yesterday: Luang Prabang to Kiu Ka Cham
Today's ride is mostly up in the mountains. Amazing views, more people making brooms, scattered ascents, and a big 800m descent out of the mountains. But first, Ken has to break his leg.
We'd barely begun the ride when I came around a corner and saw eight people standing by the side of the road. I pulled over and David told me the news.
How on earth does someone break a leg unicycling? You can read all about it in other writeups, so I'll just say that he was going really fast when a his unicycle suffered from a known mechanical problem, and the next thing he knew he was in the middle of the road with a bone sticking out of his leg.
The good news is that we had a doctor on the tour, and he was the first one on the scene. The bad news is that he was there first because he's the one who broke his leg.
Ken did an amazing job though. He popped the bones back inside himself (don't try this at home, kids, he's a trained professional), and was directing the whole response with the shaky voice of experience. By the time I arrived on scene, he'd been moved to the side of the road, and Tony was keeping his foot under traction while Hans was doing a decent job bandaging. Jason arrived on his bike and rode back at top speed to fetch both support vehicles.
Meanwhile, I was standing there trying to figure out what I could do to help. I imagine most of us were doing the same thing, but I was in the unique position actually having been trained to deal with exactly this sort of emergency. But while I was in First Responder training, Ken was in medical school, and he really seemed to have everything well in hand. All the right things were being done, at least well enough that I didn't think it was worth butting in.
We were all traveling light, but with over a dozen people on scene by now, we had a good assortment of first aid supplies. I looked around for splinting material, but there really wasn't much out there. We were about to make a splint using a sweatshirt and some sticks when the van showed up. That box of wine we drank last night is enjoyed a second time, this time for its cardboard.
I grabbed a few people who weren't busy and had them practice carrying me into the van. It went really smoothly, so when Hans finished the splint, Ken got loaded up, driven three hours back to Luang Prabang, and flown to Bangkok.
I had alcohol-based sanitizing gel, which I squeezed out for the six of us who'd gotten blood on our hands. With one of the two support vehicles gone for the day, and with our tour leader escorting Jason, logistics were going to be trickier. The slower riders agreed to sag up the remaining hills to help keep the group together so the faster riders wouldn't have to wait too long before the trailing truck arrived at rest stops with food and water. I pointed out that we should all be carrying enough food and water to cope with the new and more uncertain arrangements, and off we went.
I didn't feel like I'd helped very much and I spent the next few hours thinking about what I might have done differently. But most of the difficult things were done before I arrived and the only major thing I came up with was communication.
Several people were impressed at organizing the carry, and one person commented that it was nice just to have someone confident stepping up and taking charge. That's worth remembering.
I saw that things were going well and that there was little to do that wasn't being done, but most people probably didn't know that and might have felt better if they knew that the guy with the broken leg wasn't the only one making sure things were being done properly. Also the people doing the work were doing a good job, but may have felt overwhelmed and might have liked to have someone experienced step in, or just to know the option was there.
I also learned that the adhesive tape I carried sticks to latex gloves really well. I was the only one with gloves, but I had to abandon them pretty quickly because they kept getting caught up in the tape. (Why did that never happen in training? Did we never use tape and gloves at the same time? Did we ever use tape?)
It was sobering, and we hoped the best for Ken as we rode on. It was by far the worst injury that would befall our group, but I'd see much worse before the day was over.
Ah, but the brooms. There's a plant here that I'll call broomweed. I don't know if it's broomweed season or if this goes on year-round, but everywhere we go, ever since Luang Prabang, we see people holding bundles of long grassy fronds, repeatedly whacking them against the ground. It looks like some sort of flagellation practice, but from the rivers of greenish plant-dust that litters the roadside in these work areas, I guess they're just knocking the flowers free, or put another way, they're beating the living crap out of the plant.
The point of all this, as you may have gathered from all that broom talk, is that they're making brooms. They lash a few of these whisk-like fronds to a handle (harvested from the broom handle plant, which probably also has some other name) and they sell them.
