Engine Trouble

I must have been there at least an hour drinking tea and trying thuoc lao as we laughed. They had a fire going to ward off the cold and ash rained on us the whole time as if it were snowing. Were it not for the Vietnamese faces around me, I could’ve sworn I was in Kieslowski film, in Poland or Russia. Meanwhile, the two shackled dogs barked and fought each other amidst the ash, smoke, and smog.

via Daily Prompt: Quicken

Today was supposed to be the day that I made magic happen: apply for (more) jobs, run some errands for the house to pick up things like a blanket so I don’t freeze again tonight, write, and begin learning the Vietnamese alphabet.

However, my efforts to quicken the pace were halted. My newly rented (think dirt cheap monthly lease) had other plans for the day, which consisted entirely in fucking with me. The Universe wanted to play games with me, apparently.

At first I thought it was just my inexperience with carburetors– “should the choke be up or should it be down? I don’t know but it’s freezing. Let’s try both.” Neither my Yamaha R6 nor the Honda CRF 250 had carbs. After fiddling with the choke in different settings, I at least got the bike to turn on, stay on, and not die when in idle. “Eureka!” Or so I thought. “Nope!” I leave the cafe in Tây Hồ and head towards my apartment in Ba Đình. Out of nowhere the bike simply turns off despite being in fourth-gear, cruising. Confused, I try giving it gas to no avail. Still coasting, I try to start the thing while in motion using the electric starter. I pull over, thinking I simply ran out of gas. The bike felt as if it wasn’t getting enough of something. Eight hours later I still don’t know what that something was because it wasn’t gas; I digress. I pulled over to the side, checked the gas levels since I have no fuel gauge. “It’s got gas,” I thought to myself as I jiggled the bike and had gasoline splash around the floor, lightly, leaving a urine-colored blotch on the pavement. For the next twenty minutes I fiddled around with the choke again just to try and get the damn thing to start. However, the things I did before did nothing.

After trying unsuccessfully a little longer I felt silly. I was stopped right in front of  a car-wash and the people kept looking over, exchanging glances with one another, and speaking in Vietnamese, laughing.

I don’t speak Vietnamese. I bet they were commenting on how I had probably never ridden a motorbike before; “silly tourist”. I played with the petcock again, looking busy and telling myself their bikes probably break down as well. One of the workers comes over and I presume he asked if I needed help. However: language barrier. Also: masculinity. So, I politely declined and hopped on the bike. I pushed it a friend’s house about 2-km away, arriving sweaty and gross, simultaneously freezing and over-heated from pushing the bike. He wasn’t home but his roommate let me in. Waiting, I fall asleep on another friend’s bed. When I wake up an hour and half later he still does’t seem to be home. Nobody is. Feeling like I should give it another go, I fiddle again with the stupid nobs: what I believe was the fuel ratio knob, the choke, and engine idle RPM speed. At that point, I don’t even know what I did but it worked. I left the house, eager to get home and begin my day.

The plot thickens. I pass the round-about, wait at the same light, and take the same turn to the main road to my house as the bike stutters again, stalling and slowing.

I finish coasting and realize I am in front of the same place– again! At this point I could do nothing but laugh as I make eye contact with the same individuals from a few hours earlier. This time I don’t even pretend to know what I was doing. They invite me into their little outside waiting area; it was made of bamboo and covered with tarps, featuring a bong for thuoc lao, a table and a tea-set. They invite me to sit, where they give me seemingly endless cups of tea. One guy in particular seemed to understand English quite well although he either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. However, he understood that I needed to call my rental guy.  I show him my phone, which is at 2% as it always seems to be when I need to make calls. He lets me use his. After I hang up with the rental people he texts them the address. We wait.

I must have been there at least an hour drinking tea and smoking thuoc lao as we laughed.

They had a fire going to ward off the cold and ash rained on us the whole time as if it were snowing. Were it not for the Vietnamese faces around me, I could’ve sworn I was in Kieslowski film, in Poland or Russia. Meanwhile, the two shackled dogs barked and fought each other amidst the ash, smoke, and smog. The guy sent over by the rental company finally arrives, smiling. He fiddles with the same damn knobs I fiddled with it. However, maybe he actually knew what he was doing. It’s possible. Although the bike still didn’t feel 100% as it had a few days before, it got me home. I hadn’t eaten so I parked my bike at home and left the maze of alleys to treat myself a little; today was a little stressful.

Perhaps tomorrow I will have more luck.

