Well, I’m back in Luang Namtha after a 1-day trip to Muang Sing, a town right next to the Chinese border. Luang Namtha is fabulously interesting and scenic, and I really wish I could go exploring, but I am pretty much wiped out after a couple long bus rides, so I have (very reluctantly) decided to rest up for the rest of the day in preparation for rafting tomorrow.
The last few days have been a bit trying. Being friendly with the forces of chaos is usually quite fun, but every so often things get out of whack, resulting in a prolonged series of small disasters. (The trick is to recognize when the stars are misaligned, so you can go with the flow and enjoy the chaos: otherwise you get hung up trying to stay in control.) Anyway, day before yesterday (during the misadventures leading up to the bus ride) I realized that the stars were definitely out of order; the trip to the village confirmed it, so i decided to follow the forces of chaos: I rented a motorcycle.
I didn’t really *intend* to rent a motorcycle. In fact I was filling out paperwork for a nice little 24-speed mountain bike, when an American couple came by and started talking about renting a motorbike. This sounded interesting to me–I’d wanted to learn to ride a motorbike for ages, and it’s supposed to be easy–so I asked for a motorbike, and conned the guy into showing me the basics–gear shift by left foot, starter by right foot, throttle on right handlebar. As he was demonstrating, the rental people started looking very worried–“You ride motorbike before, right?” I said something noncommittal in rapid (incomprehensible) English, started up the bike, and screeched off before they could ask any more potentially difficult questions.
Ever tried to learn motorcycle riding on the fly? Well, it’s not as difficult as it sounds…once I sorted out the gearshift, the throttle, and the brakes (somewhere about a quarter mile down the street, out of sight of the rental place), it was relatively straightforward. The only problem was that the throttle (right handlebar) was quite sensitive–easy to jerk yourself forward or backward, and I wasn’t quite sure what would happen in the case of last-minute stoppage disaster. (I had figured out where the brakes were–on the right handlebar–so that was OK.)
Did I mention that the instrument panel wasn’t working? It wasn’t. Shortly after taking off, I realized that the speedometer was broken–whoops. (So was the rest of the instrument panel, but I didn’t realize that at the time…this turned out to be crucial later, unfortunately…more on that later.)
Lest you think I was *totally* insane, I was also quite intensely aware of having no helmet, and no clue what half the buttons did, so I kept the speed down low, not much faster than I’d go on a bike.
(Not that this necessarily counts for much. Since AIDS Lifecycle is a very safety-conscious organization that takes road safety seriously, I would never *dream* of mentioning that I hit 48 mph on a bike once. And if I did, of course, it would *never* have been on that nice long downhill straightaway on Day 6 (I think). Fortunately that particular (purely theoretical 😉 ) section was nice, flat, straight, and clean–the Pride Parade ride down Market Street was a lot more dangerous, due to the street grates everywhere. Hell, I’ve been down a lot more suicidally windy roads near Palo Alto. But i digress.)
*ahem* Where was I? Oh yes. So I’m on this motorcycle that I’m slowly figuring out how to ride, headed vaguely out of town at about 20 mph. (I could go faster, but wasn’t certain about my ability to survive disaster at faster speeds, so kept the speed down. Besides, the speedometer was broken.) I decided I wanted to go see the silkweaving village, so I turned right at the bridge and started going down the dirt road.
Dirt roads are not easy to negotiate, especially on a motorcycle. Especially if you’ve never ridden a motorcycle before, and have only had the haziest of fast explanations. 🙂 This one featured lots of potholes, small rocks in the road, gravel, etc., which made it even more exciting. I elected the better half of courage, and went down it very slowly, maybe a fast walking pace. (Laos has no medical care to speak of, especially in the provinces…if you get in serious trouble, you’re looking at a helicopter evacuation to Thailand. This costs roughly $1000 and is kind of iffy–there’s only one service in northern Laos, and they have to get an army general to sign a written authorization every time they want to take off. (No kidding: I asked.))
Anyway, I didn’t find anything very interesting down the dirt road, and was tired of driving slowly, so I turned around and headed up towards the handicrafts cooperative. The motorbike was behaving just fine, and the road in that direction was much better, so i cranked up the speed a bit, to maybe 25-30 mph, and went on that way for a few miles.
(I should add that I had trouble starting the engine after I stopped in the silkweaving village. I attributed this to inexperience–I’d only seen it done once before, after all, and had never done it myself. But it was quite embarrassing. 😉 )
Anyway, after awhile, I decided that it might be nice to learn how to downshift, so gingerly tried downshifting. On my first attempt, the engine died.
