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Amanda is a little better at this.  Perhaps her ability
to take things as they come and laugh at just about
anything, especially at my overreactions, gives her a
more positive, accepting nature.  At a stoplight she
will smile at the tuk-tuk driver who had just cut her off
while my inner Buddha will be whispering in my ear to
give the guy a good squirt from my water bottle.  

It comes naturally for Amanda to look at both sides of
things and hold back on reaching conclusions while
for me the feel of a country can change in the blink
of an eye.  My open mind can snap shut with one
bad experience and then cover the place with a pall
of darkness and doom.  As we cycled through the
mountains of Northern Laos Amanda's forgiving spirit
was tested and my inner friend was taken to the
Buddhistic brink.

At the village of Phou Khoun the two lane road
began to descend, at first in a moderate, rolling
downhill before giving way to an all out 10% plunge.  
After a few minutes of constant braking our hands
became numb from holding back the heavily loaded
bikes and we had to stop for a rest.

Along the road women wearing the traditional long
embroidered skirts carried children papoose style
across their backs with bundles of tools and firewood
in slings strapped across their forehead.  Most of the
men carried a short sickle-like knife that caused a
burst of apprehension in me when I first saw it.  The
mountainous region is known for the Hmong rebels
who, according to the U.S. State Department, enjoy
separating travelers from their possessions using
such implements.  But the only thing these Lao
farmers threatened were the long willow reeds they
dispatched with one swift chop leaving behind tightly
bond bundles at the sides of the road.  The women
and children gave the reeds a furious beating by
swinging them over their heads then crashing them
into the pavement to remove the chaff.  Later the
reeds were weaved into the delicate, soft bristled
brooms used throughout the region.  

Pedaling through the villages we noticed a complete
absence of signs, billboards, posters, and
advertisements of any kind.  Perhaps one or two
small shops, open front, with a few bags of rice and a
pyramid of tangerines were the only commerce.

Most dwellings were constructed using the traditional
method of weaving bamboo walls in much the same I
once intermeshed popsicle sticks at summer camp.  
The only unnatural color in the villages was the two
flags, one the drab blue Laos national banner, the
other the familiar red pendant with bright yellow
hammer and sickle of the communist flag.  

As in other parts of the world Laotian men were the
first to leave behind their traditional dress.  Wearing
industrial strength Chairman Mao jackets and
matching pants they toiled at the roads edge mixing
cement in buckets to pour the foundation posts for a
new home.  

Few cars used the shoulder-less two lane main road
as we pedaled along beneath the looming jagged
cliffs and hanging jungle vegetation slowly revealing
itself through the chilly morning fog.  This was by far
the most beautiful bicycle ride we had ever done.  

Most of the vehicles that passed were speeding
minivans hauling bleary-eyed, carsick travelers
between the two main cities at opposite ends of this
natural abundance, Vientiane and Luang Prabang.  
Massive white Toyota Landcruiser with air intake
snorkels and tall emergency antennas, traveled in
tightly packed caravans and blasted their horns in
greeting as they encouraged us with thumbs up.  On
the doors of their vehicles these foreign aid workers
displayed their agency affiliation, "UNHCR",
"Laos/German Cooperation Agency", and "UNICEF".

The rolling hills became increasingly steeper and we
were constantly pulled from our misery by excited
groups of children yelling to us, "Sabadeeee" (hello)
from unseen dwelling.  The children would spot us
long before we arrived at a village and come running
from all directions into the road.  Standing in line they
would burst with energy as they held out their tiny
hands for us to slap while cheering and greeting us
at the top of their lungs.

Seeing a massive power plant spewing smoke on the
outskirts of the town of Vang Vieng my Buddha was
feeling good and I said to Amanda, "That's why the
sunset was so beautiful last night."

Then, while passing through the town of Hin Heup we
saw a scraggily stray dog get squashed by a truck.  
Well, not entirely squashed, just the back-side.   