Center of Gravity

I won’t even mention how fresh everything feels outside the confines of the apartment; the sea of motorbikes, chickens everywhere– living, dead, or somewhere in between– a symphony of honks, dogs barking, roosters crowing, and construction. So, if ever it feels like things have gone back to what they were, all the new things I am experiencing and will experience flood into my head. I welcome the madness that is Hanoi.

Today marks the end of my fifth day in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Traveling with limited funds has forced me to postpone my backpacking travels and return to a somewhat civilian life– at least in the sense of routines, a room to call my own, possessions beyond what I can carry on my back, etc. I can’t deny that it all feels a little contradictory. Originally, I set out on my journey to ditch the very things that I now find myself searching for in Hanoi: a job, a motorbike, work clothes.

While backpacking, I felt like a meteor floating through space. At times, I’d crash into something or the gravity of something else would pull me this way or that. I enjoyed having no plan. Now, as resident of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, I found myself searching for the very things I ditched three months prior.

At first, I worried that life was doubling back on itself, about to revert to the status quo.

However, this wasn’t the case. Stepping outside my room on the fourth floor of a five-story house, everything felt fresh despite the pollution– the sea of motorbikes, the chickens and loud dogs, the labyrynthian maze complex within which our apartment was situated. So far, I welcomed the madness that is Hanoi. Amidst all of this, I was soon afflicted by the prospect of having to find a job in a foreign country. The beat of the new few days would consist of cover-letters, resumes, and demo classes.

This is a balancing act, albeit a new one in a very different environement. In trying to find balance. This is exciting as hell as it gives me the chance to pick and choose what I want in my life again.

Land Crossing: Vietnamese Border

When getting to Hue, they yelled at me to wake up, shouting”Hue! Hue!” while poking my shoulder. The other passengers laughed and in a sing-song manner, semi mocking the Vietnamese music they played throughout the entire ride, I reiterated “Hue! “Hue!” as I got out of my seat and grabbed my bag. They dropped me off at a gas station, opened the compartment and put my bag on my ground as I struggled to put my boots on. Before I even accomplished this, the guy ran back to the bus, which had already started moving and hopped inside. I looked around and realized I had no idea where I was in Hue and had no battery on my phone…

This is a continuation of the following post: Pakse ⇒ Hue

 

As we all began to rise with the sun, I stiffled a laugh at the absurdity of the bus ride thus far.

Perhaps I should’ve saved my laughter for later though because as we approached the border via bus, I piece together the driver’s broken English infused with exagerrated gestures. It seems that he wants me to leave the bus, leaving all my stuff stored in his compartment space, to go get stamped in. He points somewhere in the distance, maybe a kilometer away: “Walk there, I pick up.” I was cautious yet hopefull that they weren’t about to run off with all my stuff. All in all, I’ve proven to be a good judge of character and this time was no exception. Still, I took a small bag with me (laptop, camera, expensive stuff) and left the big bag.

The border was easy, taking me ten minutes. In line, I was entertained by four UK travelers who showed up drunk on motorbikes just before I did. They didn’t have the right paperwork and it was barely 7:30 in the morning. Oh, and they were driving motorbikes. The guy in charge let me go ahead of them and ushered me into Vietnam as he stamped my passport.

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Guy on left was struggling the most

The driver was waiting where he said he would be, standing outside with my bag.

He communicated that I would now change buses and get on the sleeper bus. We said our goodbyes. I made it a point to shake his hand and wave to the ladies. Overall, I left that bus feeling quite alright, tired physically but invigorated mentally.

 

The sleeper bus was nice and I thought to myself, “here’s the VIP I had expected.” 

Realizing the situation, I couldn’t help but laugh again: out of the twenty-odd hours I’d travelled, my last hour and a half would be spent in comfort. I knocked out, wondering if I had been scammed after all or not? I still don’t really know! In Hue, they yelled at me to wake up, shouting”Hue! Hue!” while poking my shoulder. The other passengers laughed and in a sing-song manner, semi mocking the Vietnamese music they played throughout the entire ride, I reiterated “Hue! “Hue!” as I got out of my seat and grabbed my bag. They dropped me off at a gas station, opened the compartment and put my bag on my ground as I struggled to put my boots on.

Before I had the laces on one boot tied, the bus had already raced away.

I looked around and realized I had no idea where I was in Hue with no phone and no indication of where the train station was.  I asked the guy at the gas station where the train station was and he motioned behind the shop. Confused, I walked to the back and found nothing but a filthy toilet. Continuing my walk in search of the trains, I fended off a constant stream of motorbike taxis trying to give me a ride, telling me the train station was far, etc. I embraced what I was doing and took my chances. Within 15 minutes of walking I sighted the train station, bought a ticket to Hanoi (another 13 hours), and proceeded to find a way to spend the next four hours until departure time.

