Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Xuac Loc

Friends: December arrived and the rains have left us. We headed inland today and for the first time in four nights we won't be spending the night by the beach. Last night we camped for the first time in Vietnam and the night before we had a bungalow at the edge of the beach. But it is hot. We are south of Bangkok and we are being fried, though not baked as we were when we arrived nearly two months ago.

The road turned wide and smooth once we got within 300 miles of Saigon, fairly comparable to what it was in the north. We had been warned there was more traffic in the south. Wrong information again, at least so far. Besides having less traffic, it is also much more peaceable than it was in the north. There is minimal horn tooting and minimal recklessness, though we did see an overturned semi-truck this afternoon that had been hauling sugar cane.

Sugar cane juice has been our special treat the past two days. There are carts along the road with a machine that squeezes the juice out of the stalks. Poured into a glass of ice with a squeeze of lime, it is a heavenly nectar that we are always happy to come upon. Its impossible to have only one glass and hard to stop, even after three or four. Its not always easy letting the vendor know we want a second glass, but after we've had a second glass, all we need do is hand our glass back and hold up a finger. Evidently not many touring cyclists come this way, otherwise the sellers would recognize a bonanza whenever he saw one.

It was a pair of Germans cyclists who told us about them a couple of days ago. We met them as we were checking in to the beach bungalow. They were heading the opposite direction and were also ready to call it a night. They had been on the road eight months, biking all the way from Germany except hopping over Burma from India to Bangkok. They were on a much tighter budget than ours and weren't willing to pay ten dollars, even for such an idyllic setting. They were in the process of bargaining for a tent space. They were willing to pay three dollars. If denied, they would just go down the road and pitch their tent. They were actually on one of the few stretches along Highway One where that was possible. We were hoping to share their company this evening and were delighted when their resolve was rewarded. We were even more delighted to learn that they had biked through Cambodia and were nonplussed by its so-called horrendous roads. They acknowledged they were bad, but they were not a horror they were still trying to recover from. They had actually biked the 150 miles from Phnom Phenh to Saigon in two days. From the stories we had been hearing, we thought we'd be lucky to do it in three days.

They were very drained and tired, having battled a strong head wind all day, one of the worst of their trip, while we had enjoyed the best tail wind by far of our trip on our first rain free day in over two weeks. They said they'd only averaged 19 kph for 120 kilometers (just under 12 miles per hour for 75 miles), and they had battled tooth and nail, heads down, wheel to wheel, drafting one another in all all out effort as if they were chasing after Lance Armstrong towing their countryman Jan Ulllrich in the Tour de France with their national honor and millions of dollars at stake. They weren't looking forward to the same wind the next day and were quite angry at themselves for not researching this part of their trip better. If they had known the winds prevailed from the north they would have chosen a different route.

Their average speed was quite good considering the conditions. They wanted to know how fast we had flown with such a hefty wind at our backs. It had to be better than 20 miles per hour they were certain. I was sorry to tell them our average speed was only a little better than theirs, 12.7 miles per hour. We had simply drifted along with the wind rather than seizing it and frolicking. I knew it was a dangerous thing to waste such a rare wind. The biking gods so very rarely grant such a wind, there could be repercussions for not taking full advantage of it. I have let Laurie set the pace in our 2,000 plus miles so far and though she has exceptional stamina, easily sitting on the bike for stretches of up to three hours without stopping, power is not among her strengths at this point. With a little exertion we could have averaged 18 miles per hour and spent less than five hours in the heat rather than the nearly seven hours it took us to come 84 miles. The Germans were quite bewildered and sympathetic.

They were the most seasoned of the touring cyclists we had met and had all the right sensibilities. It was a pleasure to watch them patiently await the verdict on where they would be spending the night. They had not a hint of desperation about them. They were perfectly content to go down the road and camp for free. And there was no quibbling between them. They were both 26, the same age I was when I took my first big trip, coast-to-coast across the US, 25 years ago. They had been touring together since they were 17 when they went from Berlin to Nice across the Alps. They laughed remembering how little they knew on that first trip, and also that none of their friends or family thought they could do it. They'd had several other bike trips together since then. The longest had been 1,200 miles up to the Nordkapp of Norway, the northern-most point in Europe beyond the Arctic Circle, a road I biked the summer before last. They knew of "The World's Most Dangerous Road" in Bolivia and wanted to know all the details of my experience biking up it.


One of the highlights of their eight months of biking was crossing the highest pass in the world, over 18,000 feet, in India's Himalayas. We met someone else on this trip who had also biked it. It is now on my list of places to bike. Iran too after hearing how well Sebastion and Tobey had been treated there. They were invited in to someone's home practically every night and fed dinner and breakfast. Their hosts frequently called a friend down the road and arranged for them to stay with them the next night. The people were phenomenally friendly and generous. During their six weeks in Iran they spent only $60. In the market they were often undercharged as an act of hospitality.

After dinner at the restaurant in the hotel where we were staying, we were all still hungry, so we went down the road to another restaurant for another dinner. Touring cyclists don't bar hop, we restaurant-hop. After our second dinner, we retreated to the beach for more conversation. They by-passed the renowned ruins of Ankar Wat in Cambodia, as they didn't care to pay $20 to see them. Plus they try to avoid areas that attract tourists. Like me, they skipped the Taj Mahal in India even though they were within one hundred miles of it. They had evolved as touring cyclists to such a level that they enjoyed prolonged climbs. Sebastion had achieved such a consciousness before this trip began, but it wasn't until they came to the Himalayas that Tobey could now say he no longer dreaded the mountains and could enjoy, or at least find some satisfaction in, prolonged climbing. It happened to Laurie too on this trip, as we climbed the Sea Cloud Pass. She discovered it wasn't as demanding as she feared it would be, and could end the climb with a smile of accomplishment.

Sebastion and Tobey spoke with no boastfulness. They had an inner satisfaction and felt no urge to impress anyone. It's always uplifting to meet such genuine monks of the touring cyclist brotherhood. I haven't met very many. It takes years and thousands of miles to gain such standing. They were the first of this trip. It is a joy to know that they have many years ahead of them to spread the gospel. They were both taking a year off from school before they completed their degrees in law and mechanical engineering. They have no idea what they will do when they graduate or how much cycle touring is in their future, just that it will always be an important part of their lives.

Later, George

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