Riding in the Mountains of Laos

As this posts, I’m flying home from a month in Asia — a few days in Bangkok, then cycling trips in Sri Lanka and Laos.  I blogged a little bit about the Sri Lanka trip [here] and [here].  I loved the Sri Lanka trip but it was a bit intense — difficult riding, we got lost a lot, and there was a group of 10, and that’s a lot of time for introverted me to spend in company. I ride when I travel to be alone with myself, and to be present in the place I find myself, and it’s harder with a big group.

I landed in Luang Prabang in Northern Laos on New Year’s day, and was instantly wrapped in a soft calm.  I wandered around the old town, had a massage, and ate excellent food.  One night, as I ate a sublime vegetarian curry, I watched my server dreamily catch and release raindrops on his fingertip off the yellow awning over the terrace.

The four day bike trip in the mountains of Laos was wrapped in the same kind of mindful softness.  Northern Laos is remote — there’s only one road from Luang Prabang in the centre to Vientiane, the capital a few hundred kilometres south.  We rode that one main road about 250 kilometres, through twisting, curving climbs and downhills, and flats through tiny villages, subsistence farms, small rice paddies.  My group was small — just me and a female couple from Australia a little older than me.  They were easy-going and riding-seasoned, and the flow was simple.  We mutually agreed on van transfers on rain-slick mountain roads, shared awe and long photo pauses.

Half of the ride was in the mountains, often in mist, surrounded by waves of dark green sharp hills, clouds settled down around us.  Climbs were long, but affable and gentle, occasional trucks and motorbikes, but mostly just us, the road, the mist, the mountains.


The softness of this kind of riding makes me more porous, and the world around me flows in. In every village, children come running from the side of the road to shout “SABAIDEE!” (Hello!) and high five us — sometimes a little too hard.  Pigs escape from their pens by the side of the road.  People bathe at the cold village taps, men in their underwear, women wrapped in sarongs, children naked.  I stop to watch the sad drama of a group of people attempting to lasso a cow with a makeshift vine-rope after it’s been injured by a car.  Notice that babies are wrapped to men’s bodies as often as they are to women’s.  Pedalling into a land and soundscape that isn’t accessible any other way.

In Phousavan, we spend the morning at the market then at a little exhibit learning about the devastating impact of the US bombing of northern Laos during the American/Vietnam war.  It’s horrifying history — many bombs were dropped on Laos because they couldn’t reach the Vietnamese targets and couldn’t return with full loads; there were rules of engagement in Vietnam about civilian targets, but because Laos wasn’t technically at war, they didn’t apply.  There are unexploded bombs everywhere still in Laos, and the napalmed hills won’t grow anything for 200 years. [Good piece on this  here].

The three of us are quiet after the morning, and when we start riding, we soon end up in mountain cloud and fog.  It’s hard to see, but my body needs to move, to be fully present in this place to make a little bit of human connection with the stories we’ve heard.  The other two women get in the van, but I ride, carefully up and into the mist, feeling the cold.  The guide tries to have the van follow me closely but I ask him to move on.  I want to be alone with the road, responsible for my own safety.

In the mountains, the villages are mostly raised thatched huts with woven roofs; as we get further south, houses become more prosperous, made of cement or brick and with electricity, satellite dishes. Roadside stands shift from selling firewood and occasional bananas to selling oranges. In the mountains, people walk between villages carrying bundles of sticks, firewood, in bags braced by their foreheads. In the valley, there are more motorbikes and bicycles leaned up near the road as people tend their crops.  The people in the mountains have almost nothing, barefoot children hopping because the road is so cold on their feet.  I wasn’t properly prepared for this level of chill and I’m often shivering;  they are huddled around tiny bucket fires.

The final day of riding — the 15th day of riding of my trip — is nearly 100k. We start out in Phoukoun in the mountains climbing for an hour, then descend through the hills to the valley. I have a couple of skids on curves that remind me to pedal cautiously (I crashed the first day on gravel in a curve, unfamiliar with the brakes on this bike), then I’m on my own for most of the ride.  I’m so grateful for a body that lets me do this, feel this place through my pores, my own effort and openness rather than through the window of a van.

I notice one little girl walking her bike up a hill and I call out Sabaidee!  She sees me and hops on her bike, starts to race me up the hill.  At the top, she extends her hand for a high five and we hold hands for a brief moment.

