Probably every motivational speaker knows the story of Cortez in the Early 16th century. When he landed in Central America, he intentionally set fire to his ships. Thereby making it clear to his men that there was no going back home to Spain.
I did something like this. I checked out of my one bedroom rent controlled apartment in San Francisco where I have been living for more than a decade. In that decade, I have hosted many touring cyclists, proudly showed off my city, and made friends world wide.
As documented in this blog, in the last year and a half, I have been touring a bit. I have visited some of these friends. I also got a good education in cycle touring from Les Cyclomigrateurs in Asia this spring. Then as we all experienced, the pandemic caused it all to be put on hold.
So, while I was waiting for things to resolve, I got my hip replaced. This went amazingly well. Many thanks to my surgeon in San Francisco, Neil Bharucha, and my companion Lucy Rojas. I was on my feet and walking just hours after surgery. Now six months later, I am leading an active life with no issues.
Eager to get on with the retirement project, I started looking for places in the world which are relatively Covid-19 free. Asia and Australia have many excellent examples. Unfortunately they are not available to American tourists.
The island of Bermuda is quite good, and also available. Unfortunately it is too small for any meaningful bike touring.
Given that I was interested in furthering my Spanish language skills, I looked closely at Latin America. It turns out in southern most Mexico, there is Chiapas. If you believe the New York Times, this is extremely quiet with respect to the pandemic.
Having effectively burned the ship, I am ready to start the next chapter in true nomadic style. However, before I go off exploring, I ought to wait out the pandemic a bit.
Chiapas is thus a temporary nesting spot for me. Mexican Immigration has granted me a half year. Hopefully this is enough time. I will use it to form a good team, improve my Spanish language skills, and learn the culture. Then, I will have to burn the ship again. Hopefully I will not have accumulated so much junk.
The trip back was not at all simple. We said goodbye to Joel and Irene in Pak Soy, Laos. Days later, we crossed the boarder from Laos into VietNam by bicycle. There was hardship and lessons to be learned there. We stayed in big cities Vinh, and Hue in VietNam with luxurious hotels. Our plan was to return to Santiago to see Lucy’s son, Aldo get married. Then to go to California to attend my granddaughter, Arden’s first birthday.
We needed to make up for the time we lost in Laos. We took a bus south along the Vietnam coast to Hue to pack up and fly back to Santiago. This was a good move as it allowed time to deal with some unforeseen issues. Our first flight was on a small Vietnamese airline that just went bankrupt a day or two before we got there. The pandemic was taking a serious toll on the travel industry.
Flying west to Santiago Chile is somehow easier than the reverse trip. It takes about the same amount of time but does not consume as much of the calendar. We fortunately rented a furnished apartment in Santiago the day after we arrived, March 18.
The plan was to stay for the wedding in ten days. Things changed quickly in mid March. The wedding was postponed and the airport was closed, both due to the pandemic. We were going to be stuck in Santiago for a while. But this was not a hardship. I liked the apartment. For much of the time, I could cycle the nearly empty city streets of Santiago and go out into the foothills of the Andes. Lucy was eager to do all the chores and kept us well fed. All that and I was continuing my Spanish language education. The landlord was OK with us renting month to month. It was true that I would miss Arden’s first birthday party. But so did all of us. The party was postponed. The thing about a global pandemic is that everyone everywhere has the same issue.
I figured we were going to be fine until my visa expired in mid June. Then I could plead my case to the Chilean Immigration Bureau. But, I didn’t need to. In early May the airport reopened, there where flights to the US. I heard that Kaiser Permanente was restarting elective surgery and my surgeon was confident I could get my hip replaced in June. So, we packed up and flew to San Francisco on May 22.
Getting back to San Francisco did require a five hour layover in Miami. I was more worried about that than the eight hour flights in a plane only half full of passengers. Don’t ask me to reason through all this. I just felt contaminated when I got home. Lucy and I self quarantined for two weeks without symptoms.
Except for a few days visiting family in Indiana, we’ve been here ever since. Lucy has taken well to keeping my tiny apartment ship shape, and providing meals on a regular schedule. I swear I never told her she must do all the housework. She volunteered. A few days ago I woke to the smell of lemon scented Pledge being applied. Wow, furniture polish. What a concept.
And yes, I also got my hip replaced. On June 23 they did it as if it was an everyday thing. Because for this surgical team, it is practically. My surgeon, Neil Barucha M.D. does three a week on average. It only took ninety minutes in the OR. I took a cab home the same day. When I got home, I walked up the eleven steps to my apartment without assistance. It’s true that Lucy was there to help, if needed.
Now Lucy, my PT and I have a project to get my body used to functioning with it. Here I am at day four after surgery, with very little pain, and only minor swelling. I never needed the heavy duty pain meds they sent me home with. I walked a half mile on the street today without any pain, and could have easily done more. Lucy has experience as a nurses’s aid and is very interested in taking care of me. She regularly applies aloe vera, a natural anti-inflammatory to my hip.
She gets it that my plan is to abandon this apartment at some point and become homeless so to speak. Like our good friends Joel and Irene who joyously wander the planet for years at a time, I would like to make my bicycle my home for as long as I can. She would like to join me in this venture. I hope it works for us both.
Meanwhile I need to get this new hip up and running, then get my fitness back. Maybe by the time I am ready, the global pandemic will be running out of gas, or we can find a corner of the world where it has. New Zealand perhaps?
Our complete journey through Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam is shown here. We spent most of this trip traveling as a foursome with Joel and Irene. Our paths diverge in Hue. We left Hue, Vietnam to fly home to Santiago. At this point Joel and Irene continued on to Japan before returning to France.
In this chapter we describe our journey from Lak Sao to Hue, then our adventures upon returning home.
Lak Sao is a good place to visit. It’s a small town but there are several hotels and restaurants to serve the tourists. There is also a busy market place in town and nearby mountains which make a picturesque landscape.
Here in the mountains the roads are sketchy and the weather is changable. We used a truck/taxi to bring us here. The roads would have been a challenge on a good day. We arrived in a driving rain storm and made quick decisions on where to stay.
The weather was better in the morning, we went to explore the markets and the restaurants.
My big problem was that my process to get a visa to cross into Vietnam had stalled, and I didn’t realize it until the weekend. Chileans and EU citizens get a visa on arrival in Vietnam, meaning it is automatic. As a US citizen, I was the only member of the group struggling with this application process.
The application is made on-line to a private company. That company then presents your case to the Vietnamese government. It takes three business days before you get the visa emailed back as a PDF. If there is something wrong with the application, the company kicks it back. This happened to me and I didn’t catch it early enough.
Lak Sao is the last town before the remote boarder crossing. Joel and Irene rode on. Lucy and I stayed in town for an extra two days. We spent our time playing cards and searching for restaurants that serve western food. I actually like the local food here in Laos. But after some time you start missing the alternatives. Meanwhile Joel and Irene had crossed over into Vietnam, a more civilized country and were sending back images of the foods we missed most.
Lucy and I found a restaurant that advertized pizza. When we asked for this, the staff waved us off it. It was not until we came upon some bilinguals that we learned the pizza was not available because they were out of cheese. We convinced the staff to bring us a pizza without the cheese. This was the change we needed. I think we ordered this two nights in a row.
The boarder with Vietnam is a mountain ridge about 30km from Lak Sao. Joel and Irene reported that the climb was not difficult. However the ride down into Vietnam was on a very bad road surface. Also there are no services near the border. One has to ride some 30km further to find a rather nice hotel in the town of Tay Son. It would be a long day, but we were well rested. It should be no issue we thought.
The emailed visa finally arrived and we got our hotel in Lak Sao to print a copy for us. We left around noon. Normally this would be an issue, but it was not a hot day. We had a headwind that felt refreshing. Off we went with confidence high.
I didn’t notice until we were quite close to the border that the mountain ridge we were approaching had a large cloud settled onto it. The pass would be foggy. As we began the climb up, it started raining lightly. I figured we might get pretty wet up there and then have no place to stop and dry out.
As we got closer to the top, I realized that there were many eigthteen wheel trucks lined up waiting at the border. I pedalled around them, no one complained. I found out later that the reason for the back up was because the trucks were not descending due to low visibility.
We made it across the border without much delay, thankfully. I was worried about running out of daylight before we got back into civilization in Vietnam. The road down was errily quite. The large backlog of trucks were waiting up top for the visibility to get better.
We had the whole road to ourselves. We were nearly soaked and cold. The surface was deeply rutted with many switch backs going down. There were not good options here. I chose the least bad one. I convinced myself that we could get down out of this cloud and into warmer weather relatively quickly. We just needed to go slow enough to keep from crashing. We stayed warm by applying the brakes and pedalling at the same time, an old trick Dave Cox taught me years ago.