I haven't spotted broomweed growing anywhere, and at first I thought it's because all the easy to find ones have been harvested. Now I think it's because I'm an idiot and I'm simply incapable of recognizing plants when they're still attached to the planet.
The most amazing thing about the broom-making process is how popular it is. Everywhere we go, there's broomweed set out to dry on the road (because the road is the only patch of ground here that isn't an overgrown side of a mountain). I'm told that this is a side job, like panning for gold, that people do when they're not busy farming or weaving. From what I can see, this country must be awash with brooms. Laos is either a broom-exporting giant, or it must be the dustiest country in the world. Or maybe OCD is rampant and they go through brooms quickly. I don't know. In any case, the broom industry appears to be thriving. In a couple days I'll be out of the mountains and will discover that broom making is a local phenomenon, presumably due to the broomweed habitat range, but for now I extrapolate to absurd extremes and picture of country overrun with brooms, like a slow and deliberate version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Most of the ride was as uneventful as any other, which is to say that I kept unicycling through tiny villages, each one just a cluster of houses by the side of the highway, no side roads, no driveways, just a series of bamboo homes on each side of the road. There were always some people home. Most of them waved, smiled, returned or initiated a friendly sabaidee, and in the case of small children, often shouted sabaidee from the moment they saw me until I got out of sight around a corner.
To save time, I sagged up the two biggest hills, each one about 8km by 400m (That's 8km long and 400m high, not the other way around, which would have been more of an Everest-high wall than a road and might have caused problems for the truck.), but enjoyed riding the rest of the day.
Looking over my notes, I can't believe this happened on a day when so much else happened, but this was the day my seat went flat.
Compared to a bicycle, a unicycle doesn't have many parts. There's less to go wrong, but everything there is pretty important. The hardware has gotten much better over the past ten years, but there's still a ways to go. The part of my unicycle that pains me the most is the seat, and for the last couple days, it's had a slow leak. All of the cushioning in my seat comes from the partially inflated 20-inch inner tube folded up inside. It's got advantages, but the obvious problem is what happens if it fails. I've got a spare on the truck, and I carry a patch kit (just for the seat; patching the tire requires heavy tools I'm keeping on the truck). For a slow leak, I figure I'll just pump it up a couple times a day. No big deal. But an hour or so before lunch, the slow leak turned into a fast leak and my seat went completely flat. I've got some padding in my shorts, but while this could hold me for an hour, it wasn't going to work long term.
Lunch today is being held in a flock of shade structures at the side of the road. Locals are all around, doing something or other. I have no idea what this place is for, but with a seat to fix and lunch to eat before I can get back on the road, I'm a little focused on what I'm doing.
I walk over toward our group, and a couple shade structures before I get there, a man beckons me over to sit with him and a woman, who I assume is his wife. Best offer I've had all day. I plop down, keeping my shoes off the mat, and I start to take apart my seat.
It's a lengthy procedure, and the guy is interested. Throughout the trip, people have been fascinated by the squishiness of my unicycle seat, but this is the first person to see the inside. Nick was kind of curious too, never having seen the inside of an air seat, so he's hanging around, fiddling with his knee pads.
The local, who I'll call Arthur, which is almost certainly not his name, is interested in my socket wrench. I hand it to him when I'm not using it, and he checks it out. He'd seen me using it, and while I don't think he'd seen one before, he's not some dumb primitive. He clicked it around a few times, switched the little switch a few times and handed it back. Nick also took a fancy to the socket wrench, so Barry, if you're reading this, you know what to get him for some future birthday.
Anyway, I stripped apart the seat, found the hole, patched it, pumped it up, found the other hole, patched that, put it all back together, and ate my lunch just in time to get going. But before all that happened, there was velcro.
A couple other guys had wandered over and were watching Nick fiddle with his knee pads. People are pretty good at pantomime, and although I can't talk to many people on this trip, there's plenty of communication. I can't remember whether I told them what the pads were for or whether they just knew, but I remember that knowing that they knew. But they also seemed curious about the velcro. So I took out my wrist guards and demonstrated a bit. riiip. riiip. I wonder if they'd ever seen velcro before. I handed Arthur my wrist guards and he tried them on.