Not immediately, like you’d expect if you’d killed the engine (I have a stick-shift truck, so I know *that* much at least), but gradually, like the motor petering out. I couldn’t figure this out–it didn’t seem like it ought to happen that way–but I know squat about motorcycles, right? I figured I’d gotten some trick wrong, so I pulled over and tried restarting the engine.
It wouldn’t start. I tried pumping the starter lever a couple times, but nothing; I smelled gas fumes, so assumed I’d flooded the engine, and sat down to wait for a minute or two before trying again. No dice.
(Around this time it dawned on me that I have probably done smarter things in my life, but I wasn’t too worried: I figured at worst I could flag down a passing motorbike for an impromptu lesson.)
After about three or four repeats of this, and a good bit of sweating, I got the bike started up again, and cruised happily up the highway. I tried downshifting again, and the engine died.
Anyway, this happened two more times, with the requisite (highly embarrassing) long period of trying to start it, and finally I could’t get the bike to start at all. I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong–fuel gauge said full, the motor couldn’t have been overheating, I didn’t think I’d damaged the engine–but finally I admitted defeat, and pushed the thing over to where a Lao guy had just pulled off, and was sitting with his three small children.
I pushed it up to him, called out a cheery “Sabaidee!” (hello), wai’d him (which is a greeting gesture with the palms together, like praying–also a good way of saying “please!”), and pointed at the motorbike. I demo’d that it wouldn’t start, and gestured him to please look at it. He tried starting it, it wouldn’t start for him either. (Ha! At least it’s not me, it really *didn’t* work.) He then poked at it, and asked me some questions in Lao, to which I shrugged sheepishly and helplessly. he poked at it some more, disconnected and reconnected the starter, and finally popped open the gas tank, to find it completely empty. Out of gas.
Oh. It *wasn’t* just the speedometer that was broken. It was the entire instrument panel.
It had of course never occurred to me that they’d send me out with anything less than half a tank (no American car rental place would ever *think* of doing that (of course, they ask for things like driver’s licenses, too 😉 )), and the fuel gauge had read “full”, so this took me totally by surprise. (It also explained–retrospectively–most of the problems I’d been having.) Of course, that left me there on the road about four or five miles out of town, with a motorcycle out of gas. (The guy couldn’t go to town for me, since he had all the kids along.)
Well, okay. I walked back along the road, flagged down a songtao (pickup truck/taxi), and went to the first gas station near town. Have you ever tried to explain, in sign language, “Hi, my motorcycle ran out of gas on the highway, I need a container for gas so I can take some back?” It’s, um, nontrivial. Eventually, through some rather creative expression, the guy got the idea that I needed a canister, but he didn’t have one, so I went on to the next station. No joy.
I stopped in at a couple stores on the way into town, hoping they’d have some gas in glass soda bottles like they do in Cambodia, but nope. (Where’s a Cambodian gas station when you need one??) I did have a brief flicker of hope upon seeing a canister full of synthetic red liquid, looking very much like gasoline, but it turned out to be cherry Fanta. *sigh*
Anyway, I eventually wound up in the Wildside office (the group I’m doing the tour with), where I sheepishly explained the situation, and got a guide to come back and translate at the gas station. We hopped a pickup-taxi over to the motorbike, put a liter of gas into the tank, and headed back into town.
I’d like to say that I learned something from this about caution and not doing stupid things, but mostly what I’ve learned is to check the fuel *manually*, the next time I try experimenting on a motorbike. (Hey, I even know where the gas tank is, now!) motorbikes are fun–I want to take some time and practice some more, and maybe work out the fine points, like what the six or seven buttons on the instrument panel do, and where the turn signals are. 🙂
Anyway, after that I decided that the forces of chaos were in full swing, so sprinted off to catch the last bus to Muang Sing, to see the morning market there. This started another long series of misadventures, as the forces of chaos were still going strong…
But that, as they say, is another story. 🙂
I am headed off on a four-day rafting trip to Thailand now–so see you all in four or five days, presumably on the other side of the border.
off to have a massage and an (excellent!) wood-fired herbal steam-sauna…
P.S. before I forget: I saw a water buffalo head in Muang Sing. The rest of it (hooves included) was hanging in quarters, from four hooks in the butcher-shop ceiling. pretty impressive…I took photos, of course. 🙂