Today is our forty-eighth day on the road. While that statement sounds dramatic and is a good conversation starter at Vang Vieng’s coffee shops, it doesn’t fully tell of how we have actually spent most of those days on the road, counting kilometers, navigating traffic, and studying fold-out maps. As is to be expected, life on the street has taught us a thing or two.
Road signs, for instance, have become a big part of our lives. They rarely lie, and only occasionally deceive. We have gotten used to two Thai classics:
The sight of this sign usually makes Marcus stop to pull out his chewing gum, (“I need the sugar, bro.”) and makes Daniel go into his ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ climbing stance.
2. The Truck That Descends
This one makes everyone but Daniel heave a sigh of relief. While Kei, Marcus and I stand in our seats and switch to high gears, poor Dan (who is fighting a phobia of falling) clutches his brakes and hangs on for dear life.
A few days ago, when Marcus and I were riding from Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong, we arrived at a rather ridiculous climb. After huffing and puffing our way up the slope, we stopped at the top for a breather. A little kid and his mum were sitting in a shack by the road. I walked by bike over to them, and asked if we could eat at the village nearby. (When you ride with Marcus, you eat whenever possible.) Although the lady replied in the negative, she felt sure we could find food at the bottom of the hill. She pointed further down the route, where the road fell into a gorgeous, meandering decline lasting a few kilometers. Marcus and I exchanged a smile, thanked her, and rode away.
What got me thinking, however, was the little boy. The sight of me did not get him excited. He did not look at my strange face, my curly hair, or my funny clothes. He did not participate in my chat with his mother. I’m pretty sure he was altogether unaware of my presence.
Something else had caught his eye: my chakrayan. He stared at the wheels, their rims so shiny. He looked over the gears, the contraption so bewildering. His gaze lingered on the tires, the tread so muddy. It pained me to ride away: I have never seen anyone look at Gio, my bike, with more love.
It wasn’t until much later, while riding an altogether different road up an altogether different hill in an altogether different country, that I realized why that kid has reacted so. It was like when someone tells a joke and you pretend to laugh but only actually understand it afterwards.
He lived in a village on the ridge of a hill, sandwiched between The Truck That Climbs and The Truck That Descends. That little child had never seen a bicycle before, because little children cannot climb hills on their little-child bicycles. None of his friends in his village had bicycles, because they were too little for motorbikes and because bikes cannot climb hills.