Ralph Waldo Emerson

The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Great Scooter Adventure

Okay, this is a CRAZY long one, but, eh, I needed it. So read what you feel like and maybe head over to look at some new pics.

So it all started with a bus trip to Pai. Along the way our driver was hailed down by a cyclist. Fortunately for me, I had a seat to myself and a keen interest in making a new friend (aka he had nice biceps). Yesiree, this seat is available. Right.

Sebastian's the guy I briefly mentioned in the last blog who's been traveling for 15 years. Just set out from Holland on his bicycle and has been wandering around ever since. After his initial inspiring monologue about lifetime travel I started quizzing him about if he thought it would be safe for a woman to do the same thing (theoretically speaking of course). "Of course", he replied. Sometimes it's fun to be with people who know what you want to hear. He then mentioned that there was a ride from Pai around to Mae Hong Son and then back to Chiang Mai that's great to do solo. Lots of gorgeous scenery and winding roads to muddle through. So, buzzing off Sebastian's awesomeness, I decided that immediately following the jungle trek I'd head off on my solo scooter trip.

Now, as you may have noticed, I'm not really one to keep my mouth shut. So when the time came to actually hop on my scooter and ride off on my solo trek around Thailand; I had several people signed up to come along. Candidate #1 was Peter, a sweet Stanford PhD student who I'd met the night before. I told him he was more than welcome to join and looking around the crazy backpacker bar he nodded in agreement, "Yeah, let's go get lost". The next morning when I woke up his words were still ringing in my head. Yeah. Sounded good. So I did.

I felt a twinge of guilt when 7pm arrived and I sat in a tiny town when I should've been walking into the restaurant Peter and I had allotted to plan our trip. But as Pim, the cook's daughter, told me her story and I ate her mother's delicious Pad Thai, I got over the guilt pretty quick. Sometime you just gotta do what you gotta do.

Many of the people that I meet find it very strange that I prefer to travel alone. Though I might link up with people for a few days, I always wind up leaving them to go and do my own thing. But honestly, travelling solo is a very freeing experience and has some very valid plus sides. For example:

1) Avoid hating people you found completely charming at home.
--It's incredible how many life long friendships crumble after one too many travel spats. I like my friends. I want to keep them.
2) Meet more locals.
--Packs of foreigners are scary to everybody: the mass force of otherness is overwhelming. But one person is manageable, so the locals find you charming rather than frightening, especially as you painfully struggle through the tones of their "Hello" and "thank you".
3) Think.
--No more having to go through awkward attempts to keep your travel partner entertained. Like the old point-out-the-window-and-say-"Wow-isn't-that-pretty?" Yes, he's seen it Eagle Eye, and yeah, it is pretty, however did you ascertain that. And of course the getting-to-know-you-better-chats are great, but sometimes you just need to poke around in your own head for a bit and see what comes up.
4) Do what you want when you want how you want.
--And now I'm starting to sound like a crotchety old man.

Okay, tangent aside, the next day I zoomed off into rice fields and rolling hills. I was digging the bright red manual scooter I'd rented and enjoying the feel of it as I winded around bends and curves, stopping at intermittent caves and waterfalls for a look.

After a couple days I'd made it to Mae Hong Son. Even before I left Pai I'd staked out Mae Hong Son as the place to get a map. Yes, of course getting one in Pai would probably have made more sense, but the ones I'd found were less than reliable and I just wanted to get the hell outta dodge. Sebastian had mentioned a particularly detailed cycling map that was the gospel of people doing the loop and knew I couldn't leave Mae Hong Son without it. This, however, was easier said than done. Four hours of wandering, two downpours and no map later; I sat in a cafe in the middle of town sipping an overpriced, oversugared iced latte feeling disgruntled. Should I just turn around? Stay the night in this busy little border town and get out?

Then, across the room, there it was.

A round German couple had just unfolded the prophesied testament from their bags and were studying it at their table; the newly ordained disciples of my pilgrimage to Mae Hong Son. Though I considered grabbing the thing and running, they informed me (after my sweet and subtle "Hey, where'd you get that?") that they'd bought it a few blocks away at their scooter rental. I chugged down the latte, threw down my cash and ran to the place.

Map in hand I was reinvigorated to continue the journey. Though evening was coming and rain threatened, I filled up with gas on the outside of town and headed for a B&B the map seller had recommended. An hour later the rain had begun and I was pulling into a home stay that I had driven by twice. No one was around. With the rain beginning to come down and the light to dim, I started thinking of options. Overly confident from my jungle trek, I'd bought myself a knife and started thinking about where I could find banana leaves to make a shelter for the night. Fortunately the neighbor arrived to save me from myself.