 

img_1722

Just before we get to Vang Vieng, we stop at a bridge over the Nam Xong river. There’s a little monastery high on one edge, and the mountains that have wrapped around me all afternoon crowd close.  My feet and hands are sore, but I stop, feel gratitude, know why I do this.

img_1740

 

 

Friends for Life Bike Rally, Day 3! Oh no, that smell is me. #F4LBR

It’s Wear Red Day (previously known as Red Dress Day) and everyone is all gussied up!

Team Switchin’ Gears in the morning. 

Oh and let’s not forget our new best friends, the Bike Rally mechanics who’ve been such a huge help. 

It was a morning with earlier packing times and departure but also no rush to do the 50 km in to Kingston as lunch and rooms would not be available until noon.  The sun was out, a welcome change from the Day 2 Deluge. 

We rode together as best we could until the break at 25 km. With a lot of riders it can get tricky on busy roads. After 3 days of cycling without hot showers I realized I smelled very strongly. No matter how carefully you pack the used gear the smell permeates all of the clothes in the bin. Mix that fermented body odor with gastrointestinal upset and a dab of diaper rash creme and you’ve got a mighty pungent perfume. 

Traditional team photo in Kingston

So tonight we do laundry, shower, eat with metal utensils with ceramic plates while sitting indoors. 

Thankful for a morning with less logistics.

We continue to gather pledges to fund PWA’s mission. You can donate here

Obikire (Guest Post)

It’s overcast and hot and the air is thick with the acrid smell of the charcoal used for cooking fires.  I’m running down a rutted red dirt road, with far more pedestrians than vehicles.  Women with bundles of baby on their backs and goods on their heads, men standing idle in clusters with heavy bicycles and rattling motorbikes, children walking to school, many people walking with machetes or pangas, off to hard labour for the day.

The few vehicles that pass are crammed with people, four to a small motorbike, a dozen in the back of a small truck.  An agricultural population on its way to work.  I’m a bit ashamed of my thick body and the privilege of running for pleasure, because my life is too easy.

The Rwenzori mountains are thick green and stunning.  The foothills I’m running through slow me down, along with jet lag, a week of tropical heat, gut rot, intense work.


I’m in rural Uganda, working on a volunteer project I am the director of.  Nikibasika.  Meaning “It is possible” in the local language. It’s my 9th annual visit here, and our team has spent the week working with the students in the learning and development project.  Most are not children anymore — they are young adults, and much of our work this week has been about one-on-one career and education planning, and serious talks about relationships.  One of the girls who recently graduated from the project has had a baby.  She is 20 but without a husband and no stable work yet.  We talk about her and the older girls come up with a formula for success:  School + Job + Money + Marriage + Two years and THEN babies.  They turn it into a mantra and repeat it back to us.

Being in this community makes me more of the self I want to be, all the time.  I love these kids as my own, and know their fears and hopes and faults, who is creative and who is practical, who teaches the younger kids.  And when I’m with them, I’m all spirit and heart and head, working constantly to manage and parent and be a friend in 1/50th of a year.

And now the other three Canadians are gone, and I have an hour to myself.  I finally run, and I am in the heart of the real community the kids in the project are enmeshed in.  Ours are lucky — we support them through three years of post-secondary school and a three month leadership/career program, and learning how to do community service.  They were street kids — or “sweet kids” as Phionah calls the ones that they are now helping.  They are glowing.  And I can run and make meaning of this work, of this week.


I greet the local people on the road with Obikire, good morning in their language.  Every one of them smiles.  One man holding a live chicken under his arm grins broadly.  A man standing idle with his bicycle sings out Reduce your Speed!  The ladies giggle.  One old man with a machete resists my attempts to charm and scowls at me and demands “give me 5 shillings.”  It’s less than a penny he’s asking for.


I run up the rutted hill that has defeated me before, so slowly.  I feel all of the people who walk so far to work for $30 a month, who are still hacking at maize or long grasses with machetes when they are old.  Who are thrilled to have their one chicken to sell. I appreciate how hard the young people in our project work, how open their hearts are, how they let me in.  I run and sweat and find my body again, grateful.


[The major source of funds for Nikibasika is the Triadventure (tri, a 3 day run or swim, paddle and cycling event in August.  This is an all volunteer effort with amazing outcomes and all of the money goes to the project in Uganda.  Canadians get a charitable donation receipt if you sponsor me at https://www.canadahelps.org/en/pages/nikibasika-development-program-66/. Thanks :-))

Fitness as speedy recovery from injury?

