Luang Namptha, Laos • 13 Jan 12
Odometer 74,381 m • 119,753 km
Superstition runs deep in Southeast Asia. Perhaps that's why in spite of my inability to understand the local languages, I too am hearing voices. They whisper in my ear when my gut feels a sudden twist. They speak to me when the cards I'm dealt don't quite add up. And they rivet my attention when lady luck rears her fickle finger of fate to warn: your time is nigh.
Crossing international frontiers alone and on a motorcycle is always taxing. Passports must be stamped, customs assuaged, visas applied for, currency exchanged, language gaps bridged, and crowds, confusion and uncertainty overcome. Now, add to that a border that spans a bridgeless body of water, as the mighty Mekong River divides the Kingdom of Thailand and the Lao People's Democratic Republic, and you start to see why we call this "adventure riding."
I was told through sign language to wait at the ferry landing for some large trucks to roll up. Once the small barge was filled, I could hitch a ride across the river for a reasonable fee. There's an apparent lack of pipelines running into northern Laos and beyond, so instead they transport fuel using tanker trucks. I shouldn't have long to wait.
Two hours ticked by as the blistering sun slowly tilted towards twilight with nary a truck in sight. Since I'd already checked out of Thailand, but not yet into Laos, I sat alone on the riverbank--a veritable no-man's land--in international limbo. Soon, both immigration offices would close for the night and all movement in either direction would stop.
"We wait for the trucks," he motioned. "Only with the trucks can I afford to cross. Unless," it dawned on him, "you're willing to pony up the full 5000 baht ($167 US) fare, yourself."
"Not a chance," I said with a grimace, "I'll find another way."
Not far upriver from the landing were a number of motorized canoes. They were smaller but of similar design to the fabled longboats that ply the Andaman Sea to the south, and in obvious use to ferry people and cargo from one side of the river to the other. I had to find out if they could carry not only a passenger and his bags, but his much heavier and more awkward-to-load motorbike, as well.
"Can you get me and my bike across the river," I inquired? "The big ferry may not cross until tomorrow morning when the trucks show up, and I must get over to Laos tonight."
"Foaw 600 baht, me I do anysing," a mischievous captain called out in broken English. Atop his balding head sat a Thai Navy baseball cap, complete with gold-leaf embroidery across the visor. Though it lent him an air of seamanship, his otherwise mismatched outfit of sweat-soaked, grungy T-shirt and worn-through rubber sandals instilled no confidence whatsoever. Neither did his decrepit boat.
"I'll give you 500 baht ($16 US) if we can cross now without delay."
He took the bait. After removing my bags, four of us hoisted Pegasus up and over the open-mouthed bow of his slender, wooden craft, rear-end in first. Though beat up and thirsty for paint, his vessel appeared to float--always a welcome sign when you're wearing heavy motocross boots and no lifejacket. The crew then assumed their positions and suggested I "ride" the bike to hold her steady. With all hands on deck, we set sail for communist Laos.
A few far-shore hangers-about directed me up a flight of steep, concrete steps then down a short dirt path to the dilapidated Laotian customs office. No one spoke English. But after producing my documents and paying a fee, I was directed onto immigration, some 2 kilometers distant. There, my passport was stamped and visa granted, freeing me to find a place for the night.
Huay Xai is a border town. And like all border towns it caters to travelers with rooms to rent, food to eat and provisions to stock. They're typically a bit rough, so it was with some relief that I found the last available room in the last guesthouse I checked, just before dark.
Nearly exhausted, I followed the young receptionist down the neatly swept, tiled hallway to my Spartan $8 room. I dropped my gear in front of the door. Thank you and goodnight, the boy intimated, unable to say so in English, then handed me the key. On the wooden fob was a number that matched the one painted on the door--unlucky 13. I was too tired to care.
The next morning I rose to greet the day and find my way out of town. I wear no watch and the guesthouse offered no Internet access, so I got my bearings the old fashioned way: I looked at a calendar nailed to the wall. To my surprise, it was Friday the 13th. Hmm, I thought, that's weird.
A hearty Lao breakfast would cost all of 40,000 kip, but that equates to only five US dollars, so I went ahead and ordered the works. I chose to sit out on the sidewalk to watch the comings and goings. A phalanx of new arrivals was busy trading places with anxious boat-seekers heading off to Chiang Khong, over on the Thai side. Breakfast was on its way.
I'm in a new country with who knows what up ahead. Just take it easy on the curves. Go easy on the gas. Arrive alive.