I killed time by taking  a moto-taxi to Ho Thuy Tien, an water park project that was abandoned due to being grossly over budget.

The size of the place, which was pretty much empty of any other people, game me a slight chill– the same I experienced in the city-wide blackouts in Brazil– a sureal, unnerving feeling. The park’s center-piece was a dragon that stood towering over the park as if keeping guard; a spiral staircase granted one passage through his throat, to his mouth, which served as a viewpoint.  Checking my watch, I realized I should probably get going to the train station.

For the next 14 hours, I shared a room with three young, female monks.

They were an absolute joy and we laughed and interacted despite the language barrier. After waking up from a few hours nap, they were inviting me to do something but I couldn’t figure out what. Then they showed me a packet of Ramen Noodles, beckoning me to go with them. Finally, one of them just takes my hand and we all go to the employee area to heat up the noodles. As we ate, we showed each other pictures of our lives.

At five in the morning, I arrived to a rainy Hanoi clueless yet again as to where I’d go next.

I stopped at a a Circle K to use Wifi and see if there were any hostels nearby. There were three and, eager to rest, I walked to all three of them only to find them locked and unnattended. So, I went back to the Circle K and had a strong coffee as I postponed finding accomodation until the sun was up and the rain gone.

As morning came about, it hit me: I made it to Vietnam!

 

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The dragon’s mouth.

 

 

 

 

Pakse ⇒ Hue

My legs were cramped. I really needed to stretch! Thanks to the rice bags, my own bag, the women’s bags, and bus driver who was sleeping on the floor along the walkway, stretching was literally impossible. So, I ended up falling asleep with my legs on the top of the headrests of my own seat, upside down. To anybody who saw, specifically the lady to my left, I looked insane…

On my way to Vietnam from Central Laos, I wasn’t sure if I’d make it or expire on the way.

So far, this trip was most difficult. However, I had already preppared myself based on the information given to me by an expat and long-time resident of Pakse. He owned a motorcycle-rental shop and sold bus tickets to tourists. I asked him how much to get to Hue, Vietnam, and he laughed a cynical laugh practically right in my face. He told me that the trip from Pakse to Hue was notorious for being absolute shit in every way imaginable. The only thing worse than the buses and drivers going on 14+ hours on the road, he told me, were the roads themselves.

After handing him 220,000 Chickens (Kip) for the ticket, he bluntly told me this is probably going to be the “worst ride” of my life.

Holding my gaze, he went on to say that he’d rather not even sell tickets for this route but that if he didn’t somebody else would. I told him it’s fine and thanked him for the words. In my head it didn’t matter much as long as I made it alive. After all, it would just add to the experience.

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Distance to the border; from there lies Hue some few hundred kilometers away

Having spent the past week on an island showering with Mekong Riverwater and swimming in it daily, I eagerly took to finding a shower in a hostel where I’d stayed previously.

After eating, I played with his little daughter before hopping on a tuk-tuk to the bus station. As I approached my “VIP Bus,” two phrases came to me. First, the famous Thai mai pen rai, the Thai equivalent to “it’s OK” in English; in Laoatian, the corresponding phrase is bor pen yang . As I approached the the bus, those two phrases reverberated in my head like a bird flitting about in a box. I was the only person on the bus and four hours later, hanging in a hammok I put up in the back of the bus, I would find out why.

As I hopped on, he motioned to me, implying that I should eat as he told me the bus leaves at eight– it was five.  

At this point, already aware of scams in the area, I knew I was in it and had to find a way to dismantle the situation, figure out what’s what. . The guy who sold me the ticket from downtown Pakse said the bus left at 5:30. As the scam goes, you pay for a VIP bus and instead you get…what I got. An old, broken down bus outfitted to be stuffed with cargo. I walked around, asking the ticket booths and other bus drivers which bus was going to Hue. They all pointed to the scrap heap. I asked everybody I could and did everything short of calling a spade a spade to their face. I sucked it up, wondering what kind of experience I was about to have. I walked back, drank a beer and had some soup to regroup.

Getting on the bus, I perked up, realizing I could make better use of the seats by avoiding them altogether and stringing up my hammock in the back area of the bus.

