On the (bumpy) road

13 12 2009

It’s only been a week since the last time we posted, and since then we successfully crossed a border on foot. We’ve been relaxing in Laos for about six days, and tomorrow, we head to Vietnam.

Before we left Thailand, Sunny made the day of at least twenty-five students in high school. We had the opportunity to visit a school in Chiang Mai because an educator from Boston, who completed the same prinicipal program that we did,  now teaches there. Our program directors told us to look her up, and we are so glad we did. Julie was a generous host, introducing us to street food, Thai culture, and cheap accommodation.

and the crowd goes wild!

In addition, she invited us to her school, where we were given center stage in a senior English class, with the idea that the students would practice their speaking skills. Most were incredibly shy and at a loss of what to talk to us about. However, as luck would have it, Thai teenagers are obsessed with Korean soap operas. When the students learned Sunny is Korean, and when Sunny casually offered to show one girl how to write her name in Korean, the entire class (girls and boys) squealed. Thirty minutes later,  Sunny had translated every student’s name and nick name, and the kids had missed P.E. class. Oh well. Judging from the rest of the day, instructional minutes were not being counted too carefully.

We then headed to Laos, drifting down the Mekong River for two days on a slow boat, which is…guess what…quite slow. The scenery was stunning and our seats were comfortable, so slow was no problem.

However, when we arrived in Luang Prabang, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice hotel after the many nights of $10-$15 accommodation. Our current room is one of the best we’ve had, but the truth is that this town is a respite in itself. Life is slow, gentle and calm here. Even the aggressive sellers whisper their advances once, and then back away.

Luang Prabang is the most interesting city we’ve seen in Southeast Asia. It’s an uncanny combination of old and new: there are beautiful old temples and monks chanting at dusk juxtaposed with lovely art galleries and quaint coffee shops. We can’t figure out how they keep their streets so clean, and the wooden signs next to each building are so perfect that they almost seem contrived.

We’ve also gotten out into the countryside, visiting villages and waterfalls. The country and lives we’ve only peeked at feel about as far away from home as we could get; in fact, it’s the first time in my life I’ve felt deja vu for the remote village in Mali where I stayed six years ago.

Our biggest excitement in the midst of these lazy days was our mountain bike ride. We found a company with several rides, but when we went in to book, the only thing available was a ride that was called “Perfect for Beginners!” We were a little bummed.

little does jocelyn know what kind of day she's in for!

“Don’t worry,” the man said, “We say it is easy, but it is not really easy. It goes up and down and up and down. It’s not like easy.”

How right he was. It’s still hard for me to sit down, and though we were on “major roads”, major roads here are bumpy, rocky and unpaved. In addition, major roads have major hills. So, it was more like a mountain bike trip with a monster truck thrown in every five minutes or so for good measure. The monster trucks, in addition to taking up most of the road, also gave us about a minute with no visibility and mouthfuls of dust and exhaust.

Did I mention they didn’t give us helmets? Or that my brakes weren’t completely working? I spent most of the first half of the trip worried that I hadn’t told Sunny where to find our travel insurance information. I spent the second half cursing anyone who doesn’t support a helmet law. I might just institute a global helmet law. Look out New Hampshire; here I come.

that's a lot of dust!

Through it all, our guides were gentle souls, and one biked most of the day right behind me. He was mostly silent, but would check in on me every so often with a soft, “Ok?” or “Water?” Whenever I felt ready to throw my bike over the hill, he would look at me and nod, which gave me just enough energy to keep going. If a particularly big truck or cloud of dust came near us, he sped up to get next to me, as if his ninety-pound body might somehow shield me from its force.

So in the end, we survived, and despite it all, it was one of my favorite days thus far. It’s a good life lesson: sometimes the bumpy roads are the most fun. Indeed, some of our hardest days have helped us learn the most about a country or each other.

So, here’s to a few more bumpy roads in our future. Next time, however, I’m wearing a helmet.

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