Monday, July 13, 2009

Shut up and walk

Let me shut up. All the stuff I wrote before about the abstract joys of walking? I couldn’t be more full of shit if I were a port-o-john at a curry cook-off. The walk I did on Saturday not only kicked my ass; it took it prisoner and sent it to re-education camp. In retrospect it had all the elements of a classic clusterfuck: incomplete information, hasty prepration, inexperienced guide, and some very bad weather luck. Add to that a major language barrier and the poor infrastructure of a very undeveloped part of a developing nation. At least it only cost $24, plus the soaked and limp $5 bill I tipped the hapless guide, who almost wept with apology at several points along the way.

He wasn’t the only one near tears. I knew it would be a demanding hike in the first place. The woman at the restaurant who booked it, who herself admitted she hated to walk, said it was about 20k and there was a mountain. I should be able to do that without too many problems, other than I hadn’t eaten very much in the past several days. Just less of me to haul up and down, I figure. I should have known it wasn’t going to turn out well when the first hour was a blisteringly hot climb up the mountain we had come down on by motorcycle to Can Cau market. On that climb I remembered I had forgotten sunscreen. Uh oh. I can also tell, but shove the thought to the back of my mind, that this first hour has been very costly metabolically speaking, and that I’m already dehydrated and don’t have enough water. Surely he’s brought more, or there will be someone selling bottles at one of the scenic and charming villages we will surely walk through. Because if I know one thing about Vietnam it’s that there’s always someone there to sell you something. I’m always amazed how you come up the top of a high pass on an unpaved road in some remote part of some remote province, and right there on the shoulder of the road in the mist are women under blue tarps selling plums and tea and Fanta and sticky rice stuffed inside bamboo, and some unmentionable bits charring on hibachis. So, surely, we will be able to restock water.

At the top of the mountain we turn off onto a dirt path, winding down and along the ridge, more pleasant than the hot road with its blaring, belching trucks and minibuses. But this is just the beginning of a series of increasing narrow, muddy, and often dead-end paths we will follow ever deeper into hiking purgatory. There’s so much doubling-back and gaining and losing and gaining back precious feet of elevation that I have no way to know how long we ultimately walked. I do know that it took the better part of eight hours, which, to be fair includes the break we took when we had to plummet down a muddy hill to the Hmong house to take shelter from the pounding rain. Of course by then I’d already slipped and fallen on my butt in the mud (and probably some species of ubiquitous dung) and my shoes and socks are soaked and caked. But here’s where things take a turn for the worse.

Tao and I have a “conversation” about what to do now. I say that it’s time to bail out, though not in those words, to call the office and the other guys on the motorcycles and have them meet us. We’ve walked a long way already and are too wet and muddy and the paths are too treacherous. And we’re out of water. With all the nodding and smiling and agonized apologizing I have no doubt that he agrees with me. But he doesn’t; he doesn’t have any idea what I said. So when we start back up the mountain we have just come down in search of a path he will not find, I think we’re on the way to the road and a ride, and I’ve calibrated my mood and my energy expenditures accordingly. He’s talking and texting away; evacuation plans must be in motion. After another hour or so, I’m frustrated and confused. Why, oh, why is this taking so long? But, finally --mirabile visu -- up ahead at the top of this long climb is a village where surely there is water and a road and waiting motorcycles. How long, I ask. Ten minutes. I swear he said ten minutes, but I guess it could have been an aural hallucination. Thirty minutes later we get to the village, which is certainly some failed socialist experiment in rural living because it’s dominated by a large building with a locked gate and there are no people to be seen. There is also no water and no road to speak of. And there are no waiting motorcycles.

Three hours to Bac Ha, he says. My turn to almost cry. I takes me a very long time to communicate that I will not be able to walk for 3 hours with no water: I have to have some soon, or I’ll be sick. I sit on the steps of the locked-up building until Tao returns with water, probably from someone’s house: please let it be boiled or filtered. A liter later and I’m ready to go. It is 5k to Bac Ha, he says, all flat and downhill. Great, we’ll be there in a little over an hour. He says it’s three hours. Two and a half hours later when I can finally see Bac Ha far below, I have to concede he was right, but that was a LOT farther than 5k. Now, I’m really tired, and this rock-strewn path is killing my feet.
I’m not sure my I was aware that my lizard brain had been plotting my revolt, but apparently it had been at work at it for some time. When we come down the hill into Ban Pho village -- where I’ve walked several times and know that it’s 2k to town -- and he says it is less than 1 kilometer to go, I just pull up and stop. I’m done; call the motorcycle.

As usual, it takes a while to make my point, but when he finally understands he‘s shocked by the novelty of the idea. Call for the motorcycles? I never heard of such a thing! What a radical thought!


  1. Thanks Elizabeth,

    I'm enjoying the story and your willingness to share vulnerability. Best Title Award.

  2. I'm tired and wet and thirsty just reading that! I also don't think that's a post I'm going to share with Mom until you are home safe.