As a runner who was once been bitten by a dog and
now a cyclist who has been chased by hundreds of
these infuriating creatures, I must admit I am not a
dog lover.  But when the dog rolled under the weight
of the vehicle's tires the squealing cry of agony
penetrated my entire body, my IB kicked in full blast.  
Disoriented, the dog ran wildly while dragging its rear
legs, and frantically yelped.  The sound nearly broke
my heart.     

Strangely, the people in the village did not see things
the same way.  Upon hearing the screeching tires a
group of women jumped up from behind their
thatched roof vendor stand and looked down the
road.  When they heard the dog's cry they did
something utterly surprising to me, they laughed.  
The kids quickly followed.  One actually mimicked the
sound of the dog and his friends giggled at his keen
imitative abilities.  

Amanda and I stopped pedaling for a moment and
cringed at the painful cry.  The dog continued limping
down the road in the direction we were going but its
back half was a mess of malfunction.  As we began
moving the dog stopped and curled up in a ball on a
soft grassy patch.  It panted with deep sighs and
stared at us with sad imploring eyes as we passed.  
A dark pall began to settle over Laos and my IB went
into hibernation.  

That's when I began to see the world in a different
light.  The children still greeted us enthusiastically
but I noticed a few among the hand-slappers holding
their palm upward in the universal gesture for
"gimee".  Others would slap our hands particularly
hard and laugh when they caused us to lose balance
of our overloaded bikes.  

Coming upon a group of uniformed school kids
standing at the top of a steep hill, one of the boys
held his hand out to us with a ball of white rice in it.  
As we got closer Amanda said, "Oh, look.  He's
offering us rice."  She smiled to him and said, "Kop
Jai" (Thank you.)  Just as we were about to reach
him, the boy popped the rice ball into his mouth and
barked a throaty, mean-spirited laugh, taunting us
with the food.  

Tired and loopy after pedaling close to 100
kilometers we entered the town of Phon Hong.  
Parking the bikes alongside the open market we
wanted to purchase fruit before finding a place to
sleep for the night.  Amanda struggled to prop her
bike on the kickstand while I strolled over to the
nearest vendor and bargained for a pineapple.  A
fully loaded bicycle supported by a kickstand is not a
terribly stable thing.  It usually takes a bit of
maneuvering and shifting to find that perfect patch of
level ground so that the slender tip of the stand stays
put.

While Amanda watched the bikes a local girl of about
nine years old led a group of friends to get a closer
look at our unusual set-up.  As she got closer the girl
touched Amanda's bike causing it to tumble over.  

Expecting an apology, or embarrassment Amanda
quickly smiled and said, "Oh, no.  It's okay.  Don't
worry."  Surprisingly, the group of girls turned and
walked away holding their hands over their mouths
as they giggled while one girl mimicked, "Oh, no, oh,
no."

This characteristic of finding humor in another's
misfortune is absent from Thai culture and when held
against the high standard of their neighbor it is a
particularly glaring in the Laotian.  Perhaps if we had
crossed the border from another country or come
directly from home we would not have thought twice
about what we had seen and experienced.  Coming
from Thailand where the people never mock, where
sarcasm is nonexistent, where the leaders of the
recent coup announced a shift in national focus from
prosperity to happiness, it is acutely, painfully
obvious.

Pedaling into the capital Vientiane the traffic
increased slightly but the main road remained only
two lanes.  Roadside construction crews with pick
and shovel dug a drainage trench, lining the naked
brown ditches with stone and mortar.  The dust from
this construction was overwhelming, filling our lungs
and noses with fine soot and causing frequent
sneezing fits.  

It was Amanda's birthday and we searched for a nice
guesthouse to celebrate.  Her first choice was a
lovely place along the Mekong River but the staff
refused to allow us to store the bicycles in a safe
place within the building.  Amanda was obviously
disappointed but the only option would have been to
park the bikes out on the street overnight, something
we had not done on this trip.  Such inflexibility is
unusual in Southeast Asia and my Buddha was
getting grumpy when we arrived at the next
guesthouse.  

