‘Yes Jane, but how is the cycling going?’ I hear you say… Well, as you will remember, Rafiki, my (Rachel’s) bike went back together quite well, considering. And a few test runs around Vientiane led only to minor adjustments to the saddle height and a yet-to-be-worked-how-to-do-it tensioning or untensioning issue regarding the gear to the pedal crank, which no longer wants to go into the highest gear. And you’d probably agree, am I likely to need the highest gear, after all this is me – Granny Jane – we are talking about – snail rather than hare.
I was a bit concerned last night though while packing up for a planned early start. It dawned on my that with my preoccupation with the weight aspect pre-departure, I’d never actually checked if everything would fit in the panniers. However, this morning, after paring out even superfluous till receipts and brochures, and with Grandpa Bear strapped to the saddle post, I rolled down the tops of the panniers sufficiently to proof against dust and rain, and after a brief photo call – the breakfast waiter obviously needed a record of this strange elderly ‘falang’ lady heading off on a bike by choice – it was time to make tracks.
It wasn’t just the breakfast waiter actually: I admit to some qualms myself. Was I really doing this? What had induced me to arrive at this point here and now?Yet it was already an hour past my scheduled 7.30am departure time, so reminding myself to keep to the right, I moved into the stream of rush hour mopeds, tuktuks and SUVs and headed north.
Arrogant SUV drivers are manifestly a global phenomenon, so when I’m past the airport and the road starts to empty out, I take my first real breath. I’m on my way and feeling good, the day’s heat has yet to build up and there’s so much to see. Roadsides stores of Chinese toys and SUVs (perhaps one and the same) give way to market fruit stalls with loquats, grapes and jack fruits in geometric pyramids, basket sellers with every basket conceivable, and many you could never have imagined. Then its out into the countryside and lumbering water buffalos, fish farms and rice paddies to other side of the dusty winding road. The photos show only a glimpse.
One of the wonders of the digital age is the information to be found from researching cycling blogs. Vientiane to Phon Hong is 70km of ‘flat roads’ or so I have read, but does that mean flat as in no hills, or just ‘flat’ if you are a touring cyclist half way around the world after summitting the Andes and the Himalayas? In truth, even for a non-Andean summitter it proves pretty flat. Hot, dusty, sometimes dripping with newly sealed tar, but genuinely almost without even what I term a ‘hill’. Those, I’m aware, are still to come. But there’s certainly no sight of any potential new bloggers on 2 wheels, well, not cycling ones anyway. Somehow I’d envisaged cheery waves to other cycle tourers as they whizzed past on their way to Cambodia or headed west for European destinations. But no, just two elderly Laotian ladies, one with her cycle almost buried under a pile of baskets, the other pushing a bike used as a wheelbarrow for bringing firewood home, and at lunchtime some school girls who look bewildered to see me.
A lunchtime ‘chat’ brings me greater understanding. At a roadside stall, I perch where invited on the family’s outdoor rattan bed to eat my seaweed crisps washed down with a bottle of something which could have been Fanta were it not for the unexpected lumps of floating coconut. (In fairness to the health conscious, I’d earlier pointed to what the lady had obviously cooked that morning but was warned off it – I imagine it’s a takeaway normally reheated at home.) Without a single word of common language the two ladies and I discussed our children and grandchildren, mine through photos, theirs through introduction, and moved on to my journey. It was the concept of doing it alone that appeared to be the most disconcerting aspect for them. For me though, its so far, so good. I’ve reached Phon Hong, a sort of dusty version of Wellsford or Tirau, and found myself a quiet room in a guest house, again a silent drama of smiles and non-verbal communication. Now I’m off into town in search of dinner – I guess being able to hear or read a description so that one knows what it is one is eating will not be that important, eh?