Saturday, October 24, 2009

WTF was I thinking?

I have to tell you that living abroad, and now traveling has so radically changed my perspectives on everything. I just don't make the same decisions or have the same opinions I used to have about what I would or wouldn't do. I'm taking far more risks than I ever imagined (some good - some not so good) and living well beyond my edge. I'm also traveling on a budget and during low season so there are times when I'd love to fly rather than take a bus or stay in a bustling resort with a lot of other tourists... it's just not always an option.

But sometimes, honesty, I just do stupid things.... like on Thursday. I wanted to do a trek or a tour or something while in Luang Prabang, but despite the number of tour agencies on the main street, there really weren't that many tours. Most of the tours involved Elephant riding and rafting or hiking... but as I'd already done that in Chiang Mai I was hoping for something different. I saw half day kayaking tours and half day waterfall treks and asked about them... but because it's low season most of them didn't have enough people signed up to actually do the activity... they wouldn't do it for just one person. Finally I saw a sign for a half day biking, half day kayaking and asked about it.

The travel agent (naturally) told me that the bike ride, although it was 15 kilometers, was easy and on flat ground. I imagined a nicely paved bike path beside the river. The we would stop at a waterfall, swim and have lunch before kayaking back down the river. We'd kayak for about three hours, but the water is flat calm and we'd be going downstream. What could be more lovely? A leisurely bike ride, a nice swim and then an afternoon spent drifting lazily down the river.

CLEARLY I was out of my mind when I signed up. And as soon as I walked away bothersome little thoughts like "I haven't actually ridden a bike since High School" an "I've never actually gone kayaking before." drifted through my mind along with a much simpler thought "Oh fuck."

The next morning I got up, had a solid breakfast and met up with the tour group. Two of the people who had signed up were sick, so it ended up being just me and an Australian gal. She was young, tall, and had the body of a marathon runner. I knew I was in the *wrong* tour group. But I went along with it... got on the bike, which although new, was instantly uncomfortable. I pedaled a bit around the street realized that indeed, it was just like riding a bike and I had not forgotten how. Onward!

We coasted down a gently sloping residential street which flattened out for a while. OK - this isn't all that bad, I thought. I'm uncomfortable, but I can do this. Then we turned a bend and promptly onto a dirt road.... a well rutted dirt road strewn with small rocks and pebbles. Hmmmm. Doubts started asserting themselves in my mind... but I kept going. Until the hill. It was not a spectacular hill, just a bit of an incline, but it took all my strength to power up it and just before the top I just gave out. I was out of breath, sweaty and my legs were dying.

"I can't do this." I told them. "This is not even a big hill, but I'm dying... I just can't do this."

"You can, the rest of the ride is just like this - no big hills, just a little up a little down - it's easy, go slowly." the guide reassured me.

"It's okay" the other woman said, getting off her bike "I'm a bit tired too... we can just walk for a bit."

I put a little too much faith in their comments, and although I knew I'd be sorry, I stuck with it. For THREE HOURS. The downhill parts were fun, and the flats were okay too... the seat was uncomfortable and the bike a bit too big for me... but those parts were okay. It was the hills... not big hills, just little slopes here and there that just KILLED me. Every time we went downhill I tried not to break too much and go down as fast as I could without losing control of the bike so I could get some momentum for the next hill. I got over a couple of them okay, powering through the tops in low gear. My legs were dying, but I am actually quite strong and managed to keep going for the next hour and a half. Yeah, we walked up some of the hills... I was always glad when I saw the other woman pull up in front of or beside me and get off her bike.

My heart was pounding and it always took me a good long time to catch my breath. I was afraid on a couple of occasions that every cheeseburger I'd ever eaten would finally catch up with me and give me the heart attack which is my due. We took a couple of breaks and drank as much water as I could without getting nauseous, but this was well beyond my endurance. Just past the halfway point I really started breaking down mentally. I tried the whole "I think I can, I think I can..." but I couldn't. I knew I was well out of my league. I'd done nothing in the way of formal exercise in a few years... my only physical activity in Thailand was walking around and swimming a bit on the weekends. I was in no kind of shape for 3 hours off-roading on a mountain bike. At one point I very nearly broke into tears at the sight of yet another incline. I got off and somehow put one tired foot in front of the other and got to the top of the hill. Honestly I thought I was going to die.

Unfortunately, I was so preoccupied with trying not to die, or cry in front of everyone, that I neglected to take pictures. And this really is a sin because 1. I would love photographic proof that I did in fact ride a mountain bike on a dirt road in Laos. and 2. There was some spectacular scenery. Again, we were riding through the jungle, and occasionally caught views of the Nam Khan river. Every once in a while we'd ride past a little village with bamboo houses and local people hanging out... the kids would wave at us and yell "Sabaidee" (Hello). And there were hills and limestone karsts in the distance. Periodically there would be some water buffalo standing in the road, or grazing just a few feet away. There never seemed to be a herder nearby, they were just wandering. Fortunately they're quite lazy creatures and made no attempt to move as we came by, because they are BIG and have HORNS and would not be fun to accidentally crash into as they tried to cross the road.

And then we were there. It was over, I'd ridden 15 kilometers, over the course of about 3 hours in the tropical sun, and somehow was still standing. But waiting for us were the kayaks and I knew that rather than get to collapse in bed for the next 10 days like I wanted to, I had another 3 hours of exercise ahead of me. I very nearly broke down into tears and asked to be taken home on the songthaew with the bikes. I couldn't even look at anyone, I just walked to the other side of the van and chugged the better part of a bottle of water and tried to pull myself together.

