Sunday, January 24, 2010

its about the journey

Tha Khaek, Janiary 18

At the end of each day, Alison keeps a brief summary of the highlights of the day, which at the end of the trip, she puts in the form of a diary and description of our trip.

Lately, its been like the parent asking the child coming home from school, "what did you do today" and the child responding "nothing". Since leaving Vientiane, I could easily describe the day as nothing of significance happend and yet, when we arrive, find a place to stay, shower, do some exploration on foot, have dinner etc. we are always elated and energized about the events of the day, even though nothing of great substance happened.

We have now covered over 600 kms in a week of riding, and my odometer clicked another 1000 kms so that its over 67,000 kms (and counting!) but each day is fulfilling despite not having much to write home about.

Feeling a need to continue the blog, a description of our days on the road is warranted, which leads me to the not so profound conclusion that its not about the destination, but its about the journey.

The road has been generally flat with gently rolling hills, albeit with moderate to strong headwinds, doing two 100+ kms days has been challenging, as has two days of only 40kms each but with severe hills, which caused us to push our bikes for about 10% of the distance so that the physicality of the journey is demanding and as always, at the end of the day it feels good to stop, but its not quite that pleasure is the absence of pain.

The scenery cannot be described as spectacular, but it can be quite riveting, especially when we pass brilliant green rice paddies or when reaching a peak on a mountain and the views are endless over jagged, black rock formations dotted with huge trees that reach to the sky.

Still its not so much the landscape but the active passing through it and slowly absorbing the essence of the lives that people lead and the inevitable questions that it provokes that starts to define the journey.

The people that we meet, most in passing as they, starting at the age they can barely walk, shout and wave vigorously, "hello, sabaidee" with a genuine smill and enthusiasm which only intnesifies as we return the same and there is almost a sense of loss when the fade over the horizon.

Beyond the fleeting meeting, one can quickly learn about the land, by observing the activities along the roadside. A huge hill of watermelons are an obvious indication of local agricultural activities, as are the make shift bamboo stands offering smoked fish, which are a signal that we are once again very near the mighty Mekong River, even though we are generally following the river south. As further proof, when we stop in the villages, and each will have a small market offering local produce, there is inevitably several plastic tubs with live fish flapping about.

We need to modify our eating habits and reduce expectations to find bananas in one area if they are not produced locally to find that the next village will have a half a dozen vendors offering a variety of one of our favourity consumeables (the variety of bananas, all generally small, are too many to describe in detail).

Since food is a constant pre-occupation as we are doing the equivalent of six or seven hours of aerobic classes in a gym a day, rule number one is to eat when there is an opportunity.

On this score, I am reminded how in our advanced society, shopping for food has become a bevildering array of choice, or pseudo choices, and a burden in light of our consciousness about calories, fat content, fibre, carb no carb, local vs.imported, impact on the envronment, global warming etc. Here, life is simple and we do eat almost exclusively local, organic and one that envolves virtually no options,and its all tastes great.

Breakfasts are a noodle soup with fresh local vegetables and an egg plus the classic Lao coffee with sweet condensed milk, although the coffee may have from a hilly region further south.

For a snack, it might be a couple of hard boiled eggs, still warm since it was prepared that morning and a few ears of corn on a cob, tied by their husk for packaging, and its not the perfect peaches and cream variety, but one that is a range of colour and has a wonderful chewy texture. The is no question about how you want your eggs done easy, over, sideways and the corn has no other fixings, so the focus is on the eating.

Lunch is usually in a simple place where the ingridients are all on a table and its cooked inview and once again no need to go through a complex menu that describes in glorious detail the repas to be had, the essence, and the rasberry reduct, and the stream of adjectives that are used the highten the expectation, and so often to disappoint, are all absent, and yet the end result, a simple fried rice or another soup is a culinary delight. An added bonus that one need not be concerned about food guides and portion sizes since if meat is included in a dish, its rarely more than the "recommended serving" and usually much less.

In towns and cities where more formal eating places abound, menus are often rare and its more a process of negotiotion as to what one gets to eat...

There are exceptions. We spent two days in Thankek, a small town with a French flavour, and I am willing to bet that the crusty baguette, was locally made but the highlight was the night market, where a dozen stands offered local meats, fish and deserts and we indulged by having a scrumptious whole barbequed chicken with rice, banana pancakes with sweet condensed milk, and freshly fried breads with a sprinkling of sugar, that beats a donut I have ever had.

A few days ago, we went on a 6 km trek to a well advertised waterfall through some pretty rugged terrain, and in the process I strained my ankle. It was for a good cause, with a tour guide for the two of us, that costs the equivalent of a nights stay in the local hotel and dinner for two, ie. about $10. The money went to the guide and to help preserve the trees in the national forest, otherwise they would be cutting down the trees. Needless to say, there was some water falling, but to dignified it as a waterfall would in most places constitute false advertising. But the walk was great and my ankle recovered in a couple of days(with bit of help from modern medicine)>

Such is our journey.


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