This Wednesday I played another pre-season game with my soccer team. I got to meet a few more folks and it was a gorgeous evening. We were playing against the same team as the week before. 

We decided some warm up passes, shots on net and stretching should be part of our pre-game routine. During the first half I noticed we were all moving a little slower than the week before, keeping effort in the 60-80% rather than the all out 100% peaks. 

Near the end of the first half I pulled my left calf and it snarled into a visible knot. I joined another teammate who had pulled his groin, we were both feeling grumpy about being injured and on the sidelines. 

I tried stretching it out, massaging and got to the point I could walk a bit but there was no way for me to get back I the game. I left early feeling pretty bummed out. In the shower I tried some static calf stretches and I could feel the knot starting to unfurl. 

I read up on cramping and, of course, it’s due to demanding more than what my muscles can do. The solution, more activity!

The next day I hobbled the 2 km walk into work, gingerly exploring the edge of my range of mobility. It hurt but wasn’t debilitating. I didn’t take the stairs. That night I walked home, put a hot water bottle on the knot then rolled it out with a narrow roller. 

tools of injury recovery: A535 rub, spikey red ball, narrow roller and large foam roller.


Friday morning my gait had smoothed out, with just a mild limp. I could do the stairs. I stretched when I thought of it. It occurred to me that while cycling, walking, gardening, yoga and sometimes running are not specific enough to the movements in soccer to prevent injury they certainly have meant a speedy recovery. 

There’s a risk inherent to any activity. I think the couple days of discomfort are nothing compared to the suffering associated with not being active (like chronic pain,heart disease and type 2 diabetes).

It’s pretty amazing how easily I can get hurt AND recover, bodies are amazing. 

Less is More… Or is it?

Minimalism (or at least talk of minimalism) seems back in fashion now. Probably everyone has heard of Marie Kondo’s wildly popular book on decluttering one’s house (and life). We are advised to keep only those things that “spark joy”. In other words, it’s out with this:

 

clutter

 

and in with this:

 

zen

But what about sports or physical activities?  Should we embrace minimalism in our physical regimens?  Or variety  as the spice of fitness life?  Is less really more, or is more more?

I’ve recently taken on 3 additional sports/activities to my movement regimen. Last year I restarted kayaking, and have really enjoyed it. In January I joined a yoga studio and have been going once or twice a week. And after impulsively doing two recreational scuba dives in Australia, I decided to get certified in scuba, so am taking a course now (to be completed in Puerto Rico in a week).

Of course this is fun, but it is making my schedule much more crowded, giving me less down time, and causing me to think: what am I doing here? How may different kinds of activities do I want to juggle in my life? If it feels like juggling, should I be doing it?

I decided to put together a list of the pros of each position in the hopes that it might help at last clarify the conflicts within us (or at least me ).

Less is more pros

1) Lighter–with fewer sports, there’s less to think about, and less gear to haul around, store and maintain.

2) Potentially cheaper — it could mean fewer expenditures on a variety of lessons, memberships, and gear.

3) Simpler– workout schedules are less complex and hectic, with fewer logistical struggles (e.g. Collecting, packing, loading and hauling a variety of gear around– is anyone sensing a theme here?)

4) More focused– Time can be devoted to immersing yourself in a few favored sports or activities. And you can really master the maintenance and repair of all that gear.

More is more pros

1) Thrilling– the exhilaration of trying a new sport, with new sensations and feelings (even new sorenesses) can be stimulating.  And there’s all that new gear to play with.
 

fins

 

2) Social—it’s a chance to meet people whose passions are the sport/activity you’re dabbling in (this is my favorite feature).

3) Motivating—because you’re participating in a variety of sports, if you’re having a tough time with one of them, you have the others for helping boost self-confidence or relaxation.

4) Knowledge-conferring (pardon the philosopher talk)—doing sports/activities that use different systems, muscles, skills, and talents can tell you a lot about what your body is like and what your body likes.

Well, at the end of composing those lists, I now think I’ll keep to more is more. But it’s worth revisiting from time to time to see what I am liking doing, what is causing too much stress, and what I can lay aside (including boxing up gear and storing it in my basement). For now.

What about you, readers? Are you going through a more-is-more or a less-is-more period? How are you feeling about it?

Head games, it’s ok to not be ok. 

While my many years of grappling with depression seem now to be behind me I now get to unpack my anxiety and other mental health challenges. 

Exercise has done wonders for my confidence. I’ve tried things, they work out or not, and nothing bad happens. 