He rustled up the elderly owners who were absolutely thrilled to have a guest--seems they're few and far between at this time of year. They set me up in my little bungalow and then served me a dinner that consisted of: lychee, roast peanuts, papaya, cabbage soup, roast corn, fried rice AND banana in coconut milk. Every time I thought the table couldn't get any fuller, they'd bring out another plate. God, I loved them. They even turned on an Australian radio station for me so I could listen while I ate.

As I curled up in bed that night I was more sure than ever that the Great Scooter Adventure truly was...well...great. Unfortunately it's at moments like those that I want to reach out and squeeze some one's hand to confirm how good things are. Solo travelling. Ahem. Right.

The next morning they stuffed me full of breakfast, filled my bike's front basket with lychee from their trees and sent me on my merry way. Despite the rain--which seemed not to have let up from the night before--I was feeling more than optimistic.

I do have to say, though, scootering in rain is a bit scary. I told myself more than once that such a practice was stupid; the roads are slick, the going's slow and I'm definitely no seasoned veteran. But what's the use of being young if you can't be dumb? The road was calling and off I went.

That afternoon I was rolling slowly down a steep turn on a hill when the inevitable happened. Yup. I lost control. Funny thing about accidents is that you know you're in trouble but at the same time there's not much you can do about it. I was on a bike careening for the bushy thicket and thinking, "Well this was to be expected".

I laid there on the shoulder of the road for a second and waited for my body to let me know just how much I'd screwed it up. The rain was still falling and the sky was gray but every color and detail seemed to pop in my adrenaline fueled eyes. The drops splattering on the red bike with the lychee strewn around looked more like a movie set than real life.

Then I looked down to inspect myself. 1) All bones were in their proper place. Hurrah! That was the biggie in my book--broken limbs put such a wrench in one's plans. It seemed my right forearm and foot had suffered the worst damage, bleeding from scrapes and tender at the touch. But other than surface wounds, I was fine. A bucking bronco ride into asphalt later and all I could complain of was soreness and scratches. I felt damn lucky--but not just that. I often feel lucky, I'm a lucky person. But this was the kind of luck that made me feel incredibly humble and inconsequential, I could've had it a lot worse. And I felt that. Deeply.

Trembling and a bit shaken, I was trying to work out my next move when another scooterist came trucking by. He pulled over to help, made sure I was okay and then righted the bike so I could saddle up. He rode with me a ways to ensure all was on the up and up and then zoomed off.

A couple hours and I'd made it to a town that my trusty map said had a guest house. As I got myself off the scooter I asked some locals guys about it (aka made sleeping gestures followed by curious shrugs of my shoulders) and soon the owner was brought round. Turns out he's also the local cop and regional tour guide; looked like the map had definitely been worth its 200 baht. Soon he and I were at the local hospital (whose only nurse had to be brought in to open the place up for me) where I got cleaned up while his about-to-pop-pregnant wife cooked us dinner. Some of the cuts were kinda deep, but nothing required stitches. Just daily cleansing and some pills. The hospital asked only for a donation.

The next day the policeman/guest house owner/tour guide insisted that he scooter with me to the national park so that he could watch out for me. Turns out he's leading a trek there and needed to pay a visit to the park director anyway (again, lucky as hell). We cruised through beautiful valleys, then up through the beautiful Doi Inthanon National Park: home to Thailand's highest mountain. After his meeting he took me to a local hill tribe village that specializes in coffee growing. They have a home stay deal there (as many of the hill tribe villages seem to do) where tourists can make an attempt at living a "rural" lifestyle. Seeing as they make you all your meals and set you off to wander around and take pictures of their livestock, it's not exactly roughing it but it's pretty damn cool.

Early the next morning the adrenaline had thoroughly flushed itself from my body and I was beginning to feel the more deep seated aches the accident had caused. Despite the family's kindness, I knew I needed to haul myself to Chiang Mai and set about some serious R&R. Luckily I'm in the land of $5 massages and $10 rooms that get you your own bed, en suite AND TV. Niiice.

So now it's a few days later and I've gotten myself down to Koh Tao, a gorgeous island famous for its scuba diving. I've hooked up with a crazy group of Americans including: 4 marine biologists, 1 novelist and a knight for Medieval Times. I'm not kidding. This oughtta be good.


Damon said...

Wow this entry makes me feel tame. You are one tough cookie...but please do come back in one piece ok kid?

Brian said...

Scooter adventures are awesome! I had one myself in Santorini, except I had Jess riding with me who was freaking out the whole time. Now I understand why the traveling-solo thing is so appealing.

Carol said...

Like I said before, Kari. That's enough. It's time to come home. Mom

Wells said...

Kari, if some guy with nice biceps asks you to carry a package to Singapore for him, say no. No matter what he claims, I guarantee it's not lychee dust.

Thirdmango said...

This entry makes me excited to travel again. I can't wait to do something like this.

I will say though, one of my big things is going on road trips with people just to see how they are and if they're good to travel with. There's nothing like a good 24 hour road trip with nothing but yourselves to get the real you out there.