As the food arrived, the waitress/owner/cook shooed my furry nemesis back to the sidewalk, where he disappeared. I slowly cut into my eggs thinking, that was even weirder.
The mist-shrouded river valley and early morning light only added to the ethereal mood now infusing my increasingly spooky run of coincidences. Room number 13, Friday the 13th, the black cat, it was all getting to be a bit much, even for this rationalist. "OK," I begrudgingly allowed, "maybe these are omens suggesting I not push it today. I'm in a new country with who knows what up ahead. Just take it easy on the curves. Go easy on the gas. Arrive alive."
The road was mostly deserted. Few Laotians own cars or much of anything else. My only companions were the tanker trucks. They had finally arrived at the border, crossed the Mekong, and were headed east, as I was.
I was thrilled to be in virgin territory and stopped often to take pictures and play with the kids, who seemed to be everywhere running wild. I'd pass my trucker friends on the hills, only to have them thunder by during my photo-ops. After a time, we came to recognize each other and exchange waves as we leapfrogged our way towards disparate destinations.
Without warning, a gigantic, blinding fireball and ear-splitting explosion shattered my bucolic ride across the countryside. The earth convulsed beneath my wheels. A concussive shock wave blasted my upper body, nearly knocking me from Pegasus as though the hand of God was sweeping me backwards. Thick black smoke spewed forth with the vengeance of an injured dragon as her fiery breath ripped skyward, consuming the forest and its bamboo huts. Temperatures spiked. The air was full of ash. An adjacent stream of running water was itself on fire!
What the? There wasn't time to think. Impulsively, I jammed the gearshift: down, down, down, down! Then stuffed the brakes. Skidded and swerved. Recovered. Then stuffed them again. It was a furious race to arrest my forward momentum--or be hurled into the maelstrom.
Half a heartbeat shy of immolation, I squealed to a stuttering halt.
An ominous high-pitched whine now accompanied a billowing tower of filthy smoke, as the sounds and sights of impending doom intensified. The menace was growing. And though I had managed to stop short of the inferno, I'd be barbecued if she blew again. Instinctively, I spun a 180 and pegged the throttle in full retreat.
Half a heartbeat shy of immolation,
I squealed to a stuttering halt.
I leapt from Pegasus to escape, jumped over the powerlines and ran up a knoll to try and gain a better view of the dragon's lair. Thick, acrid smoke continued to pour from her wound like boiling water gushing through a fractured dam. Intense heat forced it upward, rather than outward, clearing a slightly better line of sight.
Was I witnessing the birth of a volcano? Had space junk fallen out of orbit or a meteor crashed to earth? Was this all the result of a violent earthquake? Did a farmer's plow strike unexploded wartime ordnance? Or were the Maya right--is 2012 the year the world will end?
It was none of the above. One of my tanker friends had crashed. His cargo, nine thousand gallons of volatile gasoline, was set alight. His rig had transformed into the mother-of-all roadside bombs!
My next thought turned to rescue. Might the driver still be alive, and if so, should I attempt to help him? The answer was obvious. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could have survived that blast and subsequent firestorm. The poor guy never saw it coming. One minute he was cruising down the open road, enjoying the mountain scenery and cheerfully waving to a fellow traveler. The next--it was all over.
As the flames abated, I finally made my way past the dying dragon to view her still burning carcass that just an hour or so ago was a fully functional vehicle. It was a truck I had passed and been passed by several times today; a driver I had repeatedly waved to as we tag-teamed our way east. I prayed he didn't have kids.
Friday the 13th turned out to be his lucky day. And mine. Proving that fate, rather than fixed, can be flexed in the right direction.
Whether we're willing to admit it, or not, the course we're on often has a predictable outcome. That's why over millennia we've developed idioms like hindsight's 20/20 and the writing was on the wall. We typically fail to recognize collisions in advance only because we're too close to see how our personal habits might lead to them. We need someone on the outside looking in to advise us on when to take corrective action. We need a voice to set us straight.
Whether that advice comes from God, a good friend, or simply the hair on the back of our neck, is immaterial. What's important is that we're tuned in enough to hear it when it comes.
Now, you can chalk all this up to superstitious hocus-pocus if you like, but personally, I'll take whatever help I can get. Like today, when slowing down just a little kept me from being a few seconds further down the road--where I no doubt would have been blown back to Thailand! The proverbial one step forward, two steps back. And for that lesson, I have a surly little cat in Huay Xai to thank. Maybe he'll even let me buy him breakfast.
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