VIENTIANE, LAOS The Cambodian embassy is just three short
kilometers south of town but the ride nearly killed me. I had a
high fever and an overwhelming desire to vegetate in the
uncomfortable bed at the guesthouse, but we needed our
Cambodian visas. If we hurried to complete the application
before ten in the morning we could get approval that same day.
Pedaling around the capital of Laos like fiends we shuttled
between embassies to conduct government business. At the
fortress-like U.S. facility with its barb-wired white walls and
bombproof doors, a cheery man behind a bulletproof glass
cubical sewed pages into our passports to accommodate the
extra large, full-page Southeast Asian visa stamps. Behind the
metal desk at the Vietnamese embassy a scholarly looking man
with reading glasses strung from a chain around his neck stapled
our 2 X 2 headshots and the hundred-dollar bill to our
applications before instructing us to return in three days to find
out whether we would be permitted entry to his peoples
Strangely I knew somehow in the back of my mind that I could
relax over these days in Vientiane and allow myself to submit to
the pestering illness I had fought off the previous week. It was as
if my mind told my body, "Okay, now you can get sick." The mind
is strange that way. It can demand superhuman effort from the
body, far beyond what we believe to be physically possible, then
decide to shut off that ability like the flip of a switch once we find
ourselves in a relatively safe, comfortable environment.
The previous week, over the Christmas-New Year's holiday,
Amanda had joined a seven-day yoga retreat just across the
border in Nong Khai, Thailand. Arriving at the famous Mut Mee
guesthouse we found many of the staff and some of the guests
suffering from a high fever and cough that turned them into dull,
A week later, back across the border in Vientiane, I had
succumbed to zombie fever and laid in bed entertaining myself
as I read out loud the history of Laos. Amanda would
periodically return to our room and I would pepper her with
factoids, "Did you know that Laos is the most bombed country in
"Hum. No, I didn't know that," she answered indulgently while
digging through her panniers.
"Yep, when we bombed the area around the Ho Chi Minh trail
most of the peasant farmers out there had no idea who was
bombing them or why they were being bombed," I sat up,
growing excited with my recitation of the misery.
Not looking up she began stuffing a small pannier with her water
bottle and long sleeve shirt then said, "Oh, that's terrible."
"And the bombers flew so high that when they dropped their
bombs the peasants couldn't even see them. The families
believed their fields were exploding for no reason. They hid in
caves all day and tended their fields at night but the...."
She put on her helmet and headed for the door, "Okay, you keep
reading. I've got to go to the market to, ah, see if I can find new
gloves. Be back later." Slam. She would disappear for several
hours, leaving me in my gloom.
On the third morning in Vientiane we pedaled back to the
Vietnamese embassy to retrieve our visas. Riding toward the
guesthouse I realized I was feeling back to normal. When I
mentioned this to Amanda she said abruptly with great relief,
"Good. Tomorrow we pedal toward Savannakhet."
Bright and early the next morning we dodged a sea of scooters
through rush hour along the Mekong toward Southern Laos. At
about kilometer thirty-six we stopped for a pee break and
Amanda stood motionless leaning over her bike. She was pale
and breathing hard as she said, "I don't think I'm feeling so well."
"What?" I asked. "What's wrong?"
"I feel exhausted, as if I've pedaled a million miles," she blurted.
"I have no idea what's wrong with me."
Straddling my bike I asked, "Do you want to stop?"
With her head drooped over the handlebars she gasped, "We're
in the middle of nowhere. Stop here? There's no way! I just have
to go on."
When she was ready I took the lead and said, "Okay, we'll go
slow. Stay close behind in my draft." Ever few minutes I peeked
over my shoulder to make sure she was close enough to get the
benefits of the decreased wind resistance.
Two kilometers later I heard the honk of a bus and turned to find
Amanda weaving back and forth in the middle of the road. "Get
behind me," I shouted. Stay off the road."
With an surprised expression she said, "Oh no. How did I get
here?" Then she looked around and rang her bike bell, the
signal we use to indicate to one another that we need to stop.
"I'm sick," she said as she slowly lifted her leg over her bike.
She then crouched down uncomfortably on a crooked bamboo
bench, "I think I'm really sick."
Placing my palm to her head I felt that she was burning up. She
laid unmoving for several minutes then sat up unsteadily and
said, "Okay. Let's go."
"Do you think you're ready?" I asked.
She nodded, yes, as she slowly got back on her bike.
"Okay, just try to stay right in my draft," I said as I pulled out in
front. For a few moments she was doing really well but when I
pointed to a pile of glass in the road and swerved around it, she
pedaled right through. I thought to myself, "All we need now is a
flat to make our day complete."
Passing an older Lao man carrying a hoe and wearing mute
green work clothes with an ancient pith helmet she said to me,
"Look Rich. Him. Yes, look at him. He was around when we
were bombing. We were bombing his field and he didn't even
know why. How horrible!" She began to sob. "He probably
doesn't even know it now. He doesn't know why his field was
exploding. Bombs! It was the bombs. From the sky." Amanda
pointed in the air and yelled in delirium.