It worked. We made it down with the wheels underneath the whole way. We got below the cloud line before the truck traffic started coming by. My biggest problem was that I could not discuss this plan with Lucy. My Spanish was not up to the task, and we didn’t have time to waste. She was not happy, but we did make it to Tay Son in daylight.
There was a hotel there that Joel and Irene recommended. We checked in, showered, and put on dry clothes. Vietnam is quite civilized compared to Laos. We walked out onto the street to find someplace to eat.
Here for the first time I encountered significant push back for being a tourist. I didn’t understand it at first. Restaurants were refusing to seat us. Lucy figured it out before I did. The concern was that Western tourists without face masks are a risk for spreading the virus. We walked for some way before we found a restaurant that would take us. They served us in a room all by ourselves.
We ate well and then slept well. It was good to be back in civilization.
On to Vinh
It is ill advised to book your air travel well in advance. It is nearly the same price to book the flight two days before, and you have flexibility in case things change. I learned this the hard way. Here we where a few days behind schedule with a plane to catch in the following week. I either had to make expensive changes to our tickets or find a way to get us back on schedule.
Vinh is a nearby city on the coast. Certainly it would be possible to get a train or a bus south. Joel and Irene were a few days ahead of us and reported back on train service. They said, there are trains going south, but they will not take your bike on board. OK, a bus or a truck then? This is difficult to arrange without some knowledge of the language.
As we pedalled on to Vinh I had time to form a plan.
It turns out that when you are in a city where you do not know the language and have to find solutions to unusual problems, the thing you need is a bilingual person with your best interests at heart. Months ago in Bangkok, KJ did this for me on several occasions. She was amazing. Here in Vietnam, I don’t know anyone. What to do?
The solution is, book a room in a five star hotel. The concierge has your best interests at heart. He speaks English. He also has many local connections. The cost for this in Vietnam is not high. A five star hotel is $25/night. This also allowed me to pamper Lucy a little, after having such a rough border crossing.
Besides it is fun living in a hotel room a dozen stories up. Ordering too much food and eat.
The next day we bought face masks so that we could fit in. After considering our problem, the concierge got us bus tickets to Hue at a reasonable price. He said we had to meet the bus at 7am on a non descript corner. It was necessary that we have the bicycle broken out into two parts so that it would fit in the bus.
I had my doubts while waiting there. But the bus showed up just as planned. Three hours later, it dropped us on a non descript corner in Hue where we reassembled the bike and road off to find a hotel.
In Hue we had a new puzzle to solve. In three days we would need to ride our tandem to the airport, disassemble and pack it ready to fly. We also need to reduce the total number of bags, as airline per bag fees are exhorbitant. We are already schooled on the technique, however we still need to find the needed goods in a city where we don’t speak the language.
The solution? Simple, stay at a five star hotel. The concierge set us up with a cab driver and carefully explained to him that these things were to be found and purchased. We made many stops, the driver came into the store with us and did all the talking. We just showed the photos when needed.
The same method helped us solve an issue we had with our airline gone bankrupt. The right move is to go to the ticket office downtown and sit with a customer service rep in person. Don’t leave your seat until the problem is fixed.
Once our cab driver figured out where to buy the needed stuff. We passed that information along to Joel and Irene who would be flying out of this same city later in the week.
The coolest thing is creating a spectacle at the airport when you calmly disassemble your bike then wrap it up to take it with you on the plane. We had one Vietnamese guy so fascinated that he was actively working with us on it.
The big surprize was that Joel and Irene met us at the airport. They gave us some pointers on improving the wrap using free cardboard from local vendors in the airport. They have this improv style you will learn to love.
We actually got all the nitty gritty out of the way with enough time left over to enjoy the city of Hue. It is a tourist town. The tourism is way down because China is in quarantine. Lucy and I paid for a ride on a large boat in the Perfume river. We were the only passengers.
I don’t remember which happened first nor when we figured it out. I remember three long flights and landing at Santiago Airport finally. We took a large taxi to the Sheraton hotel. It was late and there is no good bike route to the city from the Airport.
The next morning at breakfast, we noticed that things had changed. Breakfast was no longer at the outdoor buffet. I think we ate in the restaurant. There we planned out our day which involved getting an apartment for the less than two weeks. Lucy was to meet with her son Aldo to get some of the things he was holding for her.
That’s right. Lucy did not keep her apartment in Santiago. When we left in January, she had reduced her belongings down to what would fit in a pannier, and a few suitcases that her son stored for her. The plan was to reunite with that stash and prepare a plan for the next leg of the trip in San Francisco.
We were using a real estate broker in Santiago to line up furnished apartments for us to consider. Lucy was in charge of picking the apartment. She used this same service in December to find the place we used then. It was a good place. The business manager spoke fluent English, so it was easy for me to discuss details of financing.
We got a message that the first apartment on the list fell through. The landlord cancelled the meeting. We patched together a plan to split up and meet at the second choice. It was later in the day. Lucy figured she had time to go see her son, Aldo and take a cab to meet me there.
Lucy was delayed. I met the landlord, letting her know that my Spanish is not really all there. We muddled through the tour. I liked the place. It was a modern two bedroom apartment on the eighteenth floor with a balcony overlooking a nice section of town.
It was getting late. There was some urgency which was cleared up with a phone call to Pia, the bilingual real estate manager we were using. She explained that her business office was closing and we needed to decide to take the deal or wait till Monday when they reopenned. I decided to take it without Lucy there to ask the better questions. It was mostly a good decision.
We slept there that night with the tandem still in two pieces parked out on the balcony. It sat there for about a month unused. The thing we didn’t figure on, the assembled tandem is too large to fit in the elevator. The only way to get it down to the ground floor was in two pieces. This was a lot of work for a daily bike ride. We were not permitted to store a bicycle in the underground parking unless we had a long term rental agreement.
We bought a cheap stationary rental bike from the local department store to fill our short term exercise needs. We made regular use of it until we wore it out.
I found that if it was asked to dissipate over 200W for more than a few minutes, It would start making funny noises until it stopped offering resistance at all. I considered debugging it myself, but Lucy correctly pointed out that I would certainly void the warranty in so doing. She got a full refund from the department store. We considered buying a more substantial model but there was suddenly very few in stock.
We found out that Aldo and Pia were putting off their wedding party until it was safe to have a large gathering. We also were notified that all flights out of Santiago were cancelled, and the airport was effectively closed. The landlord was happy to have us extend our stay.
I rented a mountain bike from my friend, Carlos and rode it out into the foothills on days when I could. In April and May the Chilean government was locking things down periodically. I also found that my hip complained a lot more now.
Lucy was getting exercise by walking the city streets. Eventually she figured out that by virtue of our extended stay we were permitted to keep the tandem in the basement garage. We assembled it and test rode it around the apartment on level streets. In the first kilometer, I realized something had changed. This bike was now quite painful for my hip. I was not able to blame this on a misadjustement. The bike was set up exactly as Dana had adjusted it in Bangkok, thousands of kilometers ago. My guess is that it was my hip that was changing.
I got in touch with my surgeon, Neil Barucha in San Francisco. He thought his department would be re-opening up for elective surgery some time in June and that he would like to replace my hip, as we had proposed back in Spring of 2019. I was now motivated to make this happen.
The Santiago airport openned with flights to the US in early May. Fortunately for us, we did Lucy’s visa paperwork months ago, before all the pandemic started along with the closing of borders to the US. We contacted the US Embassy in Chile and in the US. We never got a clear answer on whether Lucy would have trouble getting into the US as a Chilean citizen. All we got was vague references to the Department of Homeland Security website.
I thought maybe no one knows. Maybe it all comes down to the immigration official in the Miami Airport? Maybe if you get the wrong guy on the wrong day, you’re screwed and there is no rules. At every border crossing I have done in the last year, I found it easy to get clear on what is required with a single visit to the Embassy website for that country.
Damn the torpedoes!
We booked flights, we packed up the bikes in our apartment this time, as there are no good bike routes to the airport in Santiago. We could not arrange a truck to the airport. When the sedan taxi showed up Lucy assured me we could strap the bikes on the roof.
“We did this many times in Asia. It also works in Chile”, she assured me. I explained to the driver that at freeway speeds the updraft on the leading edge of the package would be strong. Ok, my Spanish is really not that good. I said something like “With much speed there would be much wind. The bike will be lifted like this” as I pushed up on the packaging to demonstrate.
He understood me and fetched a significant strap system from the trunk. The strap went over the bikes and hooked onto the undercarriage of the car. He winched it taught. I was satisfied it would be stable. It was
It turns out things went smoothly in Miami. US Immigration stamped Lucy’s passport without a second thought. Thus giving her ninety days here in the United States. We will have to form a plan for mid August when her visa expires.
Much will depend on how my hip is doing and the state of the pandemic then. I have already promised to visit my sister and her husband for Thanksgiving. It would be great if Lucy could be there too. I think we can arrange a visa run in August to a foreign country, then return to the US together for another ninety days. There are many possible outcomes with this plan. We hope for the best.