The driver laughed at me with a snort when he boarded and saw me suspended in a bright-orange hammock at the back of his bus. Crazy foreigner.While the hammock was great, swinging back and forth with the sway of the bus, it was short-lived. Photo Feb 21, 6 32 26 PM.jpgOur first stop was just forty minutes from the bus stop, whereupon the driver and few guys filled up the entire back of the bus with goods. I was asked to move to one of the six empty seats. For an hour they loaded hand-woven baskets, red bags, blue bags, and green bags– oh, and bags filled with charcoal, which left a dark mist in the air after a bang would land on the floor. Within the next six hours we made five more stops, each to pick up more goods. I had no idea a bus could be packed so tightly. The bags contained flour, sugar, and rice. Mind you that each time they stopped to load the bus, I was asked leave and wait outside. For a lack of better English, the driver would wake me up, loudly exclaiming “You! You!” Yes, that was my signal to get up so they could load. Mai pen rai, I told myself.

 

By the end of that last stop, I was practically in a permanent squatting position.

There were bags in between every seat and under every seat, in every compartment including the roof, and my seat no longer had space to recline–or space for my feet below.We slept for a few hours on the bus just outside the border, waiting for it to open.

Follow me as I cross the border into Vietnam and kill some time in the abandoned water park in Hue as I await a train to Hanoi.

**Below is the little girl from the ticket office in Pakse, who reminded me of my little sister, Isabella.

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Cutie!

Thailand ⇒ Mekong ⇒ Laos

Everybody’s worried about time / But I just keep that shit off my mind / People living on twenty four hour clocks / But we’re on a ride that never stops.

For two days we went by boat along the Mekong River.

On the 29th of January, I crossed over into Laos. The route that began in Chiang Khong, Thailand, near Chiang Rai, stopped at Pak Chong, continued to Pak Beng, then finally let us off in LuaLP-to-Chiang-Mai-sm.jpgng Prabang, Laos. I realized I knew nothing about the country. The Dutch group with which I travelled was quick to point out that “kip,” the currency used in Laos, is the Dutch word for chicken. Amused, we referred to money as chicken during our time there.

 

While one or two were made nauseous, others were just as easily coaxed into a deep sleep by the soothing sound of the boat as it loudly tugged along the Mekong._dsc1932

Most people played drinking games, took pictures along the riverside as the boat passed through, or chatted with the others. You can see the view from the boat along this path by visiting my other site, Mr. Chido.

As we stopped in Pak Chong, night was beginning to fall. As the boats unloaded, ranks of people quickly started their way up the ten-minute trek uphill, towards the hostels and guest-houses. The locals knew the drill, of course. The tourism from the boats provided them a steady supply of eager consumers. Consequently, we knew the drill, too– be at the front and get the better rooms. Delaying the search for accommodation can sometimes lead to interesting situations based on what’s left over.

I broke off from the Dutch and British I was with on the boat and found my way with another group.

We were coaxed into sharing a room after the owner of a hostel approached us, offering us some rice wine while advertising his private rooms. We accepted the drinks and took a look at the rooms. Satisfied, we gave him the money and laid in our beds for a while, drinking and chatting. After dinner everybody who still had some energy left converged at the one bar in town, which I forget the name of. It had a jungle/island atmosphere, L.E.D. lights and locals selling weed, opium, and offering both for the curious tourist. Although I would later try opium in Vang Vieng, Laos, I wasn’t up for the task yet.

At the bar, the two British lads and I were invited to some girl’s, where we would later get locked in by a barbed-wire fence. 

When one of the girls pretended to cook traditional Laoatioan food in the kitchen, waking up the owner, I realized things were getting sloppy. The owner was becoming increasingly present, often appearing to do a visual check on us or the girls, or her property. I later learned this was probably because pre-marital sex is extremely taboo here. After sometime the owner went back to bed and dissapeared. Three hours before our boats loaded up and left, we decided to leave; the girls were already asleep. We were chatting outside, feeling the breeze. As we left the building, it locked us out. To our surprise, the barbed-wire fence that once had a gap to let us in, was now locked. After forty-five minutes scanning the perimiter, we found a weak spot in the soil  where we could lift the gate up enough to shimmy out.

By 7am, everybody was already up to check out and make our ways to the boats and continue the last leg of our ride to Laos.  

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The Boats

Continue to Luang Prabang! Or, see how I spent my time in Thailand

All Things Arise, Exist, and Expire

Perhaps that look inwards is another goal in travelling to the more remote parts of the world.

Catching me off-guard, a stranger I’ve only known for two days noticed a sadness in me that goes unnoticed back home.

I was straddling a ledge on the roof of our hostel, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. The main street created a corridor that framed the sunset along the town’s main street. 16707386_10207937500506329_5323739127012508184_oI think it’s normal to feel highs and lows in life. I just get like this sometimes, I told her, throwing in a dumb joke about how I wouldn’t jump. She laughed and admitted that even if I jumped, the wires would brace my fall and I’d probably be alright. She left and I finished my beer. Strangely, I felt like crying.