The weird thing is I can have a great week of running bracketed by a really crappy bike ride. Smiling and feeling great mushed around crying and negative self talk. 

I had a pretty shit 60 km bike ride a couple weeks ago with Victor, Sam and Michel. I was tired. I hadn’t biked at all for 2 months and it was colder than I had the gear for. 

I want to say that the first half was fine but I had a huge anxiety attack as we left town. 

What am I thinking? I can’t do this! Who am I kidding? I’m lazy and stupid and there’s no way I can do a 600 km ride next year. Nope.  No way. I’m an idiot. 

I admitted to Sam I was having a moment. It quickly passed and the ride up into Ilderton felt good. 

When we got out in the wind I was quickly chilled to the bone and was miserable from Ilderton home. Openly miserable. Crying. We got into London and I was shivering, cramping and really tired. We were in traffic and I totally lost my shit, so much so I had to go up onto the sidewalk and wail. I cried and sobbed so hard Michel asked if he should get the car. I couldn’t stop crying and wailing. It was so embarrassing. Thankfully the heavy traffic drowned out my ruckus. 

I got back on my bike and we toddled the rest of the way home. 

It took my a couple hours to warm up and be ok. 

  
After food, warming up and showering I put my tiara on and got on with my life. 

I don’t know why cycling taps deep into my anxiety or why when I really push my comfort zone I’m reduced to a wailing woman who sounds like a six year old. My body adapts quickly to activity but it’s the head game that I struggle with. 

I only got back on my bike this week for two short spinning stints on my trainer. I’m trying to be kind to myself and realize it’s going to be ok. Of course I can train up to do the PWA 600 km Bike Rally for Life. I went from cycling 20 km to 60 km in two months, I got up to 100 km and did 3 or 4 of those this season. 

So when I feel like this:

  
I need to remember I also more often feel like this on my bike:

  
And if you ever see me losing my shit on the side of the road, don’t worry, it’s ok to not be ok sometimes. I’ll ask for help if I need it but sometimes I just need to wail a bit before I move on. 

The day I forgot to stop running. 

My running has been pretty inconsistent the past two months. I seem to be able to get a quick 30 min hills run in on Mondays but my scheduled Thursday pace run and Saturday long slow distance were spotty at best. Then there was a break when I had a nasty respiratory bug. I felt so guilty not exercising and blogged about it. I really couldn’t run, actually I got very winded walking to and from work. So much so I had to stop a few times to catch my breath. I was so grateful for the shared wisdom on my flu post about when you take it easy or push through. 

So last Saturday I decided to do my pace run. I trotted off on a slightly longer route as I looked for the distance I can cover in 30 min, my recent routes were getting too short as my speed has increased. 

I was going at about 75%, not sure how my lungs would be, faster than an LSD but it didn’t feel hard. I thought about a lot of things, including my next few blog posts, and my mind wandered. At one point I looked up and realized I was nearing the halfway point of my run and I hadn’t stopped to walk. My lungs felt good and my legs strong so I just kept going. 

Until that moment I hadn’t been fit enough to NOT agonize over every step.  I would focus on my breathing and make it to the next telephone pole or intersection. Each running step had been agony. It felt pretty amazing to feel somewhat effortless as I went along. 

As I rounded the last turn of my loop I realized I wouldn’t need to stop at all! 

Sure it was a short 3.5 km but I had not walked once. Amazing. 

  
I was kind of surprised and when I did stop I made a lot of noise. Lots of “ah” and “oh” and of course cussing 🙂

I went to take a smiley selfie but the gasping surprised one seemed more legit. 

Then Monday I had my hills night. Each outing over the past month I had done 1 thing to make it longer or harder. First extending my warm up loop, then adding a rep, then adding distance to my cool down. Monday I decided to run both up & down. Until then I had needed to walk the downside to catch my breath. Wahoo!

  
Thursday I made my pace run and added a smudge more distance. It was really warm. I hit my target pace and kept it fairly consistent. I listened to my body the whole run and I didn’t need to walk. 

  

I was chatting with my sister Anj and she was amazed at how I’ve reclaimed running. 

In military college I was kicked out in fourth year for failing to run the 2.4 km under 12 minutes. I used to hate running partly because it never came easy to me, partly because of anxiety and asthma but mostly because I wasn’t very fast. I don’t care now how I measure up to others or even my 20 year old self. I’m feeling strong and fast for 41 year old me and that is pretty awesome. 

I hope you are having great workout moments, maybe you should blog about them!