Home again in San Francisco
It really is amazing to be able to cross three continents in three connecting flights and get it all done in less than a day. When we finally arrived at my apartment, I did not recognize the lock on the outside door. I had to call my neighbor to let me in. Apparently we got a new landlord recently. No problem, I have friends amongst my neighbors.
Here in San Francisco, I want to show Lucy so many things without risking exposure to the virus.
Exploring San Francisco Bay Area
Visiting Mom in Lafayette, Indiana
Hip Replacement Surgery, San Francisco, June 23,2020
Time flies. We have been in Laos for two weeks now. A lot has happened since the last post. We took a two day trip down the MeKong river with a package tour. We were shown a cameo of Laos and wound up in Luang Prabang, a big city by Laos standards with good services for tourists.
We said good bye to Christian and Caroline, the Brompton contingent. They took a plane to Vietnam. The Azub four were better prepared for the rough backroads of Laos that followed.
We then headed into the mountains. Here the roads are sketchy and steep. We recruited a local taxi (truck) to haul us through some of the worst part of the road up to Chou Koun. Here at 1400m altitude we stayed warm in our tents through the windy cold night. There were beautiful mountains and many small villages as we proceeded down through the heavily traveled road. Vieng Vang was another tourist town we stayed in on the way to the Nam Ngum Reservoir. The roads in between have many unpaved dirt roads with a lot of large trucks moving through stirring up the dust, to the extent that the trees nearest the road are no longer green. They are the color of dust. These roads have long stretches between villages.
Nam Ngum Reservoir is formed by a large dam across the MeKong river. This is a large inland sea forty kilometers across. We stayed at classy resort on the west side. There we found a boat that would take us across to the other side of the lake. This was not a tour package boat. It was basic transportation for the locals and their chattels. A very different experience from our earlier river tour package.
A Newcomers Perspective
Laos is a communist country of seven million people. Twenty percent of the population are illiterate. Forty percent of the population are indigenous tribes, of which there are many. The GDP per person is about $2700. Yet it is one of the fastest growing economies in the region. We have seen a large new rail line construction project, involving Chinese contractors.
The currency is the kip. There exchange rate is approximately 9,000 kip to the dollar. All of the money is paper notes. There are no coins. The largest note I have seen is the 100,000 kip note, worth about $10 USD. In many of the small village shops this note is not readily accepted, because the shop owner is not able to make change.
Tourism is the fastest growing segment of the economy according to Wikipedia. While we are here in Thailand, the tourism is sharply down because of the Corona Virus (CoVid 19) currently shutting down tourism from China.
Much of the transactions are without any paper receipts, and only a sketchy understanding from both sides. This could be troublesome, except for the fact that Laos people are honest even when dealing with us, foreigners on weird bikes.
We stopped at a guest house recently. The shop keeper wrote out the price for the rooms in the dirt with his finger in the parking lot. We accepted and moved our many bags into the two rooms. Later I saw the shop keeper in the parking lot. I was unsure if Joël had paid for my room, or if I should pay directly. With a complete language barrier, I asked the shop keeper by pulling out a 100,000 kip note and offered it to the man. He simply shrugged his shoulders and refused to take the money, as if to say ‘buddy you don’t owe me anything’.
We like to stop in the small shops in small villages. These places are family run in an unusual way. The dividing line between business and home are not at all distinct. Some have a few tables and a menu, others are more free form. For example, this morning I had breakfast at a place where we sat at a table that set up on a concrete slab front porch. On this slab there was also a fellow working on a motorbike. During breakfast there were people dropping off motorbikes for service.
The Lao People
Later this morning, we met up with Joël and Irène. They were in the midst of breakfast in the home of a family along the Mekong River. One thing you learn about Irène, she can make language barriers disappear. Maybe this is because she works with deaf people. If you watch her face while she talks, you mostly understand what she is saying, even if you don’t speak the language she is using.
Before we got there she was on a first name basis with many of the family members. They had already been on the phone with relatives living in Idaho. Ok, so the relatives provided good English to Lao translation momentarily.
By the time we got there. There was a huge spread of food on the table; many containers of rice of different types, a whole roasted fish, and a variety of spiced sauces. We were immediately invited in. Seats were vacated so that Lucy and I could be seated. There was an abundance of food on the table. New plates were readied for us. We wondered if we were in a restaurant, or in a family home. We could see they had a fish farm 25 meters below in the river. The rooms were separated by woven bamboo walls and curtains instead of doors.
In the front room there was a barber’s chair. I needed a shave and signaled my interest by stroking my stubble covered face. I was invited to sit down in the chair while one of the family members shaved me.
In the middle of breakfast a motorbike arrived. We made more room at the table for the newcomer. Instead some of the food was moved out to the motorbike. It was explained to us that the newcomer was taking food elsewhere for his father.
We asked if there was any coffee. The immediate answer was no. We had begun our departure, but without realizing it, one of the family members took a motorbike to a local store and came back with coffee powder. He made coffee. We sat down and continued our language barrier breach while we finished our coffee.
Finally when we got up to go, we wanted to know how much to pay. We got confused shrugs. We did not accept the first answer, which was ‘free’. We got them to accept the equivalent of $4 total, for breakfast for four and a shave for me.
It left me scratching my head about the experience. This family clearly understands the way things work in business. They run a good size fish farm. Yet they simply open their arms for us without any interest in compensation.
When we first arrived in Laos, we booked a river tour on the MeKong river with Smile Tours. This was very worthwhile. The boat is called a ‘slow boat’. It is 35m long and is powered by a six cylinder turbo diesel. It has more than enough room for 30 people to ride in comfort, even some beds for those who want to sleep. There is a galley which provided fresh cooked meals and snacks along the way. You see many boats of this kind.
The six of us, Caroline, Christian, Joël, Irène, Lucy and I boarded in Housei Sai. We stopped for short visits to villages along the way. We stayed overnight in a hotel in Pak Beng. On the second day we reached our destination in Luang Prabang.
We traveled south with the swiftly moving current through mostly uninhabited land. The sandy beaches and massive rocks protruding from the water provided great scenery. There was some white water in places. Occasionally there were villages of sizes ranging from a few primitive structures and cattle
The tour guide, Kat took us to tiny villages of indigent tribes. He explained that he grew up in a remote village like this, and left to find his way in the world. He still speaks the local dialect. Children of the village wear mass produced clothing.
It made Joël and Irène a little uncomfortable to have humanity on display like some kind of petting zoo. I did not understand this until later in the trip.
I think everyone of the 30 or so guests on the tour were from Europe, except Lucy and I. It was a great opportunity to meet new people. Lucy found Luz, a Spanish woman from Barcelona. Lucy got to speak Spanish at full speed with all cylinders firing. I think she needed this.
In fact Luz is fluent in at least four languages (English, French, Spanish, and German). Her husband Sasha, grew up in Germany and is currently learning Russian. After the tour we were all staying in Luang Prabang. The four of us met for dinner there.
Luang Prabang is the second largest city in Laos. It is a tourist hot spot. It has a an open air market place with food, clothing, it is well equipped to handle the needs of the western tourist. We rented motorbikes and visited many of the local attractions, including a spectacular waterfall, an Asian bear preserve, a butterfly hatchery. We even found a place that serves civet coffee.
Joël tells me that there is also elephant coffee. Hmmm.
Joël pointed out that the road headed east from Luang Prabang to Phon Koun would be steep and rugged in places. We decided to load the bikes onto a truck (taxi) for this leg of the trip. Though the route is rural, it is the only road headed this way and so there is lots of traffic, including large trucks, busses, etc.
In the few days during and following our visit to Luang Prabang each of us experienced a little disorder in our digestive track. This added to our struggles through the rural mountains. We all survived it.
In the mountains east of Phoun Koun, The road points mostly downhill, but there are points along the way where the road surface is dust churned up by heavy trucks rolling through with regularity. We did our best to laugh our way through it. We slept in villages where the trees near the road were all reddish brown with a layer of dust covering the green leaves. The rough roads bounced my fender off of its mounts causing an annoying rattle. It happened often enough that I gave up stopping to fix it.
Irène did her level best to keep the esprit du corps. It was a relief when we finally made it to Vieng Vieng. It is definitely a tourist town. This was welcomed. Lucy and I rented a motorbike to scoot around on. $8/day. Irène and Joël found the Parisien Cafe which was also the Pizza King. OK, we needed a vacation from Thai food. Lucy was able to eat bread, something she had been longing for for days. On leaving Vieng Ven we carried two baguettes which she coddled until we got to Nan Ngum Reservoir, days later.
Some of the many hot air balloons that frequent the skies above Vieng Vang.
Nam Ngum Reservoir
The Nam Ngum Reservoir is formed by a large dam on the Mekong River. It forms the largest body of water in Laos. The dam is equipped with hydroelectric system that provides one of the biggest export of Laos, electricity. It also provides a market for dried fish.
