June 27, 2020
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