Friday, July 17, 2009

Maybe kilometer has several meanings

Thao -- my guide for Saturday's fate-tossed hike -- is driving the motorcyle I'm clinging to the back of on an ass-rattling ascent up a dirt track to the starting point of today's hike. On a particularly steep patch, he asks, over the whine of the over-burdened engine, “how you way,” or something like that. I was still trying to figure it out in kilos when I felt the bike slow and waver and heard him clutching madly down through one gear and then another to wind up enough torque to haul my fat American ass up the mountain.

The motorcycles leave Ban, a guide with five years experience, and me in a high green valley, the hills corrugated with rice fields and dotted with a few small homes and villages. We’re high up the ridge, but not high enough, so we start up on what's supposed to be a 15k hike. No chance to ease into it and alert the legs, all bowed and stove-up from the ride, of the work to come. We just start up. It’s only a little after nine, but full sun and getting hot. I’ll not make the same mistake I made last time of getting into deficit so early, so it’s slow and steady, keeping the rhythm by shortening and lengthening the steps as the trail steepens and levels a little. Place each foot, get full extension, breathe, back off when you feel the lactic acid coming on, try not to anticipate. It’s more than an hour up, but on a path that mixes steep with gradual. On a narrow trail skirting the edge of the hillside, I’m surprised to see a small black dog come up and overtake us, followed soon after by a Hmong family with two ponies in tow, walking up to the their fields on the high slopes. They have reed baskets on their backs and carry heavy hoes on their shoulders. They must have already been walking for hours, and will work all day in the sun before walking all the way back down to wherever home is. Before long they disappear around a curve, moving faster than us. I’ll be taking advil and writing about this tomorrow, and they’ll be doing it again.

There are more shades and textures of green than I knew existed, even a few stands of tall pine trees that used to forest these hills before they were taken over by agriculture, and thus became dangerously prone to tumbling down onto each other and everything in their paths. I don’t know how policy-makers are supposed to solve this problem: it’s hard to convince people that they need trees to look at more than they need food to eat. The sinuous beauty of the rice fields makes you almost forget how labor-intensive this crop is. I tried to ask both guides, is there any time of the year when rice doesn’t need hands-on care? Both of them just shook their heads: maybe they didn’t understand the question, or maybe it was just patently absurd.

For lunch we sit in the child-size chairs at the tiny table inside a small Hmong house, enjoying the shade and the breeze that blows now and then across the valley and through the reed wall of the house. I notice a small red plastic mirror nailed to a post. Oh, yes, to keep out evil spirits; I’ve read about that. Then I see the comb. Nope, just a mirror. Reminds of my first stay in Sapa when I heard from my hotel balcony a tinny and mournful song coming from the distance and was moved by the thought of the local people mourning a death or or summoning the ancestors. It was probably someone warbling Stairway to Heaven at a karaoke bar.

After lunch, Ban says it’s two or two and a half hours more to go, mostly downhill, which sounds just about perfect to me. So, off we go. But, no, there’s been a discussion with the local man about a shortcut, which would supposedly take an hour off the trip. Uh, ok, but this has not gone well recently. First, the backtracking, and then the turning down a narrow muddy track, and I’m getting a sinking déjà vu feeling. But Ban is a very experienced guide, so surely this won’t turn out badly. Wearing just well-used running shoes, I’m finding the steep, muddy, rocky descent very uncomfortable. It’s hard on the feet, but it also calls for a measure of agility that I don’t seem to be able to muster. Maybe this is an age thing, but I’m afraid of falling and hurting myself. Some scrapes and bruises are not problem, but a badly sprained ankle, a blown-out knee, snapped fibula, or a head banged on a rock would be beyond my field medicine limits. I don’t want to have to solve a problem of that magnitude and urgency. So I go very slowly, and, I’ll admit, start to complain when the trail heads toward the rice fields and begins to pick its way along dikes and down spill-offs. Coming to yet another place where muddy track braids into another equally unpromising one, we meet an old woman who has harvested her corn and spread it on a tarp; she’ll then load it up and carry it on her back up the hill we’ve just come down. She says, pointing out the small house across the valley, that it’ll take us an hour and a half to walk there. She’s so wrong; we make in in 89 minutes.

Now we have to walk the rocky, sunny (why, oh why, is there not one measly cloud today?) road all the way back up this side to where we can at least get cell phone service, call the office and find out how far away it is to Ban Voi, where we’re supposed to be picked up. Finally stumbling into the shade of the porch of a school, I lie back on the cool-ish cement and Ban calls. To his surprise -- not to mention mine -- it’s another 10k to Ban Voi. We have already been walking for 6 hours on this supposedly 15k hike. This time I don’t have to be the one to call for 2-wheel rescue; Ban’s already on it.

Shortly into the ride down the rutted and rocky descent, however, I’m wishing I had walked that 10k. We got ourselves sandwiched between one hulking, belching, dirt-throwing truck over-laden with projectiles-in-waiting covered by a half-assed tarp, and its evil twin menacing us from behind, sometimes less than 10 yards away. Thao is my driver again, and he somehow manages to bounce and fish-tail and downshift and skid and flat-out will us down the hill, peering through a dense cloud of dust and fumes, when one slip would send us to certain death under the wheels of the truck. I almost forgot to worry about brake failure on the part of our pursuer.

At long last at Ban Voi we stop for a cold drink and to let the bikes cool off before heading up the pass to Bac Ha. The woman who runs what amounts to the convenience store there at the fork in the road is pouring gasoline from one worn jerry can to another, sloshing it down the side and on to the cement. Then she siphons it into green glass 1-liter beer bottles and expertly upends them into the gas tank of the motorcycles. The air is hazy with fumes, and an old man comes over to the table looking for the ubiquitous bong, which as it happens is right between my legs. Having just escaped death by motor vehicle, I’ll be damned if I’m going to die in a bong-related explosion. I pretend I don’t notice him and refuse to move. Sometimes being the giant, rude, clueless foreigner pays off.

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