I don't like motorbikes. But not for lack of trying. I wish I liked them (as does my husband), but I just don't. Yes, partly it's because I'm an ER nurse and I've seen what happens to people on motorbikes, but in reality it's much wimpier than that...I find them incredibly uncomfortable. Of course that's not an absolute, and I'd be lying to say I haven't had a few rides where the weather has been perfect, the scenery spectacular, and the feeling of freedom and excitement overwhelming. Unfortunately, a series of rides where most, or all of those elements have been absent, finally helped me admit to myself, and my heartbroken husband, that it's just not my thing. The following is one such example.
It all started with the elephants.
We had just crossed the border from Thailand into Laos, and settled into a darling little teak guesthouse in a town called Luang Namtha. We woke early and decided to rent a motorbike for the day and explore the surrounding villages in hopes of finding some elephants. It had been about 2 weeks since we arrived in Southeast Asia, and had yet to see, let alone ride, any of these magnificent creatures. Max knew I was getting antsy to do so. We spotted an "elephant camp" on the map a couple hours away, and made it our goal to track it down. Without another thought, I hopped on the back of the bike and we were off, not to return for what would turn out to be the longest 36 hours of my life.
It was a hot, sunny day, and the ride started out beautiful. Time flew as we passed by countless rice fields, green, rolling hills, and darling little villages with uniformed children riding their bikes home from school, and old men lounging in the shade of their shops, waiting out the heat of the day, so they could get back to work. By early afternoon we were starting to get hungry and with no restaurant in sight, we picked up a couple staples from a roadside shop; potato chips for me and disgusting fake strawberry Oreos for Max. And, of course, a bottle of water which disappeared quickly. It wasn't great, but it was just enough to tide us over until we found something a little more...substantial. We took a short detour north to say "hello" to China across the border, before we turned off the road up into the hills in search of the elephants.
We never did find the elephants. Nor did this "camp" actually exist. But after winding up the narrow, bumpy dirt road for miles, past thousands of banana trees, what we did find was a tiny little Hmong village, where it was quickly apparent that the villagers rarely, if ever, saw white people. As we rode past ramshackle wooden houses and old women dressed in their traditional Hmong-style black gown with colorful headdresses (still thinking we may find some elephants), we started to accumulate a following of little children.
When we realized it was a dead end, we got off the bike. By now we had at least 15 children buzzing all around us, faces bright with wonder and excitement of their new-found guests. We whipped out our iPhones, found a photo of an elephant and started asking around. They quickly recognized the animal as a "Ya-ma" but made it obvious that there were none in the area. I was defeated, but I couldn't get enough of their curiosity, nor could I resist their beautiful, dirt-smudged faces as they would light up at our strange gadgets. I wished we could spend all afternoon with them going through every photo we had, but it was getting later and later in the day and we decided to make our way back toward home.
This is when things changed for the worst. Using the same map that had already let us down with the elephants, Max spotted a motorcycle path that cut right through the jungle--a shortcut. We started down the "road" toward the path and suddenly our nice comfy ride became a thing of the past. The road was covered in huge potholes sending us up into the air and bounding back down on the hard seat of the bike every 2 seconds or so. After 3 hours of this, I was exhausted. My head was pounding, my butt was bruised, and my back was aching from the heavy pack that I had to carry. Aaaaand I was hungry. I don't tend to handle things well when I'm hungry. We arrived at the turn-off for the motorcycle path at about 5:00pm. We only had a couple hours of daylight left and though I was leery about going through the jungle so late, Max assured me it would be much quicker than going back on the road we came, and I wasn't about to spend another 3 hours on that torturous, pot-holey road. Jungle it was.
Now, I don't use the term "jungle" loosely. This was, by far, the thickest, most jungl-y jungle I had ever encountered. We'd heard of it's greatness and majesty from the trekking guides who tried to lure us in with stories of tigers and leopards that still traverse it's floor. And we were definitely not prepared to be there. But, excited to be on a shortcut, and ready to be back at the guesthouse with a comfy bed and a hot plate of Lao noodles, we sped away into the jungle with nothing but half a tank of gas, our sore bottoms, and a pack with a couple jackets, the guidebook, a map, our camera, and a few left-over disgusting strawberry "oreos" from lunch.
The first 20 minutes or so were great. My spirits were high despite being tired and hungry, and I counted down the "mile posts" we saw along the way after Max told me they marked how many miles until we were out of the jungle. He couldn't have been more wrong. Higher and higher we went on the cliff-side jungle road as we wound through a canopy of massive, ancient trees and brush so thick it would be impossible to penetrate without the path. I'd never been scared of tigers up to that point in my life, but it's funny how new fears develop so quickly in a new environment. I waited for one to pop out at us at every turn while the sun set and the path got really, really muddy. It happened slowly, but by dark we were riding through thick, deep mud that soaked through our shoes and pants up to our knees as we had to balance ourselves through the puddles. And the puddles got harder and harder to make it through. The bike would skid to and fro in the sludge as we tried to "gun-it" through and would sometimes slip out from under us and dump us into the mud.
With the sounds of the jungle getting louder and louder as the night crept on, we trudged forward, always thinking we were almost there. At times, the bike would get stuck and couldn't make it up the steep, muddy hills, so I would have to get off and stumble through the mud with the heavy pack on my back. At this point I was so exhausted and hating every muddy moment. Max was made very aware of my discomfort. After what seemed like days of this, we saw our first sign of life--no, not a tiger. It was a teenage couple on another motorbike heading who knows where, but for some reason I felt so relieved following behind them. Maybe it was just the company--human company. We followed them for quite some time, cold, wet, muddy, and sore, but glad to have some locals to follow. And then we started to see lights. "Finally", I thought.
As we got closer we realized they were not city lights, but flashlights from a tiny little jungle village. My heart sank. The teenage couple stopped and gestured that they were going to go eat some food at a house in the village. In hindsight, we should have stopped and stayed with them, but the night was dragging on and we thought we'd better just keep going and get out of the jungle before it got any later. Max thought for sure it wouldn't be much longer. So, alone again on the path, we rode on. The road didn't get any easier and I found myself getting more and more upset and discouraged with every turn that didn't lead to an exit. I knew though, that if anyone could get us out of this mess, Max could. And then we started to run out of gas.
The muddy hills that before were almost impossible to climb, were now absolutely impossible as we had barely any gas left in our tank. I was trudging up almost every uphill portion because the bike couldn't handle my weight with our heavy pack. Max would frequently beat me to the top, park the bike, walk down the hill, and carry the pack up because I was so tired and so upset. We didn't speak a word to each other as we sloshed through the mud up those steep hills. We just kept going, and once at the top, we mounted the bike again to see how far we could get. Each time it took a little longer for it to start-up. A few more twists and turns before we met the first fork. This wasn't on the map. There was no way of knowing which way to go, so we took the one that looked the most travelled and followed it down...deeper, deeper, and deeper, until we got to another fork. At this point we were virtually out of gas and I was long out of hope. We got off the bike and Max looked around to see if there were any hints at which direction we should go, but there were no signs, and even if there were, they certainly wouldn't have been in English. We were alone. Still in the heart of the jungle. Hungry. Cold. Exhausted. Soaking wet. Covered in mud. And now lost. I started to cry.
To be continued...