In every trip there is a challenge and a part of myself is revealed or at least rediscovered, and this trip is no different. Over the years there are many things I struggle with, but one that pops up again and again, is that I am no athlete. I fail at the endurance test … well, the thought of the endurance test. Whether it’s climbing a mountain pass or pushing through long miles in the heat, or climbing impossibly steep roads up from river drainages, my mind tells me I can’t do it even when I have proven again and again that I can. It’s a flaw I wish I could change, but it’s part of my nature to doubt my own ability. When I meet other cyclists who think nothing of cranking out 100 kilometers day after day, I feel my own failing.
Talking with cyclists who just came north along the road in Cambodia that we intended to pedal south left me with a pit in my stomach for that vary reason. Forced to ride 146km in one day between Kratie and Stung Treng, through road construction and mid-day heat pushing 100F, just to reach a place to sleep has no appeal to me. I don’t want to rise to that challenge. I don’t want to endure that kind of hardship just to get to the next place. Fortunately I have a partner who although capable of enduring just about anything, is also not interested in slogging through miles just to get to a bed. There is no joy in just getting through a place, but there is joy in discovering something along the way.
I stumbled upon the Mekong Discovery Trail web site that gave some hope that we could pick our way along the villages, take boats through the islands and find small tracks far from Highway 7. We could do in five days what others do in two by taking the slow road. It would mean greater uncertainty of finding food or where we would find to sleep each night, but this was a fear I could deal with.
Before even entering Cambodia the idea was put in motion to seek ways to slow it down and see more, experience more, learn more about local life. How does the ricer thrasher work? What are the people planting and tending in that field? Who is winning the game of boules? These are things seen along the small roads and tracks and not often right along the highway. Rather than coasting by with a wave, we stop, watch, smile and learn.
Still in Laos and traveling down the Mekong, we put the slow road to a test as we left Champasak. We found a thin white dashed line on the map and confirmed with a tour guide that we could indeed bicycle that route and eventually cross the river down stream to get to our destination. It would take two days instead of one long one on the main road. They were easy directions to follow: stay on the dirt track along the river as we leave town and keep the river on your left. We even looked at the route on Google Earth to confirm it was continuous.
What Google Earth didn’t tell us, but years of cycling did, is that life happens along these small roads. Our track ran past homes, through school yards, past shops, pigs in mud, charcoal in ovens, games of chance, laundry washing, noodles drying, families working. Some times the track turned to a footpath that looked like it hadn’t been used in some time, other times it was a street bisecting a village and children ran along with us. Ravines and creek beds interrupted the flow, but there was always a bridge — sometimes strong, new steel, others rickety swinging bamboo missing some planks, few were wide enough for a 4-wheeled vehicle. The small road knitted together village life and wrapped us in it’s warm embrace.
We only went 45km our first day on the slow road, but we experienced more life then we would have seen in 200kms of highway. It was on that quiet, small track that I fully realized and embraced that I am an adventurer and not an athlete. Travel is much more fun for me when it’s engaging with people, than it is when travel is an endurance test. No more apologies for my short-comings.