For the life of me, I can't remember the last time I went to Laos and a local tried on my wristguards, so I figured I'd take a picture. I grabbed my camera, held it up and put on a questioning face, got a nod of permission, and Arthur struck a pose with the tough-guy leather gauntlets. Click. I handed him the camera so he could see his picture, and he grinned and showed it to his wife, who was also in there. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. The "I can't believe you took my picture and what's that face I'm making?" expression turns out to be universal.
Seat repaired, lunch eaten, and velcro demonstrated, off I went.
I stopped to take too many pictures, and fell farther behind on the long downhill. Barry and Nick caught up and we rode together a while. Barry is one of the only riders slower than me, but he doesn't seem at all bothered by switching to a bike. I think he's just glad to be here, especially with his son, and is having a great time. Plus he gets to coast down hills, which is bound to put a smile on anyone's face.
We're mostly down the mountain. A truck full of people passes us, and I wave to all the surprised people in back. This just never gets old for me. So many people, so many surprised and delighted faces. When you're at the tail end of the group, you're the first unicyclist people see when they overtake you. Take that, middle riders!
We start to come around a bend and I shout a happy sabaidee to some people standing on the side of the road. They're quiet and look grim. I'm confused until we finish coming around the bend and we see the truck that had just passed us, stopped. The riders in back are quiet. Everyone is staring at the guy on the motorcycle and we are too.
He's laying in the road, still mounted on the motorcycle, but the two of them sideways and not moving. He looks fine except where his head skidded along the road and left a red smear. Like most people I've seen here, he wasn't wearing a helmet.
I don't think I've ever seen a dead person before. It strikes me as odd that I can go decades without ever seeing a birth or a death. They're as common here as anywhere else (one of each per person), but it makes me sad to see it, and it feels odd to see it for the first time halfway around the world.
I consider stopping, but I have nothing to contribute and I'd just be gawking. With sad looks of our own, we cycle past, go around the next bend, and continue down the mountain.
Some time later, we run out of mountain, cross the inevitable river, and start up the next hill. Just as I've taken a sip and find that I've finished off my water, I crest the first rise of the hill and see the rest stop. After days of carrying too much or too little water, it's a fun coincidence to run out just as I reach our resupply. Bruce, Nick, Barry, and I arrive at about the same time, and we head out to take on whatever we can manage before dark.
An hour later, we're getting close to Kasi, and the daylight is fading. People are lighting fires by the side of the road, I guess to cook their dinners. The air fills with soot from the burning wood. For a while I'm thinking that while I am tired and hurting, I can make it. I can push on and finish this ride. I don't care if it gets dark, I can do it. Then I think about the rutted potholed road in the dark, bicycles, scooters, and trucks zipping by, me without any lights of my own, and the dead guy in the road. And then I think about how unimportant it is that I ride the last 9km to Kasi. Barry, Nick, and I hop on the support truck.
Today I rode 70km out of 95km. I think that's part of what was pushing me to ride that last 9km, just to make the number bigger.
Hans and I cross the street and get Magnums after dinner. Kasi isn't much, but it does have Magnums. I can get a Magnum in Kasi, but not in San Francisco. Hmph. Kasi also has the 4am roosters, just like every place we stay. Ah, the 4am roosters. What would I do without them? (Sleep past 4am!)
At dinner, just like most nights, Jason gives us the breakfast options and takes our orders. There aren't many breakfast options at 6am in Laos, so we've gotten pretty familiar with them.
Jason: Breakfast is fur (noodle soup) or fried rice again, but it's the last time you have to have that.
Grace: What happens after that?
Jason: It's back to bread and eggs.
We all laugh.
It doesn't sound funny to you, but that's because you haven't been eating breakfast with us for the past week.
tomorrow: Kasi to Vang Vieng