Given the amount of time I spend long-distance cycling, it is hardly surprising that I meet so many interesting people on the road. This is the third in a series of blogs about the more remarkable of those individuals. Enter your e-mail in the 'Subscribe' box on the right and you will be notified of each new blog post.
During the 10,000 mile cycle ride I did with my son, one of the most spectacular places we cycled through was Laos. Heading north, away from the more civilised little capital of Vientiane, it was largely undeveloped, but for about three towns. The countryside was made up of verdant mountains with fairly good roads and almost no traffic. It is well known amongst long-distance cyclists for this reason.
Sam takes a rest near 'The Hot Springs Place'
So little traffic, anything is a spectacle in Northern Laos
On the road Sam and I met a couple of other cyclists out in the wilds. One told us we simply must stay at a place he called 'The Hot Spring Place'. It was not marked on any map, however. Their glowing descriptions made me think it was something like 'The Hotel California' in the Eagles song, with a casino and 'pink champagne on ice'.
After hours of climbing through jungle in oppressive heat, there was no sign. No civilisation at all in fact.
"How will we know it when we see it?" asked Sam. "We don't have a name, no address – not even the name of a village."
"Oh it sounded pretty big and spectacular," I said. "Surely we couldn't miss it out here!"
Just as the sun started to sink towards the peaks we came across it. Thankfully, the Hot Springs Place was not what I had imagined. It was little more than a layby on the narrow mountain road.
The Hot Springs Place is only usually visited by intrepid cyclists
Finding the old lady who ran the place, we enquired about accommodation and were delighted to find there were two wooden huts left (out of five) with a double bed and WC/shower shoehorned into the tiny space. We parked our bikes, paid the old lady and scurried off down through the trees to the large stone-sided water tank surrounded by jungle. Here several other cyclists had just jumped in and were busy soothing away the day’s aches and pains in the steaming water. Three or four local children, small and glistening brown, had climbed out and were sitting at the edge watching.
In this heavenly pool, we began chatting with a rather forthright German lady. Sonja took pains to explain that the older man who had just gone back to the hut was not her husband or her boyfriend.
“I don’t have sex with him, oh mein Got, no!” she assured us, frowning. “And anyhow, it is not possible; he is having a bad back problem."
Herman was just a friend, she said, and a very annoying man to travel with indeed.
After Sonja got out, Herman returned and seemed to us far from annoying. As we soon discovered, he had cycled almost everywhere in Asia over many years, between his job as a landscape gardener back in Germany. He proved to be a fascinating source of information and had a great sense of humour – especially, when pressed, about Sonja. It was obvious to us that he was completely exasperated with her and probably wished he had stuck with his usual habit of travelling alone. But although he chuckled to himself over my risque questions, he was reluctant to say anything. From the way he kept looking over at the path and into the surrounding jungle, I presumed she had a bad temper and a fearsome hold over him.
After an afternoon sleep to get over our day of steep climbing, we awoke feeling hungry. It was early evening and nearby, above the general hums and screeches of jungle fauna, we could clearly discern sounds of merriment. On the opposite side of the narrow mountain road below us there lay a small cafe. Wandering over, we were surprised to find them serving pretty good food, well beyond the standard feu (Laotian thin soup), bush-meat and rice we had become used to. Our cycling neighbours were there and after we had eaten Herman came over to share a few Beer Lao with us. Having enquired about our route, he reiterated stories we had heard from other cyclists about the terrible unsurfaced mountain roads ahead of us from northern Laos into North Vietnam. But where we were now was certainly a great place and we were so grateful to those other cyclists for guiding us here.
Loosened up by a few beers, Herman became great entertainment. After a few minutes I began to ask him more about his relationship with Sonja.
"Herman, as you are German and used to direct questions, I'm going to ask you – does Sonja have a mental problem?"