Near this damn there is a high end resort where we stayed. This was the most expensive hotel we found in Laos. ($36/night/room). We also found an entrepreneur that said he could get us across the lake in his boat. It would take $150 USD. We told him we were interested but were looking for a better price. We found one.
We found there was a regularly scheduled boat that crosses the lake. We lacked complete information on where to meet this boat and only a rough idea of what it would cost $24 USD.
We eventually found it and loaded our bikes on the roof. Along with us was a crowd of locals looking to cross with motorbikes, farm produce, including a rooster. We four were the only western people on the boat. What a contrast with our Smile Tours ride down the Mekong!
As this boat was loading, I was thinking when does the captain call it full? It got very full. I was thankful that the lake was flat with no wind. To my untrained eye, we were overloaded and no life preservers to be seen. I rehearsed in my mind that if we started taking on water, I would hurl one or two of the Ortlieb panniers overboard and Lucy and I could jump for it. There were many islands in this lake. It would be a short swim to safety.
The ride was gentle. I stopped worrying. I noticed that Irène and Joël really enjoyed interacting with the families there. Working their magic across the language barrier. I believe this is the sweet spot of the journey for them. To engage the locals in a meaningful interplay.
The boat arrived on the far shore. We had anticipated that it would dock close to the town of Long San. We were not even close. We were in a tiny village with 40km of mountainous road between us and our expected destination. We were under the false assumption that the boat would take us to the furthest point in the lake. Now we had to scramble for a solution late in the day.
Joël found one person on the boat that spoke French. He knew this tiny village and the people in it. Joël and he disappeared on a motor bike. We waited. Joël returned about 30 minutes later with a truck that could take us all to our Long San.
Along the way
On the way to Pak Seng we found a process for making tapioca. Here the locals have harvested a root that must be sliced up. It is a crude process that generates a material that can be used to make tapioca. It is also used for other purposes, including animal feed.
Some of the most educated people thatyou can find living in Laos, are the monks. They typically speak English. They know a lot about the area in which they live. They are generally pretty good about being approached but there are some rules to follow: Be respectful, Be male (women do not speak nor even approach monks), Listen well.
This write up brings us up to date at the border of Laos. We will board a boat and travel down the Mee Kong river for the next two days without WiFi. I am writing this in reverse chronological order, which works better when reading across to the next most recent post.
We have been joined by two more cyclists from Brittany France. Caroline and Christian are riding small folding bikes (Brampton). Christian likes to take pictures of the group, which complements Joël and Irène who like to take pictures of the native people and landscapes. I am using pictures from all sources.
We crossed into Laos yesterday. The border is the Mee Kong river. There is a shuttle bus to take pedestrians and bicyclists across the bridge. This is mandatory. One is not permitted to simply walk over the bridge. However, when they saw the size of our tandem and realized it would not be possible to load it onto the bus, we were asked to ride the bike across behind the bus. Then they saw we had more bikes. I am guessing that since the precedent for riding behind was already established, it was easy to give the go ahead for all three Azubs in our group to ride behind the bus.
This was my first formal crossing into a communist country. A visa is required which was issued to us at the border. This process costs a reasonable $40 which is payable in US currency. I produced a $100 bill which was immediately rejected because it was folded. I was then forced to find an ATM which could produce Laos currency which was accepted. You see it wasn’t folded because it was fresh from the ATM. Anyway, after a tedious process with lots of paper, photographs, and finger prints, we are finally here.
Stranger still, about 10km before the border, we passed through a local checkpoint. Christian opined that they were probably looking for drugs. I noticed that the commercial traffic was permitted through, but the pickup trucks were diverted down a side road, probably for closer inspection.
I was surprised when we too were diverted down this road. A few hundred meters later, we were directed into a Buddhist temple where a celebration of some kind was going on. Here I thought I would be asked to empty all my luggage onto an inspection table. Instead we parked our bikes and joined the party involving monks and temple members, with dancing and eating. All of which was free.
Irène joined the locals in some sort of line dance. She was immediately accepted, then later given a tour of all the local foods. We ate a good meal there, which included some sort of ice cream made with coconuts. Joël took out his flying camera and made some videos of women doing a ritualistic dance of some kind.
No one came away with an understanding of why we were directed there, but we didn’t complain at all. Afterward we mounted our bikes and road on toward Laos.
Places of Interest
In the city of Chaingrai there is a cafe which has many cats there for the enjoyment of the customers. Lucy had treats to share. She was very popular with the cats.
We found a temple with a giant Buddha like statue, built in the 1990s. We learned that the figure is not Buddha. It is a Chinese goddess wearing lipstick. We took the elevator to the 26th floor where we took many photos of the sculptures within.
Temples in Thailand are a place to go and hangout. They are open every day and people are just milling about taking pictures. In some ways this is similar to the landmark cathedrals of Europe, Notre Dame for example. However the newly made temples seem to have the big draw.
We went to a few of these near Chaingrai. The White temple was a campus of many buildings that had an impressive array of sculptures and architecture. It seemed to me that the place was designed to maximize the number of photo ops. Inside the main temple chamber, where photos are not permitted, one could find statues of Harry Potter and other superheros of western culture.
Things are proceeding well for the four of us. Lucy and I have learned to operate the tandem without all the tension we had at the start. Joël and Irène are excellent people. They complete the square nicely. Mainly, this is because we enjoy learning new cultures and languages. Our four person team has members from three continents. We are traveling in a fourth.
We get together and speak a mix of Spanish, English, and French with surprising fluidity. Apparently there is a lot of similarity between French and Spanish. Joël and Irène are familiar with Spanish already having spent some time in Mexico, Cuba, and Spain recently. They have a wonderful ability to roll with others even with some uncertainty in understanding.
Joël has planned much of the trip for us. He finds excellent routes and places. We stay in comfortable hotels, mostly. We did spend a night wild camping in a Buddhist temple.
Even though it is winter here in Thailand, it gets quite warm during the day. A high of 36C (=97 F) is common. So we beat the heat by getting on the bikes before sunrise (6:30 am). We usually ride to about noon and stop for the midday siesta in an air conditioned hotel room. There is room in the schedule to stay at one place for two or even three nights occasionally. This gives us time to explore a town if we like.
With us four, there is much laughter. Joël and Irène have a great attitude about the trip and life in general. They have taught us a few card games we play when we have down time. We can laugh at our own mistakes.
I would like to follow in the footsteps of Joël and Irène who have been traveling the world since 2014 and producing excellent blogs of their journey. CycloMigrateurs.fr They have friends all over the world. They tell good stories. The best ones are about their moments of failure.
Lucy is my partner. She has a fearlessness that I admire. She has endured this rough start with a guy that doesn’t really speak her language and is only now learning to operate the tandem they are using. She says she likes my laugh. It reminds her of her son’s laugh. At least I have something to offer.
I am deeply honored to be part of this team.
The four of us see remarkable things that are everyday occurrences for the locals. For instance a family of four traveling on all on one motorbike or scooter. At the same time, the locals are astonished to see recumbent bicycles, and especially a tandem rolling down the road. From each perspective, the other appears like something from Dr. Seuss.
Thailand as I see it
We are now hundreds of kilometers from Bangkok. Out here the life is tranquil. The people are eager to help us. Even when there is a language barrier, the local people are familiar with using automatic translation on the smart phone. I have had many successful encounters.
Travel expenses here are low compared with Europe and US. A meal for two at a restaurant is $6. A night in an air conditioned hotel room with WiFi is less than $15. I’m told that if you have an account in a Thai bank with at least $25,000 USD in it, you can stay in Thailand indefinitely. You will only have to go to the local Embassy every three months to demonstrate that you still meet the requirements. It is also easy to work here if you start a small business and employ at least three Thai citizens. A common startup business is teaching English, for which you do not necessarily need to master the Thai language.
The presence of western culture is apparent. We see many late model automobiles and pickup trucks on the roads. Though life is inexpensive here, I am sure that automobiles and gasoline are not cheaper than in the west. I suppose the country attracts many from the west, looking for an inexpensive retirement.
I do not object to this migration. The most beautiful part of the culture seems to be uncontaminated. That is, the people have a genuine interest in other cultures. They show curiosity in our adventure. Locals approach us with many questions or take photos. Even when there is a language barrier, when we are on the bikes we regularly get a thumbs up from the locals many times a day.
Also there is a trust between humans. The high level of security I found in Eastern Europe is not needed here. As I write this I notice though there is a lock on my hotel room door, the windows are not locked. If I accidentally locked my key in the room, I could easily get back in to fetch it.
In the cities, the traffic is chaotic, but the drivers are not aggressive. I feel safe enough. It takes more effort for me driving on the left side. But the drivers here readily yield, even when they have right of way. Yesterday we accidentally turned onto a busy one way street going the wrong way. We continued for one block before correcting. No one honked, they simply made room for our exit.
