Tuesday, April 4, 2017

"That" day while traveling....

Every traveler has "that" story. It’s kind of like an Ace in the hole. Not in the sense you want to top other’s stories, but one in which you know you’ve made it. The road has beat you like a drum and you’ve lived to tell the tale. Hopefully after, still, you continue to find yourself in peripatetic shoes. 

While I know I’ve had those days before, my will was pushed to new limits in the middle of a four country, 3,000 km bike ride throughout southeast Asia. Who would have thought, though, that there could actually be a bright side to having the shit hit the fan?

Truth be told, the day started out frustrating. Originally, the plan was 140+ km from Stung Treng to Kratie, but due to getting lost on bad roads, by noon, this didn't seem possible. 18 km into the ride, we met a local mountain bike guide who told us of a few smaller islands we could sleep on. We would need to cut about 15 km from the highway to the river and take a ferry, but it still was about 20+ km shorter than the original plan. At this point, we didn’t have much room to argue.

As we left, the man said follow the GPS, and after about 75 more km in nearly 110 degree heat (40), we finally found the 377a road. It wasn’t marked, and it definitely wasn’t paved, but according to our GPS and his map, we would just follow the road until it curved, and there we would find a ferry. This was where our plan turned to ashes.

My riding partner Bernard is on a much newer, better equipped touring bike, so when we start to hit the rough roads, he tends to go on ahead. My 40-year-old, steel frame road bike isn’t the fastest, but it has handled all we’ve seen up to this point marvelously. About 10 km into the ride (and right as I finished filming a video about how crazy the road was) I felt my back tube burst. I had a fresh tube, and also a few patches left in my kit, so I didn't think it would be that much of a setback. I pushed my bike to some shade, removed all my stuff from the rear, and replaced the tube. A few minutes later I was back on the road…until I heard a pop! Fresh tube down.

Now, the sun was starting to set. It was good in some regards because the heat was dwindling, but it was bad cuz I had no idea where the f#ck I was, and my phone was about to die. I tried patching the tube, but the staple that sliced it open (why was there a staple on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere?) punctured it deep. I removed the tube, and brought out the previous tube, trying to patch it, but the patches didn't take. I was tubeless, patch-less, and my phone died just as I tried to call Bernard. Frustrated, exhausted, dehydrated, and hungry, I started hoofing. As if it was willed, though, before I could complain, I saw a motorbike light heading towards me. It was Bernard, with a sheepish smile, offering me a reprieve from a rough day.

Apparently, we were 3km away from where the ferry launch was supposed to be…but our maps and our information were incorrect, as this area was not on the river. In fact, all there was for the next 30 km on the road was a few small wooden houses/shops, and one sugar cane factory. To our pleasure, one of the houses belonged to Lim, a 30-year-old father of 2, and his wife, whom both spoke English. Lim invited us in, gave us dinner, made us drink beer until we were stumbling (only 2-3 beers for me and Bernard, and about 7+ for him and his two friends) and helped us figure out sleeping arrangements at his friend's house seen here…

Thank you Flying Squirrel Outfitters for the hammocks!

One of the funniest parts of the night was when Lim lectured Bernard about why he needs to find one woman to love and settle down with. The advice was offered to me to as well, but as Bernard has nearly two and a half decades on me, the majority of the pointed advice was deflected. Sitting in Lim’s house, seeing his children play, while his smiling wife offered us a lovely dinner, enmeshed in the sounds of the countryside, on a beautiful, starry night, definitely illuminated his point.

The road that started it all
The next morning, Lim’s mechanic friend came tried to patch my tubes. It took awhile, as we were using motorbike patches on road bike tires, but we were able to get three tubes patched and ready to ride. This was, of course, until 200 meters onto the road when one popped, then another, then another. I was once again stranded 15 km from the main road, and 30 km from the next down continuing forward.

Lim said that maybe one of the factory workers could take me home later (as a few came in and out during the off season) but it wasn’t a given. I thanked him for all his help and his hospitality, but had a burning feeling urging me to walk. So, with intuition as fuel, I started back up the road from where I'd come.

What I didn’t realize, only to be discovered while I pushed 40 pounds of bike and gear through mud and rain, was that the road was very hilly. With each hour I walked, the roads became softer and softer, and my bike heavier and heavier. As I got to about 12 km, two motorbikes came towards me from the opposite direction. They were younger guys, whom both spoke very good English. Without any dialogue, they had my bike and me on their motos, heading towards the main road. As we reached it, within literally 4 minutes of arriving, a mini-van heading towards Kratie was flagged, my bike was tied on top of the motorbike already attached, and I was off. Apparently, my intuition was spot on.
While it took another 2 days and one more long, bumpy, crowded minibus ride to another town to fix my bike, my adventure from Stung Treng to Kratie was not something I’ll forget. While it was frustrating, tiring, terribly hard on the body, and at points felt as if it was too much, it was what it was. And what it was turned out to be “that” day traveling. It was a tale unfolding, that I can later tell when I’m surrounded by interested parties, or reflect upon when I find myself in another challenging position. My “that,” day was one I won’t soon forget, and I one I won’t take for granted. 

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