The man shifted the hoe to his other shoulder, smiled brightly and
said, "Sabadee". Hello.
Pedaling at a snails pace we continued for hours. Watching the
cement kilometer markers on the side road tick off was
torturous. It took longer and longer between each one. The
further we got from Vientiane the slower we moved but Amanda
continued to push herself and pedal as hard as she could.
Stopping to eat something I left her under the shade of a wooden
shelter while I followed heart shaped signs announcing a
guesthouse down a narrow dirt road. Cycling into the parking
area I called out, "Hello. Sabadee. Hello," but no one appeared
so I took a look around.
Walking up several steps I peeked inside the open entryway and
was immediately confused. I found sliding glass doors lining the
far wall, each opening to a miniscule cubical containing nothing
more than one barstool per room. I began to back out as it
dawned on me what it was I had stumbled upon. Then the
silhouette of a young woman appeared at the end of the hallway.
"Sabadee", she said in a voice that was most certainly
"Woops," I said as my heel caught on the threshold.
"Guesthouse. I was looking for the guesthouse," I said as the
"Yesssss," he purred as he reached the door and leaned with an
overly feminine posture against the door jam.
"No, not what I was looking for, but thank you. Okay. Sabadee.
(Hello) Kop Jai. (Thank you.)" I blundered as I swung my
kickstand up and hopped on my bike.
Back at the rest spot I found Amanda curled up into a ball, sound
asleep. She woke when I sat down and I gave her a brief outline
of the guesthouse. Sick as she was, she somehow found the
strength to have a chuckle at my expense. Then she stood up,
dusted off her shorts, adjusted her helmet and said, "Well, I
guess we better keep going or we'll never get there before dark."
It was then that I got a glimpse of the type-A immigrant
determination that reveals itself at moments like these. This
stubborn resolve got her through years of torturous waiting in the
hour-long line at the Tijuana border so she could get an
education in America, and carried her all the way through to
graduate school. It is a persistence that can be frustrating at
times, admirable at others.
At sixty kilometers this determination continued to propel her
along and she stayed on my wheel as we moved at ten
kilometers an hour. At seventy kilometers the numbingly circular
rhythm of the pedals caused my mind to enter a state where I
would forget, for minutes at a time, where I was and what I was
I thought about this ability of the mind to push the body beyond
what it believes to be possible. I wondered if some are just born
with a greater capacity to push themselves. Is it something,
much like a muscle, that can be exercised and improved? Does
an overly comfortable lifestyle make us lose it?
Just when I thought I had it all figured out Amanda dinged her bell
and croaked from behind, "Slow down, please!" I was about
three meters ahead and I stopped pedaling so she could catch
At eighty-five kilometers I looked back to find her wobbling on
her bike and asked if she wanted to take a rest. "Can't stop
now," she said. "Only ten more kilometers left. I can do this."
Pulling into the village of Thapabat we had reached ninety-seven
kilometers for the day. A dangling yellow sign covered with Lao
script had one small word in English at the bottom reading
"GUESTHOUSE". We were in no condition to negotiate with the
young girl and we gladly paid the 70,000 kip (US$7) for the dingy
room. Amanda collapsed into the mushy bed while I hurried, half
starved from the hard exertion, to the open-air market before
dark to replenish our dwindling stock of food.
This was a village that never saw foreigners and I became quite
a spectacle as I strolled among the vendors with their bunches of
vegetables, fruits and meats spread out on the ground before
them. Whispers of "falang" followed me and when I turned to
smile the women burst out laughing and taunted me playfully with
curlicue intestines and small furry marmot-like creatures that
showed the signs of having been caught with snares. Fire hose
looking snakes with their brightly colored skins and gelatinous,
rubber-like interiors were sliced and gutted like pieces of
salmon. Unable to afford expensive beef they consume
whatever little protein nature provides.
Two small squirrel bodies with yellow-brown bushy tails hung
from the back box of an overloaded bicycle partly concealing the
only ripe papaya in the market. As I negotiated the price the
toothless owner, a gaunt man of sixty or seventy, stood at an
angle and propped himself against his bicycle. His right leg
curled inward and hung limply from his tattered rolled up pants
but his eyes revealed a shrewd mind. He bargained hard
knowing he held the only mature papaya in town and I eventually
paid his asking price.
Walking down the dirt road with my overpriced papaya I
wondered how this man pedaled that overloaded single speed
bicycle to the market each day with his deformed leg. I
wondered if he kept that sharp mind because there was no other
option. With no social safety net to catch him, he had no choice
but to be productive. Is this a bad thing? Would he have been
better off living in the first world? What kind of a life would he
have somewhere else?
Back at the guesthouse I expected Amanda to be collapsed in
bed and was surprised to find her pumping water through our
filter to fill up our empty bottles. "Whoa," I said. "I thought you'd
be comatose by now."
"No way. We need water."
"I can do that. Go lay down."
"Okay," she said as she passed me the pump and threw herself
on the bed. "Can you believe we made it? I feel better already."