Saturday, 25 October 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Herman

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. 

The Hot Springs with roadside cafe nearby 

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.

Friendly children queue up to slap your hand as you pass

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
Mark Swain on Smashwords

Sunday, 5 October 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Julian

Travelling As A Couple
I often notice when I am travelling, how difficult many couples find travelling together. Frequently where one wants to go the other does not. What one finds interesting the other finds tedious. What one sees as a bargain the other thinks is a waste of money. It is a sure recipe for stress and arguments. Many couples dread these trips. Survival in many relationships relies upon one party being prepared to give-in to the other, or perhaps taking turns to be in charge. I don't want to gender stereotype but where holidays with children are involved, you will often find the man grumbling to himself in the background, while reluctantly going along with what the mother in the relationship has organised. I've seen a few hiking, cycling and adventure holidays where it is the reverse and the father is at the front driving a reluctant band of children followed by their unamused mother. In some extreme cases, separate holidays become the only way to survive this problem. I think this is the success of holiday companies like Club Med or Centreparks – something provided for all ages and all tastes.

I met my wife while travelling and later working in Japan (we are both English). It had been an uneventful day in downtown Tokyo. She appeared, intense green eyes peering at me suspiciously across the top of a large book in British Council Library. We had been on the same TEFL teacher training course back in Hastings, UK, but had never spoken, because she had had me down for a bad lot. Japan was a shaky start and we seemed to argue for much of the time. However when we went away for a few days camping in the mountains, I think we were both shocked by how well we got on. There was no question, we seemed to fit each other perfectly when we were travelling. This happened every time we travelled, and we travelled quite a lot – including, after a couple of years, a six-month overland trip back to the UK. In fact our first child is the result of our happiness together on that trip.

Travelling With Your Teenager
In 2008-9 I cycled with my 18 year old son from Ireland to Japan. It was a tremendously exciting experience but a hard one. Not because of the cycling, but due to the conflict we faced between us on almost a daily basis. 10 months of my son resenting me, glaring at me. Not every day but quite a lot. I remarked upon this one day during that trip to a guy named Julian. We met him in a Vietnamese hostel. Julian was a tour leader who took groups of westerners mountain-biking through the mountains of North Vietnam, China and Laos.

Cycling through North Vietnam 

Our extreme haircuts in Cambodia were a stark contrast to my no-cut beard

The book about the adventure has become an Amazon best seller - so maybe the pain of the trip was worthwhile

"Travelling with your teenage kids is the worst mate," said Julian in his laid-back Aussie drawl. "It's a dangerous game that's for sure. They have an inbuilt desire to destroy you – really! Prove you wrong about everything and show you what a crap idea it was of yours to bring them on the trip. And they know all your weaknesses mate, oh yeah! No, I've seen it too many times in this job. Bad karma."

"What about couples?" I asked. "Do you get much trouble with couples on your trips?"

"What? I'd say so mate!" Julian sat up on his bunk with a face like an electrified exclamation mark.
"Girls think bringing their guy on a trek will be a great way for them to get closer. I mean WHAT? Most guys would give anything to do a trek like that with their mates but not with their bloody girlfriend! All that time together? Injuries and breakdowns? Jeezus, they're gonna be a sure way to cause an argument! Sam with marrieds, except they probably already know it's gonna be a nightmare. They get bullied into it or they just sleepwalk into it 'cos the other one books it up. Disaster! I can spot 'em as soon as they get off the plane."

"But surely they're not all like that?" I asked. "Surely there are some success stories?"

Mr or Mrs Right
"Oh hey, yeah! There's always the odd couple now and again - hardened travellers usually - who really work well on a trip. Considerate of each other, you know? Understand each other's needs. Give each other space, that kind of thing. On the other hand you do see younger couples or couples who are newly together sometimes who travel well together. Not many but a few now and again. What's really interesting for us leaders though, is when singles come on treks and find that they work really well with another traveller. It's kind of a good omen you know? If they can get on together on a tough trek it's pretty sure that you'll make a great couple - well assuming the sex is OK, I mean that's a given eh? Yeah I can tell you, I've seen a few unlikely pairings in my time and a lot of them have stood the test of time. So it does seem to be a good litmus test. Like, take someone off travelling before you marry them 'cos it's a bloody sure way to know if it's gonna work out! Yeah you know I still get e-mails from some couples after they're all loved-up and married - kids even, you know?"

"I suppose you've been invited to a few weddings then, Julian?"

"Oh damned right! Been to a couple too. One gay couple from Paris. Another couple paid for me to fly over to The States. Put me up in a 'brill' apartment. Finance lady around forty. Nice woman, a bit, you know, straight. Hey I don't wanna say ugly, but not a looker. So yeah she hooked up with a guy who was a self-employed plumber. Mind you he was no oil painting either, but they were just, you know, great together. I think they've got like twenty vans in New York now and a kid. Yeah it's great when we see people get together. Makes it all worthwhile, you know? Yeah, my mates say I'm a bit of a romantic actually."

Unsurprisingly there are many guides on how to avoid arguments on holiday. Here is one:

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.