This time I went into the reception area to ask about
accommodations.  After looking at a room I thought
to myself, "Now this is perfect," and returned to the
lobby to register.  Amanda waited out in the hot sun
with the bikes as I took out my passport and began to
complete the registration form.  A brief commotion
broke out between the staff member before a
sour-faced girl said, "So sorry.  No have room"

"Excuse me?" I asked, "Did you say you do not have
the room I just looked at."

"No.  No have room.  Other person register room
when you looking.  Last room.  So sorry."  She did
not look very sorry and my Buddha was about to give
her a samurai chop to the solar plexus, or at least a
verbal one, but then I looked over at Amanda
anxious face and took a deep breath.  

Marching up the steps of the third guesthouse my
dirt-clogged nose was running horribly and my mood
was growing darker.  The sweet smile of the women
behind the reception desk barely penetrated the
surface of my frustration.  She told us that the hotel
had just opened and offered a very special price for
a nice, modern room.  Eagerly Amanda asked to see
a room and an energetic bellman whisked her off, as
I stood in the lobby with one eye on the bikes parked
outside.  The chatty receptionist was not
discouraged by my indifference and she asked, "How
long will you stay in Vientiane?"

"Just a few days," I said shortly, blowing my nose and
trying to cut the idle chatter.

"And what do you plan to do while you are in town?"
she persisted.  

I wanted to tell her to mind her own business but my
inner Buddha got the better of me, "Well, it's my
wife's birthday today.  We plan to get this dust off
with a good shower then celebrate at a nice
restaurant.  Can recommend one?"  

She spent the next few minutes outlining the pros
and cons of the restaurants in town.  Amanda came
bounding down the stairs, "Rich, it's beautiful!  Let's
stay here."  The receptionist beamed and I felt my
mood changing.  

A good hot shower can freshen up a foul disposition
and the steam pouring from the bathroom door
hinted that Amanda was bathing in something more
than the typical tepid trickle of electrically induced
hot water we have found in most Southeast Asian
showers.  When it was my turn I found that this was
the real thing.  A long, uninterrupted, blistering-hot
flood that penetrated so deep it allowed me, for the
first time in a long time, to give my inner Buddha a
good scrubbing.  He was feeling a little crusty.

An Indian restaurant overlooking the Mekong served
roti that appeared similar to Mexican tortillas.  We
ordered two covered in garlic and olive oil along with
steaming bowls of dahl, a mixture of assorted beans
in a spicy broth.  This was the exact meal Amanda
was craving.  

As we tore off pieces of our roti and spread dahl in
the center we marveled at the fact that we were
celebrating Amanda's birthday in the capital of Laos
as the sun set over one of the grandest rivers in the
world.  By pointing ourselves in an unusual direction
then pedaling with a strong, steady pace we followed
the strange, sometimes difficult twists and turns in
the road and found ourselves in a place more
wonderful than we had anticipated.  

Later that evening arriving back at the guesthouse I
opened the door to our room allowing Amanda to
enter first.  She screamed, "Oh my.... Rich! Did
you...? Oh my!"  She was speechless.  I rushed in to
see what miracle had caused words to fail her.  

Resting on the table was a bouquet of a dozen red
roses in a beautiful basket.  A simple card read,
"Happy Birth Day Mrs. Ligato."

The friendly receptionist had taken it upon herself to
turn our gloomy disposition sunny.  Our inner
Buddhas danced a little jig.  
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VIENTIANE, LAOS  I want to get in touch with my inner Buddha.  Southeast Asians have that
effect on you.  They make you want to be more compassionate, to live with more empathy, in
short to be more like them.  

But it seems I got an inner Buddha who is a slow learner, or maybe he has trouble focusing, a
Ritalin Buddha.  In any case, my internal Buddhistic conductor always seems to be deep in
meditation when I need him most.  There are times when I am tempted to give him a swift kick
to get him moving.  Not a very compassionate desire.  

While pedaling through Laos I found myself saying to him, "Hey, why are you letting me see
things like this?  It's not the way everyone says I should be."  I am supposed to withhold
judgment and experience without forming firm opinions.  But I can't.  I want to.  I know I
should.  But my little friend is an almost complete failure.  
My Inner Buddha