In the countryside, we encounter villages small and large. In these villages, prepared food can be bought for pennies in the many small stands that are run by the families that live there. I enjoy this food often, and have had no ill effects. Sometimes it can be spicy hot or odd tasting. If you ask for help, the merchants will guide you to the milder stuff. ‘My Pete’ (phonetic spelling) means not spicy in Thai.
Out between the villages there are roads both major and minor. The main roads have more traffic of course, many tractor trailers, some double trailers, carrying sugar cane. We also see farm tractors. In many cases it is a two wheeled tractor pulling a four wheeled trailer, which I have not seen in the Western world. There are pickup trucks and other small trucks carrying farm workers each wearing a single cloth covering their heads and faces. Only the eyes are visible. It looks like a truck load of ninjas.
In the spaces here we see many crops. At this time of year, the sugarcane is in full harvest. We also see many rice patties, fruit trees too, bananas, mangos, papayas, figs, and others I cannot identify. I occasionally see a corn field, but this is not common. We also found a tobacco plantation.
I would say that the mangos are not ripe yet. However one can find ripe mangos in the market place in larger towns. Possibly imported? I have not seen any grapes since leaving Bangkok.
We feel safe riding the ample shoulders of these asphalt paved roads. But it is not as interesting as the smaller side roads. The side roads are frequently paved in concrete with almost no traffic. We find stray dogs asleep in the street. These concrete roads can turn to dirt without warning.
On the bikes we are using there is no problem traveling on the dirt for long distances. When it becomes muddy or deep sand, it can be tricky to keep the bike upright. In these cases, there is always the option of walking the bike. But I have twice taken a chance and dumped the bike.
Joël who is in the lead, is usually waiting to take a picture of my failed attempt. The bike dumps when there is not enough speed to keep it balanced. These are low speed painless dumps. They are good for maintaining ones humility. Lucy has learned to laugh them off.
On these roads we are entertained by what we find. Many stray dogs chase us for a few moments and then quit. I learned from my daughter Raina that many dogs have an instinct for herding larger animals. I believe this is the main interest the dogs have in us.
They make a lot of noise and sound scary, but they never get closer than one meter. They mostly like to chase Irène, probably because she barks back. We always get a good laugh at the exchanges. Irène once got a pack of five or more dogs to turn and run all at once. She was more than they were prepared for.
By the way, How do you say ‘Get off the couch’ in Thai?
To me the dogs of Thailand seem to have more fear of humans, than I am used to seeing in the west. I wonder if they realize that they are sometimes eaten by humans in this region. That being said, I have seen two or more dogs wearing a muzzle. Probably these are not stray, and I am thankful that someone has seen to this.
We also see farm animals running free range on these back roads. Chickens are most common, but we also have seen ducks and pigs roaming about. Cattle are usually behind a fence, but sometimes we see them being driven by men with dogs on foot. Horses are rare here.
Fish are farmed in the rivers. We see places which seem to be packed with fish. A handful of fish food thrown into the water will cause a stir that looks similar to boiling water. We also see nets draped above these places in the river. The nets protect the fish from waterfowl which would otherwise be eating the fish. We came across a fish farm next to a smoke house which was producing smoked fish with wholesale capacity.
Joël and Irène carry quite a bit of photography equipment. It shows in the blogs they create. Joël has a drone so that he can take aerial photos. He can produce some amazing videos and photos.
We found a cable bridge high above the river Yom near our hotel. Joël got out all the equipment and shot quite a bit of footage of the team crossing the bridge on bikes. He turned several minutes of raw footage into this remarkable 30 second video.
Bikes on the train.
Train travel in Thailand is affordable. A three hour train ride covering 100km costs about $3 USD. With a bicycle, the cost is about twice as much. Joël has arranged two legs of our journey by train in Thailand.
The first time from Lop Buri to Nakhon Sawang was a bit of an adventure because the freight manager was uncomfortable with putting all three bikes on board one train. We managed to make it work by traveling on two successive trains. Lucy and I folded the tandem in two and took the second train.
We made it to our train stop at dusk. By the time we reassembled the bike and were rolling, it was dark. We were equipped for night riding, just a bit new at it. It was a tense 8km ride in the dark. I find barking dogs are no problem during the day when you can read the dog’s body language. At night my imagination creates a much scarier image of the dog. We made it without mishap, just a bit frazzled.
Thailand has many Buddhist temples. It also has many temple ruins that are several hundred years old. They were attacked by the Burmese in 1767. A few years before the United States existed. The ruins are now protected national monuments with on-going restoration projects in many cases.
Lop Buri City of Monkeys
Lop Buri is known for the monkeys that run freely in the streets. Here you have to be a little careful because the monkeys can get into mischief with you. Lucy was cautious but couldn’t resist the opportunity to feed the monkeys.
So the plan comes together and all the pieces fall into place. We will spend the next two months traveling in tropical South East Asia. I have a brand new tandem, a dedicated stoker, Lucy. We get to ride with good friends Irène and Joël that have done quite a bit of cycle touring all over the world.
Here’s the glitch. Tandems are not easy to ride. It takes the team of two riders a while to build up the experience needed. The 40kg tandem is loaded with 45kg of equipment. From a standing start, getting this thing rolling fast enough so that it can be balanced, takes a concerted effort of the two riders. When this fails, the bike wobbles and crashes at low speed. It is a little embarrassing in the parking lot. It is scary in traffic.
Lucy and I had done some training on a tandem in Santiago. That was child’s play compared to the fully loaded tandem we were to start our journey with. After a few low speed crashes in the hotel parking lot, we were ready to go play in traffic.
Well I would have wanted several days to get our routine down before starting such a large tour; however, we didn’t have that luxury. The bike was assembled, Joël and Irène were arriving the next day, and the sun had gone down. I remember telling Dana that I felt like I was walking into the mouth of a Dragon.
Not feeling ready has come up many times in my life. I have proceeded with good outcomes in the past. My recipe is pay close attention, don’t panic. In the end it all worked out. Lucy and I overcame the challenges and can deal with the chaos of Bangkok traffic.
We did have a number of low speed crashes in traffic in the process of learning. Somehow through it all, I still have Lucy’s confidence.
As we head north toward Laos and away from Bangkok, the traffic has become less of a problem and the scenery has become quite special.
The plans are laid for a big rendez vous in Bangkok. Dana has built and tested the new tandem and will deliver it personally to Bangkok. Joël and Irène are packed and ready to join us there to continue their world tour by bicycle. Lucy and I have been training both on a tandem and on stationary bikes in the gym here in Santiago, Chile. At the same time, we are learning each other’s language.
Last year, I spent the Summer months traveling solo in the Northern Hemisphere, both in United States and Europe. The routine was comfortable except that I found I really needed a partner to share my adventure. As you might guess, it is not easy to find someone that is ready to drop everything and join me. I got really lucky.
In October, I met Lucy on Tinder, a dating app. When we met, I was in Europe and Lucy in Santiago, 12,000 km away. Tinder is supposed to find people in one’s vicinity. Go figure! To make it yet more interesting, Lucy spoke only Spanish. I did not speak any. But technology had a solution, machine translation. Thus we met and got to know each other. Then came the leap of faith.
By the first week in December 2019, plans were ready to execute. I flew to Santiago to be with Lucy. Together we built a plan to go explore this planet. We have been living together for the last month. In that time we have developed a working knowledge of each other’s language, and trained and equipped ourselves for the great beyond.
Time to go, Wheels Up at 6PM
Today is a big day for us. In a matter of hours we will leave Santiago for Bangkok. In order to do this, Lucy has liquidated her home and belongings, save one suitcase she left with her son, Aldo.
It still amazes me that Lucy is able to do this. I don’t speak her language, am not really from her culture, participate in an unusual pass time which you could describe as being homeless by choice. Yet she is totally committed to the project, to the point that she has effectively has left with no home to return to. We regularly talk through the tough spots we may encounter. She is undaunted.
Aldo and his fiancé, Pia drove us to the airport today. I get along well with those two. It helps a lot that they are bilingual. During the many family gatherings, Aldo and Pia served as the bridge across the language barrier. It made it very easy for me to be part of the scene, to be clued in to the humor, to understand the familial bonds.
I have decided to start my career as an artillery inspector.
Now it is Wednesday evening. Lucy and I made the big jump to Thailand in three flights. Between the flights, layovers, and time zone change, this consumed the whole weekend. We hit the ground running on Monday morning and have managed to retrieve my bike from KJ and Pya at Thammasat University, arranged storage space for my solo recumbent, extended my visa in Thailand to 60 days, mapped out a route for the first day. We even managed to do some sightseeing while we were at it.
Lucy and I have started using instagram and have posted many photos there. I think it would be good for Lucy to start blogging in Spanish. It would provide a good contrast to hear her side of the story. Meanwhile you can find Lucy’s and my instagram posts at viajesdelucy and woudentm respectively.