All of a sudden Herman doubled up on his chair, as if perhaps he had suffered a burst appendix or some such catastrophe. He looked up at us, gritting his teeth, his face purple. Clearly he was struggling valiantly to hold in his screams of agony, but eventually he could hold them no longer. In an instant the whole cafe full of people came to a grinding halt as Herman's scream rang out through the jungle. A pot crashed in the makeshift kitchen. Bottles of beer fell over and glasses dropped from the hands of drinkers. People stretched their necks and stood up to see what had occurred. But Herman was not screaming now. Herman was laughing. He was in pain because he was laughing so much.
"Herman, was machs du, dumkopf!" demanded Sonja.
"Nichts, Sonja, nichts – one of the cats surprised me or some such."
After a minute or so Herman had calmed down. There were tears in his eyes as he sat there looking at me, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.
"Are you psychiatrist?" he asked, finally able to speak again.
"No, no, a risk management specialist. I work in crisis management and disaster recovery." I tried to keep a straight face.
Herman began to snigger again. It seemed about to grow. I looked over at Sonja who had also noticed the sniggering. Eager to prevent another outburst, I got up and placed my hand over Herman's mouth. Keeping his laughter inside was painful for him, the poor man. His body began convulsing. Sonja stood up.
"What is the problem with him?" she demanded crossly. Her concern was clearly not out of sympathy.
"A small epileptic fit," I said. "Do you have his medication?"
"Medication?" she shouted. "He is not epileptisch. Not so far anyhow."
"Perhaps it's just begun on this trip?" I suggested. "The stress or something."
"Stress!" she laughed. "Mensch, I am the one who suffers the stress – stress from his craziness! Got und himmel."
At this Herman's convulsions became more desperate – although this could have been because my hand was too tightly over his mouth and nose. Beads of sweat had begun running down his balding head.
"Be calm Herman," I said gently. "Be calm. Now listen, I'm going to remove my hand but only if you're calm."
I felt Herman relax.
After a few glugs of beer and some deep breaths, Herman seemed to have returned to his normal downtrodden state. He continued looking at us, smirking now and then and shaking his head.
"I tell you, my friends, be careful about taking passengers. I'm going to tell you how it happened, but first I need more beer."
Herman signalled and three bottles of Beer Lao arrived promptly. Sonja looked over, worried what he might do next.
"So, this woman you see," continued Herman, more serious now. "She was visiting a house where I was working in the garden. The householder introduced us and told her I travelled very much in Asia. This woman (Herman stabbed his finger towards Sonja accusingly), she told me she always has the desire to visit Asia. She asks my number, then she calls me later to invite me for drinking. Like a foolish man I say okay. It's a common story I think. First she made me quite drunk, then captured me with nice behaviours.” Herman fluttered his eyelids and stuck out his chest – with the addition of hand gestures, which we did not need. “This is how I am now broken down with this such difficult woman in Laos – a woman who is complaining from waking until sleeping. No – that is incorrect. I believe she is also complaining during her sleeping. Believe me my friend, many times I think death is better and wish to... to ride over the mountain ledge!”
Herman was crying again now, but these were no longer tears of laughter."I offer to pay her aeroplane to go home early but no! it is too easy. I carry all her luggages on my bike but she don't have fucking gratitude. Excuse me. I pity her dog, my friend, if she will ever have one. She like to give men pain, that is clear. Two husbands have suicide, she tells me so. What for hell shall I do?"
Despite Herman's tears, it was a wonderful evening. The setting as well as the company. My wife and I always tell people that the best way to know if you are truly compatible with a partner is to travel overland with them for a few months. I assume Sonja and Herman knew they were incompatible after only a few days.
Should you be reading this Herman, please get in touch.
If you would like to read more about the cycle adventure from Ireland to Japan with my teenage son, click one of the Long Road Hard Lessons links in the right hand margin of this blog, or enter the title into your internet search box.
If you would like to read short stories by Mark Swain you can find these on Amazon, Smashwords etc. The paperback of Long Road Hard Lessons is available from Waterstones and other Bookshops in the UK as well as on Amazon UK.
Mark Swain on Amazon.com
Mark Swain on Smashwords