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Biking back to Ban Pha Khao

OUR son must have been about 2 years old when he started to ride his pretend motorcycle. He'd climb up on top of the living-room couch, then reach down for an imaginary helmet and ever so carefully place it on his head. Next came the gunning of the handlebars - performed with great flair and accompanying ``ba-rroooms.'' And there he'd sit for 20 or 30 minutes, happily cruising along some unseen road. It was quite a show, one that held us captivated for long stretches of weekend afternoons. His father and grandmother took it as another make-believe stage that would pass quickly. I, of course, knew better: Someone had to carry on the tradition.

I can still remember the steamy August afternoon some 14 years ago when I climbed aboard my first motorcycle - a bright red Honda 50. It wasn't the fastest or flashiest bike around, but I was impressed with the way it roared and sputtered, and so were the local chickens.

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I'd arrived in Laos for a year's teaching assignment and was standing at the stamp window of the central post office one day, trying to recover from my first baffling encounter with overseas mails, when another foreigner approached. She was on her way back to the States that afternoon, she said, and still hadn't sold her Honda. Would I be interested? At the time, her offer made as much sense to me as the price of stamps, and I handed over $30 on the spot. There was no time for a trial run. ``Bo pen nyung'' (``not to worry''), I thought to myself in laid-back Lao. It couldn't be that hard to drive back to my village.

During the week that I'd been living in Ban Pha Khao, my neighbors had gradually adjusted to my foreign housekeeping. They no longer came to stare when I hung my laundry on the banana trees, and they didn't seem to mind the way I hoisted the bucket from the well. But the arrival of the Honda brought them out in full, curious force once again.

It may have had something to do with the brakes, which I was still trying to locate when I careened home that first day. I started throttling back at the outskirts of the rice field and was coasting along at a comfortable 20 m.p.h. by the time I hit the turn to my house. Fortunately, there was plenty of drifting sand in my yard, and I skidded to a stop without hitting the front door. ``Bo pen nyung.''

Once I'd learned to negotiate the bumps in our village roads, getting around the capital city was no problem. My daily route into Vientiane took me through only one stoplight, and the local DPW was usually short of bulbs. It was a little embarrassing to stall out in the middle of the intersection, but whenever I did, the nonchalant Lao drivers would shout their cheery ``Bo pen nyung''s and drive around me.

The Honda had survived a number of owners before I came aboard, and it puttered along surprisingly well for its mileage. Not that I ever lacked for mechanics. Each day as I pulled up to school, the first-period engineering students would troop outside to surround the bike and give it a careful going-over.

As the rainy season approached, I felt I'd mastered all of the logistical and mechanical crises that could possibly arise - and so deserved a reward. I wrote to L.L. Bean, wilderness outfitters in Maine, and the return mail brought a new curiosity for my neighbors to gawk at: one neon-orange rain poncho.

I'd ordered the biggest size they had, and - sure enough - it covered both me and the motorcycle. As the rivers rose that spring, I became pretty adept at riding with my feet balanced on the handlebars, safely above water at the deepest crossings we had to make.

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When the school term finally ended and I had to head home, I sold the Honda to another newly arrived expatriate - but kept the poncho. It's been tucked away in my trunk all these years, waiting for just the right person to carry on the grand tradition. Now, as I watch our young son revving up on the couch, I think perhaps the time has come to pass the torch.

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