The guide assured me that the biking was the hard part, kayaking would be easy. We'd kayak for five minutes to the waterfall, then have lunch and a good long break. I don't know why I didn't ask to go home with the bikes... I think I was just too embarrassed, didn't want to be a quitter. But the truth is... in this case, I never should have been a starter!

After not nearly enough rest we got into the kayaks and he showed us how to paddle. The water was flat calm, and it wasn't particularly challenging, but I was tired and it was an effort. The five minutes of paddling to get to the waterfalls was enough to tell me that I'd live to regret this whole effort. We pulled up to the other side of the river, then up up up I don't want to know how many painful stairs. Then there was the waterfall.

And it was amazing.



But really really refreshing, it was exactly what I needed. I hopped in and swam around for a bit, it was icy cold and the force of the waves was pretty strong. Oh it felt so good, sooooo good. After a while we got out and had some lunch. For some reason I really wasn't hungry. I think it had to do with how hot it was and how much water I'd been drinking. I had a few bites of curry (one of the better meals that I've had on a package tour actually), an apple and MORE water, took one more dip in the water then we were off for stage two... kayaking.

The kayaking was in fact easier. Which is not to say it was easy, despite the predominantly flat water. We were still in near constant motion paddling and paddling down the river. Again, an hour would have been great - three hours was a *bit* much! And again, the scenery was amazing but i didn't get a single picture because my camera was in the dry bag in the back of the kayak. My arms were killing me after the first hour but we just kept going. I had to take several mini breaks just setting down the paddle and stretching my arms for a bit - I was glad I was in the back because the other gal took far fewer mini breaks. ;)

At one point we just completely stopped and drifted for a few minutes. This was wonderful. We'd been floating past little gardens and water buffalo relaxing in the water, here and there a local doing laundry or bathing and a few kids hanging in the trees over the river calling to us "Sabaidee, Sabaidee". For the few minutes we drifted it was so peaceful - the only sounds were crickets chirping, a bird tweeting and the low dull ca-lank ca-lank of a water buffalo's bell as he grazed by the river. The current of the river wasn't strong enough to carry us along too swiftly, it was just enough to spin us slowly around so we were drifting backwards past the little farm. Honestly, I could have drifted for a good hour of the trip. But eventually we put paddles to water again and kept going.

After about two hours, our guide rowed up to us and told us we were about to go through the rapids. Two class two rapids and one class three. Um... what was that now??? My arms were beyond tired, my muscles aching and my hands had begun to get sore. There was very little energy of any sort in my body... just kind of a brainless ability to keep going going going.

We were told to just keep the kayak as straight as possible, and we had already started to get the hang of maneuvering in the river so it wasn't too bad. We navigated the first set of rapids relatively well, we got spun around once, but got ourselves straightened out again and took each of the waves head on. It required a fair amount of coordination, and some fairly powerful digging into the waves as they tried to pull us sideways. We did NOT capsize... which is about as clear a sign of success as you can get.

There was a nice stretch of flat water before getting to the class threes so I tried to rest up my arms a bit. And again, we dug in hard, and managed to fight against the waves that wanted to turn us. At one point we were really being dragged to the right and we were furiously paddling to the left. There were a bunch of scrub bushes in the water and we were heading right for them, I actually got scratched by a few branches as we went past - then between two of the bushes we saw a water buffalo! OMG! We kicked it up and really had to paddle as hard as our exhausted arms could to avoid crashing into it. But again, we were pretty fuckin' amazing, and managed to slide right past him and get straightened out again.

Another rest and another set of smaller rapids (we were quite the experts at this point) and that was about it. Another fifteen minutes of flat water and he called us to the side. In our eagerness to get to the side we ran aground in a sandbar several meters short of the landing space and we were just about too tired to care, but the guide encouraged us, we got unstuck, allowed ourselves to drift down a bit then pulled in.

When we were finally done for the day I was about dead on my feet. I could not believe I'd accomplished as much as I had. That was a fairly intense day and I haven't done any serious exercise in years. The Aussie girl said we should feel proud of ourselves, but at the time all I wanted to do was collapse.

We decided to meet up for dinner later that evening (after our respective naps) at the Hive bar. It was a really cool place, expensive & swanky. We ordered veggie pizzas, and when they say veggie they mean veggie - carrots and green beans among the olives and peppers. And it was happy hour so we got a free Beer Laos. They also did a weird hill-tribe fashion show set to modern music. Cool clothes, but it was all just a bit surreal.

When the fashion show was over we got up and were about to leave when a couple from the boat showed up. I chatted with them for a bit and they said they were meeting up with a few more people from the boat. So we ordered another Beer Laos and got caught up with everything we'd been doing in Luang Prabang. Well fed, a bit rested, and with a couple of beers easing my sore muscles my perspective of the day improved dramatically and we started regaling everyone with tales of our adventure. When I mentioned that it we started with a 15 km. off road bike ride the Irish girl responded "Oh sweet Jesus!" which sums it up nicely. It was really great to meet up with everyone again, and we exchanged facebook info so we could keep in touch for the rest of our travels. Having people to chat with (and drink with) at the end of the day makes all the difference in the world!


IamSusie said...

What an adventure! The kayaking sounds way more fun than biking. I can't take hills at all...

gl. said...

i love biking but i hate hills, so those little slopes would have done me in, too. you did amazing!

Bezzie said...

Oh wow! Three hours would have been overkill for ANYONE! But look at those pics!!

Michael5000 said...

It's already glamourous! And it's hardly in retrospect at all!

Darth said...

Perhaps you should stick to Disneyland.