Hot on the horizon now is Dana. He has achieved superhero status from my perspective for personally delivering a recumbent tandem to my specifications faster than the manufacturer could possibly do. He will be here in just 3 hours and I am like a kid on Christmas morning, waiting impatiently for the great moment ahead.
Dubai Airport looking for someplace that’s nearly horizontal
A flowering Fern? Jim Kern says this is similar to the caesalpinia pulcherrima
Aldo and Pia are suggesting that we should eat bugs, a delicacy in Asia. So far we have not found any. Though I did try some deep fried duck faces. The bills are crunchy. Pictured here are crabs.
It’s like Christmas Morning here in Bangkok
Dana and Mel arrived with all the goodies. I’ll blog more later. Right now we are busy!
What a difference a few months makes. While I was hanging out in San Francisco, in November, I started a search for a traveling partner. I learned this summer that I needed a traveling partner, someone to share the challenges and successes with. In fact a romantic partner would be optimal.
My friend Heike points out that this takes time. You cannot just push a button and get something like this started. In fact I was active on Tinder in Europe. Here I demonstrated the old proverb, a rolling stone gathers no moss.
Tinder is pretty much a bust for meeting women while moving 50km/day. Sure you get into interesting chats but are out of range before it is time to meet. Because I was in one place for over a week, I did have two dates with Madeline in Budapest. We fell out of touch quickly when I left.
Meanwhile I had somehow found Lucy, an attractive woman in Santiago. She was fun to chat with, even though she doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish. Modern software makes this easy and difficult at the same time. Translators make lots of small mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes can have a big impact on meaning. So, when the conversation crashes, you can always blame the translator.
We really don’t understand how we were able to make contact on Tinder being thousands of kilometers apart. Tinder only works by connecting people within a small distance. Though I was in Santiago in July for the eclipse, Lucy did not appear on my radar until October, when I was in Europe. Serendipitous software glitch or magical destiny, we differ on our explanations. In any case, the connection was made.
When I finally made it back to San Francisco, we were making heavy use of WhatsApp and translator. The cool thing is we have a record of our early courting on our WhatsApp account all or mostly in Spanish.
I learned that Lucy had a good career in marketing and management of hotel properties. She was part owner of a startup that went bankrupt in 2009 following the world wide real estate crash in late 2008. The startup was leveraged. She lost everything. She needed to start again from scratch.
However, Lucy is smart and independent. She pulled together enough resources to get a few startups going including a clothing company called Lucilasport. It worked well enough to support her without outside help. She also put her son through Engineering School. The amazing thing to me is that she was willing to put everything on hold, including walking away from a new job in hotel management.
Without any begging and pleading on my part. Lucy agreed to put aside her life in Santiago and join me in traveling the world by bicycle before even meeting me. We agreed to meet for the first time in Santiago on December 7, 2019.
We set up a fail safe agreement. We agreed she would not have to put things on hold until after we met. I told her I would like to take a bike ride first, and other stuff. But in a just a few days in Santiago we would agree to travel together to Asia and beyond for a year, or not. If we agree to go to Asia, at the end of a year together we could decide on further plans.
The first meeting was a nail biter for both of us. I did my best to appear calm, but the whole idea we were working out together could easily crash, in the first few days. The thing I like about Lucy is she is a realist, not a dreamer. She wanted to know how it was going from my perspective even in the first few minutes together.
We booked a room in the Santiago Sheraton for the first weekend. They rent bikes there. We spent the first day unwinding, and wrestling with the jet lag (5 hours). I told her that if I just sit on the couch and talk. I will fall asleep well before bedtime, which is not good jet lag strategy. It worked out well. Lucy knows how to keep me up past bed time.
The next morning I told Lucy I wanted to go to Asia with her, even before taking the first bike ride together. She agreed without hesitation. I figured what ever issues came up on the bike ride could be solved in the month we had together in Santiago. I was learning a lot about Lucy and liking it.
The first bike ride together
The reader should remember that although this is taking place in December, it is in the Southern Hemisphere. It is late Spring with long days and warm weather. Typically great riding conditions, though sometimes quite warm.
Lucy is in good shape. She has always been a runner. She finished a marathon a few years ago. The issue she has with bike riding is that she took a bad crash a few years ago. It required eight stitches to put her lip back together. But it also took a toll on her confidence on the bike.
Weeks before I came to Santiago, Lucy had rented a bike and was riding it regularly, in preparation for the tour. She reported a few bruises on the first outings. I didn’t think anything of it.
We rented two bikes from the Hotel. These are modern mountain bikes with 29″ wheels, front suspension, fat tires, and disc brakes. More than able to take what Santiago might offer in curbs, potholes, etc. I felt secure on this bike. I test rode Lucy’s bike before she got on it. We walked the bikes to a level spot to start out.
Lucy insisted that I lead the way. I kept a slow pace, Lucy stayed behind me by a block or more. I occasionally had to stop and wait for her. When I went back to check on her she insisted that I lead the way, that she was fine, she just had to get used to the new bike.
We climbed San Cristobal hill together which is less than one kilometer elevation gain at 5-8% grade. When I stopped to wait for her, she insisted that I meet her at the top of the hill. I agreed and told her I would find a beer and wait for her at the top.
It got a little confusing at the top. There are multiple roads, some of them closed to bicycles, and no beer anywhere, park rules. I picked a spot where I could see Lucy coming. She showed up a little winded. We found a place in the shade and relaxed with lots of sparkling water. While we were there, I explained to Lucy that it might be best for us to consider using a tandem bike. She didn’t know what a tandem was, apparently they are quite rare in Chile. But she agreed to try it, if I thought it was best.
Refreshed and ready for the long down hill, I insisted on riding behind Lucy. I needed to see how she handled it. It was immediately obvious. Lucy still was dealing with fear and lack of confidence. All of this under excellent riding conditions.
She would take a long time to get started, even though the road was relatively free of traffic. She would never get above 10km/hr, and frequently slam on the brakes. Unfortunately the brakes on this bike were excellent. Slamming on the brakes would send Lucy off the saddle to collide with the frame. By the time we made it back to the Hotel, Lucy had multiple bruises which would become black and blue in the following days.
This was a tough moment for us. Lucy desperately wanted to travel the world with me and would put herself on a tortuous path to qualify for the chance. Getting banged up on the bike this day did not discourage her in the least.
Here I already agreed to tour together. I owned this problem. I was honor bound to make it work. That and I found Lucy to be a solid partner for me. Not something I was willing to give up.
Lucy felt really bad about her performance. She was very sorry that she had jeopardized our plans. After a long serious talk, I convinced her that this was no longer her challenge. It is our challenge now. We will find a solution.
We moved out of the Sheraton and into a furnished apartment that Lucy found in the better part of town, far from the ongoing protest.
Igor and the Tandem Quest
Igor is a concierge at our hotel. I met Igor back in July, when my brother Eric and I were staying at this same hotel. Igor is from Slovenia, we became fast friends when I asked him if he knew Jure Robic. Igor is from the same town as Jure. They used to ride together before his untimely death. Anyone who knows Race Across America, knows the name Jure Robic. He is a legend. Please check the link if you don’t know of him.
Igor works in Santiago, he knows the cycling community there. He was my ace in the hole. I needed a tandem that was worthy of a world tour, and I only have a month to get it road ready. It would be even better if Lucy and I could get some time to train on the thing before going to Thailand.
Igor and I made a date to go see Carlos, the owner of Taller Chicle. A bike shop in the Barrio of Bella Vista. This is outside of the protected center of Santiago. Here the protestors are active. I had a good conversation with Carlos. He lived in San Francisco many years ago. He speaks English very well.
We get right to the point. If we want a tandem built, he can do it, but he needs a frame to start with. Not sure where he might find one here in Santiago. He will check his contacts and get back to us later in the week. I think I may be able to get a frame sent from California. I will call Dana and get back to Carlos later in the week.
He has a tandem. He does not usually rent it out, but will make an exception in our case. The thing is ancient. Probably built in the 1940’s. There are only four cogs on the rear. There are two chain rings up front, but no derailleur. If you want to change gears in front, you kick the chain over with your right foot while the stoker keeps the chain moving. It has a drum brake in back and a rim brake in front.
Carlos speaks of this bike with real admiration in his voice. I wonder about the stopping distance in city traffic.
I figure. OK, at least we have a tandem that Lucy and I could train with. Carlos and I promise to make contact in the next few days and see what course of action to take. Carlos said he will start ‘whipping the snails’, an expression in Spanish for managing the available resources.
Dana to the Rescue
I called Dana. He said he can definitely get us a frame, so we start talking details. He walks me through the plan. Shipping a raw frame to Carlos. Having Carlos get all the right parts together. Training if there’s time, then boxing and shipping to Thailand. All in about 4 weeks time. I start to wonder about the sanity of the plan. The image of whipping snails convinces me to consider Dana’s alternate solution.
