These Are ‘The Good Old Days’

These Are ‘The Good Old Days’

On beginning a blog about long distance bicycle travel, I swore to myself that I would never write about the negativity, the hardships, the whining and the gripes of hard times. Only to share the good times, to enthuse and show what a great place this world can be once you step out of your comfort zone. Many world cycling websites will tell you about how incredible cyclists are to overcome such monumental physical and mental obstacles, the durations, the altitudes, the distances, the countries, the punctures, the extremes; statistics. I am not interested in that. If you want to know how big my dick is, take a look in my pants, I’m not going to tell you all about it.

And then I begin blogging again after months of absence with stories of how hard it is to cycle through South East Asia.

Mental turbulence spins out of control in the mind of the solitary cyclist. The world and culture can change around you quickly and the rules to the game that have worked for such a long time just fail to keep working. Life on the road had almost become routine, to know daily tasks, how to get the things I need, things to be expected and those expected of me. But these routines failed to continue and my mind couldn’t work out what I had done wrong. I don’t care much for asking things of others, I like to be offered and to accept opportunities, like staying with others or a meal in a home, a visit to a small village. If I have to ask I feel an imposition on another’s life, but in these new cultures I had to learn that to ask for help is sometimes a good thing.

Camping in a puddle of my own sweat in ridiculous night time temperatures or in a puddle of monsoon rain as it filled my tent did nothing for my sleep and, combined with other reasons, for a while I lost focus. After being told by Soo, a Malaysian cyclist passing me in the opposite direction, by Thierry, a French tour guide I met two days in a row and then in an email from Charlie that I had cycled with in Iran that I should be using the temples, I succumbed to the idea and approached a monk for a nights charity. I should have done this months ago. My stubbornness continues to hinder me.

I was welcomed with open arms into the small temple on the edge of the Laos mountains. Dolly was given a shelter and I was shown to the bathroom for the first wash in three sweaty days, emerging as a soap smelling butterfly from my cocoon of filth. As I shared a cigarette with the head monk, the four young monks busied with their tasks for the day, orange robes moving gracefully across their densely forested mountain background. Although having no idea what was being said, I empathised with his opinions of the Thai politics program, flashing on the small TV in the corner of the small dim room. We sat for hours and I learnt the things that had been missing in my time of self indulgence through Laos, the basics, counting one to ten, basic phrases, and learning that the word for Monkey in Laos is Lee. As it approached nine, he showed me to an area of floor in the large open temple under a fan where I could sleep. I looked down and found the back half of a praying mantis trying to crawl away from the swarm of ants that tried to eat it, how does a headless mantis do that? I flicked it away and looked up at the brightly painted reds and greens of the high temple ceiling. Too many parallels to Alice to Alice In Wonderland today.

I woke in the night to incredible thunderstorms sweeping the mountains, rolled over and smiled at not being in the tent.

At four in the morning the bell rang for prayer. I sat at the side of the temple as the young monks chanted in the darkness and outside the lightning continued to strike through the clouds. I drifted in and out of sleep until sunrise. Coffee was made with the head monk, who was happy that I had taught him how to pronounce Nescafe the night before. Orange robes were adorned by young monks, shafts of morning light enriching every vivid fold and pleat of the fabric. Locals arrive with food donations for the monks. I’m sitting in the temple, legs crossed, hands in the prayer position, facing the front with all the women and children of the surrounding village. The monks chant, rituals went through, I sit, watch, close my eyes, consider who I would pray for and think of family. The chants finished and as we, the villagers, watched, the monks ate what they wanted from the donations before the remaining was passed to us and as a village we ate together. Such a wonderful way to experience true Laos culture. A tapas breakfast of sticky rice and things that I couldn’t fathom but through childlike copying, with experiment and gesture, I exclaimed “fish powder!”, “snails!”, “chilli’s!” I laughed with the women, children laughed at me and I was part of a community. I cycled out of the town to waves and smiles feeling whole. I hadn’t missed Laos after all.

Through my recent loss of focus, I couldn’t please myself and when talking to tourists about the things I had, or hadn’t done, I began to question exactly what I was doing. Why am I cycling through these countries and not seeing attractions, prominent places? As I asked in the last blog, what is important to see? In more clarity, I now see that that on this journey, it is the world I pass through that is of most importance. As cliche as it sounds, this is no longer a holiday, an adventure, or whatever creative adjective you’d like to use, it has become my ‘normal’ life, it just happens that this version of ‘normal’ defines itself on a bike. Just as in the ‘normal’ life I led at home, here I neither desire or can afford, to visit tourist sites, eat out or go drinking every night. I see the world through the markets I shop in, the villagers I endeavour to speak to, through those who offer me a few hours in their lives in a reciprocal cultural exchange. My photos are generally of people or places that have touched me, they are part of a bigger story, a story that doesn’t begin and end with the passing of lives and the pointing of cameras.

Simple pleasures will make us happy, not the fast car or the big TV or for me the visit to Angkor Wat, don’t believe whatever the adverts are telling you will make your life better. It is the conversation with a surprising stranger, a cup of tea with your Mum, a walk in the rain, kicking leaves in Autumn, climbing into fresh sheets after a bath, waking in a tent to see the clouds rise in the valleys between mountains or eating breakfast with a Laotian village.

As I cycle, I like to think that I capture the zeitgeist, I see the real culture of our time in the places I go. The Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, London Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, these things will be preserved forever, but to travel through the people is to experience the now. People change, the world is changing. Unfortunately the next generation will probably never see a market in England, shopping is defined by which branded supermarket you use. If my grandchildren can ask me what the world was like in my time, I want to tell them about the diverse peoples, the isolated areas without phones or internet, the difference from one valley to the next, let alone between countries. As I now sit in the Laos capital, Vientiane, I am surrounded by the faces of generic shops and cafes to be found in any city in the world. I could be anywhere, on this street alone there’s an Italian, a French, a Japanese and an Indian restaurant, a beer garden and several coffee shops, all advertising free wifi. The world is in a rapid state of homogenisation and it’s a great shame and terrible loss, but that is another blog to come. On the bike I have romanticised that I could time travel as well as physically travel, to be in California in the sixties, Kathmandu in the seventies, to see movements at their peak. But, to some extent, I believe we are on the edge of a great socio-political and economic movement right now and I am happy to be travelling through it, seeing the many angles from different perspectives. As I was told by a stoned 50 year old Australian record shop owner in Nepal, “these are the good old days, maaaan.”

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