 

In Tha Ton, I packed up the bike and boarded a longtailed boat, which took us down the river to Chiang Rai. I'm enjoying some rest and preparing for the next leg of the journey: Laos!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Breakdown and Repair: the Master of Nanning

This blog post is for all you gearheads and amateur bike mechanics out there (you know who you are). I'm also sharing this with the folks at Bike Friday who built my bicycle and trailer, so they can learn from what happened to me.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my bike broke down in the mountains of rural Guanxi province, on the sixth day of an 8-day trip from Guilin to Nanning. I had already biked about 50 mountainous miles of rough road that day, and I was resting in a rural bus shelter before the final push to the next town, where I hoped to find a hotel and food. It was about 10 miles away. After eating, drinking and staring vacantly at a trail of ants for a few minutes, I made myself get up. I knew the town wasn't much further, but the hill in front of me looked steep, and the day was getting late. I didn't want to be pedaling out here in the dark. I put away the food and started pushing my bike back toward the lip of the asphalt.

That's when I noticed the nose of the bike trailer dragging in the gravel. Uh oh. I bent down to look closer, and realized that that rigid metal frame on the underside of the trailer was no longer… rigid. A joint near the front of the trailer had failed, the two metal tubes no longer fitting together snugly. They were still connected, but loosely, and the wobble meant the trailer's nose was hovering just centimeters above the level road bed — and striking ground every time I went over a bump. I knew that if the joint bent any further, I would be stuck. The trailer carries all my stuff – clothes, water, food, spare parts. Aside from a small daypack attached to the seatpost, I don't have any panniers.

I had brought a huge assortment of tools and spare parts, but no welding equipment. And there was nothing around for miles. I used some duct tape and sticks to make a pathetic little splint around the busted joint — it made me feel better, if nothing else — and then I continued slowly on my way. The steep hill in front of me went on and on and ON — turns out it was the biggest pass I climbed that day. The town was at the base of the pass, on the other side. I was riding the brake all the way down the hill, wincing every time I hit a bump, waiting for the trailer to come crashing down behind me. But it held.

When I got to the edge of town, a motorcyclist waved at me from the side of the road. It was a solo tourist from Wuzhou that I'd met earlier that day at my lunch stop. Once he realized my situation, he was incredibly helpful and kind. We found a mechanic just before it got dark. The mechanic replaced my wooden splint with a metal one. It was a definite improvement, but I could still feel the joint wobbling inside the split. I didn't trust it to hold for long. I went to sleep that night wondering if my bike journey was over.

The next day I decided not to risk it, so I caught a bus to Nanning where I had been planning to end this leg of the trip. The family of my father's wife live there, and we'd been corresponding about my visit. I was three days early. “Uncle Wu” met me at the bus station and I showed him the situation with my bike trailer.

“Don't worry,” said Wu, who speaks a little English. “We can find fix.”

The next morning, we took the trailer to a motorcycle mechanic near Wu's house. After we explained the situation, the mechanic walked away and got on his phone. Then he sat down, lit a cigarette, and stared out at the road.

Wu explained that the mechanic didn't know how to fix my bike trailer, so he had called his “master.” Wu sat down and lit a cigarette too.”What's he doing?” I asked Wu. “Why is he just sitting there?”

About 30 minutes later, a guy rolled up on a motorcycle, flip flops on his feet, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Everyone jumped up when he entered. Wu and the other mechanic yammered at him while he gazed at my bike trailer and occasionally muttered a few words. He picked up a bolt about six inches long and turned it slowly in his hands. Then he set to work.

First he inserted the bolt into the hollow metal tube of the frame, hammering the end until it fit snugly inside. Then he ground away the head of the bolt.

 
Next he soldered the bolt in place, to make sure it stayed put. A pair of cheap ladies sunglasses was his only nod to safety equipment.
 

Then he drilled a hole into the other end of the bolt, so that it could be secured into the other piece of the frame. What do you think he used to hold the part in place while he drilled it? Why, his flip-flops, of course.

 

By this time, about ten people had gathered around to watch the Master at work. Here's the final product, side by side with a similar bolt.

Before and after

 

Another view of the newly improved piece, with the trailer case in the background.

 

This piece fits snugly into the other piece of the frame, secured by an (original) bolt that holds the joint together and attaches the frame to the trailercase itself. When I put it all together again, it was rock solid. Since the repair I've biked hundreds of miles across northern Thailand, and it hasn't budged.