Dana says with confidence he can have a bike ready to ride shipped to Thailand in time. Definitely a traditional tandem, maybe an Azub tandem recumbent. He will check his suppliers’ schedules and get back to me.
The next day I call Carlos and arrange to pick up the tandem. He wants $200 USD for rental until the new year. He has promised renting it out for a wedding in early January. I accept the offer without even test riding it. Paid cash without worrying. I figure Carlos wants to keep me happy. I am riding his pride and joy.
I take a cab down to the shop and ride the thing home solo. It’s about 15km back to our apartment. No problems, but I was right about the stopping distance. I can not take this thing on any significant hill. There is no way to stop it on a -10% grade.
However the geography of Santiago is on my side. The city is basically pan flat. It sits in a crater surrounded by the Andes mountains. There are some hills in town. I can easily avoid the steep ones.
Lucy and I take the bike out for our first ride the next morning. Grappling with finding a good route for this stodgy beast, the chain breaks in the first 10km. I don’t have a chain tool in my kit. I call Carlos and we make arrangements to meet at Costanera Center, about 6km from my current location.
Walking 6km would be tough for me, but I can get on the bike and push it along with my feet like a velocipede. It is mostly downhill to our meeting place, so I can keep a pretty good speed most of the way. Lucy runs the entire distance, without showing much fatigue. Yes, she is in good shape.
Carlos makes quick work fixing the broken chain and leaves me with the chain tool and some spare chain. Good that he did. We broke the chain a second time a few days later. We have named the bike ‘Senor Antiguo’. The bike reminds us of an old man that should be treated with respect, patience, and not asked to do much.
Lucy and I have developed a daily routine of riding Senor Antiguo 25-35km through the heart of Santiago. The beautiful thing is she has no fear and makes a good stoker. I am starting to feel confident about or plan to tour Asia and beyond.
Meanwhile back in California, Dana has figured out that he could get us a Davinci Joint Venture (conventional tandem, no suspension) delivered to Thailand on time, though we would likely need expedited shipping. The delivery time for Azub (recumbent tandem) is just too long. No chance there.
We talk about delaying the tour, but I have plans to meet another nomadic couple in Thailand (Joël et Irène). I expect it would be difficult for them to change their plans.
After a few days Dana comes up with the winning plan. He was planning to build an Azub tandem and ride this with his daughter on the California coast in January. The bike is pretty close to the specs we discussed.
Dana explained that he could order parts to change over the bike to our specs after his ride with his daughter. If he moved his tour up, a week or so, he would have time to convert the bike, box it and take it to Thailand personally. This is much faster than any expedited shipping available, and not more expensive for me.
Dana is contributing his own time here. He will endure the marathon airline flights to and from Bangkok. He will assemble the bikes for us in Bangkok. Make any necessary adjustments and see us off on our tour. We agreed that the money I would have spent on expedited shipping, he is welcome to use to offset his travel expenses. It will not completely cover it.
Incredible right? That’s Dana. My bike fetish enabler, and good friend.
Dana and I have a relationship that goes back to my days of racing. He has sponsored me several times, has built many bicycles for me. Recently He sent me a photo of a wall in his shop that is devoted to bikes that I have ridden in the past.
We sometimes joke about coming out of the closet as true recumbent enthusiasts. I think our friends already suspect this.
The closest members of Lucy’s Family are her son, Aldo, and his girlfriend, Pia. Aldo is a successful executive working for DHL in Santiago. Pia is an interpreter. I watched her do simultaneous translation from Spanish to English when they stopped by our apartment for a first visit. Aldo is also fluent in English, he also knows where to find craft beer in Santiago.
This first visit was originally planned as a quick meeting for Saturday afternoon. Lucy planned to serve chips and dip in the living room. So, I figured it was a good opportunity to assert my heritage and make apple pie.
While I was assembling the pie on Friday afternoon, Lucy made a video of me making it and sent it to Aldo and Pia. This prompted a contribution of ideas from all parties. Suddenly, Lucy was preparing dinner. Aldo and Pia were bringing wine. Aldo promised a tour of local craft beer places afterward. So, the entire sprawling event lasted for six hours, with the second dinner at the brewery, which included deep fried pig ears, finishing up at about midnight.
I don’t know if this is typical of Chilean culture, or just the way Lucy’s family works. It was wonderful in either case. I made one faux pas by picking up the tab at the brewery while Aldo was away from the table. So, we agreed to have another outing next Saturday as a remedy.
In case you were wondering, fried pig’s ears dipped in barbecue sauce are wonderful. There were none left uneaten.
Costanera Center is the tallest building in Latin America. It is the second tallest in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s also right here in our neighborhood. So of course we had to take the elevator to the top and get some pictures.
There atop this skyscraper, Lucy and I were getting into the layout of the neighborhood below with our unique life size map. It was clear that Lucy was lost in piecing together the streets below, when she said, ‘Hey, where is Costanera Center? It should be right there’. Imagine that. The largest building of all in the city and it was not on our map… We had a good laugh over this.
DuoLingo is a great app for learning a new language. It’s free, you can learn a lot with frequent five minute sessions. I started binge learning Spanish. Lucy started learning English with more conventional tools.
The though part about English is pronunciation. The tough part about Spanish is hearing individual words when spoken at normal speed. I can always get Lucy to slow down enough for me to hear individual Spanish words. Pronunciation of English words is still tough for her. So we speak mostly in Spanish. Though I did get Lucy to download the DuoLingo App for learning English.
The funny thing is Lucy knows so many songs with English lyrics. She pronounces them all correctly. Does anyone know how to tap into this? I figure some exercises in front of a Karaoke machine might help.
In this post, I drop off my bike with friends in Bangkok and continue to Chicago to see my mother on her birthday. Then I will head home to San Francisco for a vacation from my vacation. This will include Thanksgiving at my sister’s place in Ashland Oregon.
I am catching up on a backlog here. Much to tell. Thank you for reading!
How the Network Functions
So here I am in Thailand, a place I have never been before. Yet, I am lucky enough to have a new friend who is willing to store my bike and panniers for a month. How does this happen? There is a network, at its core is Warmshowers.org, an organization for touring cyclists that need help from local cyclists, at no cost. Their motto is ‘Pay it Forward’.
I’ve been hosting in San Francisco for about seven years. I have met some amazing cyclists with valuable knowledge from all over the world.
In this case, Thomas who lives near Paris, France stayed at my place while he was circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean by bicycle about five years ago. So, he has valuable knowledge of touring in Asia. When I told him I was going to Bangkok and needed to find a place to store my bicycle, He put me in touch with KJ, a Biologist at Thammasat University just north of Bangkok. KJ is not a cyclist, but she said any friend of Thomas is a friend of mine. KJ, along with her colleague Pyaporn, came up with a secure spot.
Arrived in Bangkok
We made it! I landed in Bangkok and retrieved my bike from oversized baggage claim. There I met another cyclist from Sweden, claiming his bike. He had just ridden from Berlin to Istanbul by bike. We compared notes.
The thing I had of value was a better way to package the bike. Do not pull the fork out of the frame. Do not remove the wheels. Just pull the boom and seat, then smother the thing in bubble wrap and tape. It is so simple to reassemble. I would not have guessed that any airline would accept this. I have it on good authority that they do. This brilliant advice is thanks to Les CycloMigrateurs! My mentors.
My new Swedish friend had his bike in pieces in a cardboard box. His next stop was a bike shop that could help him put his bike together, as he was not carrying enough tools.
He had been to Bangkok before. He warned that I may like it here so much that I want to stay forever. He also said there is a lucrative industry in teaching English as a second language. One could make a good living here, though the competition for this is growing fast.
My plan was to find my way to KJ’s place in Thammasat University. This is about an hour north of Bangkok. I was easily able to get a cab large enough for my bicycle, that would take me there for less than 1000 Baht (~$30).
I also needed a place to assemble my bike and sleep. I had the taxi driver take me to a hotel near the University. The hotel room could serve both purposes. It is only after the taxi has left that I realize one flaw in my plan.
The hotel is on a major road. There are no secondary roads or streets that I can ride my bike to from this hotel. The issue is that although KJ’s place is only three kilometers from the hotel. I cannot ride the bike to her place.
We talk it through over the phone. Try to find a large taxi.
Steve Purcell once told me he could reassemble his P-38 from many tiny pieces in an Italian Cafe. I like a hotel room, because if you have to leave it in mid assembly, you can lock the whole mess in the room. No one interferes, nor is anyone offended by the chaos.
The next day KJ drove me back to Bangkok to catch my plane. We had a good discussion about life in academic research, and Thai culture. I have only begun to explore the culture here. KJ has traveled to Paris a few times. It was there that she met Thomas, a WarmShowers contact I met five years ago.
For instance the taxi fare to Thammasat University (a 60 km ride) is less than 1000 Baht (~35 USD). According to KJ, 1000 Baht is her budget for a week (not including rent).