 

 

 

Despite having so much time to myself while backpacking, I still experience many of the same negative emotions that I did back home.

Realistically, I feel these negative emotions are arising pricesely because I have so much time to myself. There is no distration to make me forget, to weed to numb the uncomfortable feelings I feel sometimes. 

In an environment without television, internet, or other distractions, one really has nowhere else to look and starts to look inward.

Perhaps that look inwards is a subconscious goal of travelling to remote parts of the world. With that increased inward gaze, one starts to be aware of things that was previously suppressed with distractions. Traveling in Asia has no shortage of distractions to the foreigner should they welcome it but can be equally distraction-free if you design your trip that way (no portable movie players, ipods, etc). This isn’t a 12-hour trip to distract yourself during, it’s something you need to interact with as much as possible and in as many ways as possible. In doing so, your interactions with travel will, in reality, be interactions with the self; the decisions you make, the people you seek out, and the way you hold yourself.

If at any time things get tough or heavy, realize a fundamental truth: All things arise, exist, and expire. Nothing is permanent. Things come in and go out. The thing that is liked just appears for a moment, exists, and expires. 

Discomforts of Travel

Today I leave by bus, heading to Pakze from Van Vieng.

This will be another sixteen hours of travel-time. During these times of discomfort and long bus rides, it’s enough to just remind yourself that you are not here for comfort. In fact, part of us seeks the right kinds of discomfort during these journeys. For the time being, local buses and vans are welcome discomforts. Trying unfamiliar and visually appealing food, getting lost and getting directions amidst language barriers, taking chances– these are also welcome discomforts. The difficulties caused by this require one to problem solve, in turn leading to physical and mental growth. 

Every day I see backpackers getting upset about insignificant things. 

Their food wasn’t what they expected, or it took too long. Perhaps their accomodation wasn’t all that it was said to be. There are times when I could let myself get upset but most of the time it’s easy to take a step back and realize, everything is fine.

Most situations resolve themselves when we have flexible, fluid expectations– or perhaps, none at all. 

 

Khao San Road, Bangkok

It’s January 24th, 2017. I arrived in Bangkok twenty-two days ago. The twenty-hour flight was my longest to date and was facilitated by a mind-numbing number of movies watched. The fifteen-hour time difference was a curious string of thoughts I kept having. The act of moving through time lead reminded me of Interstellar, a movie in which time travel causes hours in one place to be equivalent to years in another, much farther off place. I’d imagined myself in that situation as my plane was being escorted. Imagine coming back home and everybody was twenty years older. Then I remember it’s Thailand, not another galaxy. The time difference is just fifteen hours.

That same night I questioned my first few decisions since arriving in Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Immediately, the scorpions I ate come to mind. khao-san-roadThat could’ve done it. Perhaps it was one of the dishes that I never even got a name for. My fun-half denies that it was the beer, while my rational-half isn’t buying it; the ice-cold towers of Chang were tall, after all. It was none of those things. After fifteen hours of puking and sitting on the toilet, I had plenty of time to contemplate. By the time I was good enough to get of the hostel’s top-bunk and walk into the furnace that was Bangkok during the day, I had pinpointed the culprit: a casual pad thai stand. There, I had my first meal: chicken pad thai. It was over-priced, I would later find. However, for me, the financial cost of the meal was the least of my troubles. Until then, I believed that my time spent in Brazil had granted me some sort of immunity, making me at least less prone to illnesses. I opted out on any shots, medications, etc.

Those first forty-eight hours in Bangkok were as tiring as they were exciting.

Between my dorm at Some Rest Hostel and the dirty alleyway to Khao San Road was a house filled with ladyboys. I don’t know if it was just a living situation, a brothel, both, or something altogether. imagesOne of them helped me find the hostel but beyond that our interactions weren’t many. It was in that hostel, bordered by a ladyboy house and Khao Son, that I met several people with whom I connected. I I was surprisingly tired from the food poisoning, time difference, and heat. I spent an odd amount of time in the hostel, in the AC, determining what my next move was, where I’d go, how I’d get there, what to bring and what to leave, etc. I ended up connecting with the owner of the hostel and going out with her friends that night.
While out and about, I realized two things that didn’t affect my future travel decisions as much as I expected them to. First, drinking in Thailand will drain your money faster than anything else. A large, 500ml beer is double the price of a delicious, mouth-watering Pad Thai. Second, I was not here for this. It got me thinking about the question many of you asked me. “What am I actually doing here?” I thought. Was this a sort of spiritual quest or just a fun travel adventure? All I knew is that there were many paths to explore here, whether spiritual, social, or otherwise. Perhaps I just wanted to see the world a bit.