Guess how much the Master asked me for this repair? About $6. This guy had salvaged my whole trip, for the price of a burrito. I gave him the equivalent of $20 and told him to keep the change.

 

 

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Becoming Frenemies with China

 

Earlier this week I left China with a mixture of relief and sadness. I was glad to escape the crowds, the pollution, and the silent threat of the Communist Party lurking beneath the surface. I was tired of being stared at everywhere I went, tired of breathing dirty air, tired of the frustrating vagaries of the great Chinese internet firewall.

But my departure was also bittersweet, because I had gained a glimmer of insight into modern life in China, and I wanted more. I was lucky enough to meet and spend time with several wonderful Chinese people over the course of my travels, and our conversations touched me deeply. There was the bike shop owner in Guilin who had bike toured all over Southeast Asia, an experience that opened his eyes to his homeland's political situation and converted him to a Buddhist and truth seeker. In Shanghai, I met another young Buddhist convert, an artist who was seeking to bring back the Buddhist artistic traditions lost in the Cultural Revolution. Also in Shanghai, I met a former professor from Beijing who was imprisoned and tortured after the Tiannanmen Square protests. He was the only person I met who was old enough to remember the horrific events of the Mao era, spoke English and was willing to talk about them. His story left me shaking.

In Nanning, I was welcomed by the family and friends of my father's wife. They took care of me like family, fed me, showed me around their city and refused to let me pay for anything, though I knew they could scarcely afford it.

Then there was the aspiring capitalist from Wuzhou who went out of his way to help me when my bike broke down in the middle of rural Guanxi. He was just out for a day trip in the mountains on his motorcycle, but when he realized my situation he spent the rest of his day helping me. Together we rigged a temporary fix to my bike and he stayed with me while I limped to the nearest town, rolling slowly along on his motorcycle. Once we arrived in town, he found me a mechanic, food and a place to sleep. At first I suspected ulterior motives, but they never materialized. He was just an extremely kind person. He spoke no English, but thanks to an smart phone translator app we were able to talk at length about the protests in Hong Kong, what life in America is really like, and the prospects for young, ambitious people like himself in China. He said that he feared the Chinese were destined to be “the last enslaved people on the planet.”

It was a sentiment I heard from others as well, and I found it deeply disheartening. To meet such wonderful, generous, and smart people and realize the frustration and hopelessness they felt — it was awful.

I had read about the cultural revolution, great leap forward and the rest of it, but it was still eye-opening to talk with everyday Chinese people and hear how their lives have been shaped by that terrible history and everything that came since, even those who were born after Mao's death. During my time in China I also read “Becoming Madame Mao” by Anchee Min, a very readable history about the life of Jiang Ching, Mao's wife and scapegoat for the horrors of the cultural revolution.

It's hard not to wonder, what would China be like if Chiang Kai Shek and the Kuomintang had won the war against Mao, back in 1949? How much of the dysfunction and oppression and suffering in modern China would exist? And what about the Chinese economic boom, the innovation, the environmental destruction? What does it mean when an entire society has post-traumatic stress disorder? And is there any way to finally end the tyranny of the Chinese government, once and for all? The people I spoke with were cynical about the prospects for change. They said that the newfound economic prosperity and consumerism were all the young people cared about now — as long as they could afford a new smartphone and motorcycle, they didn't bother to look beneath the surface and discover the truth behind the propaganda. (Ironically, I heard this from young people as well as older ones).

I hope they are wrong. The Chinese people deserve better. May they prosper, thrive, and finally have a government worthy of them. Here are photos of just a few of the Chinese people who touched my life these last two and a half weeks.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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Bike Touring Guanxi Province

I'm three days into a 8-day bike tour across Guanxi Province. I started at Guilin and I'm heading to Nanning. Here are some photos from the journey so far.

I was lucky to meet Ah Qun, who owns a local bike shop and has bike toured all over China and SE Asia! He gave me some great route suggestions and showed me around Guilin. (And fixed my brakes!). Here we are in front of his bike shop.

 

Ah Qun reading from a Ming Dynasty tablet.

The next day, I set off from Guilin, through the mountains east of the Li River.

Up, up, up we go.

Mountain village.

The road through the mountains was rough at times, but very little traffic -- and just look at those mountains!

 

Sunset in Xingping.

Stunning Guanxi mountains

 

Hooray for Guanxi!

 
 
 
 
 

 

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