Earlier, I had found a food court near the University. I ordered a plate of food for lunch. The woman there held up 4 fingers to indicate the price. I said aloud ‘400Baht?’. She laughed at me and said, ‘forty’. This ample lunch cost less than two US dollars. What is the word for inverse sticker shock? Also, she could have easily gotten 400 Baht without me even suspecting anything. The people have honor.
Inside the University every one speaks excellent English. Outside, this far from the city, English is rare. The good thing is the people are good natured and honorable. I wanted to reward good service to a parking lot attendant at the hotel. I held out a 500 Baht note ($15). He and another attendant stared at the note in disbelief. I read there body language as, ‘Sir we have no procedure to accept a gift of this size’. It felt really weird to put this note back in my pocket.
Return to United States
While I was traveling through Europe, my brother Eric was engineering a birthday celebration at my mother’s place in Lafayette, Indiana (near Chicago). This required organizing a meeting near the Chicago airport, the 4 hour car trip to Lafayette with multiple cars and an Airbnb large enough for us all to crash at near Lafayette. Here we would prepare our special Groere Eten. A traditional Woudenberg meal only served at special gatherings.
I flew in from Thailand arriving a day early. This enabled me to get mostly in the local time zone before meeting the family. Carina and Mark organized the California contingent, consisting of Carina, Cherissa, Mark, and Arden. Rick and his son Toshi came in from the East Coast. Ruthe flew in from Oregon.
Assembling pretty late in the evening in Chicago, we descended upon a Eastern European restaraunt in Chicago which was in the process of shutting down the kitchen for the night. We looked sufficiently forlorn at the thought of finding someplace else to eat that the owner decided to make it work somehow.
My Granddaugher, Arden, just seven months old was the party animal. She can stay upbeat for a five hour flight from California, followed by a hard time at the car rental place, and still be the life at the party.
We made it down to Mom’s place the next day and prepared Groere Eten for the following day. This was a bit of a challenge in the primitive kitchen we had. Ruthe knows how to improvise. It work well.
Great grandmother Patty meets Arden for the first time.
Rick, Ruthe, and I also went through the remaining wall hanging’s and photographs from the mom’s farmhouse in Shadeland, Indiana. We divided it up and started the conservatory effort.
It was a successful journey. I flew home to California with my daughters and extended family. Ron Noack met us at the San Jose airport. We chatted a bit before Cherissa and I headed north.
It had been a long day for me and Cherissa offered that I crash at her place in Moss Beach, which I accepted. I found when we had arrived, that PG&E had shut down power in the region, in order to prevent more forest fires.
I left early the next morning. The power was still out in Moss Beach, but on in San Francisco
My main objectives for November were to organize, possible new team member, new equipment, vaccinations for travel to rural Asia, Clean out my apartment, Dentist Appointment, Resolve Health Insurance for Cherissa. You know, the daily grind, the stuff that doesn’t get done while you’re traveling. It piles up. But not so much that you don’t have time for some bike rides with old friends
It was good meeting up with the gang, and finding out what has happened since our last meeting. We meet once a week, the attendance is variable so there are always new old friends to catch up with. Jack Jones is an old favorite (sorry no picture this time).
I also shared a beer with Jim Kern and Eric Eisenbarth from the crazy as anything endurance cyclist group.
Out here on the west coast, we Woudenbergs like to assemble with my Sister and her husband Jim at their home in Ashland, Oregon. In preparation, Cherissa and I bake pies. This year her friend James helped out.
The pies get made a few days in advance. The plan is to start out early on Wednesday morning to beat the traffic out of the Bay Area. This part works. However well beyond the Bay Area, another delay awaits us.
While driving north in California, Mark and Carina point out that Interstate 5 is closed at the Oregon Border due to Blizzard Conditions and a backlog of stuck automobiles. We are several hours away from the border, but we decide to take an alternate route along the California Coast, then over Grants Pass. No telling whether this is the better choice, but at least it is not closed at the moment.
The new route will at least double our travel time. This is a real concern when carrying a baby along. I figure if things get tough we can stop in a motel for the night and get an early start the next morning.
It worked out fine for Arden. She didn’t mind it a bit. Her parents may have a different story to tell. In addition to the longer route, we also got delayed because of a jack knifed tractor trailer many miles ahead of us on Route 5. I think we were on the road for more than 12 hours.
Ruthe was happy to feed us when we got there. She knows how to layout the cornucopia of great stuff.
Next morning Ruthe and I honor our traditions but only do an abbreviated mountain bike ride this year. We found the fire road to be quite icy.
We got back early to see the Turkey go into the oven. It was a good Thanksgiving crowd with the Finnigans, the Noacks, the Woudenbergs and Jim of course. Nine people in all, and more than enough food as always. Followed by pie of many types then a sampling of some exquisite Scotch.
I book car transfer to Budapest Airport. I elect to get to the airport many hours (5) before boarding time. Yes, I’m nervous about this. I get into the correct terminal, but cannot find the Aeroflot ticket counter.
I learn that Aeroflot does not open a ticket counter until two hours before the flight. So, I have to babysit my bike for a few hours. I find a comfortable spot and hang out with Allen from Ghana, Africa. He has many hours wait for his flight to Madrid. We get to know each other. He is currently living in Ecuador.
Trapped in Moscow
So, here I sit in Moscow airport. Trapped there by my own lack of planning. As it turns out, there is no problem to change planes in Moscow. Without the required transit visa, it is not possible to leave the secured area of the airport.
I did make a trip to the Russian Embassy in Budapest to try to secure this visa. It turns out the application must be filed from the Russian Embassy in my home country. So serious advance planning is required to visit Russia.
The closest I get is to watch the planes come and go through the window within the airport. I do get to observe Russians at work. They behave in a rather stone faced way when hit with something outside their duties.
For instance, as I was getting off the plane, I was interested in getting the help of a flight attendant. I had a few postcards with Hungarian stamps that should have been mailed before I left Hungary. I figure the attendants will be back in Hungary in a day or so, maybe I could get them to do me a favor and mail them for me. I waited to be one of the last to leave the plane. I explained my proposition to a flight attendant. She replied that she was married. Um? Married? OK, so I figure she just misinterpreted my request. I pulled out the cards and showed them to her. Harmless postcards to my family and friends? She eventually agreed to mail them for me. It will be interesting to see if that actually occurs.
I come across another passenger from California, Mayma who just got off the same flight. She has the same problem as I, no transit visa with many hours before her next flight. She was pretty sure it was possible to get a transit visa in the airport if you can just get to the right people. She had found something on a website to support her position.
We worked together on this. Asking lots of people along the way to customs. So to be fair, it was about midnight Moscow time, we did not speak Russian. Many times we asked folks questions they could not answer. In most places this would invoke a shrug with a statement that begins, “I would like to help you but I really don’t know…”. In Moscow the more typical response is a stone faced stare as if the fact that a question had been asked was not acknowledged.
Mayma and I were undaunted by this. We were at times backing up through a checkpoint so that we could search for more useful people. On our third pass through the checkpoint, we actually got the staff to laugh at us. So, it is possible to get Russians out of the stone face mode. Laughing at Americans is good bait.
We joke about our predicament. When they make the movie about this, there will of course be a car chase, then we get arrested and falsely claim to be friends of Putin. There’s a narrow escape and a spectacular get away. Yeah that’s how James Bond would spend a day in Moscow.
Eventually we conclude that there is no way out of this airport. Not at this time of night anyway. Mayma cancels her hotel reservation in Red Square. We find that the airport restaurants are no longer serving food, though we can still get a beer and do so.
The one hotel in this part of the airport has no vacancy. They point out that there are rooms in the other (inaccessible) part. There are capsules, like little pods available for sleeping at about $10/hr. There’s no way Mayma is going for that. Something about not changing linens and ick factor. Things are not looking good for us. As we drink our beer, Mayma announces dibs on the restaurant couch. It has a pillow! I think she’s joking, but we really don’t have many options.
As we slowly finish our beers we share our life stories. Mayma has done many impressive things in her life. She at one time started and maintained a thriving stationery business in New York, back when people actually sent paper invitations. She has had multiple blogs and knows how to make them get favorably recognized by search engines. She is now a team leader at Facebook. They had to court her twice before she finally gave in and took the job.
Without knowing what to do, we go back to the only hotel and ask if there is any vacancy. Amazingly the answer is yes. There are two rooms available, where only 90 minutes earlier there was nothing. A new hour is like a new day here. We go to our rooms. I get a good night sleep. It’s not cheap, but worth it.
Cutting Room Floor
Here is a bunch of stuff that I find worth documenting, but may be a little esoteric.
Moscow airport cost of living is like San Francisco, but without the really good beer. Tim, your not in Eastern Europe anymore.
Crows in Eastern Europe and also in Moscow are two toned. They have black wings but grey bodies. I have not seen any all black crows since before Vienna.