#6 from SE Asia — the one-armed cyclist, and a road attack!

#6 from SE Asia
Greetings from Luang Prabang, Laos, 1/2 way across Laos
01/28/10

I want my friends who are non-bicyclist tourers to understand the fraternity/sorority of fellow bicycle tourers. When we see each other on the road in distant lands, we almost always stop and greet each other enthusiastically, even though we often are tired. For we are rare compared to other travelers and tourists. We share notes and advice on routes, places to stay, beautiful sites and such. 

For every one bicycle tourer, there are many 100’s of bus/train/plane riding backpackers. They travel in an entirely different circle entirely than we do. We hear them complain of uncomfortable buses, bad schedules, being hustled by taxi drivers and such, and all of this flies under our radar. But we have other issues to deal with.

Yesterday morning while I was climbing uphill in central Laos, I watched a middle-aged couple approaching me on bikes. We stopped and began to talk. And then I noticed that the woman only had one arm! It turns out that she and her husband have been bicycle-touring the world yearly for 20 years since she had lost her arm. They have ridden some great routes together. Just now, they had ridden thru some difficult Laotian mountains. And I thought I had problems bicycle-touring with two arms. What a great Dutch couple. As we were talking, ANOTHER bicycle-touring couple pulls up behind them. They are younger, and they too are from the Netherlands. Both of them are very fit and attractive. We all chat with them for a while. They are going to Bangkok, where I have just come from. I ask the younger couple where they started from.
“The Netherlands.”
“No. I mean, I know that you are Dutch, but where did you begin the trip?”
“Yes. That’s what we said. We began our trip last year in the Netherlands. We have ridden our bicycles together across Asia to Laos.”
Oh my god. I got my camera out and began taking pictures.

In my 3 weeks of riding on this trip, I have met a total of about 22 bicycle tourers. I would say about 10 were from the Netherlands, 6 from Germany, 3 from France, 2 from Australia, and 1 from South Africa. I have not met a single bike-tourer from either Canada or the USA. They too have told me that I was the first citizen of the USA whom they had met who was bike-touring. So it appears that what I am doing, although it is very common in Europe, is rare in the US.

I take my pictures and we say our good-byes. Then I continue this long steep climb I am on. It is not fun for me, climbing mountains on bicycles. It is pretty much just grueling. I much prefer the flats where I can cruise at 10 mph for 6 to 8 hours a day.

The events I am going to describe to you now probably happened in no more than 30 seconds, although it seemed to me to be much longer.

I am peddling slowly up a curve on a paved road when I see something long and brown lying still on the road. It looks like a big snake to me. I have seen others on this trip before, but they all have been dead. I first hear a motorcyclist coming downhill around the the corner. As the cyclist appears, the snake begins to move. The cyclist sees the snake and swerves. I think that the cyclist is trying to run over the snake and I shout “NO”, as if he could understand me anyhow. He loses control of the motorcycle and comes to a raggedy stop on the shoulder. I pull out my camera from my handle pouch with one hand and keep peddling toward this big snake. I want a picture. I get to about 25 feet from it and the snake turns, lifts it head, looks straight at me, and in the same motion, comes at me downhill in what seems to be an incredible burst of speed. As it approaches the front wheel of my bike I notice that it has flattened its neck somewhat. This is all happening really fast.
COBRA!
I jump off my bike and take off running downhill as my bike clatters to the road. I turn and see the snake moving under the tires. The motorcyclist now comes running at the cobra with a piece of palm frond he has found on the side of the road. Then the cobra disappears into the bush. Just like that.

Me and this motorcyclist look at each other.   Then we begin laughing hysterically. We speak not a word in common, so we re-enact it. He seems to think it was particularly hilarious how I flipped off the bike and the look I had on my face. He contorts his face into what he says I looked like coming at him.  I do not like what I see.  But I am thinking that I am really glad that I already had my bowel movement this morning.  He explains several times with body language and theatre that if that snake bites my bare legs, I am DEAD. I explain that I thought he was trying to hit the snake. For a moment, he and I share a perfect mime communication. Then we shake hands, give each other prayer blessings, and travel on.

Now I have seen 1000’s of snakes in my life, and I have caught 100’s of them, of maybe 20-some different species.  This includes a copperhead and a sidewinder.  But never, in all my life of being a snake enthusiast, have I EVER had one come straight at me in attack mode like that cobra did.  I guess it has the evolutionary confidence that  absolutely lethal neurotoxic venom will give you.

Later that day, on 2 different occasions, with a food vendor and the ice cream man, I will re-enact this event to people with whom I share no more than 10 words in common. And they will understand it perfectly well what I am trying to say. They will laugh at my body language of the event, and will demonstrate what they have done when faced with cobras from all too close a distance. I was not bored at telling them this story, or to you either. I hope you enjoyed it.

ps. (more stories coming)

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